Month: November 2018

Terror in the Tower, part 3

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


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.