The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Thursday, September 5, 1985
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
Currency and economic policy in the middle ages—Saturday, August 29th, 2015
Edict on Maximum Prices

Emperor Diocletian’s 301 AD edict setting maximum prices.

We live within an abundant and ubiquitous market. From specialist boutiques to supermarkets to sprawling shopping centers, we can easily travel to acquire our hearts desire, or, Acme-like, send a note into the ether and have it delivered to us—sometimes in twenty-four hours. We no longer even need to carry money or the one-to-one representations of it: a credit card will give us the ransom of kings. But if we do want money there is an ATM at the corner 7-Eleven that will dispense what we need. There is no need to go to the banker, the banker is always with us and always ready to say yes. There is no need to negotiate how much of our wheat we must trade for however much butter we need. We sell our time for paper and then trade that paper credit at known prices for what we need and want.

If we don’t like the price on our heart’s desire, someone else makes a different model at a different price. In the best parts of our world, all economic transactions are beneficial to both sides, because both sides are free to take it or leave it, and thus only take it when the trade is at a price they are willing to pay or accept.

This was not always the case, and even today you can travel to places where you are forced to sell or to purchase at prices not of your own choosing1, or where the value of money changes with the corrupt political wind.

Price controls

There are two basic rules of economics:

  • People will trade what they are willing to trade.
  • If there is a profit to be made, someone will find that profit.
  • Any barriers—natural or artificial—to desired trades increase the profit of those willing to surmount those barriers.

These are laws of nature, just like the laws of gravity. Laws and social pressures can get in their way, but it’s likely to hurt: in reduced quality, increased prices, or hidden costs. They apply to goods, services, and currencies. People will pay the price they are willing to pay, and accept the price the are willing to accept.

House of Gold, House of Passages—Saturday, August 22nd, 2015
Muse in the Domus Aurea

Inscribe a riddle on the base of this muse and you’re good to go. (Howard Hudson, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Imagine this: a palace with a triple portico a mile long, stretching between two hills, and the inside covered in jewels, gold, and mother-of-pearl, whose “courtyard was so large that a 120-foot stall colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there. It had…

dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens…

It sounds like a grand palace from a fantasy novel, something requiring a ton of CGI when the time arrives to film it, but it was a real place in 68 AD. It was the Roman emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden House. The Domus Aurea was the second version of his opulent palace. The first, the Domus Transitoria, House of Passages, was destroyed by fire.

There were walls sheathed in polychrome marble, vaults and ceilings covered in vibrant frescoes by the artist Fabullus, and in precious stones, ivory, and gold, and gardens full of masterpieces of sculpture from Greece and Asia Minor.

The space that the palace and its yards used was cleared by the infamous Roman fire of 64 AD; one of the reasons Nero was suspected of causing the fire is that he used the space cleared by the fire to build his extraordinary palace.

That alone is enough to make this golden palace, profiled in the September/October issue of Archaeology magazine worthy of inspiration for a fantasy adventure.

But it turns out to be even more amazing. Nero was horribly disliked. After he died in 68 AD, and the wars for succession settled down, his successors “attempted to obliterate not only the emperor’s memory, but also all traces of the Domus Aurea, and to return to public use, land he had seized for his private projects.”

The 120-foot-tall statue of himself, which was patterned after the Colossus at Rhodes, gave one of the new projects a name: the Colosseum was built atop his artificial lake; the statue itself gained a crown and the new emperor, Vespasian, rededicated it as the Roman sun good Sol.

After some looting, the palace’s vaulted spaces were filled with earth, and massive public baths were built atop the now-underground palace.

The Biblical and other engravings of Gustave Doré—Saturday, July 25th, 2015

I haven’t used Gustave Doré as much as, say, Caspar David Friedrich or John William Waterhouse, but when I use him, I really use him. Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law appears twice in Divine Lore as well as in The Road, where the tablets of the law are one of the nine tablets of Enki.

I also used Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the main rulebook.

Part of the problem is that, as woodcuts, go, his are not as evocative (to me, anyway) as William Miller’s. This may be simply because the reproductions available online aren’t as high quality as the reproductions of Miller that are available. Take a look at the best version of his work on The Raven, and there’s some really good stuff there—at fairly low resolutions. I’d love to use his Angels departing with Lenore into the sky, but the quality of the image just isn’t there.

Browsing through his works for “most gaming/fantasy-like art”, Bohemund alone mounts the rampart of Antioch is something I might use eventually, and Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise has potential, with its sword-wielding angel at the edge of the wood pointing the way to an angry Adam and tearful Eve.

But for sheer Monster Manual weirdness and teenage sexuality, I had to go with Les Oceanides Les Naides de la mer which, besides its subject matter, is in color. Imagine your player character meeting those nymphs in the middle of a long sea voyage!

Adults, age ten and up—Saturday, July 18th, 2015
Basic D&D

“…for 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up”

I started gaming with the Eric Holmes blue book (in the GM’s hands only), the AD&D Players Handbook, and the Tom Moldvay boxed Basic Set. Because the purple Moldvay box was the first complete version of D&D I owned and read, it is demonstrably superior.

I never even saw the original three OD&D books until years later, after college, when I scored one off of the then-vibrant Usenet gaming groups.

Going over the Holmes and Moldvay versions right now—I keep them in the same box—I noticed something I’d never really paid attention to in the introduction to the two rules sets.

Moldvay box:

The Original Fantasy Role Playing Game for 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up

Dungeons & Dragons® Fantasy Adventure Game (“D&D® Game” for short) is a role playing adventure game for persons 10 years and older.

Holmes blue book1:

The Original Adult Fantasy Role-Playing Game For 3 or More Players

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic, exciting and imaginative game of role playing for adults 12 years and up.

Adults 12 and over. Adults 10 and over. There really is a sense in those books that we were entering a world where we had responsibilities, that we were going to take these tools and make our own way at something very new and very much completely under our control. We could do anything, and we had the responsibility that came with such power.

Most of the games of that era, as far as I can tell, didn’t even mention an age range. OD&D, 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, Traveller, don’t seem to have anything about it in their introductions.

The Pre-Raphaelite fantasies of John William Waterhouse—Saturday, July 11th, 2015

The Pre-Raphaelite movement is a gold mine for amazing fantasy artwork. Among the best was English painter John William Waterhouse. I use his work extensively in the Adventure Guide’s Handbook, and while I didn’t use the actual painting (yet), his The Lady of Shalott was the reason I used that poem in The House of Lisport. It’s just such an amazing piece of fantasy, the magical or fairy lady with knight-encrusted blankets and three candles lighting her waybill a prone crucifix… in fact it’s so amazing I just took out Waterhouse’s also-amazing Circe Invidiosa and replaced it with the Lady.

He created great paintings of rituals, from Circe Invidious with her preparing to turn Scylla into a hideous monster, to his Danaides pouring from three vases into a water-bearded cauldron, to, the most amazing in my view, his Magic Circle which is, precisely, a fantasy ritual, with burning incense, a magic staff, a magic circle, and a moon-shaped sickle. The sorceress has even attracted some ravens or crows to assist her!

Another favorite of mine is The Tempest, with the daughter of the sorceror Prospero sitting on the shoreline in a storm, watching what looks to be yet another ship dashed against the rocks by wind and wave. She’s worried mostly about her hair. I know that’s not the way the Shakespeare play goes, but it certainly looks that way in the painting.

Unlike the rest of the painters in this series, Waterhouse painted into the 20th century—which may have helped provide him his best subjects. In addition to painting from Dante and Shakespeare, he also had at his disposal the inspiring poetry of Alfred Tennyson, who died in 1892.

Do not miss Petty Gods!—Saturday, July 4th, 2015

Although Petty Gods was written for Labyrinth Lord and BX, if you are playing a game called Gods & Monsters you presumably want a lot of gods in your game. This book is therefore a great companion, not surprisingly, for Gods & Monsters, which is mostly compatible with BX anyway.

If you are looking to fill your Gods & Monsters game with approachable deities, you’ll find more than your fill in the 206 pages of lesser gods here. They are what the Adventure Guide’s Handbook calls demigods, spirit gods, and heroes. You can easily populate your game with a new god for every adventure if you wish, without fear of overcomplicating your world any more than providing a unique monster for every adventure.

Speaking of unique monsters, there are 66 pages of “minions, knights, & servitors” that puts many dedicated monster books to shame. Add in several pages of cults, divine items, and spells and this book plus your regular GM workload should turn your brain to tapioca in less than a month.

That is, if you were to read the whole thing all at once, which, as dedicated gamers know, is something you never do to a tome as thick and dangerous as this.

The spells are mostly very appropriate for Gods & Monsters spirit manifestations—that is, they are very divine and not so much magical.

Alignments in Petty Gods are designed for Basic/Expert’s Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic single axis, so you’ll need to set your own alignments for the dual axis in Gods & Monsters.

The book’s old-school bonafides are provided by both old and modern old-school stars: a prologue by Jennell Jaquays1 and a foreword by James M. Ward2; and an appendix by Tekumel’s M.A.R. Barker. Michael Curtis provides one of the appendixes, and Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. provided the bulk of the editing.

It’s a very clean production. The typos, while numerous, are more of the missing article variety, or doubled thought and occasional real-word misspelling.3 I don’t recall seeing any that change the meaning.

Ethereal engravings of William Miller—Saturday, June 27th, 2015

William Miller was a Scottish engraver. His artwork was created to accompany other people’s writings, and, as often as not, from the drawings of other people as well. This amazing image of Lochnaw Castle is from the Memoirs of Sir Andrew Agnew, by Thomas M’Crie. The engraving was from a drawing by R. K. Greville.

Lochnaw Castle

The Temple of Minerva and the Ancient Sarcophagi are from Select Views In Greece With Classical Illustrations, by Hugh William Williams, who also did the drawings that the engravings were based on.

Ancient sarcophagi Temple of Minerva

His engraving of W. Linton’s drawing of Delos could just as well be Tolkien’s Last Home of the Elves. His Faeries on the Seashore (after W. Danby) is otherworldly—helped along, no doubt, by the fact that it’s an engraving, but the engraver’s skill and artistic talent show.

Engravings, while they reproduced other pieces of art, were difficult, time-consuming pieces of art themselves. Good plates could take years to engrave.

I have not yet used any of these images in adventures or lore books, but I can’t imaging that, at least, the Temple of Minerva or the Ancient Sarcophagi won’t inspire some use. The ancient sarcophagi look like something you might see in the cold waste on the Road to the First City of Man…

The strange and marvelous history of the crypt of Balbus—Sunday, June 21st, 2015
The Crypt of Balbus

I could believe this was a crypt, if it was called “the crypt of…”. (Sailko, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In the May/June issue of Archaeology, Marco Merola describes the uses put to unused shrines after the fall of Rome. Sometimes they were even looted while in use.

They have also uncovered a shrine dating to the second or third century A.D. dedicated to the goddesses Artemis, Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, and Isis, and the gods Meleager and Dionysus. Several centuries later, the shrine was still in use, despite some of its column capitals having been removed and used as tables in nearby homes. Evidence shows that in the years between the seventh and ninth centuries, a shrine to the god Mithras became a stable…

The place is called the Crypta Balbi not because it was a crypt, but “because the colonnaded portico and theater that enclosed the large courtyard made it dark inside even in broad daylight.”

Of course, several centuries later, the locals may not remember why it was called Crypt of Balbus, merely that that is its name, and there must be a reason. Why, the place is cold even in the summer!

If a shrine can become a stable (and isn’t that just begging for the kind of divine retribution that leads to adventures) after a few centuries, what kinds of uses can shrines and temples be put to millennia later? Your border castle wasn’t built on an old burial ground, it is the old burial ground! And the old burial building used to be a temple of Aphrodite.

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