Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Stone's Tale

The clang of metal on stone disturbed the pebble. A steady, shrill noise piercing the earth and interrupting the pebble's ordinary and dull life. The sound drew closer, unbearably loud, before the pebble was blinded by daylight. Shards of stone were gathered up in sacks, and the pebble, still snug in a chunk of motherly rock, was whisked away from the cool earth.

In short order, those stones were put to use; strong hands chiseled and fitted them together with tremendous precision. The pebble, set on the inside of a structure, saw little of the construction, but was glad to once again be surrounded by hard rock, sheltered from the wind, rain and sun.

The day followed certain rhythms; the stones grew hot at the same time as innumerable feet stepped above, crossing back and forth, then fell quiet as the stones cooled again. The rhythm repeated itself day after day without rest, intensifying and diminishing with the seasons.

One night the pebble was wrenched from the ground once more, this time by rougher hands. The motherly chunk of stone was chiseled down to size, joined to other stones by mortar, and planted in soft earth. It was allowed a clear view of the road that neatly severed the dry plain, set off to the side where it would not be tread on.

The cycle of day and night, season on season continued its inexorable march, as the road sped passing travelers and armies on their way. The milestone was rubbed endlessly for luck, and with the wind and odd rains grew a hair shorter each year. 

In time the road was less trafficked, and one day abandoned entirely. Predictably and tediously, the milestone crumbled, and the pebble was left alone, baking on the roadside.

Then, for the first time in many years, the road was traveled again. A host came down the old road, and a careless boot tossed the pebble aside and into a ditch, where it rested until it slipped into the sleeping earth. The pebble knew (as it always had) that the woman who wore the boot was destined for greatness, and considered itself blessed. 

Joesky Tax: The Olive Gem

A thumbnail-sized emerald, set in a silver belt clasp. From a frontal angle, a flaw within the jewel appears like a laurel wreath. If planted in depleted soil, renders the land within a thousand paces lush and dark. In its place will grow a succulent olive tree. 3000gp.

Ancient Gold Emerald Green Pegasus Intaglio Roman Ring | #28808897

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 10: Porcine Portents

In the last sessions, the party plundered room after room of Castle Xyntillan's main floor. They discovered their old compatriots in the castle jail, but failed to free them, instead filling their pockets with wealth. There's plenty of daylight left, and they've gotten lucky enough to avoid serious injury so far. What will the party stumble upon next? Find out in this week's session of Castle Xyntillan.

The Party

Longo Lightfoot, Halfling Thief, wears a sky-blue headscarf. Played by CaptainSabatini.
Corby the Joyful, Human Cleric of Sucellus, wears a short, conical hat. Played by diregrizzlybear.
Idred the Most Omniscient, Human MU, wears a full-visored greathelm. Played by David Perry.
Boroth Swinney the Joyous, Human Fighter, wears a masked helm depicting a happy human face. Played by Justin Hamilton.
Francois, Light Footman, noticeably dogless. 
Hilda, Heavy Footman, an ex-miner.
Rodolfo, Heavy Footman, running from a warrant in town.
Hubert, Heavy Footman.
Gwynefa, Arbalist.
Herman, Arbalist, escaped convict from Chamrousse.
Farida, Arbalist. 
Eckhart, Lightbearer.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
Raymond, Mule.

Herman, polymorphed

Bag of uncut gems, 7500gp
Two cut rubies, 1000gp
Bags of silver pieces, not retrieved
Pearl inside of Herman, 50gp

The Game
  • After routing the ghoul cooks and recovering the silverware, the party took note of their surroundings and the map they had made. They had filled in much of the empty space in the servants' quarters from their first expedition into the castle, but some notable gaps remained in their map. 
  • To the north lay a room decked in flowers, withered petals in pots and baskets. The party was startled when, upon entering, a woman ran across the room, blood running down her side, before she stumbled and disappeared. The party dug around that corner, lifting up the flagstone and finding a metal under a thin layer of dirt. They dared to lift up the lid, and inside was the bloated corpse of the same woman they had just seen, clutching a leather bag. 
  • Boroth put his sword to the corpse's clavicle while Longo clutched at the bag. The corpse pulled back, its eyes opened, and a rotten stench immediately filled the air. A ghast! 
Boroth: Turn it!
Corby: Hello, did we wake you?
Corby: Is it trying to kill us?
Longo: Is it in this castle?

Antagonist Relations: Corpse Chewer - Or a semi-improv, low prep ...
  • They annihilated it. Winning initiative, the front line also all made their saves against the ghast's stench. The action economy and lucky damage rolls worked their magic, and before the monstrosity could make a single swipe, it was speared through the heart. As the ghast let out its final rattle and gas, Longo grabbed the leather bag and opened it into a clay bowl.
  • Inside were dozens and dozens of uncut gems. A massive score, by far the largest since the Libram itself. 
  • With yet more convenient and easy to move valuables in their pockets, the party was riding high. A hidden closet nearby contained a portrait and a wall of knives; careful experimentation determined they were also psychotic flying weapons. Cue slamming the door shut and almost getting impaled.
Longo: Corby, where’s your box? 
Corby: In town. 
Longo: Now we need nine of them. 
Corby: We can put them in a smallish box. 
Longo: You can’t let them conspire together they’ll rise up against us! 
Corby: These can be our wedding present!
Boroth: We should find Maltricia and ask if someone else is going to be the new junior bridesmaid.
  • Filling out rooms implied by their map, the party traversed a corridor south, bot far from the castle exit. Eckhart the lightbearer swapped out one torch for another, and in that one moment of darkness, a figure appeared before them; a vaporous specter floating in the shape of an ancient crone. She introduced herself as Sybille Malevol.
Idred: Do you mind spelling that?
GM: In character?
Longo: fucking loses it
  • The ghost didn't appear hostile, and asked the party if any of them had a boar snout. Nobody did. She lamented that she needed a snout for a recipe she was preparing for the wedding. She then offered the party a deal: a week's wages for their nose.
  • The party recoiled, but some of the hirelings seemed interested in the extra pay. The party made no attempt to stop them. Finally, Herman the convict stepped forward. He made a deal with the ghost, and screamed, shaking. He fell to the floor in a fetal position, and in a few moments, his clothes and equipment lay limp on the floor, and out popped an adolescent boar.
File:A young wild boar in his environment.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
  • Sybille cooed and knelt down in front of the confused animal. Then with one clean slice, she cut off Herman's snout. It ran about, bleeding all over the floor until the party caught it and bandaged the wound. Sybille then conjured a pearl, and forced it down Herman's throat. Her deal concluded, she transformed into a cloud of vapor and floated past the party, underneath the doorway and out of sight.
  • Knowing that the only way to undo the spell would be to go back to town and beseech either Jacques or Ben to dispel it, the party choose to keep on keeping on, and delved into the castle.
  • The bronze statue of a zombie dominated a small nook, across from a pedestal and an incense burner. Fresh out of incense and not prepared to burn anything weird there, the party moved on, keeping an eye on the statue to make sure it didn't move.
  • They came across a room filled with steam, littered with linen-covered corpses and a boiling tub in the middle. They rooted about, and became convinced that a body was being boiled inside. More ghoul cooking, which encouraged the party to bug out.
  • Reflecting on the immense amount of money they had gathered on that expedition alone, the party began to speculate on the possible uses for such wealth. One idea was to buy a large boat, set it afloat on the lake and besiege the castle with cannons.
  • The sounds of an army on the march issued from another room; close to where they heard the same sounds in a previous expedition. A spare bedroom decorated with scenes of military conquest, clean and orderly. They raided the personal effects and found incomplete drafts of letters, but that was it. However, their map indicated that the room shoudl extend northwards. Checking the north wall, they found a button hidden in the frescoe, and a hidden door swung open.
  • In the space beyond was a pile of sacks, and a trapdoor leading to the basement. The sacks were filled with piles of silver pieces, perhaps more than was worth carrying out. 
Longo: What kind of sacks?
Idred: Alto sax?
  • Inside one of the sacks was a pair of gemstones, however, which the party pocketed. Boroth descended the trapdoor into a pantry, filled to the brim with ham legs and sausages hanging from the ceiling. Herman remained up top, but the rest of the party joined Boroth in the dungeon proper. 
  • To the south, the party could hear porcine squealing, which they avoided. In a room littered with broken and useless objects, they conversed briefly with the portrait of the jester, Guy Malevol. He gurgled out strange non-sequiturs, and the party decided not to investigate the room next door.
EVIL JESTER by adrianamusettidavila on DeviantArt
  • Exploring north, they found a wind tunnel, and a set of stairs leading upstairs. Now less worried about being caught underground without an escape, they took a breath. The sound of water brought them east, and they found a giant underground lake, with a light way off to the north. They bet that was the entrance they discovered underneath the chapel. Having discovered a new floor of the castle, temporarily lost a hireling to a polymorph, and pulled yet more valuable treasure from the castle, the party ended the session.


This week's session had a good deal more joking and OOC interaction than previous sessions. Namely, I live in Spain, while my players live across the US. The latter half of the session, especially after the ham room, included lots of pictures of Spanish cuisine. I reminded the party that a hungry GM is a vengeful GM, to no avail.

David also missed the first part of the session because of the early access release of Hardspace: Shipbreaker. He recommends it.

I continue to be surprised at the roll the party is on this expedition. I had originally meant for this to be a quick jaunt between finding the Libram (and the jump in power it brought) and the wedding, since previous expeditions had only lasted one or two sessions. This one is on its fifth and counting. The increase in character level seems to be only a small part of this, as hireling death was only a substantial issue in the expedition before this one. Previous expeditions were called when the party got enough loot, and that almost always meant 'as much as can be carried out'. Every piece of good loot found during this expedition has been relatively light, almost all in jewels, and the only cash found has been the silver coins, which may not even be worth taking. In that sense, it really does seem to be the result of luck.

Also, they keep getting lucky with combats. They aren't frequent, and the party has a penchant for winning initiative in the first round and blitzing the enemy. Clerical turning in particular has cut fights short.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

DeMille's The Ten Commandments: A Moses for Modernity

[The following is the final essay I wrote for my autumn class on the history and modern application of the Ten Commandments. In it, I examine Cecil DeMille's 1956 film, which even today remains a major cultural touchstone for American Christians, with regard to how it portrays Mosaic tradition and the Decalogue itself. This has no connection whatsoever to RPGs but I've posted other non-RPG content here before and people seemed to enjoy reading it anyhow, so here it is.]

“Those who see this motion picture—produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille,” opens the text crawl of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments(1956) at the end of its sweeping five minute opening credits, “will make a pilgrimage over the very ground that Moses trod more than 3,000 years ago—in accordance with the ancient texts of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, The Midrash, and,” the credits finish with a visual flourish, “The Holy Scripture.” 

The Ten Commandments (1956) - Filmaffinity

A boast if there ever was one, and hardly wasted on DeMille’s masterwork. The Ten Commandments remains the sixth highest-grossing film of all time after adjusting for inflation, seen by hundreds of millions of people, and still running on American cable every year, either leading up to Christmas or Easter. Yet, the majority of Americans today can’t actually list the Ten Commandments, and fewer have a strong understanding of the Exodus narrative as found in the Bible, let alone ancient Mosaic tradition. With secularism waxing and popular religious understanding waning, what is the use of such a film? Is it irrelevant? A reader may find the opposite, that DeMille’s work is increasingly relevant, if less in itself and more in the movement it exemplifies. 

In citing Philo, Josephus and Eusebius, DeMille pays his respects to those early scholars and apologists, whose writings on religion, whether from the Jewish or Christian side, remain influential today. However, citing the Jewish Midrash is more problematic, not in the least because the Midrash is not a single text, but a category of writing around canonical religious works. Even by the strictest definitions, midrashim include all rabbinical writings surrounding the Tanakh, which hardly makes for a concise or coherent source. 

Luckily, Henry Noerdlinger, DeMille’s researcher for the film, compiled his research into a book, Moses and Egypt. While much of it covers technical material, such as the particulars of Egyptian jewelry or Hebrew costuming, the beginning of the book describes exhaustively the sources used by DeMille and the decisions made in adapting both scripture and supplemental materials into the film. Here we find exactly what DeMille was citing, Philo’s On the Life of Moses, Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel. We also find that the midrashic influence came from the Midrash Rabbah, which for DeMille’s purposes, was limited to the Exodus Rabbah. The Exodus Rabbah is an entirely haggadic text, meaning it focuses on moral lessons gleaned from stories (Haggadah, or הגדה, roughly translates as ‘fairy tale’) as opposed to rigorous interrogation of the text to understand its legal components. This haggadic approach, we will see, defines the presentation of the film as a whole. 

While the early life of Moses, which comprises the bulk of the film, is not of Scriptural origin, it has strong sources outside of modern historical novels. While both the Tanakh and Quran imply that Moses was a prince of Egypt through his adoption into the royal family, Philo and Josephus wrote extensively on the subject. Far from being a modern invention, there appears to have been an extensive Mosaic tradition regarding his time at the Egyptian court. DeMille is hardly guilty, as some might suppose, of fabricating Moses’ early life for the sake of drama; if anything, The Ten Commandments cuts most of it out. 

Jewish scholar in his study by Willem van Nieuwenhoven on artnet
That schmuck DeMille cut out the best part!

Large chapters of Philo and Josephus’ accounts of Moses tell not only of court intrigue in Egypt, but of adventures often de-emphasized in mainstream portrayals of Moses’ life. In particular, they wrote about Moses’ time leading the Egyptian armies against Ethiopia, succeeding in conquering them. Moses as a conqueror and general of Egypt isn’t often how he is seen; it’s hard to imagine the white-bearded prophet charging into battle. This character, nevertheless, does appear in The Ten Commandments. Moses’ first appearance as an adult is in full armor, come from conquering the Ethiopians. This seems at odds to the modern understanding of Moses. Though the Israelites do go to war while he leads them, he always delegates battle to another, never directly participating in combat from that point onward. 

Further, while both the Exodus narrative and The Ten Commandments show Moses fleeing straight to Midian after being chased from Egypt, the ancients had an altogether different understanding. While Moses and Egypt does not mention it, both Josephus and the wider Rabbinical literature peg Moses not in Midian, but in Ethiopia immediately after his escape, where he is once again at the head of an army, recovering the Ethiopians’ capital from Balaam, who was then a servant of the Pharaoh. According to Josephus, Moses remains in Ethiopia, being crowned as a king there and marrying the Ethiopian queen, Adoniya. 

He then goes on to rule the Ethiopians for a full forty years (like the forty years wandering through the desert, a common biblical shorthand for ‘a long time’). However, he refuses to have a child or cohabitate with his new wife, and is eventually dismissed by the Ethiopians. In Josephus’ account, Moses escapes Egypt at age 18, spends nine years with the army, then forty as a king, making him 67 years old when he finally arrives at Midian. The Exodus narrative as it is commonly known continues from there.  Even more curiously, that section of Josephus isn’t so much as mentioned in Moses and Egypt, indicating that Noerdlinger didn’t consider it relevant to mention, as he must have read it in his research. 

It’s understandable why DeMille might cut this section of Moses’ story from his films. Beyond not being in the scripture, it screws up the pacing somewhat. It already takes three hours to get to the big attractions of the film, parting the Red Sea and receiving the Decalogue, and I don’t think anybody wants a nine-hour director’s cut. That said, selectively borrowing from traditional sources does create a warped public perception of the Exodus narrative, especially coming from the most influential piece of media that depicts it. 

The result is neither a purely Tanakhic or Quranic depiction of Moses, nor one that adheres to rabbinical or traditional accounts, but a distinct, transformed image of Moses. A Moses for modernity, an updated lawgiver for a new era. Central to this new Moses is a focus on the man instead of the Law; not only is the personal journey filed down and scrubbed of aesthetically unpleasant episodes, so too is the Law de-emphasized in order that the man can be appreciated by people of all faiths and creeds. It is the conversion of Moses from an inherently Jewish prophet to a non-sectarian legend that current-day leaders can be readily compared to; a clean, inspirational, nearly secular myth for America to crowd around the TV and identify with. 

Judaism being, fundamentally, a religion of laws, the presentation of law in the Ten Commandments is a key feature around which the film may be judged. As the reader may guess, it does not faithfully cleave to the Talmudic division, but more importantly, the film keeps mum on any laws beside its blockbuster draw. 

The Decalogue as depicted in the film conforms strongly to the Philonic division, used today most prominently by Protestant Christians. The very first commandment reads simply, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Most Jews, drawing on the Talmudic division, place the first commandment as “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt,” or some variation on that phrasing, and groups “You shall have no other gods before me,” with “You shall make no graven images,” as the second. Meanwhile, the Catholic division, expressed in the traditional catechetical formula, brings the Talmudic first and second commandments together while removing any mention of graven idols; instead, the Catholic Second Commandment is “Do not take the LORD’S name in vain,” and the Third Commandment is to, “Keep holy the LORD’S day,” respectively the Third and Fourth Commandment in other divisions. This missing commandment is made up by splitting the coveting passage into two, the Ninth regarding the neighbor’s wife, the Tenth regarding the neighbor’s property. The Decalogue shown in the film, on the other hand, keeps the Talmudic first and second commandments separate, and generalizes the tenth to “Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s,” providing a concise and punchy summary of Philo’s Decalogue. 

In this way, it is clear that DeMille’s own Protestant convictions formed the basis for his depiction of the Decalogue. Besides his inclusion of graven images (especially useful given what the Israelites were doing at the time Moses received the commandments), his translation of the Sixth Commandment as “Thou shalt not kill,” as opposed to “Thou shalt not murder,” cements it in the modern Christian tradition as opposed to the Jewish understanding. 

Concerningly for scholars of Mosaic law in the audience, the laws following the Decalogue are cut from the film with nary a mention. The intricate code of property rights, tabernacle construction ordinances and regulations surrounding priestly garb which is contained in Exodus 20:22-31:18 is, tragically, not explored with a further half-hour of intense note-taking by Moses. The film speeds instead to the construction of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the original tablets, full of drama and several minutes of gratuitous, Technicolor-enabled lasciviousness by the Israelites. - Am I the Only One Who Flashed on 'The Ten ...
Shake what Baal gave you baby!

From there, the film skips straight to the events of Deuteronomy 34, in which Moses looks upon the promised land after forty years of wandering the desert and then passes on. One could sarcastically note that The Ten Commandments is not a legal documentary, and be absolutely correct, but that is extremely relevant to the nature of the film. It is not centered around the Law, but the human element, the emotion that film captures better than paper. 

Though the Ten Commandments hog the posters and title, the giving of the Decalogue itself is saved for the end of the film, as the climax. If The Ten Commandments were an essay, this is its concluding thesis; after three hours spent exploring a non-exhaustive portrayal of Moses’ life, establishing Passover and the Exodus, it explains why you should care. Without the Decalogue at the end, the movie would not only be lacking for a title, but would have little relevance to the audience. It might be no more than the story of a tribe that escaped slavery with supernatural aid and then lived happily ever, a long time ago in a desert far, far away. The Ten Commandments themselves are the bridge from the ancient to the modern day; these are the people who followed the law, you also follow the law, therefore you may learn from their example. 

This is key to DeMille specifically; his brother Richard in Michael Calabria’s The Movie Mogul, Moses and Muslims said that he was, “not a completely conventional Christian. He didn’t take directions from popes or prelates. He was more of a Protestant man of the book (Calabria 2).” If Martin Luther’s German Bible allowed the common man to learn the word of God directly, then DeMille’s film fulfills a similar, albeit reversed, role for modern American Christianity. 

More and more Americans do not personally read the Bible, and are increasingly irreligious on the whole. Christianity today is predicated less on study of the Bible, and more on a pervasive common culture and understanding. Everyone knows what Christ’s message is, everyone knows what the Ten Commandments are, everyone knows what the Exodus story is, who Moses is and how he fits in. That most Americans don’t know the Ten Commandments, don’t know the particulars of early Christian doctrine and don’t know much about Moses’ background, let alone his family structure, is irrelevant. It is an informal, vernacular Christianity, modified to be compatible with a separate, secular state, and The Ten Commandments is its magnum opus. Whether DeMille understood or not at the time, the result is that the Bible itself is pushed aside as an actual source beyond common quotes. In its place, popular media that presents a summarized, modernized version of the Bible serves as an anchor, a common meeting point for a new generation of Americans, a group which contains innumerable Christian sects and increasing numbers of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, secular or practicing. 

The focus of the film, as should now be clear, is not the Law of Moses or even the Decalogue itself, as it is not a legal documentary. It is not the ancient sources of Mosaic tradition, as it is not a biopic. To see the significance of The Ten Commandments is to look past preconceived notions of the Exodus and see what is in front of one’s nose; it is the establishment of a new, popular Christianity, inspired by but not bound by the past, built for modernity. The opening text crawl said as much; the viewers undergo the same pilgrimage as Moses and the Israelites. Through this film they are united, in the formation of a new, common faith.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Intro Statistics for RPGs: The Wheaton Dice Curse

I watched Critical Role when I first got into RPGs, though I didn't get too far into the series. Still, I remember the episodes guest-starring Will Wheaton, and the 'Wheaton Dice Curse', his tendency to get very bad rolls, including far more natural 1s than should be, well, natural. I looked it up, and found the folks over at Critical Role Stats (which is a thing that exists, apparently) had already addressed it, although their analysis was very shallow to me. 

Given that I took an intro stats course this past quarter, I thought it would be worthwhile to give the topic a deeper look, and in doing so both refresh my own knowledge and teach y'all some basic stats. 

Today's lesson will be introducing variance, Bernoulli and Binomial distributions, p-values, elementary hypothesis testing, z-scores and the CLT. I'll be using RStudio, a free dev environment for the R programming language. If you have it on your computer, I'll put down the code as we go so you can follow along. Otherwise, I'll just show my work, and you can take my word that the program spits out what it does. For anyone wanting to learn some basic stats on their own time, I recommend OpenIntroStats, which is a free digital textbook. It's what I used in my college class, it's well written and clear, and has  ton of practice problems. 

Examining the Dataset

The dataset is Wheaton's rolls over two Critical Role sessions, in which he rolled 54 times. Not great, but I've used smaller, and the measurements we'll be using take scale into account. CR Stats made a histogram of the frequency of each number on the d20, from Wheaton's 54 separate rolls. 

This is pretty far off our expected frequencies. In particular, the number of natural 1s and 2s are way off. We'll copy down the numbers into a list, and apply the c() function to turn them into a vector. Then we'll assign it to an easy to remember and convenient name to call it later. We can use the var() function on our dataset to return the variance value. Then we can take the square root of the variance to find the standard deviation.

x<- c(1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8, 9, 9, 9, 9, 11, 11, 12, 13, 13, 14, 14, 14, 15, 15, 17, 18, 19, 19, 20)

Returns 32.90566, standard deviation 5.736346. Variation and standard deviation are both sequence invariant, so you could put it in the original order of rolls or order them like this, and get the same answer. However, these measures are sensitive to scale; if you maintained the same ratio of rolls, but over a larger number of rolls, the variance would be lower. Interestingly, the variance of this dataset is lower than that of an expected set of similar length. It's not just biased towards lower numbers, it's more concentrated there are well.

Natural 1s

Predicting natural 1s is a Bernoulli variable. Bernoulli variables are those which can either fail or succeed a criterion with a certain probability, on a set number of trials. The classic Bernoulli variable is the fair coin flip, which is either heads or tails with a probability of 1/2. 

Our d20, landing on either a natural 1 (success) or anything else (a failure) is a Bernoulli 1/20 variable, Bern~(.05). So, how far out of line are Wheaton's natural 1s? Well, our expected number of natural 1s is simply the number of trials times the probability, so on 54 trials, we should expect 2.7 natural 1s. Instead, we get 10.

10 instead of 2.7 is a big difference, but how far off is it if Wheaton just had bad luck on this set of rolls? Here we'll do some basic hypothesis testing.

Hypothesis Testing the Curse

Hypothesis testing is where we set some hypotheses and a test metric for them with a preselected alpha-level, the threshold for p-values. In this case, we're going to perform a hypothesis test on our number of natural 1s, to see how rare this outcome really is under our null hypothesis.

Our null hypothesis, H0, is our assumption that the die is fair and Wheaton's rolls are luck alone. Our alternate hypothesis, HA or H1, is that Wheaton is, in reality cursed. First, we're going to select our alpha level. The alpha level is a number between 0 and 1 that reflects the likelihood of finding an example more extreme than our current observation by sheer chance. The lower the number, the less you expose yourself to false rejections.

A Digression on P-Values

You've likely heard of statistical significance, and linked it to a p-value less than .05. This means that if the observed p-value is less than .05, you are confident enough to reject the null, and the finding is considered 'statistically significant'. If not, you are unwilling to, and it isn't. What the .05 value reflects is a tolerance for false rejections 1 in 20 times. That is, if you had 20 studies with a p-value of .05, you'd expect one to be wrong. If you set your p-value to .01, you're expecting a false rejection by pure chance 1 in 100 times. 

The expected p-values are going to differ based on the size and rarity of the effect you're trying to measure; in high-energy physics, you're routinely looking at p-values on the order of 10^-6 or -7, due to the regularity of the systems being studied. In more chaotic fields, like biology, you'll get laughed out of the room if you have a p-value that small since very few experiments in the field have that kind of sensitivity and it means you probably screwed up. In the social sciences, even p<.05 is often too generous.

[This is a very basic explanation, and real life is quite different. Your p-value is only valuable if you've adequately controlled for confounders; if you haven't, you probably have some systematic bias in your data, and your study might be worthless if your mistake was really bad. P-hacking, which is the act of modifying your p-values by messing with your experiment, is rampant, especially in the social sciences, and far more than 1 in 20 such studies fail to replicate. If you want to dig in more, I recommend this somewhat technical post and this much more entertaining less technical post]

DND Meme - What a nat 1 dex save looks like - YouTube

Back to the Curse

How precise do we want to be? Well, dice rolling is mechanical physics, and while using math to determine which face will come up is very complex, the effects are regular and, like coin flipping, we expect the chaos to even out. There's also the possibility of the dice in use being biased towards lower numbers. But the hypothesis we're looking to test here is whether or not Will Wheaton is cursed, and this is going to depend a lot based on how much you believe in curses. So we'll use multiple confidence levels to illustrate.

Alice is a big believer in witchcraft, hexes and curses, and thinks Wheaton got what was coming to him for his portrayal of Wesley Crusher. Still, she's not certain this is the effect of a curse, so she'll put forward an alpha level of .05. 

Bob is a little superstitious, but is much less bullish on the topic than Alice. He'll put forward an alpha level of 1 in a thousand, .001. 

Cassandra is a hard-nosed secularist, and disdains the very notion of a curse. She puts forward an alpha level of one in ten million, .0000001. She doesn't expect to be convinced. 

And before we go forward, let's formalize our hypotheses.
H0, the null: Will Wheaton's d20s are regular polyhedral objects, and rolling natural 1s on them is adequately described by Bern~(.05).
HA, the alternate: Will Wheaton is cursed, and as a result his dice roll natural 1s with a probability greater than .05. 

Now to set up the actual measurement. Bernoulli variables are neat, but they're a measure focused around single observations. How do we analyze a collection of many Bernoulli variables?

We use the Binomial distribution. There's a few criteria we need to pass before using the Binomial is valid; the trials have to be independent, meaning that each die roll has no effect on another, the number of trials has to be fixed, each must be classified as either a success or failure, and must have the same probability across the trials. So long as the curse modifies the probability across the whole on a consistent basis, we're good.

The code looks like this: pbinom(observed value, number of trials, success probability)

We'll also add another argument at the end, lower=F, which means we're looking at the upper end of the distribution. It's equivalent to using 1-pbinom(), but it looks neater. We'll also use binomial definitions for mean and standard deviation to find those for later.

μ = np = .05*54 = 2.7
sd=sqrtn*(p*(1-p)) = sqrt(54*.05*(.95)) = 1.601562
Observed value = 10

pbinom(10, 54, .05, lower=F) 
Returns 6.315881e-05, or .00006315881

Also, if you don't have RStudio, you can still find this using a calculator, or even get pretty close with a pen and paper. We established that the mean in 2.7, and our observed value is 10. 10-2.7 = 7.3, and we can divide this by our standard deviation to get a value of around 4.5. This means that our observed value is about 4.5 standard deviations away from our estimate. You might hear this called '4.5 sigma', it means the same thing.

However you do it, you find a very big difference. 4.5 Sigma is WAAAY out of the ordinary, and the 6.315881e-05 figure tells us that the chances of getting this by chance is around 6 in a hundred thousand. 

Cassandra is unimpressed. It's less likely than she expected, but nowhere near unlikely enough to challenge her low prior belief in curses.

Bob and Alice's estimates, on the other hand, are burst open. They now believe that Will Wheaton is cursed, and have a fancy-shmancy number to show for it.

Nat 1 (@Natural_One1) | Twitter

Testing the Mean

Mind you, all we've shown here is that natural 1s are occurring with more frequency than should be expected. We can do the same for every other number if we want. The natural 2s are also interesting, and with the work done above, finding the answer for that roll by either method should be trivial. I've included the answer at the bottom. 

But that's just certain rolls. A more common form of hypothesis testing looks at the mean of these distributions. We can also look at these with similar methods. When hypothesis testing means, the hypotheses look like this.
H0: μ = expected mean (10.5 in our case)
HA: μ = greater or less than expected mean, depending on investigator belief.
The null is sometimes formalized as (observed mean) - (expected mean) = 0, which better fits the normal distribution which is most often used for this.

Expected mean for a null distribution: 10.5
mean(x) = 7

Huh. 7 exactly. So, if the true mean should be 10.5, how unlikely is it we get to 7 by chance instead? I'll quickly calculate this out using a method of normal approximation called the Central Limit Theorem and the pnorm() function, since we're looking at probabilities on the normal distribution instead. We'll use a formula to find a value called the z-score, which is stabilized to the standard normal distribution. Note also that we'll use the standard deviation we calculated at the start of the post. This can be risky with small sample sizes, since it might be calculated from unusual data, but as a rule of thumb it's usually permissible to do so with sample sizes greater than 30, and here we have 54 trials.

P(μ < 7) = P( z <((7-10.5)/(5.736346/sqrt(54)))) = P(z < -4.483628) 
We then take pnorm(-3.84311), without adding anything else, since we're looking at the lower bound and the z-value is made for the standard normal, and find...

pnorm(-4.483628) = 3.669227e-06

Another long shot, even further off than our estimate for the natural 1s, around 36 in 10 million. Though I'm not confident enough to talk about the general shape of the curse, Alice and Bob certainly have reason to believe in the effect.

In conclusion, if you have a prior belief in curses and hexes around or greater than the order of 10e-5, you have substantial reason to believe that the Wheaton dice curse, even from this single set of games in isolation, let alone a more general trend claimed by Wheaton. 

Oh, and if you've read through this post with a consistent sense of disgust that I'm even applying statistics to something so obviously ridiculous, I recommend you look into the natural control group that is parapsychological research as a similar touchstone. If a mediocre first year stats student can pull a 10e-5 order effect out of a tiny dataset relating to an absurd concept, you might consider being more skeptical about other random statistics you read about on the internet.

I hope you all enjoyed the post! I'm not 100% sure about all the numbers here, especially in the correspondence between the sigmas and the probabilities, but it's about right. If you have any questions, corrections, or want to see more like this in the future, be sure to write me down in the comments below! Until then, I'm in the middle of two family birthdays and have to get back to getting wasted.

pbinom(7, 54, .05, lower=F)
Returns 0.005180117
Returns 2.684879 sigma

Monday, June 15, 2020

OSR in the Ancient World: Cyrene

For no reason whatsoever, I've been diving into the history of Libya in the Greek and Roman conquest, especially in the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) region. The location of the present day town of Shahhat coincides with the ancient site of the Greek colony of Cyrene, and is notable not only for a rich mythological history, but for extensive archaeological investigation of the Cyrene Necropolis, one of the most important such sites in the Classical Mediterranean.

I've compiled a few interesting bits and bobs, but first, I will pay the Joesky tax with a new Shrine and Saint.

Shrine of Cyrene Lionkiller

Cyrene in Greek Mythology - Greek Legends and Myths

Cyrene was a Thessalian warrior princess, drawn not to the loom or to revelry but to the hunting of wild beasts and herding livestock. She attracted the roving eye of the Seer Apollo when she battled a lion without her spear, and in the course of their affair he crowned her a queen of a bountiful land in Africa, thereafter named Cyrenaica. She is yet worshiped as the patron goddess of her city, and blesses those who tread the wild and its dangers.

Shrine: A tall stele bearing her image behind the main gate of Cyrene; to enter the city, one must go around it, so that all travelers know who guards it.
Favorite Offerings: The pelt of a lion, an amphora of fresh milk, a jar of myrtle honey.
Rare Offering: The pelt of a lion captured in the wild and slain by you in public single combat.
Blessing: Locate Animal, 1st level Druid spell with 160' range for 10 rounds.
Approves: When you expose yourself to the dangers of the wild, but especially when you slay or capture a dangerous beast.
A favorite verse: There was Cyrene, a champion in the leafy forest with her lionslaying hands, princess of proud Lapithai, the bronze-tipped javelin and sword called her to combat and slay the wild beasts of the field, she is guardian of a city rich in beauty.
Curse: The Shepherd's Watch. Your soul is bound to the nearest domestic animal. Any damage done to it is mirrored to you. If it dies, you die. Cultists of Cyrene tend to keep lambs for this purpose.

I've mixed up the Saints and Shrines system a bit here, incorporating some mechanics from Arnold K's Augury, Blasphemy and Oaths post. Now, onto some historical tidbits.

Cyrene was located in a wet and well-forested region of modern-day Libya, which is otherwise one of the driest and least forested countries in the world. The Green Mountain region is roughly 150 miles long and 30 miles wide, curving slightly along a coastal horn, located between the modern-day cities of Benghazi and Derna. The native people are the Amazigh, and records indicate that as far back as the 13th century BCE, the local tribes frequently invaded the New Kingdom of Egypt.

It was colonized by Greece around 631 BCE, and became a prominent center of trade and high Greek culture, including the Cyrenaic School of Philosophy founded by Aristippus. After Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, it was invaded and occupied by the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty. As Rome became prominent and colonized Egypt in turn, it soon became a separate province. My interest in the region ends in the year 0, but this gives us plenty of good material.

The Cyrene Necropolis

My favorite feature of the old city is the Necropolis. It's about four square miles of tombs and mausoleums, the oldest dating back to 600 BCE, built by the Greek colonists, and later built upon by Romans. It's built into a hill, with the tombs constructed in terraces. 

If you want a classical tomb complex for a proper tomb adventure, you could scarcely do better for historical inspiration. A quote from James Hamilton's Wanderings in North Africa stuck out to me as being directly relevant to PCs and adventuring, as he laments the tomb-robbing in the region.

"Some feelings of melancholy must be awakened in every visitor, as he follows those long lines of violated sepulchres, ranged along the sides of the hills, obtruding far into the plain below, and stretching in every direction across the table-land to the south. The simple sarcophagus and proud mausoleum now alike gape tenantless; perpetuating neither the affection of the survivors nor the merits of the dead, they are mute as to their history, their fate, and almost their names. Barbarian hands have disturbed the relics, and rifled the treasures which they once contained; the existence of such treasures must have been the incentive to, and can alone account for the universal violation of the tombs — hatred, if profitless as well as toilsome, is seldom thus unrelenting."


[EDIT: The drama around Silphium and its medicinal and contraceptive properties are mostly fabricated. While it was popular and well-valued, in reality it was mostly used as a food product, the stem boiled and served in a dish. Mentions of its medicinal, let alone contraceptive use, follow Pliny, and are not supported in ancient texts. Also, the claim that it was extinct was a misinterpretation of Pliny. He only claimed that the plant grew less common in Cyrenaica and was less harvested, but that other, inferior breeds of the plant were extant and well-trafficked from the eastern empire. In other words, Hamilton got his stuff wrong. The below information reflects popular understanding, not historical reality.]

Hamilton, writing in 1856, notes that Cyrene was an ancient go-between for goods from the African interior to the Mediterranean, with treasures including ostrich feathers, precious stones, ivory, gold and slaves. However, he notes one infamous product original and unique to Cyrenaica, the Silphium plant.

Silphium was a plant, extinct since the third or second century BCE, believed to resemble fennel. It had a long history in the Mediterranean, as its juice, called laserpitium, was a cure-all, and was prized by the Greeks and Romans as an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive. It grew exclusively in the Green Mountain region, and many attempts to grow it at scale or move it to other locations failed without exception. Contemporary theories hold that it may have been a hybrid, or perhaps especially sensitive to its native soil chemistry, but in a fantasy we need not stick to such plausible explanations.

How valuable was it? The playwright Aristophanes used the phrase, 'Silphium of Battus' as a synonym for extraordinary wealth, and Romans paid its weight in silver; if you use a gold-based economy, saying that the plant is worth its weight in gold is completely accurate. The supply of Silphium was one of the treasures that Caesar laid claim to at the start of the civil war, and the very last stalk of Silphium in existence was supposedly given to the Emperor Nero as a curiosity.

If you want to give the party some unique treasure, a rare patch of Silphium growing in soil transported from Cyrenaica would be quite a piece.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Castle Xyntillan Session 8 and 9: The Party's Pre-Wedding Plunder

In the last session, the party returned to town with their biggest find yet, gathered information on the wedding guests, and slew one of the bridesmaids in her boudoir. With newfound experience and hirelings, the party continues to plunder Castle Xyntillan before the wedding begins. What will they discover next in the castle's haunted halls? Find out in this week's session of Castle Xyntillan.

The Party

Longo Lightfoot, Halfling Thief, wears a sky-blue headscarf. Played by CaptainSabatini.
Corby the Joyful, Human Cleric of Sucellus, wears a short, conical hat. Played by diregrizzlybear.
Idred the Most Omniscient, Human MU, wears a full-visored greathelm. Played by David Perry.
Boroth Swinney the Joyous, Human Fighter, wears a masked helm depicting a happy human face. Played by Justin Hamilton.
Francois, Light Footman, noticeably dogless. 
Hilda, Heavy Footman, an ex-miner.
Rodolfo, Heavy Footman, running from a warrant in town.
Hubert, Heavy Footman.
Gwynefa, Arbalist.
Herman, Arbalist, escaped convict from Chamrousse.
Farida, Arbalist. 
Eckhart, Lightbearer.
Bruno, Light Footman, a talented sharpshooter.
Raymond, Mule.


Gilded puzzle box, 1000gp
Unidentified Scroll
Sapphire eyes, 1100gp
Lawful Longsword +1
Signet ring, 600gp
Gold buttons, 300gp
Golden sweet box, 1400gp
Pile of silverware, 1750gp

The Game
  • After putting down the ghoulish junior bridesmaid, Beatrice, the party made a closer inspection of her room. Besides the valuables in her coffin, they found an obscured alcove hiding a gilded puzzle box.
Corby: Just watch Beatrice be the Beast's favorite Malevol.
Boroth: How many hit dice is a Cenobite?
  • Opposite the privy they found earlier, the statue of a caveman and the inscription below it intrigued the party. After cutting it open and inspecting the plaster statue, they sliced off its buttocks, and out popped a magic scroll! Its exact function was obscure, but it appeared to be a scroll of protection of some kind.
Idred: Rip him a new one, as they say.
  • The privy led up a chimney to the next floor. Boroth dared the climb, but halfway up, one rung of the ladder gave way, and a scything flashed flashed out. In a remarkable display of agility, the fighter dropped and made a one-handed recovery, neither dropping his torch or getting cut in half. Climbing back up and avoiding that rung, he peered out of a toilet seat into a musty room decorated with images of the danse macabre.
Danse Macabre - Wikipedia

Boroth: Nope. I've had enough of grim reapers.
  • Descending back to the first floor of the Gothic Wing, they found themselves in a  long room, decorated with stone busts of family members. After careful experimentation, they withdrew a longsword which had been impaled in one of the busts, and popped out the sapphire eyes of another bust, which began to bleed.
Idred: Just a practical effect, pay it no mind.
  • The party ran about the floor like headless chickens examining nearby rooms and their loot with Detect Magic. Returning to the bottom floor, they found themselves on the opposite side of the skeleton's mess hall they fled from in their first expedition, and heard the skeletons being lectured on freedom and philosophy. They retreated back upstairs.
  • Returning to the talking bust of Medard Malevol, they reported back to him on the successful killing of Beatrice.
Medard: Wonderful sport, she was quite a dick indeed. Unfortunately, she's still alive. Horribly resilient, those ghouls.
Party: ... 
  • High on their recent success and new levels, the party ignored Medard's warnings and entered the room people tend not to leave. They found it bare except for a shattered, bleeding mirror and boarded-up windows. As they removed the boards to let some sunlight in, the PC's shadows came to life, and attacked!
  • Luck was once again on their side, and between Boroth's new magic blade and Corby's turning, they succeeded in cutting the spirits to ribbons. They exited the room to kudos from Medard, who was altogether impressed with them.
  • Returning to the first floor, they looked for James in the vestibule, but he was missing. They took the opportunity to explore the rooms nearby. A living room nearby bore a dead fireplace, writing desk and a grandfather clock. The fireplace held the rotten body of a young gentleman, which crumbled as they tried to remove it. Idred investigated the clock, and barely dodged out of the way as the mechanical compartment turned out to be full of human bones, which almost crushed him.
Boroth: OHHH MY GOOOD! Someone's been murdered!
Corby: That's not how clocks work.
Idred: Very astute, Corby.
  • Behind the fireplace, they located a secret bedroom: blankets on straw and dirty clothes, hiding a Malevol signet ring and a vial of poison.
Boroth: Someone was planning to kill someone.
Corby: Are they looking for a job?
  • They investigated the vestibule in further depth, and located a closet which emitted a rumbling sound. They carefully opened up, and found a snoring, leathery cloak on a coat rack, which they subsequently left alone.
Idred: Closets have only led us to bad fortune. Or no fortune. Or a taxidermied rust monster.

John Vernon Lord: The raven and the writing desk
  • In a study room decorated with arcane symbols, piles of occult paraphernalia and a stuffed raven on a writing desk. Idred examined the symbols, and his prodigious 18 INT allowed him to comprehend their meaning, even as Gwynefa muttered horrifically to herself, "The tangents. The tangents man, THE TANGENTS!"
Idred: You all don't have to worry about understanding all of this, it would go over your heads.
Longo: Everything generally does.
  • Longo speculated idly on the similarities between ravens and writing desks, and the raven spoke to the party; it welcomed them to its room, and offered to give them some information on the local area. The party conversed with the ungainly fowl, but got little intelligence out of it, as every detail it spoke about related to the party's inevitable heinous doom.
  • Nearby, they encountered a smooth, head-sized stone rotating of its own accord on a pedestal. Idred messed with it, and it jumped off the pedestal in an attempt to crush him. The wizard made a Van Damme split in mid-air, and the stone barely missed him; a comical scene ensued until the party managed to trap it in a sack, and trapped it in the secret closet behind the fireplace.
  • They discovered a bedroom, likely belonging to a young lady, from which issued a local folk song, from an indeterminate source. A large oval mirror, dried cosmetics and a trunk filled with motheaten clothes dominated the room. They recovered a pouch of golden buttons, and after Longo sang along to the tune, the mirror shattered, revealing a hidden alcove. It contained a golden sweets box, but inside were a nearly full set of human fingers and toes, with the nails tastefully painted and lacquered, the flesh candied. 
David Perry: Okay, this is my favorite treasure in a while.
  • Exploring once again around the portrait gallery, their mapping indicated the presence of a hidden area. They eventually located a secret entrance underneath the stairs, which led to a clerks' room, disorganized and broken down. Another bricked up entrance intrigued them, and they broke it down, finding yet another archive room, piled high with debt records and tax demands. Throughout the whole ordeal, Farida the hireling was shoveling random papers into her sack. When questioned, she insisted she had a dream of becoming an accountant, and was looking for practice material.
  • The party was interrupted by Vincent Godefroy-Malevol, who took interest in the party snooping about the family records. In no mood to start a fight with the lawyer, they handed over the sack, and went on their way, much to Farida's disappointment.
ArtStation - Medieval prison , Pavel Filimonov
Pavel Filimonov
  • Exploring near the tower, they found the jails, row on row of cells. And inside two of them, were Ysabeau, the lost hireling, and Ranucci. Ysabeau was in bad shape, but Ranucci appeared to be in good spirits. 
  • Longo attempted to break them out, but failed his roll; portcullises slammed down, although they had thankfully already spiked one of them open in the direction they came. The tower bell rang above, and the sound of dozens of marching, skeletal boots came their way. 
  • The party bolted, leaving their companions back in their cells, removed the spike and exited the cell block. They surmised that the skeletal reinforcements came from the mess hall they located earlier just to the south, and entered back through that door. They found just three skeletons left in the room, which they quickly took down. The corpse of a young gentleman from town hung from the ceiling, which the party left. They followed the marching skeletons up the hallway, careful not to be detected. Another doorway led to the west, and they figured that something else must have joined the skeletons from that direction. None too eager to find out what it was, they bolted and left for safer grounds.
  • Hoping to find salt to fight the acid slugs in the east, the party returned to the kitchen in the servant's quarters, which they had noted down in their first expedition but never entered. 
Idred: Okay, this doesn't need to be a fight, if there's nothing aggressive on the other side, we'll be cool.
GM: Rolls snake eyes on the reaction roll: AHAHAHAHAHAHA!
  • Inside the kitchen were five ghoul chefs, chopping up a human cadaver with knives. They leapt at the party, but luck was once again with the Groomsmen; they pummeled the ghouls with ranged fire and turned them. Three went down in short order, but two more managed to escape through a nearby bakery. Unwilling to follow the ghouls past the magical ovens, the party set sentries in case they returned. 
  • The party disarmed a makeshift guillotine trap weighed down with a basket of severed heads, and treated themselves to the spoils within: mouldy and hard cooking supplies, as well as a pile of fine silverware.
  • With high spirits, lots of valuable loot in convenient, easily sold transported goods and no further injuries, the party is riding high. The wedding is at the end of the week; will they continue to plunder the castle? What complications will arise? Will their lucky streak hold up? All that and more in the next session of Castle Xyntillan. 


The party has generally gotten lucky with combat encounters so far, winning initiative in the first round, avoiding large fights and using their cleric's turning to its full effect against the castle's common undead enemies. 

I screwed up the mapping in a couple places several sessions ago, which I only discovered now. It led to substantial dead time in the middle of the session as we tried to get the map back in good shape, but it eventually got fixed. I'll make sure to be specific in the future when dealing with unusual room shapes.

This is the second time the party has interacted with a meta-trap I didn't even understand myself. The FOE GYG incantation they heard a rumor about was an old community meme, and the stuffed raven is an Alice in Wonderland reference. The suit of armor with an arrow in its knee was another which I already knew about. The inclusion of features or traps which trigger on meta-knowledge and blur the line between PC and player are a strange inclusion, and I love them.

Next Chapter: Porcine Portents

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

5e Races for S&W: Dragonborn


Explore best dragonborn art on DeviantArt

Dragonborn are humanoids bearing draconic traits. At the Referee's discretion, they might be from communities of dragon-worshipers, adventures who made pacts with dragons for power, or have other origins. They have lizard-like heads, scaled skin and talon-like hands. They are most often fighters, due to their great bulk and physical power. When a dragonborn rides into town at the head of a mercenary company, locals are apt to stand in awe and unease. 

Dragonborn may bear the scales of red, white, blue, green or black dragons, and have immunity to the according element: fire, ice, lightning, poison, or acid. In addition, the larcenous hoarding instinct of a dragon runs through them, and dragonborn can focus to sense the presence of precious metals and jewels within 10', although they can't tell the amount or type, and this sense is blocked by more than 2' of stone or a sheet of lead.

Dragonborn may advance to 4th level as Thieves or Clerics, to 6th level as Magic-Users (up to 7th or 8th level with an INT of 17 or 18 respectively) or indefinitely as a fighter. 

Immunity to 1 element, senses precious metals and jewels in 10', blocked by 2' stone. sheet of lead
Limited to Thief or Cleric 4, MU 6-8, may level as Fighter without limit.


I'm not really a fan of the idea of dragonborn communities or populations. It feels to me like reskinned Klingons. I'm much more interested in the idea of individuals trading their humanity and service for immediate power. That way, each dragonborn is an individual with their unique story, not just another member of a preexisting race. If you wanted more of a balance between these approaches, I'd look at communities of human dragon worshippers, like in Arnold K's Drakencults, and the dragonborn is a champion raised up by that dragon to serve their will. 

This connection to a dragon in the backstory is largely up to the player to describe. Common tie-ins might be that the dragonborn is treasure-hunting to send great works or artifacts back to the home hoard, or hunting down a rival dragon who offended their master in the past. If the character is a rogue dragonborn, taking their powers but running from their old master's influence, that has a great deal of material for roleplaying, and hooks for the Referee to use. 

Since dragonborn are a relatively known race, and they don't have the tiefling's contentious history, there's not much for me to write about them. I must say I like the feel of dragonborn more than lizardmen. I never got the appeal of those. As far as 'monster' races go, this one ranks pretty highly for me, up with minotaurs. The exact place in lore and popular opinion of dragonborn is really up to individual Referees and the tone they intend for their game. 

Another neat take on dragonborn is this one by Marquisat: Dragonborn are Irradiated Humans.

5e Races for S&W: Tieflings


B/X BLACKRAZOR: Tiefling Sorcerer: New B/X Class

Tieflings are the descendants of those dark spellcasters who made pacts with creatures of the lower planes. That touch of hell has marked their bloodline for generations. The word 'tiefling' means 'deepspawn', and popular opinion around them wavers. To some, tieflings are the innocent victims of their ancestor's mistakes, and should be allowed to redeem themselves. Others consider them a blight, and a possible vector for infernal influence. In all cases, tieflings are the first and easiest scapegoats for suspected demonic activity. They are often drawn subconsciously to places of heavy magical or infernal activity, and are thus over-represented among traveling adventurers. The appearance of the tiefling may vary wildly, with diverse mutations and infernal stigmata. 

A Tiefling's fiendish blood makes them more at home underground, and they gain 60' of darkvision. Additionally, they all have some innate spellcasting. Regardless of class, they have an additional 1st level Anti-Cleric spell slot. The spells are appropriately reversed when possible: Cause Light Wounds, Detect Good/Law, Detect Magic, Light, Protection from Good/Law, Poison Food and Drink.

Tieflings may advance to 4th level as fighters, to 6th level as Magic-Users or Thieves (to 7th or 8th level of each with an INT or DEX of 17 or 18 respectively) or indefinitely as an Anti-Cleric. If they take a level of Anti-Cleric, they must be Chaotic in Alignment. Multiclassing is possible between classes with the above limits. 

60' darkvision, innate anti-clerical spellcasting
Limited to Fighter 4, Thief 6-8, MU 6-8, may level as an Anti-Cleric without limit.


Of the current edition's 'core' races, tieflings stand out as being both unconnected to the pseudo-Tolkein flavor of the classic races, but unlike, say, Goliaths, they have some thematic oomph about them. The curse of ancestry, a connection to the lower planes, the temptation to give in to expectations against the desire to reform and overcome the deeds of their forebears. All of this makes for great roleplaying opportunities. 

Unfortunately, this is pushed aside sometimes when we forget the origins of the race. It first came about in 2e as a race specially made for the Planescape setting, where the idea of planetouched humanoids with bizarre appearances not only made sense, but was expected. The other planetouched races didn't catch on quite as much, but tieflings stuck, and by 4e they were a core race. But this time, the core setting was FR, and tieflings didn't make quite as much sense there. Their appearance went from wildly diverse to 'stereotypical devil-person' and much hand-waving ensued to justify their existence.

A lot of the modern tiefling treatment rubs me the wrong way, especially the exoticism that reduces them to just 'humans but with tails and weird skin.' Losing that drama and character dynamic just makes the whole thing feel empty. 

For tiefling characters in Swords and Wizardry, I'm fond of increasing their rarity and making it explicit that they gravitate to adventuring, since this often brings them closer to demonic interaction. They're not very potent melee fighters most of the time, but can advance quite far as MUs or Thieves, but to gain real power, the only path for a tiefling is to give into their demonic heritage and become and Anti-Cleric. Heck, they get the extra spell just to make that more tempting. 

Ideally, this transfers the character's struggle over to the player, "On the one hand, I can be a good wizard or thief and deal with the same level restrictions as other demihumans oooooooor I can dive right in, become a chaotic anti-cleric and gain UNLIMITED POWER. 

If you want to generate an appropriately crazy looking tiefling, I recommend the Tiefling Appearance and Side-Effects tables in the 2e Planeswalkers Handbook. 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

An Open Letter on Love

[This isn't RPG content by any stretch of the imagination, but somebody reading this probably needs to read it, so it has been written.]

An Open Letter on Love

Seneca the Younger wrote in a moral letter to Lucius Annaeus (this is the same letter which I have excerpted on my banner):
If you ask how one can make oneself a friend quickly, I will tell you, provided we are agreed that I may pay my debt at once and square the account, so far as this letter is concerned.  
Hecato, says: “I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation: ‘If you would be loved, love.'” 
He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly. The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chain such a friend will desert him.
For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend?  
In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. The friendship which you portray is a bargain and not a friendship; it regards convenience only, and looks to the results. Beyond question the feeling of a lover has in it something akin to friendship; one might call it friendship run mad. But, though this is true, does anyone love for the sake of gain, or promotion, or renown? 
Pure love, careless of all other things, kindles the soul with desire for the beautiful object, not without the hope of a return of the affection. 

CS Lewis comments further in earnest:
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

And Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters (Chapter 18) as a literal devil's advocate: 
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

The anarchist philosopher David Friedman brings it back around in The Machinery of Freedom:

Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.  
By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, 'unselfishly', help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way.

The takeaway is simply this. To Love is to identify your good, your end, with that of another, wholeheartedly. Love may be friendship run mad, or we could reverse the Roman master's frame to make friendship into Love stunted, by caution, by fear, by taboo. To seek Love out of desire for gain and not a desire to give is folly.

We might apply some more rigor, and find a metric for Love.

When someone you claim to Love proposes a new end of theirs: 'I want to go back to school', 'I think it would be great to see that movie', 'I need to rob a bank'; how fully is that end integrated into your own, and how high a priority is it?

Clearly, not all of these desires stand equal. They make varying demands of you, with different costs. I might Love my family more than enough to see a show with them, but not enough to be an accessory to armed robbery. 

But this allows us to really see what it means to Love, to Love oneself, to Love another as much as oneself, or more than oneself. 

I am not a Christian, but this framework renders much of the New Testament much more concrete. Too often Love is conflated with vague feelings of warmth and goodness, when in reality it is an overpowering and definite force. To Love your fellow man as much as yourself means to place the good of everyone else as highly as your own. To Love your God as much or more than yourself means to subordinate your desires to theirs.

Properly understood, these are appropriately radical demands, which very few actively strive towards and fewer succeed at. Yet if we were to encounter such a person who genuinely Loved not only each person, but the whole mass of humanity, as much as they did themselves, and was wise enough to act appropriately on these grounds, we would recognize them, at a deep level, as a truly formidable will. 

We might also see that Love is a mechanism for short-circuiting multipolar traps. By disrupting the assumption that each agent acts for their own good over that of others, death spirals can be stopped before they even begin. That Love declaws Moloch isn't namby-pamby New Age feel-good BS, it's a concrete observation.

The truly dedicated may extend Love across time. To Love the people of the past, in spite of their mistakes, which are clear in hindsight, and to Love the people of the future, whose actions and virtue are uncertain. Though there is little we can do now for the dead and gone, we may yet act for those who are young or yet to be born; delaying consumption and benefit on our own parts for their sake, in the hopes they will maintain our pact and do the same for the future from their end. With a high coefficient of Love maintained across time, some acausal negotiation becomes viable. 

One must always be watchful for those who love falsely. Those who claim to love others and yet do not place their skin in the game. Most often, claimed love is a method for control of others, and those who Love truly are the easiest victims. This is the basis of many abusive relationships between individuals, and also between groups. 

None of this makes Love any easier, although it may be more desirable to strive for it. The first person to Love, to endlessly press 'Cooperate' in the great game of life, is the surest mark in the world. It is upon this realization that most people chicken out. Does this put the lie to Love?

Clearly not, if you've been reading. When you place the ends of others above your own, having your own ends stalled isn't an unpleasant side effect, it's the exact expectation. That's the point. That's the known cost. That's the real question underneath the demand to Love. Do you genuinely place the good of others above your own, and what circumstances would cause you to stop, to break faith?

This is up to each person. Those who seek to travel this path, whether haltingly or with full faith, may take solace in one thing. Love is the surest thing in the world. Both its costs and benefits are known. More importantly, Love is a positive-sum game. The goal is not to win, it is to continue to play, and to bring in more players.

The exhortation should then be clear. Love, with full knowledge of what it means to Love, with the understanding that by doing so you exalt others above yourself. With the understanding that the means of Love is not coercion or threats, but sacrifice, and it must begin on your part. With the understanding that Love is a positive-sum game, and that you should not seek benefit from it, for while that benefit will undoubtedly come, it will not land on your shoulders. 

And lastly, do not boast of Love. I do not Love as much as I wish I would, and nobody should interpret this letter otherwise. If I might close by paraphrasing the Bible, with all the irony it brings coming from me:

When you Love, be not as the hypocrites, for they stand and declare their Love in the temples, and the stages, and the studios, and on the corners of streets, that they may be seen. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.

Friday, June 5, 2020

How Jaquaysed is Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag?

I wasn't planning to write another of these for a while. The dungeon and main floor of Castle Xyntillan are big endeavors to tackle, and I need to give those the time they deserve. Luckily, Gabor turned me on to another module, Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag by David Bezio. It takes a simple, pared-down approach to creating an 130-odd room, 7 level megadungeon. It's the platonic early D&D adventure we all thought existed from looking at the Skull Dungeon map. For $3, it more than delivers on its premise.

You can read Gabor's review here. I'm planning to run the dungeon soon for my little cousin and his parents, as an introduction to RPGs. I'll be examining the dungeon's first six levels (the seventh is less traditional) using Melan diagrams. 

Level 1-1.5

The first level of the dungeon is the gatehouse proper, and half-level above it on the roof, occupied by an organized, but largely incompetent, crew of kobolds. The first level offers some choice in early exploration, but descending further into the dungeon requires going interacting with an encounter, a shot at some good early treasure, and puts you next to an objective, one of the missing girls. There's two entrances, but these 

There's little in the way of secret areas here, just a bit of extra treasure if the party can bypass the kobold chieftain and his concubines. Still, this is a solid, short intro level for the dungeon that introduces basic concepts in dungeon crawling.

Level 2

The second level underneath the gatehouse is where the dungeon opens up. From the adjacent rooms of the gatehouse, the party now enters a traditional room-and-corridor dungeon layout, with lots of loops and crossroads. 

This level also boasts a substantial set of secret rooms, with many possible entrances, where the 'boss' as well as the greatest treasure and another of the missing girls are held. Further, it gives the players a peek at the teleporters from Level 3, and gives them a chance to access the next level by accident. Woe be unto the player who teleports to the next level, and can't teleport back!

Level 3

Here on the third level, the scope of the dungeon expands even further. Below this level, the dungeon splits; Levels 4 and 5 are accessible only by a hidden passageway on this floor, while the way to Level 6 is behind some boulders. These obstacles might be the end to a party's delve, although the quest to recover the third missing girl will likely keep them pushing onward. 

This floor also introduces warring factions, with the Tiger Beetle and Gecko goblin clans, and themed sub-areas of the dungeon with the fungi forest. The increased freedom of choice in spatial exploration is matched by the ability of the players to take sides, join factions and pursue multiple goals on the level.

With a staircase from the above floor, a guarded entrance from the surface via the troll's lair, and access via the second floor teleporter, there's a great deal of approaches one can take to explore this level. It's not only the largest, but probably the most jaquaysed of all the levels. 

Level 4-5

Levels 4-5 are thematically connected, the tomb of an ancient sorceress and the last chapel of her chaotic goddess. There's only one way down to this level 4, and only one way from there to level 5, and the place is littered with nasty traps. The way down to the chapel in particular is a tough obstacle, but becomes easy to pass through if you've thoroughly explored the areas above and dealt with a tough encounter. 

There's no real looping here, totally unlike levels 2 and 3, just short side paths with occasional secret closets or rooms. Level 5 is built around a hub chamber, but only with very shallow spokes. This is to be expected, as the whole level might collapse later on, so putting too much treasure or interaction here would be somewhat pointless.

Level 6

Level 6 returns to the heavily looped pattern of 2 and 3. This time, there aren't factions, but there are several objectives to find and recover, three stat-boosting magic gems, plus the final missing girl. After exploring this level, one might expect the party to turn back, thinking the exploration done. There's just the one access to the seventh level (which I won't map, although I'll say it's more linear and cinematic feeling) and besides curiosity or the desire to find out what happened to Lego, there's not an obvious reason to go there. 

Unlike the previous levels with their carved tunnels and rooms, the sixth level is a cave system, featuring windy passageways and great, rounded chambers and vertical trickery that makes mapping (including drawing diagrams) a mess. After crawling through stone corridors, this is a reminder that not all dungeons are artificial structures.


You can predict substantially different experiences for different levels of looping. Levels 1, 4 and 5, which have little-to-no looping, lend themselves to a style of exploration in which the party goes down a path and either finds it to be a dead end in short order, or else finds themselves on the central path to the next level. This is most emphasized in Levels 4 and 5, which have numerous side paths, but they're quite short, usually only 2 rooms deep with no further branching. These also lend themselves to a more cohesive and curated experience as one delves into them. 

Meanwhile, in the more jaquaysed levels, the approach by the party will most likely be to go down a path, and keep going down it until they decide to retrace their steps, and explore the alternative paths next time. With the looping nature of these levels, one can barely predict what the sequence of play will look like. This is, of course, a less curated experience, but when paired with high interactivity really gives the players a chance to make the level their own.

Another pattern I noticed is that the toughest fights, especially in levels 4 and 5, aren't paired with great treasure. Treasure is more often guarded by weaker encounters or traps. The big, tough enemies the party might stumble across are generally on their lonesome, and can often be avoided without penalty.