Category Archives: History

Order of Ulfberht

I’ve been watching the show Vikings on Hulu recently, which is awesome by the way, and in a recent episode a blade with the engraved name of Ulfberht showed up. My wife Brittany started squeeing about how awesome those swords are and we immediately had to go to Netflix and watch a documentary shed watched called “Secrets of the Viking Sword.” It’s available for streaming now, so go check it out if you have a subscription because it’s worth your time. The documentary speaks to a special class of swords that were made and used by Vikings that were made of an incredibly high quality steel that mirrors technology from centuries after their origin. All these blades bore an inscription that read +ULFBERH+T. These inlaid blades had a fascinating story behind them that tells a story I think many games could use today. 20140502-222738.jpg

There are three laments that come together to make these blades so intriguing. The steel technology, the raw material for the blades, comes from the near east as far as India, which the Vikings had a trade relationship with. The swords are carried by Vikings and were very specifically designed to pierce the chainmail of their time. The really interesting thing is the name that is etched into the blade. The name is Frankish (the kingdom stretching from France and Germany at the time), but what really stands out is the use of the cross in the inscription. The cross was used to denote an abbot or bishop or perhaps even a specific monastery, but why would the pagan Vikings be wielding a sword with made by the Christians they raided? The answer is lost to time and we may never know where they got these impressive weapons, but the idea of various materials and technologies coming from around the known world to produce a powerful and game changing weapon is a really cool inspiration.

Maybe a special material is being imported that in the hands of a special order is being forged into weapons that dramatically shift a war effort or power struggle. Maybe the order is a holy rule that is specially crafting weapons with a blessing or enchantment (which the vikings may have believed was true) and they are the only ones who can produce such fine weaponry. How far would you go to claim a unique weapon like this? Who would be trying to pass cheap replicas off to make quick profit? Would you allow this superior weaponry to circulate or shut it down permanently? Lots of fun angles to approach this real world example of weapon forging and craftsmanship.

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X is for Xerxes

xThere are a few historical figures who pop up in the stories of Scripture that warrant a second look. In the New Testament, the author, Luke, makes a very big deal about who is Caesar and who was governor of what province as Luke is primarily a historian and doctor by trade and is specifically rooting his tale in the historical reality of his time. In the Old Testament, after the defeat of Israel, first by the Assyrians who spread their people all over the Assyrian Empire, then by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, the people of Israel found themselves in captivity (as was the practice of the Babylonians and the Persians who followed them) in a foreign land. The best of the people were carried off to Babylon to be assimilated into the Babylonian (then Persian) empire and culture. So those many armies of the Persian empire who made up the huge army that faced down the Spartans in 300, Israel was one those conquered people who folded into the Persian war machine, but without the crazy war rhinos.

Xerxes’s story is found in the book of Esther, one of two books in the Old Testament specifically focused on a female lead character. Esther is a Jewish woman living in exile as an orphan. She’s cared for by her uncle and her story takes a dramatic turn when the king, Xerxes, becomes fed up with the many personal slights of his wife, the queen. He removes her from her role and throws a beauty pageant to choose his next wife who will become queen of Persia. Esther happens to win this pageant and goes from an occupied inhabitant of the Persian capital to its celebrated new queen.

That is where this story takes a turn for the awesome. Esther’s uncle hears about a conspiracy against the king and reports it through Esther. He is honored by the king for his service, which makes one of the king’s viziers jealous and that adviser decides to try and murder all of Esther’s people in retaliation. Little overkill, <sarcasm> but we’ve all been there, am I right?!? </sarcasm>

So this elaborate plot is put underway by the king’s vizier to single out Esther’s people (which no one realizes that she is Jewish at this point) and she is watching this all as it transpires. So she hatches her own elaborate plan and flips the machinations of the evil vizier on his head. She has him run out of town and the story ends with a delightful ending where the evil vizier is impaled on a pike. Grim, but fair.

Political intrigue and the behind the scenes machinations of court are not my personal cup of tea when playing games, but seeing an elaborate game of political chess come to fruition is very satisfying to watch. Setting the pieces in motion takes finesse and long term strategy that I lack patience for personally, but makes for a fascinating spider web of intrigue and mystery.

The book of Esther is read regularly at festivals within the Jewish community as a testimony to not only God’s protection, but of the courage of one person taking a stand and what one person can really do. It’s a short book and is maybe worth your time to witness one of history’s earliest femme fatales. It doesn’t take long and for someone who’s not so good at political intrigue it definitely inspires my imagination in regards to how you might navigate your way out of a difficult and potentially deadly political situation.


S is for Saints

s Throughout the history of the church as it has expanded and grown, there are incredible stories of pioneers of the faith who did incredible things and from whom I have learned many lessons. In the traditions of the church, many of those men and women have been officially recognized for their faithfulness and for the way that God has worked through them by canonize nag them and referring to them as saints. Stories abound of the powerful actions attributed to their names and of their legendary deeds and service. They certainly sound like the heroes of old to me. That isn’t to say that many of them weren’t broken people who were not the paragons of virtue that we want to see them as or that they have been reported to be. Church annals may have been kinder to them than they probably deserve and as history gets more distant that is only more likely to be the case. There are a great many of these honored elders who have gone before and have much to teach about life through their experiences.

Now I have to preface this with the fact that I am a Protestant by tradition. My perspective on the saints is one of respect and honor towards those who have gone before without assigning any deeper respect than that. I was actually raised to think that honoring the saints was a form of idolatry, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to respect the lives they have lived and the things we can learn from them. The legends and stories that surround these honored men and women gave direction to the way they are categorized and the scope of how we learn from them. As this is not part of the tradition I grew up in, I was always fascinated by the nature of patron saints and the various elements of society and specific places that they oversaw.

For example, if you are an archer and are looking for a particular saint to reflect on or learn from, Nicholas of Myra is the guy for you. You might also know him as St. Nick (aka Santa Claus). They multitask pretty well. If you are a soldier looking to learn about various martial roles, George might be the one for you. He supposedly killed a dragon in Libya and was also the saint over many types of infectious skin conditions. Tough combo. If you are a musician looking to learn about using your gifts for good, Julian the Hospitaler oversees both minstrels in general and fiddlers to be more specific. If the sea is of interest to you and sailing is more your thing, then Brendan the Navigator can provide insight. His stories include one where he landed a boat on a little island and leads a service only to discover that he had landed on the back of a whale!

Many of the stories of these honored dead are probably great exaggeration so but the fact that they oversee particular domains and sections of life and activity lends itself to the polytheistic pantheons that often populate roleplaying games. One way of integrating this is having characters dedicated in the memory and service of these patron saints. Maybe these saints are Greek style demigods or maybe they are simply dedicated mortals who hold a sacred place now in honored death and can pass the power of their patron deity on to their devoted. Either way, the history of the saints and their various specialties can lend themselves quite easily to a game setting that is quite interesting.


I is for Inquisition

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I really didn’t want to do this one. My faith is something beautiful to me, but there have been some distinctly dark periods and applications of that faith that I see uniting people and bringing hope to the world, but has caused incredible suffering that was far from its original intent. I can’t ignore that aspect and heritage of the church. All I can really speak to is my sorrow over the hurt that has been inflicted by others in the name of Jesus Christ, something incredibly far from the heart of God and of His desire for the world.

It’s kind of amazing how people fixate on particular things, as if there was only one piece that keeps the world from the perfection of God’s design. The moral imperative to remove the blemish of sin has lead to crusaders of justice (like abolitionists), but in the hands of the over zealous and misguided it has also lead to the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition. The idea of an order so focused on what they know to be right that they lose perspective on everything else and can only see success as the elimination of all other perspectives.

Many campaigns are built around the idea of a so-called “good” organization or individual fixating on a particular foible or difference and fighting to eliminate that difference from the world. The Children of Light in the Wheel of Time are a great example of this in a fantasy setting. Dedicated to purifying the world from the stain of magic, they have become blind to the infiltrating darkness that masks itself within their hatred and zeal to pursue what they perceive as purity. There are many ways you can play this, either as the actors trying to remove a perceived blot in the world, those being persecuted by an unjust order, or those working at cross purposes to an organization or individual that you will need to fight against to save those being tormented. There can even be some great opportunities for the protagonists to find themselves working for an organization like this and slowly discover and change their mind and start fighting against those they were sure were in the right to start with. No bad guy thinks they are the bad guy and in the case of persecution by religious figures, they often have immense motivation to do incredible evil in the name of what they think is right. It’s a powerful motivation and makes for a satisfying foil for players to rise up and stand against.