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Goal-Setting

I had a realization about GMing, at least for me. I work better when I have a definitive plot arc for the players to run through. I like them to know what it is, too. After my previous Juarez games collapsed under their own inertia, I decided to try a clear goal for the party to work towards. This try involved the party retrieving the scattered bits of Osiris. Isis would like to get them back, Set would like her not to. Hilarity will ensue. I managed to get the party rolling without a single quest-giving NPC. Rather they figured it out after finding a deific treasure map on a minion of Set they fought and killed. The pieces were scattered through space and time because the game is Rifts and dimensional travel is almost mandatory.

I would like to pick up once things settle down, but between adjusting to teaching four Adult Studies classes, taking a class so I can teach more classes, and an anticipated move, I lack the spare brainpower to keep the party going at the moment.

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Nebuchadnezzar II, a king with issues.

ALL MESOPOTAMIA

With Halloween upon us, I thought I’d write about Nebuchadnezzar II, the great king of Babylon, the one known for building one of the most elusive wonders of the ancient world.

Now, unless you’ve read up on this famous king, or are familiar with the bible, you’re probably wondering what Nebuchadnezzar has to do with Halloween, so I’ll get right down to it…

King Nebuchadnezzar was a werewolf!

Well, he thought he was, anyway. We think. It is believed that King Nebuchadnezzar II suffered from lycanthropy, what Merriam-Webster defines as “a delusion that one has become or has assumed the characteristics of a wolf.”

Conversely, Melissa Barrett writes in her article, “Real Werewolves: Three Cases of Lycanthropy,” that “…clinical lycanthropy is often offered as a secular explanation for the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar.”

In my research to put this post together, I found all kinds of sources referring to…

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Distressing Planet

Towards the end of my third try at Running Hell’s on Fire, I found an overarching plot to apply to the game. I used the Edict of Planetary Distress from the Mechanoids sourcebook. There are seven threats and four demons whose presences are causing psychic visions the world over.

The four demons are the Apocalypse Demons, Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. Death was the god Mot, an ancient, western Semitic deity worshiped in Ugarit. After he was cast down with the rest of his pantheon, Mot made a deal with the Angra Mainu and spread desolation everywhere he went. The party managed to stop three of the four, including Death. The Gathering of Heroes still seeks War in Africa.

The Devouring Swarm was the Mechanoids, but I changed it. The Mechanoids came as presented, but they ran afoul a Necromancer and his minions. Between a pair of Murder-Wraiths and an undead Psi-Mechanic, the Mechamoids fell to their own robotic creations. The Swarm is, instead, a vast host of zombies from another earth. The Necromancer brought the zombies to earth in Dee Sea. His minions were stopped partially by the party and partially by the efforts of the Coalition States armies. The Swarm was beaten back, but not destroyed entirely.

While the threat in a small kingdom is still Merlin (I hate the spellings used in Rifts England), he is not some alien intelligence because Rifts has far too many of those. I prefer human (or formerly so) threats. Merlin Satanson is a scorceror and Nightlord in hiding. He is slowly building his forces and the Kingdom of Camelot with a Warlord named Arthur and his Nexus Knights. Merlin even sent a contingent to Africa, led by Sir Wolfram, who is an Ashmedai. His Nexus Knights are Hounds while many knights are Namtar.

The final, twenty-years-distant threat is Chronos. His orb, carried by Anna Maria, has been setting events and minions in motion to bring his return about. Should he succeed, he will cause much destruction, starting with Atlantis and Europe. He considers the Splugorth colony intruding on his territory and Europe housed some of the descendants of Atlantis.

Old Problems

The term Biblical fanfiction amuses me greatly. I understand it’s a reference to contemporary fiction with biblical elements or subject matter.  I cannot help but think about Christianity setting canon to counter what may be called fanfic. Christianity has long struggled with biblical fanfic. All those Gnostic heresies were rooted in texts deemed non-canonical by Catholic and Orthodox judgment.  Sometimes that fanfic almost makes it into the Bible. Jude made the cut, though a text Jude refers to (Jude 1:6 refers to the Apocalypse of Watchers in the Book of Enoch) did not.

Intellectual property and copyright infringement may be new concepts, but they are old phenomena.  What texts are and are not acceptable to use have been debated for as long as humanity has made texts. The only difference is while Christians (or any religious group) can wail and scream louder, George Lucas (whose understanding of canon merits other discussion) and Disney can call their lawyers.

Machinations

Here I will go over some of the active or ready to activate plotlines from Hell’s on Fire.

Asherah by the Sea is reclaiming her power with a champion in Aliza and high priestess at a small temple in Ciudad Juarez. As importantly,  the party was able to stop Death before he could siphon off the remnants of Baal’s power before sending the slumbering god to oblivion. Their rescue of the storm god is important, for without him, she is likely unable to rebuild her shattered pantheon. Not only did Aliza help save Baal, she did so by engaging his ancient foe, Mot, in melee combat. Baal will be pleased, if she  can wake him.

Lord Azheria of the Aerihmanus Atlanteans is obsessed with power and unknowingly under the sway of Chronos, who is using the clan in a big to free himself from Tarterus and retake his throne from Zeus. Azheria began exiling political dissidents  on an alternate earth overrun by zombies. These unfortunates are stranded without access to their magic and left as zombie food.  The party recently rescued one of their own from disposal by zombies, though none know exactly who sent him there.

The aforementioned Chronos has been quite busy, though via intermediaries. Azheria is under the Titan’s influence, though Chronos does not expect the rogue clan to contribute to his freedom. Rather, a particular orb was set loose upon earth with his freedom as its goal. To that end, it created a clone of Cody the half-Atlantean Cyber-Knight. The clone is working with a Necromancer named Maharet and a resurrected Rathos named Crab. Nega-Cody and crew are working towards Chronos’ freedom and keeping earth out of rival beings’ hands. They thus have fought the followers of Death, including Haggis, vampires, and the Church of El. The orb’s influence is mitigated by its bearer, Anna Maria, though it also tries to corrupt the demigoddess to its service.

To the south, the Vampire Kingdoms stir as (insert kingdom here), at Death’s bidding, began a war of expansion, starting with a rival kingdom. The dispossessed kingdom sought a new home in Ciudad Juarez during the Night of Blood. The city survived and the group gained an ally in the vampire known as Gash. Gash claims to be daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstauffen. The party is skeptical of her claims but has benefited from her abilities. Thus far, Reid’s Rangers have kept the vampires from expanding, but how long they can do so is questionable. Raoul Lazarius was wounded in battle and not been seen for some time. Likewise, Carlotta the White, Sir Raoul’s lover has disappeared.

An unnamed necromancer  has assembled a formidable assortment of undead to assist him in spreading death to the world. He is a worshipper of Mot but does not carry the mad being’s grudge against specific deities.  He used the dimensional disturbances from the Mechanoid invasion to gain access to a dimension of zombies, proving Azheria’s dimensional disposal is not as foolproof as he hoped. Among the necromancer’s undead servants are (or were), Roxy (Headhunter, destroyed), Haggis (Murder Wraith), Wez (Murder Wraith), Caranthir (Biomancer, destroyed), Hafgan (Temporal Warrior), Tinkerbelle (Psi-Operator), and Ashkii the Tormented (Psi-Stalker). The party only met Haggis, Wez, Roxy, Caranthir, and Tinkerbelle’s work. The Shemarrian the party rescued in DeeSea narrowly escaped Tinkerbelle while a number of Skelebots and Mechanoid Thin Men accompanied Roxy.

The King Under the Mountain, Frederick II, lies entombed at Kyffhäuser. While his daughter, Lady Margery of Palermo, has the ritual to restore the emperor and his army of knights and footmen to life, she does not know where his tomb lies.  Lady Margery became a master vampire known as Gash after her father’s wars with the papacy. After the Night of Blood, Anna-Maria used a ritual created by Michael Scott (an amchemist in Frederick II’s court) to restore some of Margery’s humanity. She now goes by Meg and is a Wampyre.

Maybe next I’ll untangle the PC and NPC backgrounds and relationships. I’ll try and simplify them to merely convoluted.

Cosmologies

As anyone familiar with Rifts knows, there is a multitude of pantheons from several religions from all over the globe that are part of the canon. The number of religions noted as real present a cosmological problem as they all have independent, differing creations and afterlives, which are not as problematic as the preponderance of chief deities, evil divinities, and apocalypses.  But to me, the most glaring omission for a setting supposedly directly descended from modern day earth is a lack of Abrahamic religions.

The Old Ones loom in the background for Palladium and solve some of the cosmological questions such as creation and why pantheons are not universal. The gods are not the top of the food chain. Nor is there an overriding good/evil dichotomy. The great evil, the Old Ones, slumber and have done so for uncounted eons. While some cosmological conflicts are light versus dark, others are personality issues, lines of succession (Zeus, anyone?), and other, somewhat mortal motives. I do this because I find gods are amplified, magnified, and more powerful mortals.

The biggest cosmological struggle on earth fixes Palladium’s glaring omission of the Abrahamic faiths. El, a western Semitic chief deity  looked to expand his dominion. He absorbed other portfolios and even stripped his wife, Asherah, of her power and authority. His power gradually expanded until he was the only divinity left in his pantheon. Even his seventy sons were cast down for his ambition. El’s people then were conquered by the Romans. El fathered one last son, to be a military leader and rule an empire. Instead this son rebelled and taught compassion, love, and understanding. El’s priests killed the son and gradually took Rome anyway. El even branched out and infiltrated another set of Semitic tribes, though that attempt ended up warring with the church his son began. All the while, the other gods were pushed further back and lost progressively more power.

An old servant of El, named Mot, was cast out as well. During his banishment, he encountered Angra Mainyu, a cosmologically evil primary deity. Mot, who fed off mention as the apocalyptic being Death, became a willing servant of Angra Mainyu whose purpose of the destruction of all life. The other allies of El to survive were his consort, Asherah, and Baal, the storm god he suppressed to break the power of the other gods in his pantheon. Asherah and Baal lingered, slumbering on, barely sustained by the trickle provided via their incomplete purge.

The other lasting effect from El’s ambition was a pact among the remaining gods. After the Coming of the Rifts, those deities with power to manifest met and made an accord that none should attempt becoming universal powers like El had. Should any try, the others would band together to destroy the usurper. The signees also do not directly intervene in mortal affairs beyond a personal level. Unlike with Arjuna and Achilles, the gods would not interfere with empire-making so long as the cosmological order is not threatened. This agreement does not cover more intimate meddling, thus semi-divine children abound. Zeus has gleefully taken advantage of this allowance, as have many others. Such offspring often become agents of their godly parent, though not always willingly.

Some gods, such as Loki, Set, Tiamat, and Ravana refused to agree.  Most New World gods have agreed to the peace, though they remain wary of the Old World gods after what their people endured at European hands. Though shaky, the peace is largely maintained by a tribunal of justice-inclined deities such as Tyr and Athena. Demon and devil lords like Modeus have a vested interest in mortal souls but seldom personally venture into mortal realms, though their underlings may and frequently do.

Tone and Setting

I ought to say something about GMing if I’m going to claim to be a BastardGM.

My settings tend towards the Homeric. I want the PCs to be the doers of great (and sometimes horrific) deeds. I’ve been mulling it a while, but a friend helped cement my understanding of what I aim for. I picked on him for some of his artwork. He often does space opera themed work, but invariably, there will be an ancient, inhuman, terrible thing come up. He replied that “that’s what happens when you discover Lovecraft during your Star Wars obsession.” I grew up first reading Greek and Roman myths. I have used the names from obscure myths I don’t even remember reading, a fact I only realized twenty years later.

Due to my Homeric inclination, I prefer the PCs be remarkable in skill and ability. PCs with divine heritage, legendary prowess, and other exceptional traits. Since I GM Rifts, such PCs do mesh into the setting and system as well as anything can be said to mesh in Rifts. I expect the PCs to do great deeds, whether heroic or terrible. I prefer the heroic, but some PCs just have to be horrific on occasion.

Also due to my Homeric perspective, I do not care as much for armies with giant robots to be featured. While I admit there is some room for Homeric figures in heavily mechanized combat (the Red Baron, Roy Fokker,  Miriya Parina Sterling, etc.), I prefer more intimate combat, where the opposing parties may converse. By the same token, I dislike mass combat where armies are involved. Since I use Rifts, it’s much easier to avoid armies since the combat system is slow for even smaller groups. I shudder to think of a large-scale engagement run via Palladium.

While I use SDC rules for Rifts (and have yet to come up with a scaling method I like), most of my changes are in making  Rifts a whole world rather than a ton of crazy ideas cobbled together with duct tape and bailing twine. While this occasionally requires some mechanic tweaks, it usually involves reworking the setting, such as explaining how competing cosmologies and pantheons can exist without one being right and all others being wrong.  I also address Palladium’s omission of Abrahamic faiths, which I find puzzling given its modern-day settings and heavy use (often butchery) of real-world mythologies.

And, in counter to my friend’s Lovecraftian evils, I prefer evil with a human face.Where Rifts includes so many Alien Intelligences that one cannot sneeze without tripping over one, I keep them few and far between. The only known AI in my campaign is Splynncrynth, the Splugorth lord of Atlantis, who is hardly alien at all if in motivations and demeanor. Though Splynncrynth’s body is a giant eye with too many tenticles, his outlook and mentality seem very human. I do however, use gods, but I have precedent from Homer, who had the gods directly involved in human affairs, even when not having affairs with humans.

The Gospel of Zombie

Yes, I am very late to this party. You will live. Or eat someone’s brains, preferably not mine. I recently read World War Z over the course of two days in which I accomplished practically nothing else. As you may or not be aware, the book is a fictional collection of oral accounts in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. I have also been listening to the Zombies! The Living Dead in Literature podcast through iTunesU.

The podcast is enjoyable as it combines one of my loves (scholarship) with one of my interests (zombies). How can I not enjoy it. This podcast contains multiple references to zombie survival plans, often with a comment on how the plans contain real world, practical applications. They also note how some individuals have said they wish for a zombie apocalypse for a chance to be heroes, to stand out from everyday life and do something. I cannot argue either statement, but I found World War Z, in particular among zombie works, to be more than chaos and brain-devouring.

World War Z was a gospel in the sense Dr. Paul Danove defined the gospels in the Bible. The gospels are, “a proclamation of the teachings, actions, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that demands a response.” One may argue the elements given are all contained in WWZ save the resurection, which is obscenely parodied by the zombies’ refusal to deanimate upon death, the important part here is the reaction. The writing in WWZ felt real, dictated and recorded by real people going through an apocalypse. The real feel coupled with my brain’s primal fear mechanism and forced me (and, I posit, others) to contemplate an aztual zombpocalypse (which Google just informed me is a real word Zombies are pervasive little canibals, aren’t they).

While the rational part of one’s brain can dismiss fires, floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes as natural disasters, zombies are different and may require addressing. A nagging, “yeah, but what if. You don’t want to eat your friends, do you” thought that arises from zombies necesitates a response, a zombie survival plan. At least these plans are beneficial, fires and zombies both force survival reactions and escaping a burning building is infinitely more likely than braining one’s mother because she won’t stay dead.

One may find all manner of scholastic discussion of zombies, but I have yet to see the notion of a zombie gospel addressed. The unnatural elements of undead invasion can force the human brain to address survival in a laughably unlikely scenario precisely because the situation would be horrific in ways mundane disasters cannot be. Natural disasters elicit fear, but do not typically force one to reexamine one’s cosmology. A zombie apocalypse surely would.

Who Needs a Savior

Jesus as the son of God and messiah was a theological response to a combination of problems theological and historical. Between broken covenants, disembodied supreme deities, high standards of sacrifice and a labyrinthine holiness code, the faith of the Israelites had problems addressing their circumstances as a vassal territory within the Roman Empire. While Jesus son of Joseph was not the only prophetic figure from this period, he gained the most lasting notoriety, with John the Baptist a far distant second. The combination of factors led to the need for a figure, a sect in Israelite religion used Jesus to address them all.

The Davidic monarchy was a distant memory. Since the kingdom fell to Babylon in the sixth century BCE, Israel suffered the rule of the Persians, Greeks, and the Romans. Even with a successful revolt against Hellenistic rule, the monarchy headed by descendants of David was still gone. Isreal’s history of foreign domination predates David’s kingdom and with the subsequent string of invading powers asserting dominance over Jerusalem God’s covenant of an enduring monarchy was obviously and painfully broken. By being of David’s line, Jesus restored the monarchy while also elevating it to the realm of the spiritual and thus greater than any mortal kingdom in the same way God became paramount to Jewish theology following the Babylonian conquest.

Sacrifice was important in Israelite theology. While Cain and Abel covered other issues of morality, their tale also illustrated the importance of correct ritual sacrifice. For an offering to be acceptable, even pleasing, it had to be of higher quality and importance. Cain’s sacrifice of items he had gathered was displeasing while Abel’s offering of the best he had pleased God. With a shattered covenant between God and his nation, his sacrifice had to be as great to Israel as Abel’s was to God. His failure to sustain the monarchy and expel foreign rule meant a great sacrifice. Some Christians separate Christianity from other religions with the idea that, “religion is man’s attempt to get to God, Christianity is God’s attempt to get to man.” By this metric the only acceptable sacrifice is God’s best, his only child.

A highly codified set of religious laws made faithful observance difficult for many. The wealthy and the priests adhered to the codes but did so in a legalistic manner, arguing points against each other. Jesus attempted to simplify things by preaching love. The story of Jesus’ response to the query about which commandment is most important to follow simplified a vast and complex set of laws to a pair of imperatives, love God and love your neighbor. In other questions about law, his answers were consistent with an attitude of love and forgiveness. Regarding work on the Sabbath, Jesus taught it one needed to work to survive, it was not a sin. He spared an adulteress from stoning. In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus brought a loving god to those who most needed love and wrathful correction to those not acting out of love.

The early conceptions of godhood in Canaanite religion were vastly different than the distant, bodiless king of kings of later Israelite theology. El, a contributing figure to the biblical god, had seventy sons and a sometimes vigorous body was an ancient-appearing man. Baal, the rider in the clouds, also saw his title reappropriated as a messianic figure in Daniel. One creation account had God walking among his creation, an active deity with a body. By the Babylonian conquest and exile, the Israelite god had no body and shifted from a tribal god to the lord of all creation. While God’s status was improved, he was less identifiable to his worshippers. Jesus gave god human frailties and experiences and made him more human.

The combination of history and theological evolution led to a problematic Israelite theology when confronted with the realities or worship under the Roman Empire. A quagmire of spiritual laws from a disembodied, promise-breaking, sacrifice-demanding divinity required address. While one may have addressed these problems piecemeal, the Jesus presented in the gospels corrected them all at some point. Jesus restored God’s body, elevated and restored the Davidic monarchy, replaced a complex set of laws with love, and was the only possible sacrifice to reconcile a god with his people.