Yuan-ti and snake symbolism

This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.

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On Wednesday nights I’ve been running a D&D campaign, and this week we had our third session. I’ve been using the scenarios from In Volo’s Wake (but I’ve also been mixing in some content from Lost Mine of Phandelver). Last night the party investigated what the yuan-ti were doing in the quarry near Old Owl Well. The yuan-ti are humanoids who worship snake gods. Through foul rituals, they have been modified into terrible, snakelike forms. In the adventure, the yuan-ti have captured inexperienced adventurers, who they plan to transform into yuan-ti.

Snake symbolism in European societies seems to be dominated by the snake from the Garden of Eden, which originates in the Hebrew scripture and but been reinterpreted in Christian thought. It’s often associated with evil, temptation and trickery – but it could also be associated with hidden knowledge. We could look at the story as being about humans choosing their own path and the conflict that causes with their creator.

Snakes can also be associated with rebirth or regeneration because of their ability to slough off their old skin and emerge with a shiny new skin. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the snake who possesses the secret of immortality. In paradox, many snakes are also poisonous. So they could be understood as having power over life and death.

I’d say the portrayal of the yuan-ti picks up more of the negative aspects of snake symbolism – evil and the temptation of hidden knowledge. In our game on Wednesday I also wanted to bring out some of the idea of rebirth. A kind of rebirth occurs when a humanoid is turned into a yuan-ti, or when a yuan-ti turns into a more powerful form.

When the players were getting close to freeing all the prisoners, I had a yuan-ti abomination turn up (I have a great abomination miniature that I wanted to use) and invite Sardior the dragonborn paladin to join the yuan-ti and be reborn. Sardior rejected the invitation, so the abomination cast the spell ‘suggestion’ on Sardior, instructing him to kill Kwinn, the half-elf warlock… I let Saridor repeat the Wisdom saving throw each turn (even though the spell isn’t supposed to allow that) and he did manage to beat it before he was able to attack Kwinn. I didn’t want him to actually kill the mage, but I wanted the party to get the idea that they could be corrupted by the yuan-ti.

If you want to read more about snake symbolism in mythology, I’d suggest reading James Charlesworth’s book The Good and Evil Serpent.

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.)

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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?

The temptation of a clean slate

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On Wednesdays I’ve been reading and reflecting on Genesis. Last week I touched on the portrayal of YHWH’s response to human evil – YHWH puts a limit on the human lifespan so that they will not live for hundreds of years. As I’ve continued to read today, YHWH is shown to take a much more drastic response to human evil. The text claims that humanity was constantly inclined towards evil and that YHWH regretted creating them. YHWH’s decides he will blot everything out.

As I Christian I’ve often read this and considered how this depiction of YHWH as God conflicts with the depiction of Jesus as God in the New Testament, but I think there’s stuff we can miss if we jump to doing that.

I wonder what this has to say to us about our own response to mistakes and regrets? Here we have a deity seeing that his creations are evil. Is he being confronted with the possibility that he is responsible for evil and suffering? It looks like his response is to blot everything out and start again with a clean slate, hoping he will get it right the second time.

A number of times I’ve heard leaders suggest that messy projects would be better to just blot out and start with a clean slate, and sometimes I’ve been convinced. However, I think this often happens because of breakdown in relationship with people. We think it will be easier to get rid of the people we have problems with and start again, rather that working through our problems. If we don’t learn to work through our problems with people we’ll find that the same problems will come up with the next group of people we work with or that new problems will present themselves. We’ll still need to learn to work with other people in all of our mess, and I think that’s what we see later on in this story.