Review: Champions Character Creation Cards

I’m a huge fan of the Hero System (a tabletop roleplaying game for those wandering souls who’ve found this blog without knowing much about tabletop RPGs).

Hero is not the easiest RPG to get into – the 5th edition billed itself as ‘the ultimate gamer’s toolkit’ rather than ‘the ultimate RPG’, and that’s a fair description. Hero is not the kind of RPG you can use fresh out of the box, but it gives you the tools to build your game, whatever it may be. Those coming to it from a more traditional RPG must cope with a new paradigm as they learn its approach (you can read something of my own journey to grok Hero System in my old reviews of the Fifth Edition (Revised) core book and the Fantasy Hero Grimoire).

I’ve never really used Hero for superhero games. This is partly because that genre doesn’t appeal to me as much as fantasy or science fiction, and partly because that genre uses pretty much the entire possibilities of Hero System.

Other genres demand the GM lay down some mechanical ground rules. Fantasy Hero, for example, might require the GM to consider how magic works in his or her world, and build a set of limitations reflecting that; lists of weapons may be pre-built (or drawn from supplements such as Hero System Equipment).

Since superhero origins, powers and sources of powers vary so wildly, there are no such mechanical limitations in a superhero game.

Hero is pretty smooth and simple in play, but the sheer number of options available in building a game are daunting. Character generation can be intimidating for newcomers, even with an experienced GM to help them. Many’s the time I’ve sat with players helping them turn a character concept into a character. Character templates help a little, but Hero System’s templates are designed to be jumping-off points for inspiration, still leaving much for a player to design (unlike GURPS templates, which often spend 80% of a character’s starting points, Hero templates may spend 5% to 10%). Even working quickly, the process can take me an hour or more per player if their concept is a simple one.

I have a small number of players interested in a superhero game. Some are players experienced in other systems, one is familiar with the Champions setting through the Champions Online MMO, others love superhero comics and movies, but have limited experience of gaming. Among these latter players is my 11-year-old son.

I’ve toyed with using simpler systems, such as Masks (based on the Apocalypse World Engine) or ICONS, designed with kids in mind. But in the back of my mind, I know Hero System (known as Champions in its superheroic form) is the way I really want to go, if only there were a way to get past the whole chore of explaining how the system works and custom-building each player’s character.

Enter the High Rock Press’s Champions Character Creation Deck and its expansion pack – a set of cards designed to make it easy for absolute beginners to build a superhero in seconds. The project was successfully Kickstarted in March 2018, with desks sent to backers in November. I didn’t back it – my copies are bought retail from Hero Games’ online shop.

High Rock, by the way, is Hero Games’ manager Jason Walter’s private imprint, and the cards are designed by him – while not an official Hero System product, the Character Creation Deck has design provenance.

The deck – compatible with both the Hero System 6th Edition and its dedicated superhero variant, Champions Complete, features three types of cards: characteristics, complications and powers. It’s intended to build 400-point superheroes, the Champions default, each with 75 points of complications.

Each card comes with a short, non-mechanical description on one side, and game mechanics on the other.

A player picks one characteristics card (there are 6, each worth 150 points), one complications card (there are 10 to choose from) and a selection of Powers cards totalling to 250 points – there are a total of 36, 10 of them worth 100 points, and 13 each of 50 points and 25 points.

The expansion deck adds a further 54 Power cards – 17 worth 100 points, 18 worth 50 points and 19 worth 25 points.

Each card is marked with an icon to help players make choices that will work with a core superhero theme: Brick, Blaster, Martial Artist, Speedster, Mystic, etc. Several are suitable for more than one theme, and some are marked as suitable for any hero.

Players aren’t required to pick only cards marked for their theme, of course, but keeping largely to the chosen theme helps ensure powers complement each other.

The idea is, frankly, brilliant. You don’t have to understand anything about how the Hero System works to choose a theme and build a character.

But do they work? Can you use them to build characters quickly and run a superhero game within minutes?

Solo Test

I decided I’d build a Speedster hero. I picked the Fast characteristic card, which gave me a selection of characteristics, notably high Speed (7) and Dexterity (20), and a high Endurance (60) and Recovery (15) – useful as Speedsters tend to burn through a lot of Endurance because they act so often. There are a few extra points of Physical and Energy Defence and some extra Offensive and Defensive Combat Values as well.

None of the Complications cards really grabbed my attention for a Speedster, so I picked one that seemed OK, without any particular ties to NPCs: Mutant. This gave -75 points of mutant-related complications – a Negative Reputation, a Social Complication, Distinctive Features (Mutant), a mild unspecified Physical Complication. All in all, I felt that this was rather over-egging the Mutant pudding, but so long as the complications come into play, it’s effective enough. These are, after all, off-the-peg characters, not custom builds.

(Complications cards, by the way, are marked as worth -25 points on the front face, and at first, I thought you were intended to pick three and select 25 points of the complications listed on the back. However, the instructions that come with the deck are clear: pick one, and apply all its tightly focused complications.)

Powers immediately exposed a flaw: there is only one Power in the care deck specifically for Speedsters (Running, a 25 point Power card). I cracked open the Expansion Deck to see if I could find at least one 100-point card – to my relief, there was one: Speedster Tricks, which brings Battering Ram (a power designed to improve HTH damage on Move Throughs and Move Bys), I Think I’m Gonna Be Sick (a Drain affecting an opponent’s DEX and CON), and Rain of Punches (an Area of Effect HTH damage boost representing a… well, a Rain of Punches).

I finished off with some 25-point Speedster powers from the Expansion Deck (Jack Rabbit adds some running and leaping, Super Running II allows running on any surface built as limited flight), and go for some general 25 point superhero skills (Danger Sense and Acute Senses).

I still needed to spend another 50 points, so rummaged through the deck until I found something that grabbed me: Themed Weapon (Flexible), which was built as a multipower allowing swinging from a line, a ground strike area-of-effect attack, an Entangle and a damage boost. It also has 3m of Stretching, meaning I may be able to hit someone who can’t reach me. I decided this weapon is a bullwhip, and that gave me a character name: Whipcrack.

I put Whipcrack into Hero Designer (both print and PDF versions of the cards come with Hero Designer prefabs) to discover Whipcrack was 6 points short of the 400 target points. Since he had no skills, I used the spare points to give him Acrobatics and Breakfall.

All the colour of the character – appearance, background, secret identity, typical quotes – is left to me to flesh out.

All in all, I think the experience wasn’t perfect, but it was good. In less than 5 minutes I have a usable Champions character.

However, I note that Whipcrack is likely to rely heavily on his Area of Effect attacks and his Battering Ram power (which comes with +6 combat skill levels) – I have only the levels from the Characteristics card (6 each). This is not something a Hero System beginner is likely to realise.

I’m also having a little difficulty reconciling a fast whip-wielder with a battering ram ability, so I’ll probably rename that power when I think of a suitable name. Since Whipcrack doesn’t have a lot of Physical Defence, I’m likely to use it more as a Move By than a Move Through, so maybe Lash will work.

Since the character complications don’t have any particular moral guidance, this character will work as either a hero or villain (and I’m happy to use him as the latter when GMing).

Download the character sheet for Whipcrack (PDF).

Actual Play

I enlisted the aid of some gaming friends in Bahrain to help me test them in a live-tabletop environment. Their gaming experience varies from beginner to experienced, and they have very detailed knowledge of superhero comic books, but none have played Hero System before; most have only played fantasy games.

Could we design characters and run a short game in one four-hour session?

Indeed we could. However, with new players a weakness of the cards is demonstrated. People picked cool cards for their powers and abilities, and were able to flesh out backstories and explain their heroes.

But most didn’t realise they needed to boost their offensive and defensive values to make those powers effective in combat. In other words, there was little intent behind the designs than “that looks cool”. 

This is not necessarily a weakness. I went over the character designs later – I’d used Hero Designer to record the varios card choices – to refine the characters for a second session. In the end we used the characters for a short, four-session campaign.

For a one-off, I think it’s important the GM provides some advice on the character creation process, even with the cards, suggesting a player may want better combat values (or doesn’t need them so high).

 All in all, this is considerably easier than explaining to players how Hero System works and working with themm to build custom characters from scratch, even using templates.

It would be nice to see cards like this for  non-superhero games – a Fantasy Hero set, for example – but given the differences between settings, and the overwhelming dominance of superhero games among the Hero fanbase, I think this is unlikely.

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Homosexuality in the Middle Ages

Same-sex couples encouraged by devils, from a Bible moralisée (moral Bible) of the 1220s. (Codex Vindobonensis 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

In Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition we referred briefly to medieval attitudes towards homosexuality and to an active gay scene in the 11th and 12th centuries. This article explores homosexuality in the Middle Ages in more detail. This is a long post, for which I make no apology, and at times contains some frank discussion of sex acts (and of the punishments for them). Consider this a content warning.

Sources: how we know

The great French historian Marc Bloch compared the process of finding historical evidence to a hunter looking for tracks. [1] While the tracks left by gay men and women are not necessarily well known to the casual historical reader, they are fairly clear, and since the 1970s there has been a good deal of academic research that has brought them into much sharper focus. This post has extensive footnotes for those who want to follow the tracks themselves.

Primary sources are mostly theological or secular. Theological sources, including moral treatises, theological debates, condemnatory sermons and tracts, advisory letters and penitentials, address sex and sexuality from the perspective of sin and virtue, and frequently discuss same-sex activities (which are always sinful). Secular sources are predominantly legal, either the promulgation of laws or the records of court cases.

In addition, some literary sources, primarily poems from Christian, Muslim and Jewish writers , survive. Some are vague, requiring interpretation that may be disputed. But there is a surviving body of poems celebrating same-sex romance and lust which are very clear, and at times positively graphic.

Visual representations are rarer but there are examples in both sculpture and in illustrations from illuminated manuscripts. Since these are usually presented in religious context, they are usually condemnatory.

Medieval views of sexuality

Medieval people – or at least the clerics – regarded sex as something one person did to another, rather than something two people did together. They considered one person was active, the other passive. The active role was masculine, the passive role feminine.

Role reversal was sinful in the eyes of theologians. Perhaps the clearest example of this the discussion of hermaphrodites by French theologian Peter Cantor (died 1197) in his De vitio sodomitico (On the sin of Sodomy):

[T]he church allows a hermaphrodite—that is, someone with the organs of both sexes, capable of either active or passive functions—to use the organ by which (s)he is most aroused or the one to which (s)he is more susceptible.
If (s)he is more active [literally, “lustful”], (s)he may wed as a man, but if (s)he is more passive, (s)he may marry as a woman. If, however, (s)he should fail with one organ, the use of the other can never be permitted, but (s)he must be perpetually celibate to avoid any similarity to the role inversion of sodomy, which is detested by God. [2]

Cantor, writing in Latin, uses neutral pronouns

To a strict theologian, semen was unclean, and the only permissible outlet for it was nocturnal emissions (over which the conscious mind had no control) and procreative sex – and even procreative sex was less praiseworthy than abstinence and chastity.

Despite the emphasis on procreation, the process of human reproduction was utterly misunderstood. Some medieval writers, following the theories of Aristotle, the Old Testament and St Augustine, believed the essential essence of procreation came from men; women were but vessels who held male seed. Another school of thought, following the schools of thought of the classical physicians Hippocrates and Galen, believed both male and female sperm contributed to procreation. Female sperm was released through physical pleasure. [3]

Unnatural acts and the sin of Sodom

The medieval period had no notion equivalent to the modern ideas of homosexuality, of gay men, lesbians or bisexuals. What counted to medieval people was sexual activity, not inclination.

Medieval writers often couched their references to sexual nonconformity in euphemism, and one problem for modern historians is that the meaning of these euphemisms changed over time.

Unnatural acts and the sin of Sodom at times referred to same-sex activities, particularly among men, but at other times referred more broadly to sexual activities that could not end in pregnancy, including solo activities and activities between men and women. Later it came to refer to refer primarily to same sex penetrative acts, but never exclusively so.

At times, role-reversal (a woman taking the active role, such as by being on top), was considered sodomy. William Paraldus (1190-1271) in Summa de Vitiis (Summary on the Vices), classified both heterosexual vaginal intercourse in an unusual position and heterosexual sex involving ejaculation other than in the vagina to be unnatural sex. [4]

Same-sex penetration, therefore, is usually a subset of the sin of Sodom rather than the sin itself.

Homosexual acts were never condoned or approved of by the Church, but at times – notably in the 11th and 12th centuries – they seem to have been regarded as minor sins.

The Early Middle Ages (c. 500–1000 CE)

The early Middle Ages saw a shift away from the social tolerance of the Western Roman Empire – or at least, its cities; the rural population seems to have been much more conservative. Boswell argues that the growing intolerance of same-sex activities seems largely to have been driven by secular authorities rather than religious authorities.

Secular views

While the church may have considered them a sin, same-sex acts weren’t criminal in the Roman Empire until the 5th century, though male prostitution was made illegal in the Western Empire in the 3rd century CE, other forms of male same-sex activity remained legal. Male prostitution remained legal and was taxed in the Eastern Empire until the 6th century.

The Codex Theodosianus of 439, which was enacted in both Eastern and Western Empires, called for those “condemning a man’s body, acting the part of a woman” to be cleansed in “avenging flames” in the sight of the people. [5] It isn’t clear to what extent this was enforced.

However, in the 6th century Justinian enacted laws against homosexuality, calling for strict enforcement of the Theodosian law. Though Justinian (and his successors) cited theological reasons for criminalising homosexuality, blaming homosexual acts for recent earthquakes and famines, there’s no evidence the church instigated, promoted or supported such laws. Nor did the populace.

But they were enforced. At least two bishops were prosecuted under these laws – Isaiah of Rhodes and Alexander, bishop of Diospolis. Johannes Malalus notes in Chronographia that many were convicted under Justinian’s laws, and were castrated. Many died, and those who experienced homosexual desire lived in terror. [6]

In Spain, the Visigoth king Kundasvinth passed a law in 650 ordering those found guilty of male same-sex acts be castrated and handed over to the Church. The Church did not cooperate for 40 years. [7]

No secular laws condemning female homosexual acts were passed during this period. [8]

Religious views

The early (pre-Medieval) Church was somewhat conflicted over what the “sin of Sodom” represented. Early interpretations focused on the Sodomites’ inhospitality towards the angels visiting Lot. But slowly the idea took hold that the sin of Sodom was sexual and, in Aristotelian terms “unnatural”. This did not, necessarily, only mean sex between males. St Augustine, in the Confessions (397-400AD) noted that “Sins against nature, therefore, like the sin of Sodom, are abominable and deserve punishment wherever and whenever they are committed.” [9] However his contemporary John Chrystostom, who considered homosexuality worse than other forms of fornication, made no reference to Sodom in his condemnation of sex between males. [10]

Early Christianity considered homosexuality sinful, as other forms of non-procreational sex, but wasn’t particularly singled out. Leviticus, of course, orders man shall not lie with man as with woman, but early Christian converts didn’t follow Jewish ritual law.[11]

The Penitential of Theodore of Tarsus (Archbishop of Canterbury 668-690) classes all same-sex acts as fornication, along with bestiality, incest and adultery.

2. He judged that he who often commits fornication with a man or with a beast should do penance for ten years.
3. Another judgment is that he who is joined to beasts shall do penance for fifteen years.
4. He who after his twentieth year defiles himself with a male shall do penance for fifteen years.
5. A male who commits fornication with a male shall do penance for ten years.
6. Sodomites shall do penance for seven years, and the effeminate man as an adulteress. [12]

It is not clear from the penitential exactly what Theodore difference saw between ‘fornication between men’ and ‘sodomy’, but it is interesting that sodomy is treated less seriously. Age, as the quoted passage shows, played a factor in the gravity of the sin and later Theodore recommends that boys indulging in same-sex activities need not do penance but should be whipped. Interfemoral sex (rubbing the penis between the thighs) is also treated relatively lightly, with one year’s penance.

For a woman, same-sex activity was considered on a par with masturbation.

12. If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years.
13. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.
14. The penance of a widow and of a girl is the same. She who has a husband deserves a greater penalty if she commits fornication. [13]

Theodore considered the worst form of fornication to be ejaculating into another person’s mouth, and he did not care which sex performed oral sex.

15. He who ejaculates into the mouth of another shall do penance for seven years; this is the worst of evils. Elsewhere it was his judgment that both [participants in the offence] shall do penance to the end of life; or twelve years, or as above seven. [14]

The influential Carolingian theologian Hincmar (806-882), friend and advisor of Charles the Bald and Archbishop of Reims from 845, relaxed church attitudes further. While he still considered same-sex acts to be sinful, he explicitly considered sodomy to be akin to all forms of non-procreational sex.

“Therefore let no one claim he has not committed sodomy if he has acted contrary to nature with either man or woman or has deliberately and consciously defiled himself by rubbing, touching, or other improper actions.” [15]

While he was clearly not condoning same-sex acts, his position may have had the inadvertent effect of normalising them to some extent. Hincmar is clear that homosexual acts are merely one of the sins of the Sodomites, and that St Paul’s epistle to the Romans condemns all illicit sexual activity, not just homosexual acts.

Hincmar was also one of the few medieval writers, outside penitentials and court cases, to address lesbian acts.

“They do not put flesh to flesh in the sense of the genital organ of one within the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of the member in question into an unnatural one, in that they are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire. Thus they sin nonetheless by committing fornication against their own bodies.” [16]

Those ‘instruments of diabolical operation’ would come to be significant when intolerance arose in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Burchard, bishop of Wurms (c.950-1025), regarded all forms on non-procreational sex as fornication. Unlike Hincmar, he regarded male same-sex acts as less serious than heterosexual fornication – in some cases no more serious than having sex with one’s wife within two weeks of confession. Burchard’s view was significant: he published a twenty-book collection of canon law, the Decretum, which formed the basis of much canon law throughout Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. [17]

Burchard considered the gravest form of same-sex activity to be anal sex with a married man but recommended a lesser penance for habitual offenders than for a single instance of heterosexual adultery. Burchard’s recommended penances all seem to apply to married men engaging in same-sex activities; same-sex fornication between single men goes unmentioned. [18]

The writings of these two influential churchmen indicate a considerable relaxation of attitudes towards homosexuality in the 9th and 10th centuries which set the stage for a flourishing, if underground, gay scene for the next 150 years.

Ganymede Unbound: the 11th and 12th centuries

In 1051 Peter Damian published the Book of Gomorrah, dedicated to Pope Leo IX, in which he unleashed a vehement condemnation of sodomy – by which he clearly meant same-sex acts – and particularly same-sex acts among the clergy.

“Therefore, whether one pollutes only himself, or another by fondling him with his hands, or copulating between the thighs, or even violating him in the rear, regardless of such distinctions he is without a doubt guilty of having committed a sodomitic offense. For we do not read that those residents of Sodom only fell into the rear ends of others, but rather it is to be believed that, following the impulse of unrestrained lust, they carried out their indecencies in various ways on themselves or on others.” [19]

Though Damian was made a cardinal in 1057 (and was canonised after his death), his condemnations appear to have gained little traction with the Papacy. Pope Leo IX acknowledged Damian’s work in the letter Nos humanius agentes (We more humanely) assuring Damian that he was considered an enemy of carnal pollution, but politely declining to follow Damian’s demand that any cleric guilty of homosexual acts be removed from office. [20]

Damian’s vehemence towards same-sex activity among the clergy appears to have been driven by a concern that an underground movement of priests were aspiring to high church office to form what might today be called a “gay mafia”. [21]

He may have had some grounds for this belief. Same-sex acts were particularly associated with clerics throughout the Middle Ages. And in 1098 – three years after he preached the First Crusade – Pope Urban II was asked to consider the promotion of one John as bishop of Orleans. John was known to be the lover of Archbishop Ralph of Tour. Despite an open campaign against the appointment by Ivo of Chartres, including approaching the pope himself, Urban approved John as bishop. The Clunaic reformer Urban, Boswell suggests, was not a man to ignore something about which he felt any outrage. [22]

The case is put even more clearly in the anonymous 12th century poem Helen and Ganymede, a debate between the two over whether sex with women or sex with men is preferable. In one of his verses extolling the virtues of sex between males, Ganymede proclaims,

We know this activity is accounted worthy by those worthy to be counted;
The people with power and position in the world—
The very censors who decide what is sin and what is allowed—
These men are not immune to the soft thighs of a boy. [23]

The 11th and 12th centuries were a time of growing urbanisation in medieval Europe. Trade increased, and with trade, wealth, allowing the development of urban elites. In this atmosphere of increasing urbanisation and church indifference, a male homosexual subculture developed with enough impact to leave its own words in the historical record.

Some historians have pointed to William Rufus (reigned 1087-1100) and Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) as examples of gay kings of England. Rufus never married; his court was criticised for effeminacy by the chronicler Orderic Vitalis. Lionheart famously shared a bed with Philip Augustus of France while they were princes, and the two professed their love for each other. But effeminacy is not homosexuality, and Orderic’s condemnation reads more like a rant about the fashion of the day, bed sharing was common, and expressions of affection and love between men, particularly those representing noble houses, were frequent and platonic. Any evidence of Rufus’ or Lionheart’s homosexuality is circumstantial, and open to interpretation.

But there is clear evidence of a growing gay subculture in other records. The period saw a flowering of poetry extolling the virtues of youths as objects of desire. These poems were written in both Hebrew and Arabic in Andalusian Spain, and in Latin and vernacular languages in the Christian West.

Whether the youths in question were those we would now consider underage or the term represented young men is disputed. Roth believes the Andalusian poems reflect exactly what they purport: paedophilia. [24] Boswell disagrees, noting that Alcuin of York and St Aelred refer to contemporaries as boys, and the influential Marbod, Bishop of Rennes – clearly an adult – refers to himself as a boy in his poetry. [25]

Nevertheless, the picture of adult men pursuing youths, possibly in their late teens or early 20s, seems to be a common one. In the slang of the time, in keeping with a resurgence of classical literature among the educated classes, these youths are Ganymedes, named for Zeus’ beautiful cup-bearer, or sometimes Frix, possibly after Phrixos, who flew across the Hellespont on the Golden Ram, and occasionally Adonis, the beautiful youth loved by Persephone and Aphrodite. The adult men are Joves. Cruising is referred to as hunting; hunting terminology is widely used. Ludus, the Game, is also used – it may refer to the gay scene in general. The meanings of Wood and Mule are obscure. [26]

Romanesque column capital from the 1120s showing the abduction of Ganyemede by Zeus in the form of an eagle, from the nave of the Basilica of Vezelay France.

Much of the poetry is romantic:

This vision of a face, radiant and full of beauty,
Kindled with the torch of love the heart of whoever beheld him.
But this boy, so lovely and appealing,
A torment to all who looked upon him,
Was made by nature so cruel and unyielding
That he would die rather than yield to love.

Marbod, Bishop of Rennes, The Unyielding Youth

Other poems are much more direct.

Venus kindles all fires, but the greatest heat
Is in sex with males; whoever has tried it knows it.

Anonymous 12th or 13th century manuscript

The anonymous poem quoted even has a verse directed at what we’d now call closeted homophobes.

Many you will find for whom the boyish sin is execrable in words
But who do not dislike the deed.
The more they detest it with their words
—to hide what they love and freely do—
The more they indulge it in their acts.

Anonymous 12th or 13th century manuscript

Male prostitution – aimed at men – flourished in several cities. One 12th century poem, condemning homosexuality, names several French cities which had male brothels.

Let Chartres and Sens perish, where Adonis sells himself
According to the law of the brothel, where males are prostituted.
A noble city, a unique city infected with these evils,
Paris rejoices to wed a young master.
You are more depraved than all of these, Orléans;
You perish holding the title for this crime.

All of the poems quoted are taken from Boswell (see footnotes)

The poems extolling the praises of youths and the joys of sex between males are rich in classical allusions – by literate, educated men, often churchmen, often wealthy – and give the impression of a cultured gay elite. Did poorer, less educated men, not given to expressing their thoughts in rhyme, also frequent such male brothels? It seems very unlikely they could survive in business without regular custom, and court records of a century or two later include defendants form the lower orders.

While some of the poets do seem to have been exclusively gay (in modern terms) others may have been bisexual. There is little doubt that the revulsion for woman Ganymede professes in Helen and Ganymede marks him as exclusively gay, though he is a literary invention:

“It is not a monstrous thing, if we avoid the monster:
The yawning cave and the sticky bush,
The hole whose stink is worse than anything else in the world,
The cavern which neither pole nor oar should approach.” [27]

Lesbian activities

Embracing women joined together by a devil, from a 14th century Bible moralisee. (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Francais 9561)

Boswell notes he is aware of only one poem by a woman directed at another woman, and unfortunately does not quote it. [28] Karras mentions other poems between women of a more romantic, rather than explicit, nature. [29] For clearer evidence we are therefore forced to examine lesbian acts through the eyes of male authors, generally those of disapproving religious or secular authorities. This is clearly not ideal.

We mentioned Hincmar’s 9th century reference to lesbian acts, and the use of ‘instruments of diabolical operation’ earlier. The use of dildos appears to have aroused ire among the moralists. While other acts between women were treated relatively lightly in penitentials, and mocked in poetry, a woman using a dildo on her lover was assuming the role of a man, and this was classed as sodomy.

Karras notes that between 10% and 15% of women in Northern Europe never married (the figure was lower elsewhere). While some were nuns, and others may have been spinsters through circumstances rather than choice, a large number simple chose not to marry, though it is impossible to say whether they simply preferred to remain outside a husband’s control or whether they preferred women. Even women who lived together may have been friends or housemates, rather than lovers. [30]

Only 12 court cases of sex between women have so far been discovered. [31] Karras suggests this may have been because men did not regard non-penetrative sex as really sex, and quotes a mocking poem by Etienne de Fougeres, chaplain to King Henry II of England and later Bishop of Rennes, who died in 1178:

These ladies have made up a game:
with two bits of nonsense they make nothing;
they bang coffin against coffin,
without a poker stir up their fire.
They don’t play at “poke in the paunch,”
but join shield to shield without a lance.
They have no concern for a beam in their scales,
nor a handle in their mold.
Out of water they fish for turbot
and they have no need for a rod.
They don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar
nor a fulcrum for their see-saw.

Some women did enjoy a pestle in their mortar. One anonymous medieval writer said the wives of Italian merchants used dildos on each other while their husbands were away to avoid pregnancy. But when dildos were involved, authorities regarded the matter much more seriously. A woman named Katherina Hetzeldorfer was put to death in the Rhineland town of Speyer in 1477. Women testified that she wished to “have her manly way” with them, “exactly like a man with a woman”. Hetzeldorfer herself admitted that she used a piece of wood she held between her legs, and had made a leather instrument, stuffed with cotton and stiffened by a piece of wood. [32]

In some of the cases, the women condemned for using dildos also dressed as men. This was also taboo role-reversal, though women’s cross-dressing need not be sexual – Karras notes women might dress as men to avoid sexual violence while travelling, or to gain access to male institutions, such as the woman who disguised herself as a man to study at a university in Krakow in the 15th century, or the many female saints who entered monasteries disguised as men. [33]

The one instance in which female same-sex activity was condoned was in medical procedures. Under the Galenist school of thought, both man and women produced sperm, but women’s sperm was dangerous, and a build-up of it could cause anxiety, fainting fits and in extreme cases death. Since women’s sperm was released only through physical pleasure, the 14th century Oxford physician John of Gaddesden recommended women unable to have sex, and for whom foreign travel or vigorous exercise had failed to relieve the symptoms, be stimulated by a midwife. [34]

If she has a fainting fit, the midwife should insert a finger covered with oil of lily, laurel or spikenard into her womb and move it vigorously about.

However, medical procedures, no matter how salacious they seem, remain medical procedures.

Brother-making: same-sex union?

The Eastern Orthodox church had a rite called adelphopoiesis, or brother-making, from the Greek adelphos, brother, and poieth, I make, which was practised from at least the 9th century and into the early 20th century. A similar rite was practised in the Roman Catholic church up to the 14th century.

The rite united two people of the same sex, usually but not always men, marking them as spiritual brothers. Several saints were known to have undergone this rite, forming ‘sacred pairs’ including Saints Sergios and Bacchus, and Saints Cosmos and Damian.

Boswell, in his 1994 book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, argued that brother-making would be better translated as ‘same-sex union’, that the rite was equivalent to marriage, and held a romantic nature, and “probably, sometimes” became sexual, though he noted this was difficult to prove.

This interpretation is controversial, and while it has had some support, Brundage, another expert in the field of medieval sexuality, noted “the mainstream reaction was that he raised interesting questions but failed to prove his case.” [35]

While adolphopoiesis may not have been church-sanctioned same-sex union, there was a non-religious contract, affrerement (also brother-making) in late medieval Mediterranean France which joined the two parties for life, allowing them to hold land and raise families together.

Non-nuclear households constituted more than half the population of late medieval and early modern Mediterranean Europe. Affrerement bound the parties to live together, sharing “one bread, one wine and one purse” in a formally notarised contract. While married couples often entered such agreements to form extended families, the parties were sometimes unrelated, single and under 25. Such a contract would give “plausible deniability” for sexual union. Similar contracts were known in Spain, and in Italy, where it may have originated and where it was known as affratellamento. [36]

Affrerement contracts, which did not occur in Northern France or England, could be limited by time (a 16th century document notes the contract would last six years). Contracts was documented as early as 11th century Spain and 12th century Mediterranean France, becoming more common in the later medieval period, from the mid-14th century, possibly as a result of the upheavals of the Black Death, and into the 16th and 17th centuries. [37]

Church authorities and the majority of historians do not consider that the rite of adelphopoiesis was gay marriage, but used to cement alliances or, as one historian puts it, were like “ritualised agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other ‘men of honour’ in our own time.” [38]

It seems unlikely that the church would have sanctioned same-sex sexual unions. Sodomy remained a sin throughout the period, and even if the church at times turned a blind eye to it, this is far from blessing such unions in church. Affrerement, however, which was relatively common in Mediterranean Europe, may have served as a cover for sexual unions, or even polyamory, since it sometimes covered large households, including married couples.

The rise of intolerance

In the late 12th century, Peter Cantor, chanter at Notre Dame in Paris, compared sodomy with murder – two sins, he wrote in De vitio sodomitica (The Sin of Sodomy), that made Earth cry out to Heaven. In the same tract, he also interpreted Romans 1:25–26 as referring to homosexuality. He made it clear that he considered “sodomy” to refer to gay sex.

Around the same time the Third Lateran Council (1179) passed strictures against sodomy. Canon 11 finally acceded to Peter Damian’s demand of a century earlier that clerics who committed “unnatural vice” be expelled from church orders or confined in monasteries to do penance, and that laypersons should be excommunicated. [39]

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 did not specifically mention sodomy, but passed a stricture against clerical indulgence in “every vice involving lust”, ordering that any prelate, such as a bishop or abbot, who supported such sinners was to suffer the same punishment as the sinner. [40]

Medieval society was becoming less tolerant of non-conformity in general, not only of sexual non-conformists. Religious fanaticism raised by the Crusades saw Jews massacred and ostracised and (with Fourth Lateran) barred from offices and forced to wear distinctive clothing. Muslims were also forced to wear distinctive clothing. Heresy became a major concern for the Church, and lepers, formerly pitied and feared, became reviled as the disease became considered an outward representation of sin. [41]

Frequently such reviled non-conformism became conflated – Jews were reported to conspire with lepers to poison water; heresy and sex between men were often closely associated in the later medieval mind. Indeed, our word “bugger” derives from Bulgar – Bulgaria was home the Manichean heresy, whose adherents were widely rumoured to participate in male sex acts.

The sin of sodomy became regarded more seriously – no longer simple fornication, but punished with penances equating to bestiality, incest and murder.

Alongside religious restrictions, secular authorities passed laws against sodomy and same-sex activity. In many cases, it was punishable by death at the stake. The first such laws were passed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century, with other Western kingdoms following suit in the 13th century. [42]

It’s difficult to say how many sodomy prosecutions took place in later medieval Europe. For te early modern period, Tulchin believes laws were “relatively unenforced” in the later 16th and 17th centuries, noting fewer than 10 prosecutions a year in Aragon, a kingdom of around one million people where the Inquisition was scrupulous in its interrogations and record-keeping, and one or two people a year in Paris between 1564 and 1639. Nor was the death penalty often applied – 10 per cent of convicts were sentenced to death in Aragon, with another 30 per cent sentenced to the galleys. [43]

Nevertheless, the tide had turned. Prosecutions did take place, and death sentences were sometimes imposed. City authorities passed laws against male brothels, and gay poems disappear from the record.

By 1307 Phillip le Bel of France could use accusations of homosexuality and heresy as an excuse to bring down one of the most powerful organisations of the medieval West: the Knights Templar. A few years later, in 1311, King James II of Aragon used a charge of sodomy to bring to heel a fractious noble, Count Pons Hugh of Ampurias, and seize his lands. [44]

In both cases the cases were led by political interests and did not initially have the support of the church, until the charges of sodomy resulted on loss of papal support.

Nevertheless, same-sex activity continued. Florence became renowned for its gay subculture in the 14th and 15th centuries, prompting the late medieval German slang “floretzen” for sexual intercourse between men, and prompting a series of fiery condemnations from St Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), who considered sins against nature the worst of all forms of sin, saying the mere thought of sodomy filled his soul with the horrible stench. He wrote that sodomy was so common as to be an epidemic. [45]

Conclusion

The evidence for same-sex activities before, during and after the Middle Ages is incontrovertible. While such activity was always considered a sin, it was not always regarded as a very serious sin, nor was it always actively investigated.

The general view that homosexuality wasn’t tolerated in the Middle Ages applies only to the later Middle Ages, from the 13th century onwards, and this intolerance was something of a backlash to the more permissive period of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Even during the permissive centuries, however, same-sex acts were best pursued with some discretion.

Footnotes

[1] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (1954, reprinted Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 48.
[2] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1980, anniversary edition 2015), p. 375.
[3] William Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity and the Law in Medieval Literature: France and England 1050-1230 (Cambridge University Press, 2004, Kindle Edition), loc. 538.
[4] Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (Routledge, third edition, 2017), p. 185.
[5] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (Hamish Hamilton, 1979, reprinted Sutton, 2004) p. 200.
[6] Boswell, op. cit., p. 172.
[7] McCall, op. cit., p. 203.
[8] McCall, op. cit. p. 203.
[9] St. Augustine, Confessions, tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin Classics, 1965), p. 65.
[10] McCall, op. cit., p. 200.
[11] Boswell, op. cit., p. 102
[12] Quoted from Patrick J. Geary (ed), Readings in Medieval History (University of Toronto Press, 5th edition, 2016), p. 216.
[13] Ibid, p. 217.
[14] Ibid, p. 217.
[15] Boswell, op. cit., p203.
[16] Boswell, op.cit., p204.
[17] Boswell, op.cit., p205.
[18] Boswell, op.cit., p205.
[19] Peter Damian, The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption, trans. Matthew Cullinan Hoffman (Ite ad Thomam Books and Media, 2015), pp. 141-142.
[20] Boswell, op.cit., p. 211, with full translation of Nos humanius agentes pp. 364-366.
[21] Burgwinkle, op. cit., loc. 836.
[22] Boswell, op.cit., p. 214.
[23] Boswell, op. cit., p. 385.
[24] Norman Roth, “The Fawn of My Delights”: Boy-Love in Hebrew and Arabic Verse, published in Joyce E. Salisbury (ed). Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays (Garland, 1991), p 162.
[25] Boswell, op. cit., p30.
[26] Boswell, op. cit., pp252-253.
[27] Boswell, op. cit., pp. 387.
[28] Boswell, op. cit., p. 265.
[29] Karras, op. cit.. p. 149.
[30] Karras, op. cit. p. 148.
[31] Karras, op. cit., p. 151.
[32] Karras, op. cit., pp. 152 &154.
[33] Karras, op. cit., p. 152.
[34] Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: Social History Of Women In England 450-1500 (Orion, 1995, Kindle Edition 2013), loc. 1663.
[35] David W. Dunlap, John E. Boswell, 47, Historian Of Medieval Gay Culture, Dies, (New York Times, obituary, Dec 25 1994), NYT online archive.
[36] Allan A. Tulchin, Same-Sex Couples Creating Households in Old Regime France: The Uses of the Affrerement (Journal of Modern History, September 2007), archived at Academia.edu.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Dunlap, op. cit.
[39] The Third Lateran Council, at Papal Encyclicals Online.
[40] The Fourth Lateran Council, at Papal Encyclicals Online.
[41] RI Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (Blackwell, second edition, 2007).
[42] Boswell, op. cit. p 281.
[43] Tulchin, op. cit., p. 642.
[44] James A. Brundage, Politics of Sodomy: Rex v. Pons Hugh de Ampurias (1311), published in Joyce E. Salisbury (ed). Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays (Garland, 1991)
[45] Karras, op. cit., p. 190.

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RIP Christopher Tolkien

To mortal fields say farewell,
Middle-earth forsaking!
In Elvenhome a clear bell
in the high tower is shaking.
Here grass fades and leaves fall,
and sun and moon wither,
and we have heard the far call
that bids us journey thither.’

JRR Tolkien, The Last Ship

Christopher Tolkien, who died yesterday, was not a gamer, yet his influence upon the games I love is indelible.

If nothing else, his maps of Middle-earth provide an invaluable visual guide to his father’s creation. It is those maps that guided and inspired me as I began my first forays into world-building.

For many years I enjoyed playing MERP, Middle-earth Role Playing, a work that drew heavily on those maps and of the posthumously published work of JRR that Christopher edited for decades.

The game I’ve helped design, Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition, owes much to the Tolkiens, father and son. Its first edition was rife with references to Middle-earth, with hobbits, and Necromancers making rings of power.

D&D, in its early incarnations, drew little from Middle-earth. It had orcs, certainly, but its elves drew more from the works of Poul Anderson and the sword & sorcery tales Gygax loved.

But to many players – certainly those of my generation, the Second Wave – Middle-earth was our introduction to a fantasy world.

If my early attempts at map making were inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson, my subsequent efforts were inspired by Christopher Tolkien.

Rest in Peace.

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Genderqueer people in the Middle Ages

One aspect of the diversity of medieval life we did not address in Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition concerns genderqueer people. This article is intended to correct that omission, in more detail than the core rulebook would have allowed.

The terminology we use for genderqueer people today is recent. The term transexual was coined in 1949, and transgender in 1963. Medieval Europeans lacked words to describe such experiences. For this reason, I’m using the term ‘genderqueer’ to encompass all aspects of transgender, genderfluid, cross-dressing and non-binary experiences; while the term genderqueer is also often used to denote sexual orientation, I will write a separate article on that. I intend no offence.

First, let’s be clear – genderqueer people have existed throughout human history. We’ve some evidence indicating ancient Akkadia may have recognised what would now call transmen, the salzikrum – the translation is debatable; it may mean ‘vowed woman’ (priestesses?) or ‘man-woman’ [1] . The Code of Hammurabi (sections 178 and 184) indicates they could inherit from their fathers, something other daughters could not. Depending on the translation you accept, this offers the possibility transmen were treated similarly to biological sons by the Akkadians.

Modern studies suggest around 0.3% to 0.6% of people identify as transgender [2]. We’ve no reason to doubt this is consistent through history – but also no direct evidence to support. We do know several cultures have recognised genderqueer people in past and present – Native American two-spirits, Indian hijra, and kathoey in the Phillipines.

But what about the medieval period? For a reasonable set of examples, I’ll have to break out of C&S’s core period (1000-1500AD), and look at the broader Middle Ages (c. 500-1500AD).

Cross dressing is the most visible form of genderqueer activity in the Middle Ages. There are several medieval tales of women disguising themselves as men. Often these are for very specific purposes – usually to take part in war or other forms of fighting. Agnes Hotot, in the 14th century, donned her father’s armour to take his place in a grudge joust, only revealing her sex when she had beaten her opponent. Fannu bint Omar disguised herself as a man during the siege of Marrakech in 1147. Other women, such as Isabel of Conches, donned armour, probably designed for men, without disguising their sex.

Of more interest to us are the women who passed as men for long periods.

“Brother Marinos is a woman.”

Going to his cell, they found him dead, and informed the superior, saying, “Brother Marinos has died.” … But as they were preparing to wash him, they discovered that he was a woman, and shrieking, they all began to cry in a loud voice, “Lord, have mercy.”
The superior, hearing their cries, asked them, “What troubles you so?” And they said, “Brother Marinos is a woman.”

The Life and Conduct of the Blessed Mary, Who Changed Her Name to Marinos [3]

The story of St Mary (or Brother Marinos) was widely circulated in the Middle Ages. The original Life, written in Greek, is undated, but is thought to have been written in Syria some time between the mid-6th and mid-7th centuries. It was later translated into several languages, including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian and Arabic. The oldest surviving manuscript copies date from the 10th century.

According to the Life, Mary’s father Eugenios decided for foresake the secular world and join a monastery. Mary, his only child, cut her hair short, donned a monk’s habit, and joined him under the name Marinos. Marinos became well respected in the monastery, until he was accused of fathering a child on an innkeeper’s daughter. He accepted the accusation, and was cast out of the monastery, remaining at its gates for three years until the innkeeper brought the child to be raised by him and his former brothers pleaded with the abbot to let him return to the monastery. His sex being revealed after death, the monks realised he had been punished unjustly, but had accepted his punishment without complaint. Mary is revered as a saint, her commemoration being February 12, according to the Synaxarion of Constantinople. [4]

Nor was Marinos the only woman to live in a monastery as a man. “Transvestite nuns” seems to have been a popular genre of hagiography (saints’ lives) in Byzantium, with more than a dozen such lives published, including St Anastasia Patrika, who become an anchorite under the name Anastasios, St Matrona of Perge, whose life as the monk Bablyas ended when her pierced ears were noticed, and St Euphrosyne of Alexandria, who became the novice Smaragdos. [5]

We can’t say whether or not these disguised monks identified as men. All we can say is that they attempted to live as men, often for very long periods, which is very different from those women who disguised themselves temporarily. We must consider the possibility that some of them, at least, were what we would now consider to be transgender.

An intriguing archaeological discovery announced in December 2019 lends credence to these tales of disguised monks. Archaeologists discovered the remains of several women beneath the Byzantine chapel of St Athanasios at the monastery of Pantocrator, in an all-male monastic promontory at Mount Athos, which comprises around 2,500 monks in 20 monasteries. Since the community was founded in the 10th century, women were banned from setting foot on the promontory. The bones are still awaiting radiocarbon dating and an academic explanation.

Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc)

“That this woman is apostate, for the hair which God gave her for a veil she has had untimely cut off, and also, with the same design has rejected woman’s dress and imitated the costume of men.”

Article III of the doctrinal judgement on the Words and Deeds of Jeanne, commonly called The Maid [6]

Dr Gabrielle Bychowski, in a Public Medievalist blog post entitled Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages?, offers up the interesting idea that Joan of Arc may have been transgender (in modern terms), noting that although she identified as a maid, her words during her trial were very carefully chosen and cautious.

Noting that identifying Joan as transgender is especially controversial as her deeds are often held up as examples of what medieval women could do, Bychowski adds:

It is enough to say for now that Joan may not have had much liberty to speak candidly about gender and identity. The whole focus on the trial was trying to catch Joan making an unorthodox or heretical claim. Whether or not you accept that Joan of Arc might have been trans, it is clear that transphobia was central to Joan’s trial. The argument being made by the English court was, essentially, that a person cannot and should not be transgender. Joan refused to confirm all the English’s transphobic biases. Joan was ultimately killed on these grounds. This suggests that whether or not modern historians call Joan of Arc transgender, it seems as though the medieval court considered Joan transgender enough to die for it.

Eleanor Rykener – transwoman?

While we’ve so far looked at women presenting as men, the case of Eleanor Rykener may be a rare example of a medieval transwoman.

In 1395, in London, Eleanor Rykener was tried under her birth name of John Rykener on a charge of immorality. Eleanor’s gender was key to the case, which focused on whether sodomy had been committed. [7] I’ll note here that the 13th and 14th centuries were times of growing intolerance towards gay people.

Rykener was arrested in women’s clothing by city officials. One John Britby, a Yorkshireman arrested with her, told the examining officials he had “accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.” Rykener agreed, and the pair were discovered in flagrante delicto, arrested and taken to prison.

Rykener said in her testimony that she had first been introduced to prostiution by one Anna, whore to Sir Thomas Blount, who taught her to service men “in the manner of a woman”. She was first dressed as a woman by one Elizabeth Bronderer, who introduced both her daughter Alice and Rykener to men. In Rykener’s case, Broderer ensured she met men in the dark.

Was Rykener a transwoman? It’s possible, even likely. In addition to her sex work, she also worked as an embroideress, so seems to have presented as a woman outside prostitution. But she also confessed to having sex with man while presenting as a man.

No verdict was recorded in the court case, which Bychowski notes was written up in Latin, avoiding the need for deciding a male or female pronoun for Rykener, which would have been required had it been recorded in English or French. Bychowski clearly believes this was a deliberate decision by the court to avoid settling the matter of Rykener’s gender. [8]

The Sound of Silence

King Evan and Queen Eufome with Silence, c.1275

The Old French poetical romance Silence exists only in one manuscript, dating from the 13th or 14th century, which was discovered in a chest in 1911. It was written by one Heldris of Cornuälle, an otherwise unknown poet.

The poem is Arthurian, and details the life of the titular Silence, daughter of Cador, Earl of Cornwall, who is raised as a boy to circumvent a law forbidding female inheritance. Silence does not initially realise he is a biological girl, and agrees to continue presenting as male when he does discover it at age 12, following a debate between Nature, Nurture and Reason – Reason convinces him he is better off as a man, though Silence himself remains conflicted.

As a man, Silence wins renown as both a knight, a military commander, and a jongleur. He rejects the advances of the adulterous Queen Eufome, whose regular lover is a man diasguised as a nun. The queen later persuades her husband to order Silence to capture the magician Merlin, who can only be trapped by “trick of woman”. Silence succeeds in the task, and Merlin reveals his biological sex. The queen and her cross-dressed lover are revealed and executed, and the king marries Silence, now presenting as a woman named Silentia.

Silence is unusual in medieval literature for its discussion of nature versus nurture, and its differentiation between biological sex and gender. Medieval French literature lecturer Sharon Kinoshita notes:

As Silence grows up, her successes in the forest and on the battlefield demonstrate that some of the “natural” differences between boys and girls derive from a conventional opposition between masculine and feminine practices. Privileging gender over sex does not prevent the text from treating masculinity as naturally superior to femininity. [9]

Nevertheless, despite Silence deciding it’s better to present as male, she is eventually revealed as female. Medieval society is patriarchal, even if women did run businesses and manage their own estates. Silence’s story is not a feminist overthrow of the patriarchy.

The narrative that unfolds invites two contrary conclusions. The first casts Silence as an oppositional text, focusing on how it renegotiates boundaries between sex and gender. The second, in contrast, emphasizes the way the text recontains the subversion it unleashes. Silence does not challenge socially constructed definitions of gender; she exploits them. In the end, Nature proves right and Nurture wrong, thanks to Merlin’s (un)timely intervention: biological “truth” will out… Silence’s stint as a jongleur – an interlude between her childhood exploits and her arrival at King Evan’s court – confirms Michele Perret’s observation that while men in medieval romance cross-dress to gain sexual access to women, women cross-dress to obtain male privileges like inheritance and travel. [10]

Pope Joan

Most historians believe the legend of Pope Joan is just that: a legend. Nevertheless, it was a legend widely believed in the Middle Ages that Johannes Anglicus, pope from 855-857, was a woman disguised as a man, her biological sex revealed when she gave birth.

Pope John VII, aka Pope Joan, from the Nuremburg Chronicle of 1493

According to the legend, Joan disguised herself as a man and took clerical orders. Through her talent and determination she became a secretary to the Curia, then a cardinal, then Pope. She was exposed after giving birth to a child and either stoned to death or stripped of her offices and confined, doing penance for many years; in this alternative legend her son became the Bishop of Ostia.

The legend of a female pope is first mentioned by the Dominican friar Jean de Mailly in the early 13th century, with the un-named pope in question said to have ruled in 1099, presumably following Pope Urban II, famous for preaching the First Crusade, who died on July 29, 1099. In fact, Urban II’s successor was Pashal II, who was elected on August 13, 1099.

The next mention of a female pope is by another Dominican friar, Stephen of Bourbon, and the fullest development of the legend is by Martin of Opava, who names her as John Angelicus, pope in the 9th century, and said she had taken to wearing men’s clothing in Athens as a girl, taken orders and ultmately became pope.

Despite a lack of historical evidence, the legend of a female pope gripped medieval imagination. Illustrations and woodcuts showed supposed incidents from Pope Joan’s life, and the idea of a Papess became a feature of tarot playing cards – it wasn’t until the Rider-Waite deck of 1910 that this card became known as the High Priestess.

The Papess, from the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck of 1451

Conclusion

The evidence for transgender people in medieval Europe is sparse and unclear. The lives of our genderqueer candidates were recorded by cisgender people. There were no linguistic terms to describe their experiences in a way we would consider clear.

As Bychowski notes in her conclusion:

For much of the public, the short answer to whether or not transgender people existed in the Middle Ages is sufficient to affirm or annoy their preexisting biases towards transgender people today. For those who deny that transgender is anything more than a post-modern lifestyle, any answer beyond “no” might be dismissed as a bias of a supposed “transgender agenda.” For those who affirm transgender as an essential part of human diversity, the answer “yes” is taken as obvious. [10]

While the evidence for transgender people in the Middle Ages cannot be considered conclusive nor compelling, it is clear that some people did step out of the roles expected of their biological sex by presenting as the opposite gender. It is their reasons for doing so that are unclear.

Medieval thought was dominated by theological considerations. The Bible presents sex as binary, and forbade cross-dressing.

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
Deuteronomy:22:5 (King James Version)

Despite this, both men and women did so, and Le Roman de Silence indicates that at least one poet demonstrated fledgling efforts to understand the difference between sex and gender.

The evidence allows the possibility of transgender people in the Middle Ages, even if theology did not.

Footnotes

[1] Rivkah Schärf Kluger, The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero (Daimon Verlag, 2015)

[2] Amnesty International report, The State Decides Who I Am: Lack of Legal Gender Rercongition for Transgender People in Europe (2014). (PDF)

[3] The Life and Conduct of the Blessed Mary is translated and published in Alice-Mary Talbot’s Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation (Dumbarton Oaks, 1996)

[4] Ibid, p 1-2

[5] Ibid, p2

[6] Pierre Champion, The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc (Gothan House, 1932), full text at Internet History Books

[7] The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395, at the Internet History Sourcebook

[8] Gabrielle Bychowski, Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages? The Public Medievalist.

[9] Sharon Kinoshita, Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence and the Feudal Politics of Lineage, PMLA (The Journal of the Modern Language Association of America), Vol. 110, Issue 3 (May 1995), p 402

[10] Ibid, p402

[11] Gabrielle Bychowski, Were There Transgender People in the Middle Ages? The Public Medievalist.

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Diversity, historical accuracy and Chivalry & Sorcery

Common factoids (things that look like facts but aren’t) about the Middle Ages are that people of colour didn’t exist in medieval Europe, that women didn’t fight (or do much other than be wives or nuns), and that homosexuality was universally condemned.

The far right try to weaponise these factoids. They try to sell a narrative – they want their recruits, and innocent bystanders, to believe the medieval period was some sort of historical haven for straight white men. They object to the idea of North Africans or women fighters (probably less than 1% of the population of medieval England, though no demographics exist), yet have no problems routinely playing male knights (certainly less than 1% of the population of medieval England). Knights, however, are part of the modern mythology of the Middle Ages, and African pilgrims are not.

Presented with evidence to the contrary, gamers who’ve fallen victim to these lies often cry that there are no exceptions, or that exceptions are so rare that they shouldn’t be present in a game. After all, they say, if you want such characters, you can add them.

In Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition we’ve taken the opposite approach. We’ve made sure we list historical examples of women fighters and look at women business owners. We look at evidence for and examples of Africans in medieval Europe. We mention medieval attitudes to homosexuality, and the gay scene of the 11th and 12th centuries.

After all, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if someone doesn’t want diverse characters in their games, they’re free to leave them out.

There are several reasons for this approach.

The first is historical accuracy. The medieval period was more diverse than people who gather their history from films and fictional TV shows realise. We want to undercut the factoids and get to the truth, to show those people who claim their prejudices are historically accurate that they are mistaken.

The Mediterranean and the Near East were trade and cultural crossroads since pre-history, and that continued right through the Middle Ages. The medieval period saw a widening and opening of trade and travel – the Genoese merchant Marco Polo travelled to China via the Silk Road in the late 13th century. The Morrocan qadi Ibn Battutah travelled through Africa, Arabia, India, Central Asia, China and parts of Europe in the early 14th century, and the Chinese admiral Zheng He led a series of voyages that took him as far as East Africa in the early 15th century. Beyond these high-profile expeditions, many more diplomatic and trade missions between cultures and countries took place. Archaeological evidence, including DNA and isotope analysis, confirms the presence of Africans in medieval England (and in earlier and later periods).

Martin Jan Mansen’s detailed map of medieval trade routes.

Numerous women fighters are recorded in medieval documents. They were exceptions, true, but they were there, and some of them seem to have had significant training. Agnes Hotot won a joust against her father’s rival in the 14th century, implying that either she was almost unbelievably lucky or had practised jousting. The 11th century Norman noblewoman Isabel of Conches routinely wore armour as she led her troops in battle against her rival Heloise; the monk-historian Orderic Vitalis praised her for her honour, charisma and boldness.

The woman fighter Walpurgis defeats the Priest in the 13th -century fighting manual Royal Armouries I.33

We’ve made sure to list these and other historical women fighters in the core rulebook, and to note the women who ran businesses and mercantile operations.

In this edition we’ve included Islam and Judaism as core religions alongside Christianity, those sections written by Muslim and Jewish writers (Omnia Al Desoukie and Michael Schemaille).

A second reason, related to the first, is to avoid erasure. Yes, we could have chosen not to mention people of colour, or gay people, and leave it to individual groups to do their own research. This is the approach taken in earlier editions of Chivalry & Sorcery, the first of which was published in 1977 and the most recent was published in 2000. That was pretty much the default approach back then, but frankly it isn’t good enough now.

Erasure operates insidiously. As Nisi Shawl and Chnthia Ward note in their excellent Writing the Other, the dominant paradigm of Western culture is white, straight and male. Unless we actively mention women, people of colour, and the gay experience, we default to the dominant paradigm. We’re asking people who want to step out of that paradigm to do extra work.

And that brings us to inclusion. We game in diverse groups, and we want our players to enjoy out game, to see themselves represented, to find a place for themselves within it. Gaming – including Chivalry & Sorcery – is for everyone.

Historical accuracy is double-edged, however. It would be hypocritical to acknowledge medieval diversity without acknowledging medieval prejudice. What’s more, it would he another form of erasure: erasing the victims.

As with medieval diversity, medieval prejudices may surprise people. There was little racial prejudice, but there was significant religious prejudice. Anti-semitism was rife, driven by blood libels and crusading fanaticism, and massacres and pogroms took place throughout the period. After the Third Lateran Council of 1179, homosexuality was no longer tolerated, and punishments became more severe as the Middle Ages progressed. And society remained deeply patriarchal.

Game groups are, of course, free to ignore these prejudices. We strongly advise those groups wishing to explore them, or even have them as a backdrop, to discuss it and make sure everyone is comfortable with including them. The free PDF Consent in Gaming, by Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain and published by Monte Cooke Games, is an excellent guide to such discussions and in-game techniques.

Further reading

John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1980, revised editon 2015).

RI Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (first edition 1987, second edition 2006)

Bernard Hamilton, The Crusades and North-East Africa, in John & Morton (eds), Crusading and Warfare in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2014)

The Public Medievalist blog has an excellent series on Race and Racism in the Middle Ages and another on Gender, Sexism and the Middle Ages

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C&S 5th Edition: one designer’s notes

I really don’t need an excuse not to update this blog, as I can go years without posting.

But for what it’s worth, the last few months have been taken up with helping design and edit Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – a game I’ve loved since I first got a copy of the 2nd edition rules in the early 1980s.

C&S 5th Edition is my first major game design. I’ve had a couple of small pieces in supplements, and I edited the dark fantasy Black Void RPG (well worth getting your hands on, by the way).

But this is my first time to get a cover credit. The first time I feel I’ve earned the title ‘game designer’.

And for the game to be C&S, for my fellow designers to be friends I met through C&S more than 20 years ago, makes it all the more special.

I credit C&S with rather more than being a fun game. It helped nurture a passing interest in the past into a passion. It wasn’t my only influence – growing up in a village dating from the Middle Ages, with a fine Norman church remains of a 12th-century motte inside an ancient hill fort certainly played a part, as did frequent trips to observe archaeologists working at Coppergate in York.

But gamers have a bent for classifying and codifying. We want maps and systems and mechanics.

Ed Simbalist’s articles on medieval economics and agriculture in the C&S Sourcebook intrigued me. When I went to university to study economics that interest stayed with me, and I specialised as much as I could in the economic history of the medieval and early modern periods.

I needed to get a bit closer to the medieval fields, so once in full time employment I went back to study archaeology at night school, specialising in medieval villages and landscapes.

I learned enough, researched enough, to see the flaws in those articles of Ed’s – the yields too high for wheat, too low for barley, the difference between good and bad harvest too random.

But without those articles, would I even have cared? Somehow I doubt it. And certainly Ed, a teacher by profession, was delighted when I told him where his articles had led me.

This is the gift C&S – by which I really mean Ed and Wilf, Jan and Wes and their whole team – gave me.

It’s been a pleasure to be invited to work on the 5th Edition. It’s been a pleasure to contribute to it.

We’ve expanded the medieval background, and we’ve simplified the mechanics as much as we can while still keeping the flavour of the game.

In a couple of cases we’ve restored old rules which the 3rd edition passed over. Influence is back, its mechanics drawn from the model used in 1st and 2nd edition, updated to work with the Skillskape mechanics introduced in 3rd edition.

Skillskape itself has been revised, and somewhat simplified, at least in character generation. Instead of making skills easier to learn, vocational and mastered skills grant a flat bonus. We’ve ironed out the pesky exceptions to the Skillskape rules that caused me (and I think others) a few headaches.

Many of these changes to Skillskape began life as my own house rules, aimed at making C&S easier to play. I guess I was lucky chief designer Steve Turner was thinking the same way, and I had a ready-made set of changes to email to him.

A new way of handling the Crit Die makes it function more like an effect die. We haven’t moved C&S – the granddaddy of simulation games – quite as far as a narrative system, but I do have some ideas in that direction. Something for a future C&S Sourcebook perhaps.

Blows in combat, the mainstay of 1st and 2nd edition, return to the game as an optional rule to replace the Action Point system introduced in 4th edition.

The enrichment of the medieval background means more – and more accurate – character backgrounds, and a more detailed introduction to the medieval world, addressing some of the topics that have had significant new research in the 20 years since the 4th edition. Most of the expanded background and work on social classes comes from Francis Tiffany, not only a scholar and gentleman, but a talented portrait artist as well

We’ve been able to take advantage of research into medieval diversity to present evidence of North and sub-Saharan Africans in medieval Europe. We’ve looked at examples of women taking up arms.

We’ve expanded our coverage of religion beyond the Catholic Church to include Judaism and Islam in the core rulebook, these sections written by Jewish and Muslim writers.

And we’ve tackled the issue of medieval prejudices and persecution head on – and found some interesting facts along the way.

All of this is wrapped in a truly beautiful full-colour rulebook, lavishly illustrated by 4th edition artists Andrew Hepworth and Dave Bezzina, and new-to-C&S artist Gordon Napier, and designed by the talented Andy Cowley (also a longtime C&S fan).

It is, in my opinion, the best edition of C&S yet published – the best in mechanics, in historical background, and in presentation.

You can read what one of our Kickstarter backers thinks here: Andrew Marrington’s C&S 5th Edition review.

You can get a copy of the PDF file on DrivethruRPG.

Yes, there will be a hardback rulebook. The files are currently with the printer. Kickstarter backers should get their copies in February, with the rulebook going on retail sale in March.

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Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition Kickstarter: Nightwalkers

The Kickstarter campaign for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition is well underway, and I’m proud to be associated with it. It achieved funding in less than 16 hours and, as I write, is on the way to unlocking its second stretch goal: the Nightwalkers Companion, by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams.

This is a supplement I really want to see come to fruition. Wiggy’s a great designer with a huge catalogue of top-notch, atmospheric settings and supplements, and he loves the horror genre – check out Triple Ace Games’ website for his recent work.

But does a horror supplement covering vampires and werewolves belong in the Chivalry & Sorcery line-up? Absolutely! Medieval folklore – and theology – is replete with examples of such creatures.

To use a line from Game of Thrones, the night is dark and full of terrors.

Let’s have a look at some of the medieval beliefs, and how they fitted into the medieval Christian worldview, for even the strictest historical game, which eschews the supernatural, must acknowledge that though these creatures did not exist medieval people thought they did, and made them part of their beliefs and behaviour.

I don’t know if Wiggy will follow medieval beliefs in his companion. The night may be dark and full of terrors, but Wiggy is creative and full of awesome ideas. If he goes his own way, I guarantee it will be a way that enhances your games – and mine.

Werewolves and Shapeshifters

About three years before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: ‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)

The term ‘werewolf’ derives from the Old English term for ‘man’ (wer) and wolf (wulf). There are many medieval legends of werewolves and other shapeshifters – from Norse berserks who became wolves by wearing a wolf-skin to the Norman garrulf, the Breton bisclavret (the subject of Marie de France’s Lai Bisclavret (PDF link), and the villagers of Ossory described by Gerald of Wales. Gervase of Tilbury matter of factly stated, “In England, we have often seen men transformed into wolves with the changing of the moon.”

Gervase stated that wounds inflicted on one of a werewolf’s forms would carry over to the other when it changed, thus providing a means to detect the creature.

There were several ways a person could change into a wolf, beyond the changing of the moon. The bisclavret, according to Marie, must spend three days a week in wolf form; before the change he hides his clothes, and is unable to change back if they are stolen. Other stories have people doffing their clothes and donning a wolf-skin, as with the berserks.

“We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man completely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.”

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)

The natives of Ossory were unusual in that their change was mandated by a divine curse.

So how does a werewolf fit into the Christian worldview? Theologians of the day discussed the matter, focussing on one particular question: slaying a human was sinful, but slaying a wolf was not. Was slaying a man-wolf a sin?

They decided the answer depended on the reason why the person changed into a wolf.

If the transformation was the result of magic, then slaying the man-wolf was sinful. If the change was divine, it was acceptable.

The reason for this was that they believed magic could not change the essence of something, only its appearance. The creature might appear as a wolf, but its essence remained human, and so slaying it was a sin. But God could change the essence of a creature or thing, so a man divinely changed into a wolf became truly a wolf, and slaying it was lawful.

Nor are werewolves the only shapeshifters of the medieval period. The influential philosopher Boethius, writing c. 1120-1140, stated that eating certain kinds of food might change men into asses, swine or other animals; and Lai Yonec, also written by Marie de France, features a knight who transforms into a hawk – presumably, in this version, Michelle Pfeiffer turns into a stag.

Vampires

In two of William of Newburgh’s stories the hauntings are accompanied or followed by the spread of disease, and in one of them the revenant actually sucks blood in the traditional vampiric way: ‘they wounded the lifeless corpse and immediately so much blood flowed from it that they realized it had sucked many people’s blood.’

Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225 (New Oxford History of England)

The word ‘vampire’ doesn’t appear in English until the 18th century (and wasn’t popularised until the 19th century by writers such as John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker).

Nevertheless, tales of bloodsuckers go back at least as far as we have written records. They occur in myths and legends from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and in folk tales through the Middle Ages.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often considered to originate with the 15th-century Romanian national hero Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, known as Dracula (son of the Dragon. The historical Dracula belongs to what Chivalry & Sorcery considers the Waning Feudal period, and his vampiric legend belongs later.

Since the medieval English had no particular word for vampires, Bartlett uses the word ‘revenant’ to describe the walking dead of medieval legends – and as noted in the quote above, in one case the revenant did suck blood.

Similar to the Eastern European legends of vampires, revenants of English lore might arise through having lived a bad, un-Christian life.

Revenants in English lore were usually dispatched by exhuming their corpses, and either decapitating them, removing the heart or burning the remains – or any combination of those remedies. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, laid one to final rest by having its grave opened and a letter of absolution placed on its chest.

Medieval revenants were no cultivated, pale noblemen in cloaks and opera hats, nor Louisiana gentlemen in lace cuffs and frock coats. They arose from their graves at night, clad in their funeral shroud, to prowl the land and terrorise the living. Disease walked with them.

The 2009 discovery by archaeologists of a 16th-century ‘vampire burial’ in Venice was widely reported. The body in question was an elderly woman whose corpse had, after death, had a brick forced between its teeth. Several more ‘vampire burials’ have been discovered, including a 10-year-old boy in Umbria, near Rome, in the 5th century AD, and a man in Northamptonshire, England, dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD.

William of Newburgh, attempting to make sense of the stories, ascribed the corpses’ rising to the work of Satan, but the disease they spread to the contaminated air they created.

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Dangerous Journeys: Mythus revisited

About three years ago I wrote a post about my love-hate relationship with Dangerous Journeys, the game Gary Gygax designed after leaving TSR.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of playing 12 sessions of a Dangerous Journeys game run by an expert in the system. Whereas I am something of a system hoarder, with hundreds of rulebooks supplements for scores of games, Lars has devoted himself to Dangerous Journeys for years.

The experience has confirmed my initial views that this is a highly playable system. I have learnt that it is also an atmospheric one, and highly enjoyable. Now, it is a truth in gaming that a good gamesmaster can make a badly designed game fun, and Lars is certainly a good gamesmaster.Mythus Cover

It is also true that Dangerous Journeys is not a user-friendly game; its organisation leaves much to be desired, and there are many special cases and exceptions to the core rules buried in paragraphs far from the chapters you’d expect. It is therefore a difficult game to learn.

Certainly, Lars’ first task was to introduce myself and the other players to the rules, advising us on abilities we’d find useful for our character concepts. It helped that he created a handy Excel character sheet to keep track of Mythus’ many subskills and heka (magic point) calculations. I covered character generation in some detail in the previous post, so I wont rehash it here.

While character generation remains complex, I really don’t mind that if it leads to evocative characters, and with my character I managed to find a very suitable set of skills to flesh out her background – as the daughter of an innkeeper I was delighted to find she could have a rating in commercial household management, and in appraising the quality of food and wine.

And Mythus proved to be much simpler in play. Percentile-based systems are intuitive, and although the difficulty levels are granular (moving from Hard to Difficult halves your effective skill), this is modified by using Joss (Hero Points) if you really need to succeed.

Joss proved to be one of the major features of the game. I haven’t played many systems with a hero point mechanic, so its importance eluded me on a simple read-through of the game.

You can spend Joss not only on yourself, but on behalf of other PCs, which helps encourage cooperative play. However, they don’t regenerate between sessions or adventures, but must be earned. This means you can quickly deplete your stock – several times we suggested using Joss to help a roll, only for Lars to ask us if we really thought it was worth it. He was right, of course – Joss can be such a game-changer that it is worth saving for the big encounters or the must-succeed attempts. One of the uses of Joss is in damage – before damage dice are rolled you can choose to have automatic minimum (useful if you’re about to take damage) or maximum (if you’re dishing it out). Lars was strict about enforcing the only-before-a-roll rule as well.

Since I’d run a few solo missions when other players couldn’t make sessions, I’d rapidly depleted my Joss pool, and later missions more than once heard me cry , “Can anybody Joss me?”

If absolutely necessary, you can burn unspent experience points as Joss. Obviously, it’s not a particularly good strategy – using them like this means they’re not available for boosting your character’s skills – but if it keeps your character alive it’s a good last resort.

The other major quirk of the system is the potency of magic. Like (A)D&D, Mythus classifies spells into 9 levels or grades based on their potency. It’s not uncommon for a heka-user to begin play with access to fourth- or fifth-grade spells – the equivalent of being a 7th-9th level spellcaster in D&D.

There are many kinds of magic too, and I quickly discovered our party spellcasters could act as force multipliers on my melee-only rapier-wielding street bravo – one of our most effective combat methods was to have my character rush in, boosted in speed and magic resistance by the spellcasters, to attack twice as fast, and with the judicious use of Joss when necessary. Since her Special Combat skill allowed her to target vulnerable parts of the body, she proved devastatingly effective in combat.

She picked up many injuries, though. Mythus doesn’t allow a parry unless you forgo an attack, and I quickly discovered I’d better forgo the idea of a renaissance rogue in light leather armour and supplement that with a helmet and some armoured boots. Even then, she relied on herbs or clerical healing after most fights. Fortunately, one of her contacts was a priest (none of the other PCs – sorry, Heroic Personas – were), so at least she had a healing source back at base.

The combat system, by the way, is moderately deadly – I’ve played worse, but an unlucky roll can hurt your character badly, and large-sized creatures such as ogres can easily kill in a single blow. That’s where I discovered failing to give my street bravo any missile weapons was a strategic error. However, she could make relatively short work of the goblins while our dweomercraefter dealt with the ogre by peppering it at a distance with magic.

And therein lies another feature of Mythus. Balance is not a primary consideration of the game. Dweomercraefters and priests have access to potent magic. Others may have buffs or protective charms, but the raw power of a specialist magic user is difficult for a sword to match. I know that bothers some people, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. So long as my character has an interesting story, I don’t need to be the baddest on the block. And it’s been fun roleplaying a street tough proud of her smarts and her sword skills watch the delicate flower magician take down a creature she’s too scared to go toe to toe with.

And it’s been Lars’ ability to make sure each character has something interesting to do – whether by his own design or by running with player ideas – that’s helped make this introduction to Mythus at the table such an enjoyable experience.

However, spellcasting is often a lengthy process, and a spellcaster will have to choose which spells to keep ready. Readying a spell doesn’t take anywhere near as much time as AD&D’s spell preparation – it can be done in minutes, rather than overnight – but the number of spells that can be prepared in advance is very limited. Spells quick enough to cast in combat may still take several rounds to cast, and are usually much more limited in power. And a sword will remain effective as long as its user.

Combat, the way, is primarily narrative. There’s none of the tactical movement found in games like Pathfinder or GURPS advanced combat, nor discussions of frontages like AD&D. Miniatures or tokens are not necessary.

Lars was using the more complex optional initiative system from the core Mythus rules. I’d dismissed this version as unnecessarily complex on a rules read-through, but found it better in play. He also used various rules from Journeys, the Mythus magazine, and the Mythus Masters Magazine, which circulated electronically. I found a few prior calculations – totalling character speed, weapon speed penalty and armour penalty beforehand, so the actually initiative roll boiled down to one dice roll and one modifier speeded and simplified the process greatly. The same could be said for the spellcasters, whose heka regeneration and ‘aperture’ (the amount of magic points you can spend in one go) is better calculated in advance. Tricks like this is where Lars’ experience made the game flow better, as there’s no real suggestion in the rules that one do the prior calculations, nor space on the official character sheet to record them.

To recap, key features I’ve found after 40-50 hours of play with Mythus:

1) Poor organisation means the game is difficult to master. Not only are relevant rules scattered around the core rulebooks, but a couple of important rules (such as readied castings, which allow a spellcaster to prepare spells in advance to reduce lengthy casting times) were missed from the book and published later in the game’s dedicated magazine.

2) It produces evocative characters, each capable in multiple areas. A sword-slinger, rogue or spellcaster will have a broad selection of secondary skills as well. Characters come with fairly detailed backgrounds – their quirks, social class, family history, contacts and so on. These factors encourage roleplaying.

3) The system rewards clever play. Combat is fast and fun, but deadly, and some time spent working out how to catch one’s enemies off guard is time well spent. Effective use of Joss is part of that clever play.

4) The game is brimming with atmosphere, not just in its mechanics (the many forms of magic, the various skills available), but in its default setting, Aerth. Goblins are not the simple low-level combatants of D&D, but a form of faerie, with supernatural powers.

Would I run Mythus? Yes, although I have no immediate plans to (I’m about 1/3 of the way through Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, and plan to run GURPS Traveller after that).

However, that’s after experiencing the game under someone who’s played it extensively, and seeing how it hangs together as a whole. For more than 20 years I’ve had the game sitting on my shelves, trying to make sense of it, only to be turned off by the poor organisation.

Would I recommend others do so? That very much depends on what you’re after in a game. Mythus is not a game to play for a session or two and set aside. It’s a roleplayer’s game, not a tactical battlemap game, and it rewards creative, story-driven campaign play.

If that sounds intriguing, then it may well be worthwhile to spend the time getting to grips with its complexities.

Put it this way: I can see why more than 20 years after it went out of print, Mythus’ fandom is (a) small and (b) dedicated. This is not a game for everyone, but it offers a great deal to those for whom it strikes a chord.

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Basic Hex and Square Grids

Hex A2 1-Inch Horizontal

Update: Added one-inch square grids in European and US paper sizes.

One of my colleagues in the Gulf Roleplaying Community was looking for some hex grids to print out, so I made these basic ones for European and US paper sizes.

Each of the hexes is one inch (measured from side to side), suitable for use with 28mm minis at a scale of one inch = 5 feet or 1.5 metres, or for 15mm minis with a scale of one inch = 10 feet or 3 metres.

The A4 and US Letter grids are suitable for home printing (as is the A3/Tabloid if you have a suitable printer). Unless you have a plotter, you’re best taking the PDFs of the larger sizes to a commercial printer.

Pro Tip: If you have them laminated, you can draw on them with a wet erase marker and have a reusable battle map that’ll last for years.

Hex Grids (One Inch)

European sizes

US sizes

Square Grids (One Inch)

European Sizes

US Sizes

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Review: Dave Gross, Lord of Runes (Pathfinder Tales)

Lord of Runes is without question the best piece of tie-in fiction I’ve read. It’s an excellent fantasy novel in its own right.

Before I further explore why I think this, let me first address this: if I consider it so good why four stars, not five? Largely because I’m stingy with stars. With only five stars to choose from, that last star gets awarded only rarely. Four stars puts Lord of Runes, by my reckoning, alongside works such as Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Saga, Ray Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, Lieber’s first 6 Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser collections and the works of David Gemmell – novels I have read passionately, series I have followed, for many years. (What gets five stars? Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Lieber’s novella Stardock.)

Dave Gross’s Pathfinder novels have consistently been good reads, among the best tie-ins I’ve read. Lord of Runes is better.

Gross has always had a deft touch with narrative and dialogue, but here it sparkles. Within the first two chapters, the city of Korvosa was alive in my mind. Descriptions are vivid, dialogue natural.

The plot, perhaps a little simpler than his earlier Pathfinder Tales novels, is yet more epic.

But what really lifts the book is the emotional content. Gross’s Pathfinder novels are buddy stories, and in this we get to see just how deep the bonds between protagonists Radovan and Count Varian Jeggare go – and how far they can be stretched.

The emotional undertones of the novel go beyond the protagonists, though. The supporting cast carry issues of their own – at one revelation, I found myself having to put the book down for a moment while I worked the lump from my throat and blinked a tear from my eye.

This is potent stuff.

It’s hard to give details of character development without revealing spoilers, but few of the main characters end this novel with the attitudes or beliefs with which they started it. Count Varian’s slow deterioration is particularly well handled, both in his first-person chapters and when we get to see him from Radovan’s point of view (it is a technique of Gross’s that in these books the first-person point of view is swapped between the protagonists).

There are treats in store for Pathfinder fans – the return of Pathfinder Eando Kline and (given the title it’s no real spoiler to say it) the rise of a Runelord. But I don’t think it necessary to know the game or its setting to appreciate the quality of writing and storytelling Gross achieves.

Tie-in fiction has a bad rep because there’s a lot of poorly written dross churned out, but there are a few gems out there. Lord of Runes is a diamond.

This review is based on the Kindle edition of Lord of Runes. I will be looking for a paper copy as well (perhaps two), because this is a book I intend to lend to friends – both to players in my Pathfinder games and to fans of fantasy fiction.

View on Goodreads

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