Monster lists and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

So, Delta put up an interesting analysis of the LBB monster list, Original Monster Elegance. One of the things he noticed was the creatures were grouped by type and ordered, within type, by hit dice. You had humanoid types from half hit dice (kobolds) to 12 hit dice (giants). Similarly you had undead from half hit dice (skeletons) to 9 (vampires). In both cases the top monster had a variable range (8 to 12 for giants and 7-9 for vamps). After that you get, in Delta’s words, a block of chimerical and serpent-like monstrosities, culminating with dragons, purple worms, and (on the flip) sea monsters.

Lately, I’ve been looking at the very common OSR idea of campaign unique monsters and spells. I wondered, what if you took the LBB groups and did the same thing uniquely. A group of humanoid monsters, a group of undead, and a group of…well, what do you call them, monster monsters.

There is this linguistic theory called linguistic relativity. Read the Wikipedia article for the detailed and not screwed up by me defition. I first heard of it as the Sapif-Whorf hypothesis in a Heinlein story (Gulf if memory serves). I’ve always understood it as “the words you have influence what you can think about” but Wikipedia tells me it’s more complex than that. However, I think there is a kernal of truth.

See, when I was coming up with my three basic groups I was looking for a word to describe what Delta called “a block of chimerical and serpent-like monstrosities”. Then, one hit me. I wrote down kaiju. At that moment, as silly as it might sound, just choosing the word to define the group of non-humanoid, non-undead monsters put it into focus. I immediately started thinking not only of Godzilla but Rodan and Gamera.

Maybe, in the end, the monsters won’t end up that different. After all, they’ll still be based on real animals in some way. I certainly don’t want to create some “Japanese” setting. To be honest, if I wanted to use Japanese media as a primary inspiration it’s more likely to be for a space fantasy game using Message from Space, The War in Space, Atragon, and so on. However, I do think choosing that word got me out of what I’ll call the D&D mindset, the whole Elfy/Dwarfy thing.

Your Cleric is an Initiate

Most D&D style settings have a polytheistic religion that is simply either:

  1. An overly simplified Catholicism with the various deities being similar to saints.
  2. A modern mix of individual churches similar to Protestantism in the US.

I think we’re missing a real opportunity.  While the first model is probably close enough to the state polytheistic faiths in the ancient and Classical worlds for the general faith of the people I think it misses the boat with clerics.

In the Classical world there were a series of religions variously known as mystery cults, mystery religions, or just mysteries.  Enough is known on two to even result in cult specific articles on Wikipedia: the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Mithraic Mysteries.  In fact, I wrote up a “race as class” version of Mithras a couple of years ago.

These cults were highly secretive and consisted of levels of initiation. The closest analog today is probably Masonic and similar orders as well as groups like The Golden Dawn. Based on that you might consider mystery cults to be more appropriate to magic-users.  While both groups are occult organizations the modern groups rely on intellectual understanding of the universe being increased instead of a divine revelation.  Both fit well in a campaign.

“But Herb,” I hear you say, “how does this differ for being a follower of the god Foo in traditional D&D terms.”  The biggest changes are social although some powers issues come up.  In the traditional D&D world your know that Foo’s worshiper are healers so that’s the temple you go to for healing.  With mystery cults you don’t know much if anything about the faith including what powers they bestow or where to find a high priest of Foo or even the site of Foo worship.  In fact, even a PC cleric who is a member of Foo’s mystery cult won’t necessarily know the powers of those above him especially those significantly above him.  Thus, the indulgence system of gaining clerical favors (go to the temple and make a donation) is replaced with a series of investigations, favors traded, and possibly initiation for PCs.  Remember, much of the cult knowledge is secret and cannot be taught or shared.  This has ramifications for PCs (see below).

In terms of powers the customization would be similar in some ways to AD&D2 but different in others.  Instead of assigning schools to a given cult I would recommend drawing up several circles of initiation.  Each circle could consist of a mix of myths, symbols, titles, and spells becoming available as well as qualifications.  While certainly a level component should be part of a circle change other activities, such as quests or ritual combat similar to the Druid, the Monk, or the Paladin regaining status could be included at the higher levels.

One important idea is don’t have the spells map to 2nd edition and later domains.  Mystery cults don’t map well to normal deities of the “sun god”, “rain god”, “war god” style.  They are much closer to early conceptions of cults in Runequest.

The other important idea is secrecy.  Sure, your third circle cleric of the Foo mysteries recognizes that symbol as the sign of Bar from the myths of the Snafu over the wedding feast but you can’t communicate those details to the party with risking a religious violation.

To give an example of circles, tomorrow I present my Initiate of Mithras as rules for a cleric.

Monday Pointers, 2012-06-04

D4: In Praise of the Comics Code
While I don’t 100% agree with Eric about DC (which may be due to my love being The Legion of Superheroes instead of other groups) I think he has a point. Four color heroes are a meme for a reason and in abandoning that completely the supers have become less. Watchman was supposed to be a deconstruction not an inspriation. In a related note, my recent Lulu order included a print copy of Mystery Men.

D6: Several Cities in Time
Ckutalik is exploring building an underworld built of ruined cities under the current one in his setting. Not only is this an interesting idea, but very historical. In fact, although Pillagers of Troy was originally conceived as a Pavis/Big Rubble type set-up this might work better.

D8: Mother Goose is My Dungeon Master
There is this great bit in the series Sports Night where several characters wish they could have more good ideas. A lot of my fellow bloggers make me feel the same way.

D10: For the Ultimate Rules Lawyer
While the idea of building a game’s rules from a blank page up via common law is a bit much in my experience most groups run by common law. For one, very few groups are single GM, single campaign all the time in my experience dating back to the late 70s. While by the 80s the “playing my character in Jim’s campaign” style has been replaced by “this is my character in Jim’s campaign” style it was still rotating GMs. Groups had common law that they used in all their games. You even had the legal factor of knowing a given judge’s style affect how you played.