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Old Testament Roleplaying


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I'm taking a Bible as literature course this semester.  For the second half of the class I have the option of doing a creative project rather than a second paper.  I'm seriously considering doing a RPG supplement for the world of the Old Testament using the Legend system.  I know this has been done already with the Testament RPG, but this would be a different system.  And I'd be doing my best not to peek at Testament as I'm working on the supplement.  Magic and miracles would be one of the more complicated aspects to the project, but as luck would have it my first paper is on magic in the Old Testament, 

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This could be a lot of fun. Ancient Jewish texts are loaded with spells and magic symbolism. From Moses and Pharaohs magi turning sticks into snakes to Solomon using bound demons to build the great temple. A little research will yield enough to make you smile, Im sure.

Check out "The Key of Solomon" but be careful. While it COULD be inspired by Solomons writings it is not HIS writings.

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This could be a lot of fun. Ancient Jewish texts are loaded with spells and magic symbolism. From Moses and Pharaohs magi turning sticks into snakes to Solomon using bound demons to build the great temple. A little research will yield enough to make you smile, Im sure.

Check out "The Key of Solomon" but be careful. While it COULD be inspired by Solomons writings it is not HIS writings.

For the most part I'm sticking to the Bible, which does have some pretty epic stuff in it.  In 2 Kings the prophet Elijah calls down a column of fire onto King Ahaziah and fifty of his men.  2 Kings is full of crazy stuff with Elijah and his disciple Elisha slinging spells left and right.  I'm hazarding a guess here, but "The Key of Solomon" sounds like it might be inspired by the Qur'an.  The Old Testament doesn't attribute any supernatural powers to Solomon, but the Qur'an certainly does.

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yup. that's the case. The Qur'an.

I've done a lot of research into old jewish magic in the past, but it wasn't restricted to The Bible alone. There's a bunch of texts detailing ancient spells that were considered "too holy to print". So they're in no bible.  :)

Don't forget Ezekiel. There's some neat stuff in there as well. IIRC there's a pretty big raise dead spell. It was a power channeled from God, but "cast" through a man...like a lot of the "power" used through out the bible.

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One difference between standard fantasy role-playing and the OT, though, is that the prophets weren't the ones doing the miracles.  They prayed but the results were always up to God.  Amazing stuff did happen, but not because Moses had a magic staff or because Elijah had a memorized spell list and 150 magic points.  In fact, the Israelis tended to get into trouble when they slipped into the magical thinking of their pagan neighbors.  This is in no way intended to criticize your idea.  The Old Testament is packed with tales of exploration, political intrigue, personal combat, and espionage that practically beg to be gamed.  However, we need different mechanics to represent how biblical miracles worked.

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While this is true, channeling the power of a deity is hardly new to gaming. It's just as easy to say Magic Points come from a higher power and cannot be used against that powers wishes. I'm not sure about Legend, but in Magic World this could be represented as a spell would fail if it would change your characters allegiance for the worse. The priest/disciple/follower/cleric/bishop is morally obligated to do nothing against his lords wishes lest they be ignored by their lord...or worse. And while moses didnt have a magic staff, the Pharaohs magi apparently did .

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"And while Moses didn't have a magic staff, the Pharaohs magi apparently did."

 

Good point.  The Old Testament goes out of its way to contrast the way God acted for the Israelites with how the Gentiles believed the supernatural worked.  The Egyptian magicians could turn their walking sticks into snakes, could turn small quantities of water into blood, and could call small numbers of frogs out of the Nile.  Moses' staff did cool stuff only when God told him to use it, but his stick-snake ate the magician's staffs, he turned the entire river into blood for days, and he called enough frogs out of the Nile to fill all Egyptian homes and public buildings with amphibians.  After that, the Egyptian priests told Pharaoh plainly that they were beaten.

 

Another example of how biblical miracles are different occurs in 1 Samuel 4-6.  Despite what Indiana Jones told us in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was neither a weapon nor a radio for talking to God.  The original Hebrew settlers in Canaan understood that the Ark was merely a symbol of their invisible, all-powerful God.  But their great-grandchildren thought they had God in a box and took it into one of their first big battles with the Philistines.  The Philistines freaked ("A god has come into the enemy camp!") and redoubled their efforts, dealing the Israelis a decisive defeat and seizing the Ark.  The Israelis were devastated ("God is a prisoner of war!") while the delighted Philistines hauled their trophy home and set it before the idol of their main deity, Dagon (a shout-out to you Cthulhu fans).  Now, here's where the fun began.  The Philistines twice found the idol fallen face down before the Ark in Dagon's own temple; the second time the idol actually broke.  Then a rodent-borne plague broke out, so the Philistines sent the Ark on tour.  Plague broke out in every city the Ark arrived in.  Finally, the Philistines put golden mice and golden tumors (symbols of the disease they were suffering) into the Ark as a peace offering to God and decided to send it back to Israel.  But they were scientific about it.  They loaded the Ark onto a wagon and hitched it to a cow that had just given birth.  They figured if the cow returned to its barn and its calf, the plague was just a coincidence.  But if the cow wandered into Israeli territory then the disease really was a punishment from God.  The cow made a bee-line for Israel, and the Philistines left their wimpy neighbors alone for a while.

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Sounds good.

 

I'd do the Backgrounds first - Israelite, Canaanite, Egyptian, Hittite and so on. Professions should be fairly easy, as this is just Ancients, but you'd need Prophet, Seer and so on.

 

Throw in a map and you have the basis of something good. Base scenarios on things in the Bible and you have a reasonable supplement straight away.

 

Magic is only a problem if you let it be. The Prophets could clearly cause miracles, so they could use Divine Magic, or perhaps they have a Piety skill that they can use to call for miracles. Pagans have cults, with Divine and Common Magic, normal people have Common Magic. Don't forget that the Israelites often worshipped pagan deities as well as, or alongside, Jehovah. There is a Jewish tradition of magic, perhaps only Folk Magic, which would suit Common Magic.

 

If you did is as a paper, then you would probably need to justify your choices, with a paragraph or so.

 

Don't forget to publish/upload it when it is finished.

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Obviously Egyptian Magic is Sorcery (use either BRP/MW Sorcery or Legend/RQ6), just ensure you have components, requirements, and other trappings for flavour

 

Roman magic I would go with Pete Nash's ROME supplement, its excellent if you have it. Even if Romans are not on the scene, the way that magic is handled in this book is one of the best I have seen for an ancient setting, and could easily influence other magic systems.

 

Hebrew/Yiddish Magic is a difficult one - perhaps some variation of RQ6 Divine Magic, possibly you randomly roll to see what miraculous effect occurs based on petitioner intent, MP magnitude, and Allegiance...unsure how to go with this, so I will also be interested in seeing what you come up with!

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Later on in Numbers the Hebrews are wandering through the desert dying of thirst. Without god telling him to do so, Moses strikes a rock twice with his staff creating a small spring. God punishes him for this act by banning him from the holy land. So prophets can do things without God's intervention, they'll just get in trouble for it.

"And while Moses didn't have a magic staff, the Pharaohs magi apparently did."

Good point. The Old Testament goes out of its way to contrast the way God acted for the Israelites with how the Gentiles believed the supernatural worked. The Egyptian magicians could turn their walking sticks into snakes, could turn small quantities of water into blood, and could call small numbers of frogs out of the Nile. Moses' staff did cool stuff only when God told him to use it, but his stick-snake ate the magician's staffs, he turned the entire river into blood for days, and he called enough frogs out of the Nile to fill all Egyptian homes and public buildings with amphibians. After that, the Egyptian priests told Pharaoh plainly that they were beaten.

Another example of how biblical miracles are different occurs in 1 Samuel 4-6. Despite what Indiana Jones told us in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was neither a weapon nor a radio for talking to God. The original Hebrew settlers in Canaan understood that the Ark was merely a symbol of their invisible, all-powerful God. But their great-grandchildren thought they had God in a box and took it into one of their first big battles with the Philistines. The Philistines freaked ("A god has come into the enemy camp!") and redoubled their efforts, dealing the Israelis a decisive defeat and seizing the Ark. The Israelis were devastated ("God is a prisoner of war!") while the delighted Philistines hauled their trophy home and set it before the idol of their main deity, Dagon (a shout-out to you Cthulhu fans). Now, here's where the fun began. The Philistines twice found the idol fallen face down before the Ark in Dagon's own temple; the second time the idol actually broke. Then a rodent-borne plague broke out, so the Philistines sent the Ark on tour. Plague broke out in every city the Ark arrived in. Finally, the Philistines put golden mice and golden tumors (symbols of the disease they were suffering) into the Ark as a peace offering to God and decided to send it back to Israel. But they were scientific about it. They loaded the Ark onto a wagon and hitched it to a cow that had just given birth. They figured if the cow returned to its barn and its calf, the plague was just a coincidence. But if the cow wandered into Israeli territory then the disease really was a punishment from God. The cow made a bee-line for Israel, and the Philistines left their wimpy neighbors alone for a while.

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I think there are some dangers with mangic in such a setting, since it deals with "active" religions. 

 

I don't think the "magic points come from God or a god" approach is true to the source. In standard RPGing it is mostly a matter of the power of the character. Even if the power comes from a higher power, it is the character who is a X level priest or has spent the POW to learn Rune/Divine spells.

 

But with the way region, especially the Bible works, when the Almighty decides to act, He wins. Moses wasn't going to loose the "magical staff competition" no matter what level he or his opponents were because Moses wasn't working the spell/miracle. God was. The closest RPG analog to that is in Ars Magica where characters with True Faith can prey for divine intervention. If they get it God acts, and there are no saving throws vs. God

 

But, do you want the Judeo-Christian God to be all powerful in your supplement? Or do you want to balance off the various religions.  The Bible is written from the viewpoint of one faith. None of the other an ancient cultures .believed that the God of the Jews was more powerful than their own gods. So who is right, as far as your supplement goes? 

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Well I reckon you still have Sorcery or some type of Magic spell system, which is probably what Moses used which displeased God.

 

I would model Hebrew miracles off some type of random mechanic based from an Allegiance (Faith) roll rather than a spell system.

 

So if Moses performed actions which displeased his God (including sorcery spell casting) then his Allegiance to God would have been weakened, and atonement was the only way to restrengthen that connection ( in the above case it was exile).

 

I think the concept of Allegiance is a great basis to model Faith from, but you need to tweak it to the setting. Perhaps a successful roll yields  a subtle result, such as allowing the circumstances in favour of the petitioner ( all rolls that scene made at Easy%, or opponent's rolls made at Difficult %). That way a Special Success can be used to portray minor miracles (the staff scene), and a Critical Success portraying a major miracle (such as Moses parting the waters with God's will). I would recommend the GM to narrate the results rather than the PC, that way it is clear the result is due to the connection with God,

 

I would make it a random roll for magic point cost as well, symbolising connecting with God. Perhaps a standard roll is worth 1D4 MP, whereas a Special Success doubles it, and a Critical Success triples it. But the results are worth it. This way Hebrew Faith feels very random, and very different to Egyptian Sorcery, for example, which is almost empirical in its costing (ie: set ritual requires, set components, set MP cost).

 

No approach would be more 'right' than the other, they are just different.

 

That's how I would do it

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The Jews, according to a rabbi I studied with, don't think of their Bible as The Old Testament (compared to the "New and Improved Testament"?).  Does your class consider the Talmud as the oral law?  One could inadvertently develop a rather ethnocentric RPG, if not careful.  For Jewish magic, of course, there is nothing that quite compares to the Kabbalah.  Any golems wandering about Prague, courtesy of the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel in the 16th century?  I thought Ars Magica did a good job in The Divine Realm with Jewish mysticism/magic.  I can understand if your class keeps you on the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, but that deprives your RPG of some of the richness of Jewish culture, which didn't end BCE   I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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"But, do you want the Judeo-Christian God to be all powerful in your supplement? Or do you want to balance off the various religions.  The Bible is written from the viewpoint of one faith. None of the other an ancient cultures .believed that the God of the Jews was more powerful than their own gods. So who is right, as far as your supplement goes?"

 

Judaism is just another minor religion practiced half-heartedly by former invaders who now get kicked around by the various big empires vying for control of the Mideast.  The God of the Israelis is just another local deity ... until your major god gets knocked down in its own temple ... until your veteran super-soldier gets clobbered by a farm boy who hasn't shaved yet ... until captive teeny-boppers who refused to worship your image refuse to burn in your fiery furnace ... until your multinational coalition army is destroyed by a coward armed with a torch and a trumpet ... until the prisoner of war you brought in to be mocked literally brings down the house, etc.  ;D

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Exactly. Basically it boils down to a "Which region is the right one?" only in game terms. If the Bible has it right,then all the other cultures have it wrong, and that should be reflected in any "Old Testament" campaign that is going to be true to it's source (not surprising since the source is  the major  text of one religion and a major text for a couple of others. If the Bible doesn't have it right, and everybody's religion is equal (or at the least more equal) then the campaign won't be true to the source. 

 

It's an interesting Catch 22

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If regional supplements were done, giving the local perspective of the "right way", along with an Old Testament write-up/monogram it would provide one hell of a great series for gaming in the ancient world. This would be quite a lot of work and would provide many of the problems many of us saw in the early stages of Glorantha. I would love to see it however and if this work is done from the Hebrew perspective, the God of the Bible WOULD be all powerful when working for His own interests and completely silent when the situation is up to Man.

 

It seems to me an Elan system would provide the kind of Godly Miracles spoken of earlier. You petition the Lord with your Divine Allegiance and pay for it with Divine Influence.

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Later on in Numbers the Hebrews are wandering through the desert dying of thirst. Without god telling him to do so, Moses strikes a rock twice with his staff creating a small spring. God punishes him for this act by banning him from the holy land. So prophets can do things without God's intervention, they'll just get in trouble for it.

 

 

You might want to read Numbers 20:7-12.  Moses was following orders, but he claimed credit for the miracle himself by saying "...must we fetch you water from this rock" and so taking at least partial credit for the miracle.  That is what got him in trouble. 

 

As for the rest of the thread:

Besides what has been noted about the danger of upsetting at least some people with this project (no way around that I believe) you are covering a WIDE range of cultures and circumstances.  The nomadic group that conquered the Promised Land was quite a bit different than the established people that were conquered and taken away by the Babylonians centuries later.  Adventuring in the time of the Judges (with no human king around) would be quite different than during the time of the Machabees for example.

 

It also seems there were long stretches of time when miracles were not being performed -in fact the average person probably never saw one. Those are not the times that get recorded and talked about though, just like we don't watch a detective set in a car for 12 hours with nothing going on. I'd suggest you focus on a certain time and place and set of circumstances that would make for good adventuring. 

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ORTRAIL: ...you are covering a WIDE range of cultures and circumstances.  The nomadic group that conquered the Promised Land was quite a bit different than the established people that were conquered and taken away by the Babylonians centuries later.  Adventuring in the time of the Judges (with no human king around) would be quite different than during the time of the Machabees for example.

 

It also seems there were long stretches of time when miracles were not being performed -in fact the average person probably never saw one. Those are not the times that get recorded and talked about though, just like we don't watch a detective set in a car for 12 hours with nothing going on. I'd suggest you focus on a certain time and place and set of circumstances that would make for good adventuring. 

 

Given the above quite valid point, it makes me wonder why you would not want to look at was done already in Testament, which has hammered out certain periods as playable.  It seems to me that a project that took something already existing and critiqued it while adding clarifications and fixes for percieved faults would be much better than trying to reinvent everything.

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Mankcam has some good ideas up there but I would also include sacrafice to gain allegiance, attone, and/or for magic points.

Sacraficing prized animals was still a major practice prior to The Lamb of Gods ultimate sacrafice.

It was "pleasing" to God, and well.... who wouldn't want their deity to be pleased?

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Yup, tributes and sacrifice were a feature of most ancient religions, and the Hebrews were no different. There was certainly a fair share of offering sacrifices as part of petitioning in the Old Testament, and God often shows his benolevence by sparing sacrifices at the last minute. But it shows that tribute and sacrifice were major features of petitioning the higher powers at this time.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Green Ronin published the excellent Testament sourcebook back in the D20 days. All text in the book was designated as Open Game Content and the best bits could be converted to Legend. They also produced a PDF-only supplement on the Hittites. Both works are still available via RPGNow / DrivethruRPG:

 

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/19191/Testament-Roleplaying-in-the-Biblical-Era?cPath=1487_4975&it=1

 

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/19208/Testament-The-Hittites?cPath=1487_4975&it=1

 

They also produced the Hamanuptra boxed set that was supposed to cover ancient Egypt, but isn't as good and not as much of the content is available for readaptation.

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