Controlled by Fear

Several years ago, I ran a fantasy horror game for a group of teenagers from my church. It was their very first roleplaying game, and I felt both very privileged to have the opportunity to introduce them to the hobby and very responsible for keeping them on a godly path in their play. My own experience with roleplaying at that age was… Well, let’s say that some of the encounters were less than holy. In that light, horror might seem like a peculiar choice of genre—the kind of conservative Pentecostals of my home church are just as uncomfortable with horror films as they are with roleplaying itself. Nevertheless, although I don’t care much for the genre in film, it’s a gaming mode that I enjoy and that I think has much to offer. This article isn’t meant to be an apology for the place of the macabre in the Christian imagination, so to keep it short, I’ll offer this link to Christian Fandom’s essay list on that topic and chaplain M.J. Young’s previous articles Writing Fear, Faith in Play #5: Fear, and RPG-ology #11: Scared. Rather, I would like to look at one particular moment in that game and offer some observations on gaming, Christian fellowship, and courage. Read more

Faith in Play #13: The Evils of Monopoly®

This is Faith in Play #13:  The Evils of Monopoly®, for December 2018.


It is perhaps almost a joke, that whenever uninformed people begin talking about the evils of role playing games a gamer will respond with the notion of the evils of the game Monopoly®.  I mentioned it myself in my 1997 article Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict.  (I do not know whether anyone else had mentioned it before me, and it was one of several games I cited in that article for various issues.)  Lately, though, the idea has nagged at me that there are numerous “dangers” in Monopoly® in particular, and it would be worth taking a moment to address the game.

Let’s begin with the one that is the most obvious:  the game promotes a mindset of greed.  To win the game you must become the “richest” player, accruing the most money and real estate of anyone in the game.  It is capitalism on steroids.

Sure, there are wealthy Christians in the world, and not all of them handle their wealth admirably.  Yet most of us would agree that the pursuit of money is not only wrong, it is a very alluring trap.  Learning as Paul to be content in luxury or poverty is not an easy lesson.  Monopoly teaches the opposite lesson, encouraging us to seek to be the wealthiest.

Yet the objection goes deeper.  There are plenty of games in which being the best is the way to win, and quite a few in which the score is given with dollar signs in front of it.  If it were only that you had to try to be better than everyone else at the table, well, a lot of games are like that, and Monopoly® might be excused.  However, unlike Parchessi or Life or many other games in which once one person wins everyone else loses, the rules of Monopoly® state that nobody wins until everyone else loses.  That is, in order to win the game you have to drive all the other players into bankruptcy.  You don’t win until you are the last man standing, financially.  We can accept that in a footrace once one person wins, everyone else loses.  This is more like a demolition derby, in which once everyone else loses, the one player remaining wins.

So those are perhaps the big objections to the game; but it would be a short and perhaps laughable article if those were the only problems.  The game also offers its “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards, and in doing so creates another notion to which Christians ought to object:  the idea that favorable and unfavorable events come to people at random.  You might win a beauty pageant, or have to go to jail, but it has nothing to do with anything you did, it is merely the roll of the dice and the draw of the cards that controls your fate.  As we discussed long ago in Faith and Gaming:  Mechanics, randomness is a theological problem wherever we encounter it.  Monopoly® does not suppose that God is behind these random distributions of good and ill; it teaches that such outcomes are random.

It also teaches that such random events are to some degree balanced.  A chance card can be benefit or bane, and the balance between them is such that you do not know whether to dread or anticipate as you reach for one.  God’s world is good; evil is found in it, and suffering, and this article is not about to resolve the issues involved in that.  However, a game that teaches us that good and evil balance out in the end is not a Christian game.  Good wins in the end, and there is more good than evil in our path, because God gives good gifts.  If we come away from a game thinking that the good and the bad balance each other in the end in life, we have learned the wrong lesson.  The truth is, much that we think bad is for our good, and thus is itself good, and the good in our lives outweighs the bad.

Let’s add one more issue to the pot:  if you pass “Go” you collect, in the original version, two hundred dollars.  That is, if you can survive long enough, the next paycheck will come and you’ll have money.  For many people that’s realistic, but it’s also teaching a lesson, that all you have to do is survive to the next paycheck.  Most of us make the mistake of thinking that our money comes from our hard work at our jobs; the fact is, our money comes from the grace of God–the jobs are only the vehicle by which it is delivered.  James warns us against relying on what will come tomorrow; Monopoly® encourages us to expect it.

I am not going to say not to play Monopoly®.  As board games go, it’s well designed and popular.  I am going to say to be wary of the lessons it teaches, and remind yourself of the truth.

Or find a more Christian game to play.


Previous article:  Fiction and Lies.
Next article:  Wickedness.

Terror in the Tower, part 3

This Beckett Family Adventure follows Terror in the Tower, part 2. 


Background

The session began with the PCs at the ruined Temple of Pholtus, a few hours from small village of Lakesend. This was their third foray to the temple. The first time, they spotted harpies flying about the tallest tower in the complex. They entered the tower, but a battle with animated guardians inside caused them to return to the village. During their second visit, they fought a swarm of goblyns in the temple’s cellars. This time, they left the horses and a few of their party a half-mile away. The main group then made a thorough search of the ruins, finding evidence of recent inhabitation. The group now stood in the cloister, deciding what to do next. Read more

RPG-ology #12:  Aphorisms

This is RPG-ology #12:  Aphorisms, for November 2018.


One of the hardest aspects of creating worlds is creating cultures.  Different cities, different countries, different peoples all have differences in everything from dress to architecture to courtesy.  The elves of Lothlorien have a different culture from those of Mirkwood.

One article is not going to serve as a complete course in creating culture, but there is one aspect of culture that struck me which I thought might be worth discussing.

In my first novel, I was expressing the viewpoint of one of the characters toward minor injuries he had received, and wrote

Even a small wound infected could be trouble, and an ounce of prevention… he chided himself for relying on aphorisms for wisdom.

My editor had no idea what that meant.  He was an excellent editor, but he was Australian, and therein lies the rub.  The expression is An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and is one of the many witticisms published by Benjamin Franklin writing in Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Americans generally recognize dozens of his sayings, from Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise to his advice to the other members of the Continental Congress as they signed the Declaration of Independence, We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.  Those sayings are considerably less known outside their native country.  All cultures have these.  The British expression A penny’s worth of mirth is worth a pound of sorrow is not even well understood by those who do not recognize that a pound is a unit of currency, not in this case specifically weight.  And so it is evident that each culture will have some expressions unique to itself.

On the other hand, many of the older expressions will cross cultural lines, and the people who know the expression won’t realize it.  Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in a public speech, “Let me quote an old Russian proverb:  Whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.”  He was completely unaware that this was from the Bible until the international press started calling him a “Bible-quoting clown”.  So we see that some expressions cross cultural lines and are adopted by people who don’t know the origin of the aphorism.

So, how do you do this in a game?

Since you’re creating the world, and thus most of the cultures of the world, you’re going to have to invent some of these yourself.  You might want to write half a dozen for each culture in advance, and consider times when non-player characters can use them—or even feed them to players playing characters drawn from those cultures.

Bear in mind that those sayings which become common do so because they relate to things within the culture.  A people for whom most of life is spent digging underground is not going to have sayings about grass on the other side of a fence or when to make hay; a tribe of nomadic herdsmen won’t talk much about places like home; a land-locked nation probably won’t have much to say about oceans or beach sand.  The value of a proverb lies in its ability to use something familiar to its people to make a practical or moral point.  Your diggers will know that gold isn’t the only thing that glitters, your herdsmen will know that the grass only looks greener elsewhere.

Also recognize that witticisms are often contradictory, even in the same culture—too many cooks spoil the broth but two heads are better than one; haste makes waste but a stitch in time saves nine.  There is no reason why your cultures cannot have contradictory aphorisms, and even quote them at each other in discussions.  After all, the digger goes farther following the softer path, but the hardest rocks hold the most precious gems.

That’s a good example, because of course someone from that tribe of herdsmen would have no clue what either of those mean, just as the diggers would be completely baffled by the saying When the mare is in season the stallion can’t be calmed.

Once you have outlined the culture, enlist the aid of your players, at least in connection with their characters’ own cultures.  If you have an elf, or a Bothan, or a Frangian, discuss with them what kinds of things would make good “old sayings” in their culture, and invite them to include some of their own devising.

And don’t be afraid to be absurd.  In the movie America’s Sweethearts, the “Wellness Guide” (played by Alan Arkin) says, as I recall it, “In my country we have an old saying, Mecka lecka halava, beem sala beem.”  Eddie (John Cusack) responds, “Oh.  What’s that mean?”  The answer?  “No one knows.  It’s a very old saying.”

So create a few very old sayings that sound like they contain wisdom, and release them into your game through peoples that would understand them, and see how that helps define your cultures a bit better.


Previous article:  Scared.
Next article:  Cities.

Multiple Gifts

There are some characters that will develop multiple GIFTS. Functionally they are home in any of their Houses and are culturally viewed as a representation that all the Houses are to be united in their work in the world. Often they work as liaisons between the Houses. Not surprisingly, most often do not have time for any other organizations due to the tremendous responsibility expected of them.

Mechanically, GIFTS are obligations more than combat bonuses. A PC with two (or more) GIFTS will either find themselves occupied by duties related to those GIFTS or become a pariah viewed as greedy and self serving. While that may not always be the case, it is the cultural perception if the PC is unwilling to use those GIFTS in the manner they were intended.  A player who rolls this should expect that many character actions over the character’s span will be absorbed by the role.

Faith in Play #12: Fiction and Lies

This is Faith in Play #12:  Fiction and Lies, for November 2018.


I once encountered someone who held the view that all of Jesus’ parables were literally true, that they were recountings of real events of which He in His omniscience was aware.  There really was a Good Samaritan, a Prodigal Son, a woman who lost a coin, a man who invited the poor to a wedding feast.  His brilliant theological argument was that if these were not true stories, then when Jesus told them He was lying, and since He was sinlessly perfect He never lied.

Whether “lying” is actually always a “sin” is a complicated question, of course.  We abbreviate one of the Ten Commandments to “Thou Shalt Not Lie,” but it is better understood as “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness,” that is, do not commit perjury, do not testify falsely in a legal matter.  Jeremiah was at one point ordered by King Hezekiah not to tell anyone the real content of their conversation but to lie about it, and he complied with the command of the king rather than respond that as a prophet of God he should never lie.  On the other hand, when in the New Testament we are told to let our yes be yes and our no, no, and don’t swear to anything, the point seems fairly clearly to be that we should be the kind of people who tell the truth so consistently that no one would think we were lying when we said anything, or require any extreme affirmations of veracity to verify our statements.  There is a degree to which we should not lie.

I have to wonder, though, whether Jesus during His earthly ministry had the kind of omniscience attributed to Him by this argument.  We are told in Philippians 2 that He emptied Himself of His divine power and became human, and somehow I can’t see how He could retain absolute knowledge of everything and not count that as a divine ability.  Yet the budding theologian has a point:  the stories are either true or false, and if they are not true then Jesus was telling us falsehoods as if they were facts.  Does that not mean He was lying?

I think not.  I think there is a clear distinction between lying and telling fictional stories.  The difference is in the latter case you are in some sense using unreal events to entertain, convey ideas, perhaps educate.  In the former case you are using falsehoods to deceive.

I appeal to the example of Sophie Devereaux, actress and grifter in the television series Leverage.  When she is on stage pretending to be Maria in The Sound of Music or Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, she is acting.  She does not mean for you to believe that she actually is Maria or Willie, but hopes that you will temporarily suspend your disbelief and accept the fiction for the sake of the story.  She is in those cases an actress.  When she is off stage introducing herself as a spokesman for a firm in Dubai or an art expert from the Vatican or a member of British nobility, she is attempting to deceive her audience, to get them not merely to suspend disbelief but to believe, to embrace the fiction as truth.  She is then a grifter, someone who steals by deception.  (We may applaud her motives, in the way we recognize the good in the rogue who uses his skills for good, but we must recognize that she is using deceit to achieve her objectives.)

A lie is specifically a falsehood presented for the purpose of deceiving the hearer.

What I see in the parables of Jesus is that it does not matter whether there actually was such a Samaritan, such a prodigal, or any of the other people, creatures, objects, or places included, and it does not matter whether we believe that these existed or acted in the ways presented.  What matters is that these possibly imaginary people, creatures, objects, and places are part of a story that conveys an important lesson, a message to the hearers.  We can choose to be like the Good Samaritan without believing that any such person actually existed, just as we can choose to emulate Peter or Lucy Pevensie, or Frodo Baggins, or Harry Potter or Hermione Granger.  We can learn the lesson of the Prodigal Son without thinking him more real than Draco Malfoy or the White Witch or Gollum.  The stories need not be true in order to convey truth.

Yet if this is unconvincing, let it be clear that Jesus often made statements that were not literally true, in order to convey truths.  He told us we were the light of the world when it is obvious we are not comprised of photons moving in waves.  He also labeled us the salt of the earth, and while several chemical salts are essential to our lives our bodies are mostly water, and very little salt.  He called us branches of a vine on which fruit grows, but we are not woody extensions of a plant.  If any false statement is a lie, these are all lies told by Jesus.  Yet we do not take them as lies.  We take them as analogies, metaphors, allegories, similes—in short, fictional statements which convey truths.

The parables need not be different in that regard.

Nor is it therefore conclusive that the telling of fictional stories is a sin because they are false.  What makes a falsehood a lie is the intention to deceive.  That is not the intention of our storytelling, which exists primarily to entertain, and often to educate, but which we know from the outset is not the truth but only a vehicle for truth.


Previous article:  Halloween.
Next article:  The Evils of Monopoly.

Tales From the Loop

Last weekend I was invited to participate as a guest star in a session of Tales from the Loop (TFL), Simon Stålenhag’s RPG set in a science-fictionalized small town from the 1980’s. The Player Characters are a band of kids (12 – 15 years of age) who are caught up in mysterious events surrounding a secret maybe-government project called the Loop. Released on the heels of Netflix’s Stranger Things, TFL borrows from all of the adolescent fantasies of the ’80’s such as E.T., The Goonies, and Explorers with a healthy dose of Eureka mixed in. As a guest, I got only a small taste of the system and world, but what I saw definitely left me wanting more!

The Review

Mechanically, the system is fairly simple: Characters have four Attributes: Body, Mind, Tech, and Heart; and a number of Skills, each of which is associated with one of the Attributes. When the GM calls for a roll, a dice pool is filled with d6’s equal to the character’s Attribute + Skill, and any 6’s are counted as successes. A typical task is accomplished by rolling just one success, and “Nearly Impossible” tasks are accomplished with three successes. There is no failure or critical success mechanic—a 6 is the only result that matters, but in a game filled with young teenagers, everything is critical. Children don’t have professions, so the role of character classes is played by middle-school stereotypes: The Jock, the Rocker, the Popular Kid, the Geek. Each class allows the kid to specialize their Skills—the Jock, for instance, can take up to three points in Force (applications of physical prowess, such as fighting or opening stuck doors), Move, and Connections (the ability to get help from allies other than the PCs), but they can’t take more than one point in any other skill. Younger kids get fewer Attribute point, reflecting that they’re still developing, but they make up for it with Luck points, which can be used to reroll failed dice. Read more

Compendium of the Lands Surrounding Blackwater Lake

Compiled for Lord Beckett

by Talvion Tulossa

of Clan Cormallen

in the Year 614

by Frangian Reckoning


Preface

The enclosed notes are for the use of Lord Winchester and his kin. The author hopes that they may provide some aid in his quest to locate his family’s ancestral lands, to reestablish the Winchester family, and to restore it to prosperity.

Introduction

Blackwater Lake and its environs lie within a vast region that most people simply call Northumbria. This region, which stretches for hundreds of miles, is comprised mainly of forested hills and mountains, brimming with mineral resources, towering trees, and wildlife. The primary inhabitants of this rugged land seem to be either primitive human savages that dominate the lowlands, or wicked goblyn tribes that swarm over and under the hills and mountains. However, just over a century ago, explorers and adventurers arrived from the Kingdom of Frangia, perhaps the most powerful kingdom across the Great Sea. The Crown first established an agricultural colony called Southumbria, and, a few years later, it explored and claimed the vast tract of virgin wilderness to the north.

The Frangian Crown’s claim to ownership of Northumbria seemed ludicrous at first—and still does—given the sheer size of the region and the scarcity of royal settlers here. Settlement has been steady, but it will take decades before any semblance of control is established. Perhaps because of this uncertainty, daring Frangian settlers and freebooters have flocked northward, seeking opportunity and adventure. Read more

RPG-ology #11: Scared

This is RPG-ology #11:  Scared, for October 2018.


Every once in a while I will surprise someone, that is, my abrupt appearance causes them to jump.  Usually they say, “Oh, you scared me.”  I always think, and sometimes say, “No, I startled you.”  I always say that when the situation is reversed, if I jumped and someone says, “I scared you,” correcting them that I was not scared, I was startled.  Although the two are related, there is a difference.

With Halloween on top of us, it might be worth a moment to consider the difference.

Scared is a state, an ongoing condition experienced over time.  We say, “I’m scared,” or “I’m frightened,” and we mean that we have a feeling of foreboding or ill ease.  We can be scared because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our utility bills, or because we are walking down a dark city street at night and do not feel safe, or because we have been threatened by someone who might be able to harm us in some way.  Those are in a sense examples of being scared in reality.  We are also sometimes scared in unreality.  A well written horror story in almost any medium can set a mood that causes us to feel on edge, to anticipate negative events, to expect the worst.  Mood has a lot to do with this, and so does creating a stake for the character (see my web log post #132:  Writing Horror or the French translation Maîtriser l’Horreur, and also more recently Faith in Play #5:  Fear).

It is also very individual.  I once read an entire book of Lovecraft short stories, and the only one which scared me was the one atypical story, unlike everything we normally expect from him.  If you want to make someone fearful, you must know him well enough to understand his fears.  What are you afraid of?  It probably is not the same thing as the person sitting across from you.  Fathoming that is essential to creating fear, to scaring someone.

When someone jumps out from behind a door and yells, “boo”, you’re not scared, you’re startled.  Sure, your heart rate rises and your body tingles for a moment as you catch your breath, but that’s not fear, really.  Of course, if you are already afraid—if you are fearful, if you are anticipating something bad—then that startle has a much greater effect—the reason that you jump when the cat leaps out from behind the curtain in the horror movie.  The startle has more impact because it is fed by the fear.  That’s why so many campfire ghost stories end with someone shouting something after talking quietly for several minutes:  the mood builds the fear, and the startle from the shout is intensified by the fear.

So if you’re running a game for Halloween and you just want to startle someone, well, that’s easy enough to do.  Storytellers have done it around campfires for generations.  If, though, you want to scare them, you’re going to have to give some thought to the matter, and particularly to who they are, what makes them tick, and of what are they afraid.


Previous article:  Labyrinths.
Next article:  Aphorisms.

House of Wold (Prophecy)

The House of Wold is possibly more uncommon than the House of Holma. They are often unliked and show up often to deliver bad news. Said to be messengers of God, they are often carrying burdens and always on a mission. Their temples are small, rarely visited and often in remote locations. As a Wold there are only two options: Either accept the Gift or reject it entirely. It is often a sobering life, constantly engaged with death and destruction. It is a life spent on the move. Those that reject it are plagued their whole lives with dreams and visions and knowledge of their refusal to aid those they could help.

Granted Power: Deux ex Machina. Once per adventure the player may reroll a failed attempt after the result is known or make a different choice within the past 6 seconds. They see the failure or outcome just before it happens in essence.

  1. Identify: Determines single feature of magic item.
  2. Augury: Learns whether an action will be good or bad.
  3. Divination: Provides useful advice for specific, proposed action.
  4. Scrying: Spies on subject from a distance.
  5. Commune: Deity answers one yes-or-no question/level.
  6. Legend Lore: Learn tales about a person, place, or thing.
  7. Scrying, Greater: As scrying, but faster and longer.
  8. Discern Location: Reveals exact location of creature or object.
  9. Foresight: “Sixth sense” warns of impending danger.