Last fall I took this Pastors & Dragons project to Gamehole Con. While I was there I ran a bunch of Cypher System adventures that I developed which I called “Adventures of Biblical Proportions”. I have found that the Cypher System provides a much more flexible base for Biblically based games than the more common D&D 5e system. With Cypher the genre of the stories you tell is much more malleable, making it extremely simple to run everything from historical no-magic, supernatural myth, high fantasy, modern, sci-fi, or any mix of genres you can think of.
My main issue with running Cypher, in spite of its simplicity, is that the rulebook is a bit all over the place. The Cypher System Rulebook has a ton of sidebars and cross-references, but I still found it pretty difficult to grok. Something about how it is organized feels really chaotic, and there are little bits of rules hiding all over the place.
In order to understand how to run the game, I began putting a sheet together that had all the necessary rules bits on 1 page. I was inspired by The Alexandrian’s Numenera focused cheat sheet, and wanted something similar but for just the general Cypher System. Last Fall, I polished up that page so I could easily use it to explain the game to new players. I think it turned out pretty well, so here it is for the world to use as well. I hope you like it!
This one-page cheat sheet explains all the basic Cypher System mechanics I’ve found to be necessary for actual play.
On Epiphany of this year (January 6th) the folks at the freshly minted Red Panda Publishing began their Kickstarter campaign to bring their “Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible” to life. That campaign is just about to wrap up, with less than 2 days left to back the project. And on all accounts it’s been successful thus far, with over 1000 backers and raising enough to unlock every single stretch goal.
This project takes the history and cultures of the Ancient Near East, the words of the Bible, and more legendary aspects of the Christian faith, and mixes them together to offer a new setting for D&D 5e adventures. The developers at Red Panda Publishing were kind enough to reach out to me and share a preview copy of their product, which included 138 pages of the module. That’s what I’m reviewing here.
Mixing real world religion and TTRPGs is a risky business. This is not a project that will appeal to everyone. Real world faith resists simplification and gamification. It’s simply too complex to get completely right. However, I have also experienced the richness and the fun that can come from drawing inspiration for your tabletop adventures from the Bible. In my opinion, to succeed at it takes both devotional sincerity and enough tongue-in-cheek willingness to wink at the whole endeavor and just have a bit of fun. From my experience with the material and the folks at Red Panda Publishing I think this project does just that. The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible appears to be a thoughtful and sincere project coming from people who care about both matters of faith and having fun at the table.
An inclusivist worldview.
One of the first questions I had when looking at AGttB was how they would handle representing other faiths within the world of the project. As a pastor/theologian/person of faith, I think one of the most interesting aspects of worldbuilding in any D&D setting is deciding what to do about deities. The section on “Gods of Your World” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is ripe with different examples, from the loose pluralistic pantheon that is most common to an exclusivist monotheism to a world without gods that is powered by the force of ones philosophies.
This is a real world question too, one that scholars and people of faith debate about all the time. How do you intellectually comprehend the vast diversity of human religious experience? Generally the different approaches to this question fall into a trichotomy: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. If we think of diety as a mountain summit and a faith tradition as a mountain trail, exclusivism would tend to believe that there is one “correct” mountain and one “correct” trail, and that other trails lead to incorrect or false mountaintops. Pluralism would tend to posit that there are multiple “true” mountains and many true pathways up those mountains. Inclusivism would say that there’s one mountain, and that the many different paths are actually all pathways up the same mountain, and perhaps one of those pathways is the clearest route to the top. AGttB more or less takes that inclusivist approach. When various religions are encountered, they are generally understood to be worshipping the same God as Jesus is revealing, even if the practitioners of those religions might say otherwise.
About the Content
The writers provide a lot of background. With using real world locations, there is a lot of background to give. They use it to paint a rich picture of the 1st Century Ancient Near East. Sometimes that background started reading more like a history book than an adventure module, but that was mainly in the introductory chapter. I think their goal is to provide enough information so that Dungeon Masters don’t have to look elsewhere to feel like they are running a well-researched quasi-historical campaign. The locations are fleshed out. The number of NPCs is vast. There is a lot of stuff to see and do.
Though there is a lot of research that has gone into this, the writers have used some imaginative liberty in a few different places. Some of the geography is adapted (for instance, the first main city of Media is an adapted version of the historical city of Ecbatana, but moved 1000 miles to the south). Some of the locations draw more from legend than from history (like the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark). All in all, I was impressed by the vastness of what was provided. There are a lot of places to go and explore, and I can see having a lot of fun with it at the table. With locations galore, The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible really shines as a setting book.
The adventure plays as a follow-up to the Epiphany story of the Magi visiting baby Jesus. The adventurers are tasked with going to find the missing Magi and help fight back some encroaching evil. The villains are personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, and each is digging into a different area of the map and extending their influence into the populace. NPCs include the Magi and a number of people from the New Testament and some of the apocryphal books of the Bible, like Tobit. And yes, Jesus makes an appearance or two.
The campaign hits quick and hard. In a departure from the standard 5e D&D design mentality, the adventuring day in this campaign is usually going to consist of a lot of exploration and social interaction and one very difficult fight, rather than the 6-8 encounters that the DMG suggests. I could see this posing a challenge to less experienced Dungeon Masters. I can also see how this allows for a much faster level progression that normal D&D campaigns usually experience, and could support the players gaining a level after each session.
One of the problems I have seen in this design is that there are a number of places where the heroes get sidelined while angels or Jesus take the spotlight. The designers have opened up a Discord channel for backers and are hoping to use that community to provide some playtesting and editing, so some of that may change, and I’m hoping it does. That’s one of the real challenges with a project like this that puts the heroes into a setting with so much history, sometimes it feels like the real plot is going on elsewhere. The designers (and the DMs who will be running this adventure) need to remember that this story, if it’s going to work at the table, needs to be a story about the characters of the players who are there. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to this product, it happens anytime an adventure is set in an established setting with other powerful NPCs running around. Sometimes the book seems to get it right, othertimes not so much.
This brings me to the biggest potential “problem” of this book. They fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’ – but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Never stat up Jesus!’ The designers have promised to provide stats for the Son of Man/Son of God, stats that were not included in the preview they provided me. What was provided was the Challenge Rating, Jesus of Nazareth clocks in at a CR 9, but goes up to CR 30 in his ‘Risen” form. I’m worried about how these stats will be used at the table. In Dungeons & Dragons, if something is given stats that usually means situations will inevitably arise where the players and DMs will find a way to kill it (just ask all the villagers of Hommlet). I anticipate we’ll see a lot of stories about irreverant D&D tables celebrating that they “killed God” as soon as this adventure is released. I would rather the designers leave the God stats for the Risen Christ out of the game entirely. We don’t need megalord Jesus. As for that CR 9 stat block? I’m really hoping for something like an NPC version of the Way of Tranquility Monk from Unearthed Arcana. And I think CR 9 is probably too high. If I were designing it, I would probably just adjust some ability scores and tack on some special abilities to the commoner stat block and call it a day.
Most of the art for the Adventurer’s Guide to the BIble is on order, but there is enough out there that the style can generally be seen. The layout artists have done a great job organizing the pages and giving the book a very polished look. The character art strikes a slightly cartoony feel, in line with things like The Action Bible.
The cover image shows an elf, dwarf, fighter, and a cloaked rogue/cleric. It’s a classic D&D party, with all the classic D&D problems. Everyone is male and they all show white skin tones. It’s really an unfortunate image. Inside the art is better, with a great deal more diversity depicted and a lot fewer dwarves, elves, and people in anachronistic armor. There’s still too many caucasian people depicted for a book that’s supposed to be set in the Middle East.
The maps are sufficient and full color. The city maps draw on historical layouts from archaeological dig sites. They’re not up to the level of map that you would find in an offical WotC hardcover adventure, but they are usable and better than a lot of maps I’ve seen in official Adventurer’s league modules.
The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible adds some game content as far as character options, unique monsters, magic items, and spells. There’s a lot here, and they try to cover a really wide design space. Unfortunately, they don’t always hit the mark. In the spells and monsters I saw, I wasn’t always clear why they chose not to use material already in the 5e SRD. Do we really need a different stat block for a guard or a noble? Giving them the same name as already existing monsters in D&D adds to the confusion. And do we need a spell called Exorcism when we’ve already got Dispel Evil and Good, which does the same thing?
There are a lot of player options, and a lot more that have been unlocked thanks to the kickstarter reaching stretch goals. The ones I saw were not all that exciting though. Their design was usually a bit clunky and not up to the quality of already published 5e options. The same goes for the new subclass options. The versions I saw were pretty clunky, with abilities that tended to be way overpowered. My favorite was probably the Bard: College of Psalms, which had a potentially interesting mechanic. I’m hoping the rough edges get worn off before final publication, but from what I’ve seen so far there’s not a lot I would use as-is at any table I would run.
My Final Opinion
All in all, my final opinion is this: The Adventurer’s Guide to the Bible is a labor of love and a huge undertaking by a team of just four people, led by Ben Maerzke. The content is largely written. From what I’ve seen this is a project that tries to balance both devotional sincerity and a fun experience at the table. They really want to get this right, and are using a private discord server for bakers to continue the editing process, with an eye towards religious, cultural, and racial sensitivity. It will be a hard project to get completely right, but from what I’ve seen I think the team has more hits than misses. Ultimately it’s got enough promise that I chose to be a backer. Maybe you will too.