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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Piety & Profit

Given the degree of Medievalism present in a great many fantasy RPGs, especially those of the Old School Renaissance, it is often forgotten or ignored the importance of faith, worship, and religion in the lives of all and sundry, from kings and queens to servants and serfs. Even the role and Class of the Cleric in such games ignores this to a certain extent, but a new supplement focuses very much on this importance and shows how it can become a major aspect of a campaign. Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity – The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack, or, The Handbook of Pilgrimage and Relic Theft examines the role and importance that going on a pilgrimage, relics, and thus relic theft, including as it does the adage, “Pilgrimages in the Middle Ages were some kind of extremely hardcore live RPG that went on 24 hours a day”. Published by Lost Pages, Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity is the third in the series of supplements, the previous having been Burgs & Bailiffs: Warfare Too and the next will be Burgs & Bailiffs: For King & Country. This third supplement though is a historical sourcebook that covers the Middle Ages, roughly from the Fifth Century until the Fifteenth, though there is no doubt that its contents would apply much, much later. It is compatible with most Retroclones, but its focus on history and relatively limited number of rules mean that its content could prove useful in any number of RPGs, whether that is Atlas Games’ Ars Magica, Arion Games’ Maelstrom, Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Green Ronin Publishing’s Medieval Player’s Manual, and even Pelgrane Press’ Bookhounds of London.

What Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity – The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack covers is travel in the Middle Ages, the Medieval approach to death and beyond, relics and their theft, catacombs, and pilgrimage destinations. It also provides a new spell system structure for the Cleric Class and a new Class in the form of the Palmer. It is nicely illustrated with period artwork and some interesting maps, though the lack of an index does impede its use as an easy reference.

Travel it seems in the Middle Ages was a lot more common than most realise. Mostly obviously travel was for military and mercantile reasons, but men and women from all classes also travelled for religious purposes, often as far as the Holy Land and back. They were going on pilgrimage to sites of religious worship as signs of their devotion, prestige, to give thanksgiving, to find a cure, to make a penance, and even to escape a debt or go as someone else’s proxy. In addition to their destination, pilgrims would stop off at other sites along the way—shrines, churches, catacombs, and more. Not only would these sites be associated with particular saints, for example, the tomb of St. Chad in Lichfield or the Basilica of St. Madeleine with Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist in Burgundy, but as the Middle Ages progressed, they came to house holy relics. These consisted of not only clothing and other possessions belonging to the saints, but their body parts too—hair, teeth, nails, and bones!—and even the milk and tears that such relics wept. Praying to, or touching, such relics could grant healing and even miracles, so they became venerated for this as much as their holy providence. The degree of providence was classified into three Classes, ranging from Class III, oil poured over an actual relic and collected or a cobblestone from a street in the Holy Land, up to Class I, such a piece of the True Cross or a bone or body part of an actual saint.

Money though, came to play a great role in the relics and pilgrimage business. There was money to be made in providing travel and shelter to pilgrims and pilgrims made offerings  to shrines—peasants perhaps a votive offering or a coin or two, whilst the rich donated great sums, which in turn could be used to erect and decorate great churches and cathedrals around relics and further enhance the shrines. Since there was money involved, everyone wanted to get in on the game and since not everyone had access to a holy relic, they had two choices. Steal one—either from a holy site or from a tomb or catacomb, or make one. So relics were traded back and forth, stolen or subject to ‘Furta Sacra’ as the theft of relics was known, and manufactured just so that a ‘new shrine’ and its surrounding businesses could get in on the action.

Essentially, this is what Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity is all about. The player characters are pilgrims, travelling from one end of Christianity to the other, visiting shrines and praying as penances or simply as signs of their devotion. Alternatively, they might be thieves or forgers, plundering tombs and catacombs or faking relics to sell to needy churches or credulous pilgrims. Campaigns built around pilgrimage and relics would involve a lot of travel and the difficulties involved in it, piety or least displays of it, and brigandage and other forms of extortion. Pilgrimages can involve any kind of character, but Clerics might need to pray before a particular relic, Fighters to guard the large groups in which pilgrims travelled, and Thieves because they can steal from both the pilgrims and pilgrimage sites.

Given the subject matter of Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity, it is no surprise that the one Class it focuses us on is the Cleric. It alters the clerical spell system by making spells require relics as their material component. Two options are given to that end. The first suggests that a Cleric need to possess a relic to cast spells or miracles beyond First Level spells. Similarly, relics can also be used to Turn the undead and aid in healing, the more powerful the relic, the more effective it is. Such relics are not consumed in the casting of spells, but the more powerful the spell, the higher the class of relic required, for example, a Class I relic would be required to cast a spell of Fifth Level and above. In the second option, the Cleric needs to visit particular shrines to learn certain spells and apart from First Level and Second Level spells, a Cleric will need to pray before an altar or shrine in order all other spells. To that end Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity amends the Clerical spell list to include shrines where they can prayed for and learned. In both options, the Cleric Class is now driven to travel in order to learn his miracles or spells.

The Palmer is a new Class that can work miracles and eventually establish shrines. Yet where the traditionally ordained Cleric gains his spells through divine favour, the Palmer must actually pray at specific shrines to gain spells or miracles. Further, he can Busk through storytelling, the selling of indulgences, and the giving of sermons to make a living, as well as eventually, to establish a shrine to further support himself and have somewhere to pray. The Referee will need to seed a campaign with shrines in order for the Palmer to travel to. This Class is intended to replace the traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style Cleric, perhaps in a dryer, more historical campaign.

A good fifth of Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity is devoted to shrines and pilgrimage sites from England and Ireland to the Mediterranean and the Levant, though relics and shrines in Near East and Asia are also discussed. The relics themselves are described in some detail, while tables allow the Referee to create his own. A similar treatment is accorded catacombs, with attention paid to actual historical sites, such as those of Rome and Malta, whilst tables enable the Referee to again create his own. Further tables give encounters to have whilst on pilgrimage, boons to be granted pilgrims, and more, while the book ends with tables of adventure seeds.

As good as the material is in Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity, the book is perhaps lacking in a couple of areas. There is no real discussion of the role of the other traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style Classes in a campaign that focuses on pilgrimages and relics and nor is there any discussion of actual campaigns that focus on pilgrimages and relics. This means that the supplement lacks a certain degree of application.

Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity feels thoroughly researched and is full of rich detail. How useful a supplement it is, depends upon the role of faith and religion in a campaign, but there is content here that can be simply used to flavour a campaign or used as the basis of a campaign. Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity – The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack, or, The Handbook of Pilgrimage and Relic Theft might not necessarily be the most immediately useful supplement, but it is quite possibly the definite supplement on relics and pilgrimages for Dungeons & Dragons or the Retroclone of your choice.