The Fearsome Island

The Fearsome Island by Albert Kinross.   I listened to the LibriVox recording of this (a public domain file available for free here: https://librivox.org/the-fearsome-isl…).

I stumbled across this on archive.org, and while it was not exactly riveting, it was entertaining. The story is about a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself on an island with a trap-filled castle. He has a few companions — another sailor, a cat, a bearded hag, and a mute native — most of whom are killed by the various traps.

The Victorian prose is a little rough, and the narrator is somewhat repetitive, but the idea for the story is pretty original.  Spoilers under the ‘more’ button:

(more…)

Published in: on June 20, 2014 at 11:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Flagellants and dancers

As part of project I’m working on, I recently read Sidney Heath’s Pilgrim life in the middle ages (1911 ; link is to archive.org copy). One chapter that I really got some inspiration from was “Flagellants and dancers.”  I haven’t had the time to really delve further into these topics, but I thought Heath’s discussion was pretty interesting.  Flagellants are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python & the Holy Grail (a more serious depiction of them features briefly in both The Seventh Seal and  Black Death) or played Warhammer Fantasy Battles.  The “Dancers” mentioned here don’t quite match the modern interpretation of the phenomenon (St. Vitus’ Dance/St. Anthony’s Fire, i.e. ergot poisoning) I’ve always read about.  So I wonder if there might not have been two distinct things going (religiously ecstatic dancers as described below and ergot-poisoned people running amok) which were conflated and swept together in one explanation.  I guess you’d have to look at the source material.  Anyway, since this is a very short and very vivid chapter from the book, I’m posting it in its entirety below.

Chapter IV: FLAGELLANTS AND DANCERS

One of the most extraordinary features of the Middle Ages, and the direct outcome of pilgrimages, were the wandering bands of penitents. These companies were numbered by hundreds, and each of them possessed some individual characteristic. Some were composed of the poor only, others were limited to men, while one or two were made up entirely of children. Occasionally a brotherhood would arise with membership extended mainly to those who held peculiar opinions. The great majority, however, were free to all Christians without distinction of age, sex, rank, or opinion, though each of them had some particular form of discipline for their adherents.

Thus every now and then these bands of people would journey from shrine to shrine, praying and mortifying as they went, and gathering recruits along the way. After exciting interest for a short time the larger number of these associations would dissolve as suddenly as they had appeared ; a few survived for years, while one or two underwent periodical revivals down to comparatively recent times.

The most persistent of these bands of fanatics were the dancers, the palmers, and the flagellants.

The dancers made their first appearance at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1373, when they were composed of a 96 Flagellants and Dancers ragged set of wanderers who made begging and vagrancy a profession. They had a secret system of initiation, at which it was said, as with most of these secret initiations, they practised all kinds of abominations. Wandering about in bands of thirty, or forty, their apparent poverty, their earnestness, and their frantic fanaticism gave them an extraordinary hold on the multitude.

Wherever they went their singular reputation caused large crowds to assemble to watch their performances, and thousands who went as sightseers became infected with the mania, which came to be regarded in the nature of a contagious disease that was even more dreaded than the plague.

Everywhere the dancers became the centre of a writhing mass of humanity making violent motions of worship, offering prayers in the form of convulsive shrieks, and acting as though they would take heaven itself by storm. Their hysterical ravings were regarded as prophetic. It was quite in vain that the axe beheaded hundreds of these maniacs, or that the gibbets broke down with the weight of their bodies.

The flagellants were unquestionably the strangest of all these itinerants of faith as they were the most tenacious of existence. Wherever the shrieks and groans of the gloomy flagellants alarmed the ears, those in the vicinity fled and hid themselves, for the penitential torrent of blood and tears absorbed all with whom it came in contact. There was no escape for any, rich and poor alike ; resistance was vain, remonstrance unheeded. Under the penalty of having the flesh flogged from their bones those who happened to cross their path were forced to become flagellants until they were released at the first celebrated shrine.

It was in 1260, about the time when the enthusiasm for the Crusades was flagging, that public associations began to spring up in Italy for the purpose of discipline. Multitudes of people, of all ranks and ages, practised this mortification of the flesh along the open streets in the hope of obtaining Divine mercy for their sins.

Perugia is said to have been the first scene of this madness, and a hermit named Rainier the instigator. The custom, after practically dying out, was revived in all its fury during the fourteenth century, and for ten years the flagellants perambulated and agitated Europe. This revival is said to have had its origin during a plague in Germany in 1349, when from the first the Teutonic knights met it with fierce opposition. In 135 1 these warriors assembled and set upon a body of flagellants, massacred thousands of them on the spot, and compelled the remainder to be re-baptized.

The flagellants propagated the extravagant doctrine that flagellation was of equal virtue with the Sacraments ; that by its administration all sins were forgiven, that the old law of Christ was soon to be abolished, and that a new law enjoining the baptism of blood administered by flogging was to be substituted in its place. They were not supported by the heads of the Church, and Pope Clement VII issued a bull against them, with the result that many of their leaders were taken and burned at the stake. The custom, however, continued to crop up at intervals. At the beginning of the fifteenth century flagellants are again mentioned in Lower Saxony. They rejected every branch of external worship, and entertained some wild notions respecting the evil spirit.

The infection, as in the former outbreaks, spread with great rapidity, and was only suppressed by the Kings of Poland and Bohemia expelling all flagellants from their territories.

As enthusiasm for these various sects began to decline active measures for their total abolition were adopted by the Council of Constance (1414-18), but a remnant of them continued in existence until the close of the century. Lastly came the palmers, a class of foreign pilgrims whose real history and condition are but little known. Their designation is thought to have been derived from the palms, branches of which they brought home from Palestine as evidence of their pilgrimage. The distinction between them and ordinary pilgrims was that the pilgrim had some home or dwelling-place, but the palmer had none. The pilgrim travelled to some specific shrine or holy place, but the palmer to all. The pilgrim journeyed at his own charges, but the palmer professed poverty and went upon alms. The pilgrim might give over his profession and return home, but the palmer must persist till he obtained his palm by death. The profession of the palmer was originally voluntary, and arose from that rivalry of fanaticism so prevalent during the earlier years of the Middle Ages. During the tenth and eleventh centuries men| were sometimes ordered to become palmers — to give up wife, family, home, and country — as a penance for their sins. 

Flagellants — a 15th century woodcut; image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Published in: on June 5, 2014 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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The book of miracles

I get marketing email from some publishers and mostly ignore it but once in a while something pretty amazing comes up.  Taschen — a publisher of art books — recently put out a facsimile of a 1550 book describing  and depicting wonders and visions, simply called “The book of miracles.”

The illustrations in the book are pretty awesome.  (The link above leads to their catalog page with a dozen more images.)

The Book of Miracles

Published in: on May 22, 2014 at 9:21 am  Comments (2)  
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Is this blog even about D&D anymore?

Oh yes it is.

My group has been playing ACKS with my brother DMing.  We’ve been exploring the Barrowmaze and the environs (not sure if the local towns are from the module or just something he made up or got somewhere else).  FWIW here are the player-generated summaries for the first couple sessions.  They were mostly written up by Seth, but I couldn’t resist adding a few remarks in brackets, and following up with my character’s will.  We entered via the barrow numbered 11 on the player map, if you are familiar with the module.

[Session 1]

[The hardy band of adventurers starting in Oakhurst consisted of J the Mystic ; Septimus the Elementalist ; Heinrich the Necromancer ; Sirah the Shaman ; Antonio! the Venturer ; and Sylvus the Elf Ranger.  They decided to hire on four fighting-men to help beef up the front line.]

The group’s first outing to the widely-rumored barrows found them in a previously opened barrow mound, scrounging for loose change on the floor.  Septimus fondled some skeletal heads in a relief carving and caused a secret door to open, revealing stairs leading down into darkness.  After figuring out who was holding the torches, they descended.

[6 Giant] Centipedes at the bottom of the stairs surprised and killed one of the 4 hired men before the brave companions could come to the rescue.  Even at this early stage, the group’s unfortunate lack of muscle and armor made itself apparent.  The elven ranger spotted a secret door leading to a burial crypt, which was looted post-haste.  A skeletal, self-reanimating abomination [a Coffer Corpse] was disturbed, fought, run from, and then fought again, but not without the loss of 2 more hired fools, and the near death of several party members.  Several party members bravely ran away, but their names are of no consequence.  A second, and slightly better planned attempt saw the skeletal re-animator smoldering under a barrage of burning pitch.

After recruiting [4] more lightly armored fools [and a cleric] in the village, a second excursion was begun.  Several more rooms were plundered and the party marveled at their good fortune as platinum, electrum, gems, and jewelry lined their collective pockets.  The fortune was not without it’s cost.  Several lumps of cannon fodder again lost their lives to the denizens of the deep.  Two, a cleric and a village simpleton, walked straight into a bottomless pit, because the brave companions felt it best to put them at the head of the marching order, though none of the party members claims credit for the ingenious idea.

[Session 2: After a short respite and a trip to Wolverton to fence some of the more valuable spoils of the barrows, the party re-assembled.  This time J and Sirroco stayed back in Oakhurst, complaining of cramps, and P. the Elven Nightblade joined the ranks of the party.  They set off with the three surviving hired hands, plus a torchbearer and two wardogs.]

Another trip to town again rounded out the party’s number.  A third excursion proved disastrous as Antonio! was felled by a well-aimed arrow before the party even arrived at the barrow.  The brigands responsible we strangled, peppered with arrows, chewed upon, hacked with swords and spears, burned in hellfire, and generally given a round talking-to by the vengeful comrades.  [Under pre-execution questioning, one of the brigands explained that their leader, Frederic, has two surviving brothers who are said to be dangerous and may hold more of the bandits’ plunder.  The party resolved to look into the matter later.  The prisoner invoked the dark gods of Zahar before being hung.  Dak the Barbarian joined the party at this point.]

A fourth excursion found the companions looting several more crypts, slaying [5] giant flies, [2] mongrelmen, and [six armored] zombies.  [The zombies were apparently priests of Nergal.]  When they came upon a pack of [four] ghouls, the party decided to beat a noble retreat, vowing to lay almighty waste to the ghouls another day.  [In their retreat they passed some bandits who had holed up in a chamber and took potshots at the fleeing party.]

The fifth excursion saw to the end of the ghouls as the group finally learned to attempt battling in confined spaces such that swarms of hell-spawn could not overwhelm multiple party members.  The addition of some competent armored muscle (a rather dim, but extremely useful barbarian had joined the party taking the place of, but never replacing, the lost Antonio!) proved providential.  The party is in good spirits with the influx of wealth: more gems, jewels, coins, and other odds and ends.  [A Bag of Holding was added to the party’s collective loot, and will be used to hold spoils while adventuring.  A pair of Gloves of Swimming & Climbing was passed about like a hot potato until finally someone begrudgingly took them.  Heinrich and Septimus studied a spell book found in the dungeon but could not make out the tangled script.]

–Seth, [with annotations by Mike]

[Post session 2]

Sobered by the untimely demise of Antonio!, Heinrich writes out a last will & testament, should he suffer the same fate:

I, Heinrich the Necromancer, being of sound mind and adequately functional body, do hereby indite my wishes for the disposal of my earthly remains, should the unthinkable happen.

1) If possible, I would like to be raised as a Lich in order to continue my career in the Black Arts & Crafts.

2) Should the rituals of Lichdom be impractical, I would like 500 of my gold pieces to be used to have my remains Raised.

3) Should Raising also be impractical due to the state of my body, the passage of time, or lack of funds, my curse on you all for failing me in this, my most dire time of need.  Doubtless I will have died due to neglect or treachery on the part of our arms-bearing party members, who should have realized that their first and noblest duty is to the preservation of the spell-casters, and especially of the most physically infirm spell-casters.

4) Even so, I am not wholly selfish and would fain not have my hard-won loot seized by creditors, scot-collectors, or frauds posing as my kin; no, I lief that my worldly possessions benefit those who did their best to keep my skin whole, no matter that they have proven themselves incompetent at best and, at worst, the nithings and poltroons I suspect them to be.  Therefore, let my goods be divided as the party sees fit and most beneficial, apart from these specific bequeathals:  Let my hunch, which has served me so well, go to Septimus; let my soap got to Dak, who stands so sorely in need of it.

5) Yea, and I say unto thee: Reave well, and raise a stout to your crookback compeer!

(Signed)

Heinrich

Published in: on May 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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300 stories

This is just a shout out for a great blog I’ve been following for a while called “300 stories.”  The author, Dieter Rogiers, is writing a story a day or thereabouts, with the idea being he’ll write 300 stories, each of 300 words or less (what the cool kids are calling “flash fiction”).  They have mostly been pretty damn good, and have covered a lot of different genres, usually with dry humor.  Anyway my point is that it is well worth your time to check it out.  Unfortunately I only started following a month or two ago and he’s pretty close to the 300 mark now, so if you follow by email you’ve got a month and half or so to look forward to.   I think there is almost certainly a book to come out this though, and of course the stories are archived on the blog.

Published in: on May 16, 2014 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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St. Edmund and his miraculous severed head

So I recently finished reading an older book about pilgrimages in Great Britain: The Pilgrims’ Way: Shrines and Saints in Britain and Ireland by John Eric Adair.  It’s a fairly comprehensive guide to the major shrines (churches, chapels, wells, and ruins) of Great Britain, with some of the lore about them and their saints, and lots of photos of the places.

My favorite anecdote has to be St. Edmund of East Anglia. After King Edward was martyred by vikings in a St. Sebastian-style beating followed by archery practice, they tossed his severed head into the woods to deny him a decent burial. However, some loyal Saxons went searching for it and heard it calling out “here, here” so they could find it. It was being guarded against woodland scavengers by a wolf, who tamely followed them back to the church where the head was buried with the rest of his remains.  Wolves would later adorn decorations in his shrine, as a sort of saintly mascot.

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef017d40aa281a970c-500wi

After he was canonized and the the body was “translated” to a proper shrine in 903 AD (Wikipedia dates his translation to 1095, but then again the article jumps around regard dates), the head was found to be miraculously re-attached! King Sweyn, who doubted the sainthood of Edmund, was killed by a blast from the relics, and later a Danish noble named Osgoth was driven insane for expressing doubts about the story, so Edmund had his revenge from beyond the grave. The shrine would be visited sailors hoping for good wings and by ladies hoping for fertility, who would perform the “Oblation of the White Bull” to ensure pregnancy.  The oblation is not quite as kinky as it sounds; it mostly involves petting a white bull and then taking an offering to the shrine.  It’s probably just another pagan survival.

Published in: on May 10, 2014 at 12:04 am  Comments (1)  
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St. Pancratius of Wil, death knight

St. Pancratius of Wil, death knight.  Click to embiggen!

St. Pancratius of Wil. Click to embiggen!

I just picked up a copy of Heavenly Bodies: cult treasures & spectacular saints from the catacombs.  It’s a book with tons of photos of bejeweled and bedazzled relics from across Europe.  Some are reclining or posed like St. Pancratius above (& he’s pretty conservative, just being in fancy armor); others are just lying in jumbled ruins but heaped with gems and gold.   A lot of them have rather disturbing facial features added to the skulls in wax, as well as life-like glass eyes, and others are veiled in gauze, giving them a doll-like aspect.

This St. Pancratius was, apparently, originally buried in Roman legionary armor, but when his relics were translated (moved from a tomb or crypt to a shrine or altar), he was decked out in the latest parade armor.  I couldn’t easily find any more on him — there are two other early martyrs but neither is in Switzerland, as this one is.  More on the book here ; even more photos here.

Published in: on April 24, 2014 at 9:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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One Page Dungeon Contest 2014

The One Page Dungeon contest is, unbelievably, entering its sixth year.  It began with a discussion about how minimal an adventure module could be, and the blogger ChgoWiz created a one-page template. The idea is construct an adventure that could be used on the spur of the moment by a competent DM and which fits — map, key, and anything else — on one side of a sheet of paper.

Honestly I sometimes wonder if the arbitrary limit of one page is really better than, say, a one sheet dungeon, or five pages, etc.  I do appreciate the fact that imposing a form or limit actually fuels creativity, though, and most importantly as a DM I find OPDs to be an incredibly important resource!  Whether I just steal a map, an idea, or use the whole thing, I have often found that a one-page summary of an adventure is a great tool to have on hand for those all-too-common days when you have 30 minutes or less to prepare for the gaming session because of work, family, and other obligations.  They are also great to have on hand for when the players change course unexpectedly, or want to see what’s just off the edge of what you’ve mapped out, and so on.

In 2011 I began “giving back” and I have entered an OPD each year since.  My first entry (“The Belly of the Beast”) actually won a prize, which was nice, as I’d specially created the adventure for the contest, but I was able to use it in play before the contest, and since then I have resisted the temptation to create dungeons especially for the contest. (Honestly, the bar has been set so high for artwork that I am not in the running anyway.) Instead I have been adapting adventure I’ve actually used to the OPD format.  The “Misty Pond” and the “Panopticon of Peril” were both pivotal adventures in my “Telengard” Campaign, and this year’s  entry — “The Pit” — is a site that has seen some use in two campaigns.  So unlike many entries, mine have always been play-tested in some format before the contest.

Though I greatly prefer the traditional “dungeon crawl” OPDs to the more, ahem, clever entries that push the boundaries of what a dungeon is, this year I am trying something a little more ambitious.  The Pit has a very simple map, and almost no pre-established encounters.  Instead, it is more of procedure or framework upon which you could build an extended campaign.  And like my campaign, The Pit is designed to easily accommodate OPDs, improvised dungeons, or entire modules.  Each circle of the open pit mine is themed, like a dungeon level, and the DM can stock it with encounters from the included chart, but it will really come to life if you add on other OPDs.  I’ve selected one OPD from prior years for each circuit of the Pit’s winding path down.   In effect, the “big idea” of my OPD this year is to create an explicit format for what a lot of DMs might already be doing — constructing a megadungeon out of OPDs and other small adventures designed by other people.

Anyway, if I can put together something scanning a markers drawing and using Google Drive to create a PDF document, ANYONE can.  And if you use MS Office or OpenOffice you can use Chgowiz’s templates!  Get on it, there is still time to enter the contest.

<Update — just looked at some of the entries and I am pretty impressed to see a lot of new names as well as some really talented people who have entered before.  FWIW my OPD can be downloaded over on the sidebar under downloads.

I decided to stick with my original, crude drawing which I’d made one night with markers on some funky grid + diagonals graph paper. After messing with Google Drive’s drawing tool for way too long, all managed was this:pitdrawingWhich was basically a trace of the original spiral and a bunch of Telecanter’s awesome, public domain silhouettes replacing my icons.  Pasting them in and shrinking them down in Drive was laborious and slow, so I gave up.>

Published in: on April 17, 2014 at 10:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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Dungeon World

<This post has been sitting idly by while I tried to come up with a conclusion, gave up, and forgot it, and we got into another game. But by group, before starting the current game (ACKS in Barrowmaze), played a few sessions of Dungeon World. >

The mechanics are ok — most actions fall into one of several categories: attacking (“Hack & Slash” for melee, “Volley” for missiles), defense (“Avoid danger” for most saving throws and dodging, “Defend” for standing your ground/gritting your teeth or protecting someone else), informational (“Spout lore” to know things, “Discern realities” to notice something), and a general “Parley” which is sort of a “social combat” action, trying to gain some advantage or reaction from an NPC.  These are all 2d6 rolls, modified by a relevant attribute. A total 7-9 is generally a “partial success” (you accomplish the act but there is a complication or drawback); a 10+ is full success.  Class abilities add more actions, with various results for partial or full success.  Then there are a dozen or so “advanced” actions that are more specific to tasks like travel, or else do not involve rolling at all (like recovering or leveling up).  That’s mostly fine, although some players in my group really hated how abstract this made combat.

The other significant thing is a mechanic called “bonds.”  You make a list of sentences describing some interaction of your PC and another PC  — “I want to keep X out of trouble” or “X knows incriminating information about me” or whatever.  These “bonds” come into play two ways: first, when you attempt to “aid” another PC, each bond your PC has with them adds to your roll; secondly, “resolving” bonds is one of the ways you gain XP.  Whether or not a bond is resolved is basically up the PC who takes the bond (the GM might veto this though).  It was strange that each PC would have four or five bonds that the other PCs were not even necessarily aware of.  This made the bonds seem a little forced and unnecessary.  During play our GM had the insight that the whether or not a bond was resolved should probably be up the other PC, not the one with the bond, which we all agreed would make more sense.  Adopting this change to “bonds” would probably help. (It would also help to keep a record of “resolved” bonds!  Because otherwise they are plot points that we throw away as soon as they resolve.) Still, I have a problem with the assumption that the bonds are somehow creating a story in a sense that just playing a game without them would not.  This is something I am probably being obstinate about but I just don’t agree with the theory that game-mechanics-driven-story-construction work, or work as well as just letting story emerge naturally from interactions at the table.  DW (and all the indie games) seem to try to “hard wire” storytelling into the game.

Another thing about that I’m ambivalent about is the style of DMing Dungeon World encourages.  The DW rules explicitly tell the DM to be very hands-off about giving players different avenues to explore, and in fact to prepare as little as possible.  The intent is to avoid wasted efforts and to allow as much room for improvisation as possible, I think.  I’ve seen this outlook praised fairly persuasively.  So I think the idea is well-intentioned, but I’m not sure it works, at least with my group.  The players are expected to come up with adventure seeds.  This is probably very empowering for a certain kind of player who wants their character to be central to the “story” of the game.  One could say, “Oh by the way, I almost married the bandit king’s sister but broke it off because she’s a werewolf, let’s go talk to her”.  Or: “Hey, there’s an ancient catacomb under East End. Let’s explore that.”  I don’t find that quite as satisfying as interacting with an environment that is “there” whether I explore it or not.  It seems to me that DW is more like kids playing “let’s pretend” than what I’m used to doing with D&D.

It took us a couple of sessions to really get the mechanics down, but once we did it was not bad.  My main gripe would be that the system makes it a little too easy to fall into the rut of going around the table with each player rolling to “spout lore,” “discern reality,” etc., and paying more attention to the applicable skills than to the situation the PCs are supposed to be in.  I’m not sure you can really blame the mechanics for that, or if it is laziness on the part of players, but in my experience, I am more motivated to come up with descriptions, look for clever stratagems, role-play interactions, and so one when there is no “base” chance for things to “just work” because of some numbers on my sheet.  DW certainly falls on the lighter side of rules systems when you look at the amount of math, modifiers, and dice rolling, but even so the broad categories of the rolls you can make still seem to steer players into the kinds of patterns that completely turn off to 3rd and 4th edition D&D.

TL;DR: Dungeon World is pretty good, and could use a little tweaking in how “bonds” work, and I’d probably play it again, but my group didn’t really love it.

Published in: on April 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Satanic panic revisted @ the BBC

There’s a pretty long article I haven’t had time to read through yet here at the BBC’s site, and some follow-up discussion here at FARK.  Saving these here to remember to look at it tonight after work.

From the BBC article:

[Pat] Pulling [founder of BADD, Bothered About D&D] described D&D as “a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings”.

That sounds like one hell of a campaign!

Published in: on April 11, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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