Here’s the Chant: Tomb of Annihilation, feathered serpents and Hogwarts

I’m trying to get back into the habit of drawing toegther a weekly digest of content related to roleplaying games (particularly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons). Tomb of Annihilation is already available some places, so I’ve included a couple of links to related articles.

For players:

For players and dungeon masters:

For dungeon masters:

  • ‘A Guide to Tomb of Annihilation’ Power Score – extensive notes (with page numbers) for running Tomb of Annihilation
  • Dragons Conquer America: The Coatli Stone Quickstart – Dragons Conquer America appears to be a tabletop roleplaying game about the European invasion of the Americas, featuring dragons and feathered serpents. This free introductory adventure is a promo for their upcoming Kickstarter campaign. I’m interested to see how they navigate colonial history and indigenous cultural knowledge. I’m be interested in having a go at running this, so I’ve done a drawing of a feathered serpent that I could use: 
  • ‘Couatl Tactics’ The Monsters Know What They’re Doing – this article suggests how a couatl (feathered serpent) might behave in combat
  • ‘What’s the Goblin Doing’ Raging Swan Press – here are some suggestions about what activities goblins might be doing when your party finds them
  • ‘Mystic College’ Tribality – this article looks at how to run a game with a feel similar to the Harry Potter series
  • ‘Mission to Sewertopia’ Elf Maids and Octopi – this post contains one hundred missions that players could pursue in the sewers beneath a fantasy city
  • ‘Village Backdrop: Farrav’n’ Raging Swan Press – this post features a village that could be included in a desert setting, including a couple of maps
  • ‘I’m Not Going to Let You Do That’ Medium – this article presents some reasons why a dungeon master might stop a player from doing particular things in the game

Content I’ve published recently:

  • ‘Repeating D&D Adventures’ – I’ve recently run a few different versions of the same scenarios from In Volo’s Wake, and I’ve found that’s been a good opportunity to improve my adventures.

Feeling love but acting hatefully


Someone said something like, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

It’s easy to think that being loving is just about having loving thoughts or feelings toward someone else – even if we’re in conflict, if we try we might be able to conjure up positive feelings toward each other. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to do that. I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be able to do that.

However, I think there are problems when we just think of love just about how you feel toward someone or how you think about them. This idea of love has often allowed people to say that they love their neighbour while at the same time trying to restrict their freedom. This idea of love has meant that people have not listened to their neighbours feedback about the harm caused by their behaviour, because they believe that they’re still loving their neighbour from the depths of their emotions. I’m thinking specifically here about how people from my religious tradition, the tradition that believes in ‘loving your neighbour’ have treated members of the queer communities in particular, but also other groups.

A lot of people think that because they’re directing nice feelings toward a person they’re not acting hatefully. If our neighbour feeds back to us that our behaviour or beliefs are harming them, we need to reassess how we behave and what we believe. Otherwise we are are turning our back on our neighbour, treating our neighbour hatefully.

Sheep Lord and Crab Lord

On Sundays I’ve normally been posting some illustrations that can be used in tabletop roleplayng games like Dungeons & Dragons. (This week’s is a bit late – our household’s on holidays from our common work, so I’m out of town for a few days.)

Last week I asked which animal lord folks would like me to draw. Particularly in the Planescape D&D setting, animals lords are almost like minor gods who protect various kinds of animals. I’ve been interested in using animals lords as ways to promote reflection on our relationships with animals. This week folks chose the sheep lord for me to illustrate:


I’ve also put together some statistics for the sheep lord, and for the crab lord that I drew as part of the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge. If anyone gets to try these out I’d be keen to receive feedback.
Sheep Lord

Medium fey, neutral


STR 17 (+3) DEX 18 (+4) CON 16 (+3) INT 10 (+0) WIS 20 (+5) CHA 16 (+3)

CHALLENGE: 15 (13,000 XP)

ARMOR CLASS: 17 Natural Armor

HIT POINTS: 97 (13d8 + 39)

SPEED: 30 ft.

Saving Throws: STR +8, DEX +9, WIS +10, CHA +8

Skills: Intimidation +8, Nature +10

Damage Resistances: Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from Magic Weapons

Condition Immunities: Charmed, Exhaustion, Frightened, Paralyzed, Poisoned

Senses: Passive Perception 15

Languages: Telepathy 60 ft

Shapechanger. The sheep lord can use its action to polymorph into the form of a humanoid or into its sheep form. Its statistics are the same in each form. Any equipment it carries is not transformed. If slain, the sheep lord reverts to its sheep form.

Magic Resistance. The sheep lord has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects. 

Succession. A destroyed sheep lord will be succeeded by another sheep in 24 hours. The successor becomes a sheep lord and gains the memories of its predecessor. 

Spellcasting. The sheep lord is a 13th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 17, +9 to hit with spell attacks). The crab lord has the following druid spells prepared:

Cantrips (at will): shillelagh, druidcraft 

1st level (4 slots): charm person, detect poison and disease, entangle 

2nd level (3 slots): gust of wind, moonbeam, pass without trace 

3rd level (3 slots): conjure animals, meld into stone

4th level (3 slots): divination, plant growth

5th level (2 slots): geas, mass cure wounds 

6th level (1 slot): wall of thorns

7th level (1 slot): plane shift


Actions

Multiattack. The sheep lord makes one attack with its horns and one attack with its planar crook.

Horns. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 35 (9d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage and the target is grappled (escape DC 16).

Planar crook. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d4 + 4) piercing damage and the target is grappled (escape DC 16). The crook can only be used to grapple small, medium or large creatures, and only one creature at a time. When a creature is grappled with a planar crook it cannot be transported to another plane. If it tries to do so, it is inflicted with 1d10+4 magical damage and must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution save or become unconscious. The sheep lord planar can only use the planar crook while in humanoid form.


Legendary Actions

The sheep lord can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The sheep lord regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Attack. The crab lord makes one attack with its horns or planar crook.

Blinding Dust. Blinding dust and sand swirls magically around the sheep lord. Each creature within 5 feet of the sheep lord must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or be blinded until the end of the creature’s next turn.

Bolster. The sheep lord bolsters all nonhostile creatures within 120 feet of it until the end of its next turn. Bolstered creatures can’t be charmed or frightened, and they gain advantage on ability checks and saving throws until the end of the sheep lord’s turn.

Description

The sheep lord can appear in sheep form or in the form of a horned, fleece-clad. The sheep lord is the protector of sheep or various kinds, and may also take responsibility for other herd animals. It makes its home on the Beastlands, but it could turn up wherever crabs are in trouble.
The crab lord is typically accompanied by a retinue of 2d20 + 10 sheep or goats and 1d12 + 2 giant sheep or goats.


Crab Lord

Large fey, neutral


STR 18 (+4)   DEX 10 (+0)   CON 17 (+3)   INT 16 (+3)   WIS 20 (+5)   CHA 16 (+3)

CHALLENGE: 15 (13,000 XP)

ARMOR CLASS: 17 Natural Armor

HIT POINTS: 97 (13d8 + 39)

SPEED: 30 ft. (swim 30 ft.)

Saving Throws: CON +8, INT +8, WIS +10, CHA +8

Skills: Intimidation +5, Nature +5

Damage Resistances: Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing from Magic Weapons

Condition Immunities: Charmed, Exhaustion, Frightened, Paralyzed, Poisoned

Senses: Blindsight 60 ft, Passive Perception 15

Languages: Telepathy 60 ft


Shapechanger. The crab lord can use its action to polymorph into the form of a humanoid or into its crab form. Its statistics are the same in each form. In its crab form it uses a claw attack and in in its humanoid form it uses a crush attack. Any equipment it carries is not transformed. If slain, the crab lord reverts to its crab form.

Amphibious. The crab lord can breathe air and water.

Magic Resistance. The crab lord has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects. 

Succession. A destroyed crab lord will be succeeded by another crab in 24 hours. The successor becomes a crab lord and gains the memories of its predecessor. 

Spellcasting. The crab lord is a 13th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 17, +9 to hit with spell attacks). The crab lord has the following cleric spells prepared:

  • Cantrips (at will): spare the dying, thaumaturgy 
  • 1st level (4 slots): command, sanctuary, shield of faith 
  • 2nd level (3 slots): hold person, silence, spiritual weapon 
  • 3rd level (3 slots): dispel magic, meld into stone
  • 4th level (3 slots): divination, control water 
  • 5th level (2 slots): dispel evil and good, geas 
  • 6th level (1 slot): forbiddance
  • 7th level (1 slot): plane shift

Actions
Multiattack. The crab lord makes one attack with its claw and one attack with its planar mancatcher.
Claw (Crush in Humanoid Form). Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 35 (9d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage and the target is grappled (escape DC 16). The crab lord has two claws (or two arms in humanoid form), but one is large and the other is small. Only the larger one can be used to attack or grapple.

Planar Mancatcher. Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d4 + 4) piercing damage and the target is grappled (escape DC 16). The mancatcher can only be used to grapple small, medium or large creatures, and only one creature at a time. When a creature is grappled with a planar mancatcher it cannot be transported to another plane. If it tries to do so, it is inflicted with 1d10+4 magical damage and must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution save or become unconscious.

 

Legendary Actions

The crab lord can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The crab lord regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Attack. The crab lord makes one attack with its claw or planar mancatcher.

Blinding Dust. Blinding dust and sand swirls magically around the crab lord. Each creature within 5 feet of the crab lord must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or be blinded until the end of the creature’s next turn.

Whirlwind of Sand (Costs 2 Actions). The crab lord magically transforms into a whirlwind of sand, moves up to 60 feet, and reverts to its normal form. While in whirlwind form, the crab lord is immune to all damage, and it can’t be grappled, petrified, knocked prone, restrained, or stunned. Equipment worn or carried by the crab lord remain in its possession.
Description

The crab lord can appear in crab form or in the form of a large, armored humanoid. In humanoid form it has one large, muscular arm and one small, weak arm. The crab lord is the protector of crabs or various kinds, and may also take responsibility for other crustaceans. It makes its home on the Beastlands, but it could turn up wherever crabs are in trouble.

The crab lord is typically accompanied by a retinue of 2d20 + 10 crabs and 1d12 + 2 giant crabs.

Genesis and weresharks

Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.

At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.


@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.

Abrahamic faith in D&D is problematic

For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.

It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.

My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.

I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.

If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.

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Roleplaying the Bible: are you allowed to do that?

On Saturdays I’ve normally been posting something about gaming, normally Dungeons & Dragons. I was planning to post something today on the taboo of the Abrahamic god/s in D&D, but I’ve been a bit sick and exhausted for the last week. I thought I’d repost something I originally wrote in 2015 on a similar topic. (Hopefully I can look at the problems with including Abrahamic religion next week.)

* * *

Before I started playing Dungeons and Dragons this year, the only experience of roleplaying was a freeform roleplaying game run by Marcus Curnow in the lead to the G20 meetings in Melbourne in 2006. I was involved with a group of Christians who were planning a three-day vigil at the barricades. As part of the preparation Marcus led us through a roleplaying game where some of us were Jesus’ disciples, planning to blockade the Temple with Jesus, and others were priests and guards in the Temple seeking to uphold the status quo.
Earlier this year I came across Testament, which is a Biblical roleplaying setting designed to be compatible with the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. What I really like about Testament is that because it is not designed specifically by or for people of any particular faith, the setting hasn’t been censored or sanitised for fit with a particular theology. The setting presumes that the gods and monsters of the other civilisations surrounding Israel are real, just as the Biblical text often does. The setting also doesn’t limit the players to choosing or creating good characters, as games developed by Christians often seem to.
I haven’t yet had a go at running a Testament game (I’ve mostly been learning to run 5th Edition D&D anyway) but last week I had a go at running a very simple freeform Biblical role-play. To begin with I just gave each of my five participants a basic character description, which said a bit about their character’s background as well as nominating a faction their character was aligned with. I’m not sure that I would match every character up with a faction in future, but for this role-play I used five factions, which were:

Pharisees – believe in adapting the Torah and making it accessible for the people of the land, so that they will know how to follow it properly, through the synagogues. They believe the Kingdom of God will be brought about if all the people follow the Torah strictly. Happy to join in revolts against the Romans and their Jewish allies.

Zealots – are working to overthrow the Romans and their collaborators through violence. They will assassinate Jews who collaborate with the Romans. They want to retake Jerusalem through force.

Sadducees – do everything they can to work with the Romans, and are willing to cooperate with them so that their people and faith are not wiped out. They are willing to adapt their faith in order to get along with the Romans and maintain the Temple.

Essenes – the Essenes distance themselves from the rest of Israelite society and believe they will create a parallel society that obeys the Torah properly, and that this will bring about the Kingdom of God. Egalitarians – everyone in their communities is considered equal. They will engage in apocalyptic preaching rather than physical violence.

People of the Land (am ha-aretz) – resenting the Romans, but politically ambivalent

When I handed out the character descriptions I explained that two of them might be familiar characters, but that they might not be instantly recognisable. One was Yohanan (who Western Christians know as John the Baptist) and the other was the construction worker Yeshua (who Western Christians know as Jesus). I asked everyone to draw what they thought their character might look like, so that we could use the images as miniatures.
The scenario was based on the first few verses of Mark’s gospel (Jesus’ baptism and temptation) and I mostly used it as an opportunity to encourage the participants to wonder more about what might have been going on for the characters on the story. These are some of the questions and ideas that I think we were able to explore by roleplaying the story:

  • reasons that different characters might be going down to the Jordan River to be baptised by Yohanan
  • how the location might influence what the characters might be expecting – the Jordan River is where Joshua led the people of Israel into the land before driving out the original occupants
  • how people may have responded if they heard the voice of God naming a man called Yeshua (a variation of Joshua) as his son, in the same location where another Joshua lead the people into the land before driving out their enemies. Would everyone (including Yeshua) have expected that this would mean driving out the Romans?
  • how Yeshua would respond if God’s Spirit drove him out into the desert to be tempted, instead of back into Israel to fight the Romans. Would Yeshua be wondering if this was really God’s Spirit?

You can’t missionise people, then accuse them of cultural appropriation


This ANZAC Day it seemed like we hit peak outrage. There’s been a lot said about Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s ‘Lest we forget’ Facebook post. But some senstive folks were also upset by the words of Kaurna elder Katrina Ngaitlyala Power, who mentioned in her Welcome to Country, that this land was invaded. People were also upset that Power paraphrased the 23rd Psalm to say, ‘though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Invasion’.

“We had to listen to a culturally misappropriated, bastardised version of the Psalm that included “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Invasion”,” the Grange resident said. – Craig Cook, ‘Speech of welcome by Aboriginal elder Katrina Ngaitlyala Power at Anzac dawn service referencing slavery condemned as too political’ The Adveriser April 25

I think it is ridiculous to say that this is cultural appropriation. In any case, I don’t think cultural appropriation is always a problem. But in this case, I don’t think anyone has any right to criticise Power for using the psalm in this way. Aboriginal people have this Psalm because European Christians gave it to them. In many cases Europeans forced their faith on Aboriginal people. We have no right now to accuse Aboriginal people for adapting texts and traditions that we gave to them, often at the expense of their own culture and religion.

I don’t think we have any right to be offended by Power’s refernces to invasion. If we are paying attention, we should be aware of this fact whenever we acknowledge country or are welcomed onto country.

Does God come to accept human evil?

On Wednesdays I have been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and posting some reflections here.

Three weeks ago I wrote a bit about Elohim deciding to destroy the world because of human evil. Two weeks ago I wrote a bit about the ancient cosmology of the story and about the undoing of creation. (A week ago I was tired so I had a rest.)

Today I’ve been reading about the end of the flood. Elohim tells Noah and his family to go out and multiply – an echo of the instruction that Elohim gave to the first people at the beginning of Genesis. This is the beginning of a new creation. The key difference I notice is that as Noah and his family exit the ark and make sacrifices, YHWH is acknowledging the evil of human nature rather than saying humanity is good. But, in this instance, YHWH’s response to human evil is not to destroy creation.

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To sum it up, one way of looking at the overarching story so far could be:

Humanity is good. God says, ‘Go and multiply.’

Humanity is evil. God says, ‘I regret creating the world. I will destroy it.’

Humanity is evil. God says, ‘Go and multiply.’

This has me wondering, what has changed in the story?

Wandjina in Brunswick?

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On Monday I saw a Wandjina painting. There has been a lot of controversy over Wandjina paintings. When I found one in Brunswick I had mixed feelings about it. It is good to have a reminder that we are on Aboriginal land, but Wandjinas aren’t local to this area. Wandjina are sacred to the Mowanjum people from the Kimberly. When Settler people have portrayed them in Perth and the Blue Mountains it has caused a lot of grief for the Mowanjum people. I hope that whoever has painted this one is encouraged to find out more about the Wandjina and about why it should be treated with reverence.


If you want to find out more about the backstory, I’d recommend watching Who Paintin’ Dis Wandjina?

Why would we expect Australia Post to promote a Christian organisation?

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In Eternity last week, Bible Society Australia CEO Greg Clarke expressed his disappointment that the organisation’s 200th anniversary cannot be celebrated with a commemorative stamp. He’s quite clear that he’s not crying persecution as some Western Christians have been wont to do. I think he’s just miffed that the landscape has shifted and the wider society isn’t interested in celebrating this Biblical bicentenary.

My question is, why would we expect a government service, Australia Post, to promote a religion? I don’t think it is in the interest of the government or of religious institutions to get too cosy together. I think government and religion both work better when they are separated and when a tension is held between. (I think that if Australia Post ends up being privatised it will be a different matter, but I’m holding out home that it won’t be privatised.)

I think that Australia Post’s snubbing of Bible Society holds a message for Christians, if we have ears to hear it. We need to recognise that while we still have some privileges, these are hangovers from Christendom, which had already begun to wane when this land was colonised in 1788. Christians can no longer presume to be at the centre of society. If we can’t see that we might need to widen our social circles.