Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sister Rebecca's Confession

Found on a yellowed piece of parchment in an old bottle...

Dear Father Confessor,

I pen these words to you with little hope you will ever read them. I fear I have sinned most grievously against our most Holy Creeds.  When you gave me your benediction to leave the cloister in the company of such gallant and jovial adventurers as Ironwolf and Dougal, I fear you did not see into their hearts as I now have.

Our first weeks in the wilderness were full of merriment and song.  Even the taunts of the crude soldiers at the Keep were of no worry.  A swing or two of the blessed "thurible," in which you had made sure I was so adept, silenced several a stray cat call, let me tell you!

But as we approached those horrible caves, truly a home of chaos as they are named, the true natures of my companions seemed to rise to the fore.  The talk of gold and gems -- and how they would be spent in the looser quarters of the Town -- became more prevalent.  Less so the cause of our quest:  the stopping of the raids by those horrible creatures on the innocent farmers of the valley.

Our first sight of one of those creatures, a shriveled one called kobold  by Silverleaf, sent them into a frenzy.  I am ashamed to admit to being whipped up by some of that aggressive talk, because I was with them, arm to arm, when we attacked.  We hacked, we pounded, we stomped.  As we chased some of them into the mouth of the cave, Dougal went off into a side cavern where I heard what sounded like the wailing of babes.

When Dougal emerged, smoke billowed behind him.

I kept telling myself that these foul creatures were the Spawn of the Adversary, impossibly corrupted and wholly exempt from mercy.  When Dougal died, I earnestly gave him the Rites and commended his soul to the High One because of his brave actions.

Later, much later, at the campfire, as Frederick and Ironwolf argued over the disposition of some bauble, the talk turned back to the Keep.  Over and over again, they talked of the weaknesses in the soldiers' defense, the sheen of the new weapons they carried, and the unfairly gathered tax money stored in their coffers.  I held my tongue and offered Hands and Balms to their wounds.

My sleep that night was fitful.  After my turn at the watch, I settled into a deeper slumber.  My dreams began in the caves -- as they have every night since -- but on that night there were no beasts.  Only one fiery form, tall and thin, with the brightest flames covering the face.  From time to time I thought I could see a piece of armor or clothing that resembled that of one or other of my companions.  It walked towards me and drew a bright sword.

I swung at this demonic visage with my mace, but it passed through as if my opponent was made of the wind.  Panicked, I dropped the mace and, as you know is my habit in times of trouble, clutched at the Holy Symbol of the High One around my neck.  The cross came off its chain and was tightly gripped by my right hand.  I was astounded to see that the cross became a hilt, and a long blade of light, even brighter than my opponent's, grew out out of it.  I did not even need to swing or thrust, since its shining light made the fiery person (man? woman? I still know not) recoil and speed away in terror.

I awoke, knowing exactly what I needed to do.  I still do not know whether it was a dream or a true encounter with one from the realms of the inner world.  May it have been a test of the High One... or possibly a temptation from the Adversary?  No matter.  I am strengthened.  I am resolved.  I am... experienced.

I now must stop my careful scratching, as this, my last piece of parchment, is full, and my hastily gathered quill (apologies, good goose!) is wearing thin.  Be not alarmed by these scarlet words, since I had no other ink than mine own.  The bloodletting has not weakened me, since I am uplifted by the High One and by the hope that my path away from those mercenaries has been well hidden.  I took no treasure but this bottle in which you find this confession of a sinner, now hopefully redeemed by fire.  I pray to arrive back at the cloister by the next full moon.


Sister Rebecca

(Inspired by this, and by some recent thoughts on ways to make the CLERIC class more interesting... specifics to come eventually.  Suffice to say, Rebecca didn't need formal training to level up, did she?)  :-)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Leveling up with Kundalini

You can't go far on the internet without seeing ads for geeky T-shirts.  This one caught my eye the other day -- a super silly mash-up of the Hindu chakras with D&D polyhedral dice.  People familiar with the seven chakras will immediately realize that one's missing here (if you ignore the D&D logo at the bottom).  Old-school role-players will recognize that they should have included the momentous 30-sided die to complete the set.

I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I was first exposed to chakras via the 1988 PBS TV series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.  Although that show was slammed, fairly I think, for reasons of superficiality, new-agey-ness, and George Lucas worship, it was still the thing that broke me out of my ultra-materialist and atheist shell as a college student. Just being able to see that there were other spiritual traditions that didn't have the flaws that I perceived with the faith of my upbringing was liberating.  (I didn't end up converting to Hinduism or anything, but the chakras have stayed with me because they're a very useful "filing system" for our inner worlds.)

Nowadays, many people may have been introduced to the chakras via Avatar: The Last Airbender.  (Not just a show for kids!)  Aang was mentored through a process of chakra awakening in the episode "The Guru," and someone collected the relevant clips into a tidy 11:28 here.  I'm nearly certain that the writers used a popular book that attempted to reframe the concept for a Western audience -- to great effect, in my opinion.

But does this have anything to do with D&D?  I originally thought to correspond the chakras to the primary attributes (strength, intelligence, and so on) that one determines when first creating a character.  I don't think that works too well, and it also has the problem that one doesn't necessarily want "excesses" (high values) for the attributes of their chakras.  In D&D language, having all bog-standard 10's would be a much more balanced and beneficial state than having one glaring score of 18/00 calling attention to itself so loudly!  :-)

The chakras are things people think about when they ponder their lives and their goals. So what better to correspond them with than the different ways that RPG characters gain experience in the lives we imagine for them?
  1. The first chakra, at the base of the spine, governs the basic survival instinct:  eating, shelter, and other absolute necessities.  It's no coincidence, then, that the original version of the game awarded most of its experience points (XP) for the TREASURE gained by the players.  In a game where the actual eating, sleeping, and other biological realities were often hand-waved as uninteresting to role-play, those coveted gold pieces became the most basic way of keeping track of one's needs and wants.
  2. The second chakra corresponds to the genitals and that other most basic need that calls out to be met after one has eaten and found shelter.  More generally, it deals with pleasure and its flip side, guilt.  So what better form of XP award to discuss than Jeff Rients' infamous rules for CAROUSING once the adventure is done?  This is one of the most fun things the old-school renaissance has given the world, I think, as well as being a natural extension to the idea of "gaining experience."
  3. The third chakra sits near the solar plexus and deals with the need to have power over one's environment -- to project one's will in the world.  This, of course, is where XP awards for DEFEATING FOES comes into play.  Traditionally, one calls it XP for "killing monsters," but most GMs take a broader approach.  Winning the day by subterfuge against purely human foes often counts just as much as hewing away at goblins...
  4. Next, at the level of the heart, is the fourth chakra, which deals with love and relationships.  (The needs are ascending in a similar way as Maslow's hierarchy.)  We've now run out of the oldest of the old-school ways to award XP, but one that's been often added is the idea of gaining experience for FULFILLING QUESTS, which usually involves deciding to help others and become useful members of a community.  Other games, like Pendragon, have explicit rules and goals for the courtly wooing of fair maidens, as well.  :-)
  5. Movin' on up, there's the fifth chakra at the level of the throat.  Here's the site of intellect and communication.  The guru on Avatar said it's purpose is truth, and it is blocked by lies.  In role-playing games, the goal of many adventurers is to spread the word of one's exploits far and wide.  I'm not sure if many GMs award XP for gaining FAME (or its flip side, INFAMY), but it's certainly a milestone when peasants from leagues away can recite the bardic songs about you that have spread through the countryside.
  6. Next comes the sixth chakra at the "third eye" position on the forehead.  This is the domain of finding one's unique place in the world.  It governs the use of insight and wisdom to combat illusions and grow as a person.  I wonder if here, the goals of the character start to give way to the goals of the player.  Usually RPG characters don't have such a rich inner life, but I wonder if it would be rewarding to play that out "at the table," too.  Of course, another way to go here is to talk about what happens when powerful characters can "find their place in the world" by establishing their own kingdoms!  This type of DOMAIN-LEVEL play has its own challenges that make it essentially a different game than grubbing around dungeons for loot.  Some new iterations of the game are known for focusing on it.
  7. Can we go even further?  The seventh chakra is the "thousand-petaled lotus" at the crown of the head, and it deals with ultimate spiritual transcendence.  Believe it or not, but at least one version of D&D went there -- by codifying APOTHEOSIS in the Immortals boxed set, and prodding on new godlings to wider vistas of adventure in the outer planes of existence.
Now that I'm at the end of my list, I'm doubtful that there's much practical, "game-able" content in here.  I'd love to hear if anyone finds ways to apply these ideas to their games, though!

FYI:  Blogging may be light for the next month or three.  I'm starting to teach a university course after Labor Day.  Very time-intensive, but hopefully very rewarding... on many chakra levels!?  :-)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Some Blendsday, girl, I don't know when...

I can't remember if I did a Muppets mashup already.  The other funny one I found was Star Trek themed (search for "Gorn in the USA").

Although I'm not the most devoted or knowledgeable fan of The Boss, I do love the earnestness and poetic detail in the dude's early (pre-1982-ish) songwriting.  I also feel somewhat obligated to know what he's all about, since he grew up about a half-dozen miles from where I grew up in central New Jersey.  7.3 miles, to be precise.  (Thanks, Google Maps!) The mother of one of my best friends went to high school with him in Freehold, NJ.

People who live in NJ are sometimes conflicted that a favorite son so often sung about GETTING OUT.  As someone who got out, I'm not that conflicted.  :-)

However, this weekend, I am taking the boy to the land of hemi-drones and giant Exxon signs.  To prepare myself for the mythic environment, I plopped a few virtual pushpins onto a map of the area where fans have realized that Bruce was singing about real, specific locations.  We will be exploring the inside of the following crooked pentagram, letting the ley line energy flow over us...

Click for bigger; this article will help you add even more points.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why are we here?

That's a provocative title, but I think I'll actually offer part of an answer to that eternal question below.

I'm continuing to experiment with Glass Bead Pairings -- i.e., interesting possible "moves" in a Glass Bead Game, in which ideas are compared and juxtaposed over a wide spectrum of fields.  Before moving on to visualize dozens of luminescent pearls of thought at once, it's nice to start with simple opposing pairs of two.

My GBG mentor, Charles Cameron, once suggested that the SUN and MOON represent two archetypal glass beads that fly across our field of vision every day.  Conveniently, they have been made to "stand in" for many contrasting ideas over time, too.  Most obviously, the Sun often symbolizes light and heat, and the Moon symbolizes darkness and cold.  Western astrologers associate the Sun/Moon dichotomy with concepts of masculinity/femininity, activity/passivity, and constancy/change (although the astronomers may have a valid argument for that last one to be flipped!).

The alchemists associated the Sun with gold and the Moon with silver.  It's been pointed out that the relative monetary value of gold to silver has often hovered around a ratio of 13 to 1, and that's close to the ratio of the main cyclic periods of Sun (year) and Moon (month).  Causality or coincidence?  :-)  I'm curious if that analogy extends to copper (the metal of Venus), but I don't know if copper has held such a historically stable value relative to gold or silver...

I could go on with the symbolic associations, but the real thing I wanted to talk about is another piece of trivia:  the fact that the Sun and Moon appear to us as very nearly the same size in the sky.  The Sun is approximately 400 times bigger than the Moon, but it's also 400 times further away.  This nearly exact matching makes total eclipses so spectacular, of course.

I called it trivia.  Most people would call it "coincidence."  But is it, really?

Let me throw some additional trivia at you.  Here are three facts:
  1. The Sun and Moon have very nearly equal angular sizes in the sky.
  2. The Sun and Moon have very nearly equal average densities (mass divided by volume). Initially that may seem strange, since one of these things is a million-degree ball of hot gas and the other one is made of rocks... but there you go.
  3. The Sun and Moon both are responsible for tides on the Earth, and the lunar tides are roughly of equal strength as the solar tides.
Guess what?  If any two of those facts were true, the third one would HAVE to be true, too.

Some scientists believe that the presence of tides was crucial for the development of life on Earth.  Not only do the tides provide heat -- which may keep the oceans from freezing during ice ages -- but they also transport lots of material to and from the oceans near shorelines.  (Rush fans, go listen carefully to the parts about tide pools in Natural Science!)  :-)  By churning up all this material, the tides may have helped "stir the pot" to bootstrap the very first strands of DNA to start self-replicating.

So what's this have to do with the Sun and Moon?  Well, what if there was only one source of tidal pulling?  You'd just have a simple, boring sine-wave of tidal motion... up and down, up and down... twice per day as the bulging oceans rotate underneath that single celestial source of tugging.  Over a month, the tidal force felt at one point on Earth would look like this:

If both Sun and Moon were present, but with very different tide strengths, it wouldn't look too much different from the above.  There would be a weak long-term modulation to that sine wave, but overall it would be pretty much the same.

But we live on a planet where the strengths are roughly equal.  What does that look like?

It's certainly not random in any sense, but there's a lot more going on.  It's sometimes very strong ("spring tides") and sometimes very weak ("neap tides").  In fact, having two sources of tides with equal strengths maximizes the complexity of these oscillations.  My crazy thought is that these ever-changing variations were much more able to spur on (or stir up) the stochastic transport of material that helps natural selection than those dull sine waves above could ever hope to do.  And this wild variation was made possible by the same coincidence (?!) that makes the Sun and Moon appear of equal size in our sky.

(Astronomers sometimes talk about the "Goldilocks effect" of our Earth being not too close to the Sun, and not too far away.  This could be a different, but possibly equally important, kind of Goldilocks effect!)

So the next time someone asks why we're here?  Just point up at those two luminous glass beads...