Category: Chaplain’s Corner

The Christian Gamers Guild has many facets to its ministry, as we seek to reclaim the imagination to be conformed to the image of Christ through the use of gaming as a creative art form.

One of those aspects is support for Christians involved in gaming. Much of that support is realized through our interactive e-mail group, as Christians from around the world who are gamers share their thoughts and experiences with each other. But the mission goes beyond that. This section of the web site contains articles and links geared to edify and challenge Christians as they live their faith in their games.

Questions about any of this can be directed to the Christian Gamers Guild Board of Directors; some of the authors of individual articles have also included e-mail addresses in their biographical materials, linked from their articles individually.

Faith in Play #15: Gamism

This is Faith in Play #15:  Gamism, for February 2019.


Glancing back over previous articles, I am often reminded that although I did an article on DFK—Drama, Fortune, and Karma, Faith and Gaming:  Mechanics—I never addressed the more controversial three-letter set found in Ron Edwards’ Big Model, GNS.  After all, what we get out of playing our games is a significant part of how our faith is involved, and ought to be considered.

If you don’t know what GNS is, or have never heard of “Creative Agenda”, or simply aren’t sure of the meanings of these frequently-bantered terms from previous decades, my own summary is available at Places to Go, People to Be as Theory 101:  Creative Agenda (or on their French site as Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives).  The short version is that a creative agenda is what any given player enjoys and seeks to maximize when he plays a game.  Ron hates short versions; he does not think them accurate, and he’s probably right.  Meanwhile, players hate to be labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, so if you tell someone he’s gamist, he’s likely to challenge you.

There’s a joke there.  Never mind.

Gamism has a particular stigma, because it is the agenda of munchkins and rules lawyers, and these are regarded by many as among the most irksome players in the games.  However, despite the fact that such players usually are gamist, they don’t define gamism.  Read more

RPG-ology #14: Shock

This is RPG-ology #14:  Shock, for January 2019.


About a year ago a discussion in the Christian Gamers Guild group reminded me of a couple articles I’d published in the Game Ideas Unlimited series that were lost but worth reviving.  This is a recreation of the first of those.

I’m pretty sure it was 1973.  I was a Boy Scout and a Junior Assistant Scoutmaster in my last year as a scout before continuing as an adult leader.  My father was troop committee chairman and often active in our outings, and Mr. Winkler was the Scoutmaster at the time.  Rick Trover and Bob Hamer, who are both part of this story, were a year or two younger than I, and respectively Junior Assistant Scoutmaster and Senior Patrol Leader.  It was the troop’s first excursion down the Delaware River, although quite a few of us had logged several hundred miles of canoeing through the Adirondacks.  We knew that the river had flooded, and that the day before we arrived on the banks at Skinner’s Falls to begin our trek Cochecton, New York, a short distance upstream, had been under four feet of water.  We did not know that there was a whirlpool under the Narrowsburg Bridge one day south of us.  However, never having seen this part of the river before, we were unaware just how far above flood stage it was.  Still, we sat in camp on the bank for two days waiting for the water to drop before someone decided that if we were actually going to canoe this river in the week we’d planned, maybe we should get moving downstream.

Ricky and Bob took a canoe and headed up above the falls.  I’m not sure whether someone had authorized this.  I first became aware of it when people were shouting and I joined the race to the shore to watch them coming down fast from the waters above the falls into the worst possible spot.

Let me describe what we saw Read more

Christian Gamers Guild Chaplain’s Bible Study Begins Gospels with John


Early in 2006, Christian Gamers Guild Chaplain Mark Joseph Young began an online undergraduate level Bible study through Yahoo!Groups with Paul’s Leter to the Romans.  Moving at one verse a day five says a week, he has now finished all the epistles and, as of today, Revelation/Apocalypse.

The study will continue next week, with the first post, preliminaries for a study of the Gospel of John, appearing sometime on Sunday (January 13, 2019), and chapter 1 verse 1 being sent on Monday.  The study is a combination of exegetical and analytical principles applied to the Greek text with many translations compared in an effort to reach the original author’s intent.

You can join the study by sending an email to cgg_review-subscribe@yahoogroups.com or through the Yahoo!Groups interface as cgg_review.

Mark Joseph Young, “MJ” to much of the gamer community, has been Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild for nearing two decades, and has been teaching this Bible Study since beginning with Romans.  He hold degrees in Biblical Studies from Luther College of the Bible and Liberal Arts (formerly in Teaneck, NJ) and Gordon College (Wenham, MA), received a Juris Doctore with honors from Widener University School of Law, and is Mensa qualified.  He is the author of our Faith and Gaming series, of the more recent Faith in Play and RPG-ology series, and of quite a few books and many online articles on quite a variety of subjects.  Some of his articles have been republished in French and German.  His online presence is maintained largely by support through Patreon and PayPal.me.

The study, officially sponsored by the Christian Gamers Guild, is open to all and has participants including ministers from a wide variety of denominations.  We look forward to your participation.


Faith in Play #14: Wickedness

This is Faith in Play #14:  Wickedness, for January 2019.


In discussing Dungeons & Dragons® alignment, as we began last May with True Religion and continued looking at that which the game calls “good” in Goodness, it is important to remember that each alignment is something in which people actually believe.  That becomes a problem when we turn our attention to “evil,” because we tend to stereotype it in cartoonish ways, with villains who are depraved and monsters that are sadistic.  In so doing, we reassure ourselves that we are not evil, because we are not like that.  Yet in defining that which is the polar opposite of “good” or beneficent, the game has something far more subtle, far less heinous, in view.  Evil is embraced as a belief by perfectly sane sound reasonable people, not just Cthulhu cultists and reclusive Shakespearean witches.  It is something people—even respected famous people—believe to be the way the world is and how we ought to respond within it.  In fact, if you examine yourself carefully, you might discover that you yourself are aligned “evil,” or at least have some significant aspects in your true beliefs that reflect an “evil” world view. Read more

Thirteen Months in Review

Last November we published Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous eighteen months–the time from when our capable webmaster Bryan launched the new web log-driven format through the republication of the entire Faith and Gaming series.  It was a lot of material, and a long index.

I decided not to let it run quite so long this time, but to try to index the entire year plus only one extra month, those articles posted in December 2017 after the Overview had been released.  It really was the beginning of this year, because the first articles in the two major monthly series appeared then–that’s right, Faith in Play and RPG-ology have now both been running for thirteen months, a baker’s dozen of each.  There have also been quite a few articles on other subjects and from other authors.  So before we reach an overwhelming amount of material, here’s a look at everything we released in 2018, and a bit earlier.

Let’s start with the first article of December, and put all of that series together this time.  Faith in Play was envisioned as a continuation, thirteen years later, of Faith and Gaming, tackling the same kinds of issues and perhaps expanding from the focus on role playing games to look more broadly at leisure activities of all kinds–without forgetting the role playing games.  The series included:

  1. #1:  Reintroduction December 5, 2017 introduces the new series as a second volume of Faith and Gaming, an exploration of how our Christianity impacts our leisure activities.
  2. #2:  Portals January 2, 2018 looks at how the fantasy and science fiction connections between universes become a metaphor for the reality we experience as God is moving us to the new world.
  3. #3:  Javan’s Feast February 6, 2018 recalls an event in a game in which a character had a positive impact on the players.
  4. #4:  Bad Friends March 6, 2018 discusses the people in life who mistreat us, and how we respond.
  5. #5:  Fear April 3, 2018 looks at the cause of in-game fearlessness and applies it to the rest of our lives.
  6. #6:  True Religion May 1, 2018 begins the alignment miniseries with the focus on what we believe controlling what we do.
  7. #7:  Coincidence June 5, 2018 discusses syncronicity and events which seem almost to have been manipulated.
  8. #8:  Redemption Story July 3, 2018 considers stories which mirror the redeeming act of our salvation, and whether that can be done in a game.
  9. #9:  Clowns August 7, 2018 returns to the archetypes subseries with a look at the importance of comic relief characters.
  10. #10:  Goodness September 4, 2018 continues the alignment series with a consideration of what it means, in game terms, to be Good.
  11. #11:  Halloween October 2, 2018 presents a defense of the celebration of what is essentially a secular holiday.
  12. #12:  Fiction and Lies November 6, 2018 discusses whether telling fictional stories is a “sin of lying”.
  13. #13:  The Evils of Monopoly® December 4, 2018 delves into the dangers the game poses to our theology.

Two weeks later, the RPG-ology series launched.  Discussions about the Faith in Play series suggested that we should also cover subjects from the long-lost Game Ideas Unlimited series that had run at Gaming Outpost–articles about game theory, design, and play–but that this should be distinguished from the other series as its own set.  This series so far has included:

  1. #1:  Near Redundancy December 19, 2017 introduces the other new series as a return to some of the Game Ideas Unlimited topics, ideas for game theory, design, and play.
  2. #2:  Socializing January 16, 2018 explores the fact that those of us who have trouble relating to people have created a game that teaches us how people relate to each other, through a relationship process.
  3. #3:  History of Hit Points February 20, 2018 explains why hit points are still popularly used, and what they contribute to game play.
  4. #4:  The Big Game March 20, 2018 gives instructions for running games with large numbers of players.
  5. #5:  Country Roads April 17, 2018 discusses how to design the main roads connecting places in a fictional world.
  6. #6:  Name Ideas Unlimited May 15, 2018 suggests ways to provide names for everything in the fictional world.
  7. #7:  Playing Fair June 19, 2018 explains why a good referee can’t kill any character any time he wants.
  8. #8:  The Illusion of Choice July 17, 2018 gives the basics of the “directorial” technique of organizing an adventure such that the encounters occur in sequence wherever the characters choose to go.
  9. #9:  Three Doors August 21, 2018 uses the Savant logic problem to introduce the concept of understanding your referee’s motivation and adjusting your play accordingly.
  10. #10:  Labyrinths September 18, 2018 explains the concepts of labyrinths and mazes with design ideas and examples.
  11. #11:  Scared October 16, 2018 discusses what frightens people, and how to use that.
  12. #12:  Aphorisms November 20, 2018 suggests one way to build cultural variety within game worlds.
  13. #13:  Cities December 18, 2018 talks about where cities will appear in the world and why.

R. C. Brooks gave us more of his D20 game, Lands in the Clouds, with:

  • House of Wren (Renewal) by R. C. Brooks, December 12, 2017 presenting a clerical order focusing on stress relief.
  • House of Arocon (Knowledge) by R. C. Brooks, January 9, 2018 presenting a clerical order that deals in knowledge and books.
  • House of Beyan (Earth) by R. C. Brooks, February 13, 2018 presenting a clerical order that deals with all things related to matter, from vegetables to stone.
  • House of Keen (Air), by R. C. Brooks, April 10, 2018, presents the clerical order related to air and gases.
  • House of Sukan (Fire), by R. C. Brooks, June 12, 2018, presents the clerical order related to fire and burns.
  • House of Coursan (War), by R. C. Brooks, July 10, 2018, presents the clerical order related to military defense.
  • House of Curren (Travel), by R. C. Brooks, August 14, 2018, presents a clerical order related to vehicles and mounts and all aspects of travel.
  • House of Foura (Luck), by R. C. Brooks, September 11, 2018, presents a clerical order involved in the manipulation of fortune.
  • House of Wold (Prophecy), by R. C. Brooks, October 9, 2018, presents a clerical order whose task is to warn of impending ill.
  • Multiple Gifts, by R. C. Brooks, November 13, 2018, discusses the possibility of a character having more than one spiritual/magical ability.

And Michael Garcia continued to enthrall us with recountings of adventures in his games, including:

  • Screams in Store by Michael Garcia, December 26, 2017 in which the now familiar Winchester team walks into a trap and discovers that goblins are not easy opponents;
  • Ants in the Darkness by Michael Garcia, February 27, 2018, in which the Beckett group of adventurers on a dungeon crawl encounter serious trouble.
  • Battle on the Beach by Michael Garcia, March 27, 2018, in which the Winchester team pursues a group of robber knights with a hostage, catching them on a beach.
  • Treasure Identification by Michael Garcia, April 24, 2018, in which the Beckett team argues about magical treasure.
  • Bandits Rock by Michael Garcia, May 22, 2018, in which a contingent from the Winchester team gets into serious trouble while spelunking on a scouting mission.
  • Terror in the Tower, part 1, by Michael Garcia, July 24, 2018, in which the Beckett group approaches and enters what they believe is a ruined temple.
  • Terror in the Tower, part 2, by Michael Garcia, September 25, 2018, in which the Beckett group encounters trouble at the entrance to the temple.
  • Terror in the Tower, part 3, by Michael Garcia, November 27, 2018, in which the Beckett group sends an advance team into the tower, and out again.

…and also notes on his world and his special rules, such as:

We had a few insights from Bryan Ray, including:

  • What Does God Think About Hacking?, by Bryan Ray, January 30, 2018, which explored several different meanings of the word and which of those might be sinful.
  • Monkey Business, a Circuit Breakers adventure, by Bryan Ray, May 29, 2018, with a sequel to last year’s Prime Time Adventures play report giving the extended story of a game session.
  • Tales From the Loop, by Bryan Ray, October 30, 2018, a review of a role playing game of that name.
  • Controlled by Fear, by Bryan Ray, December 11, 2018, recalling the benefits that came from running a horror role playing game for a church group.

We also had a few articles giving information about upcoming conventions where chapel services or other Christian opportunities were scheduled:

  • Con Chapel: Beginnings by Eric Van Denhende, January 28, 2018, covering information on February and March as available in late January.
  • CGG Events at Gen Con 2018, by Bryan Ray, July 31, 2018, giving information about the Sunday morning worship service and the Friday afternoon Christianity & Gaming panel.

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #13: Cities

This is RPG-ology #13:  Cities, for December 2018.


When I wrote about Country Roads I promised to return at some point and write about city streets.  However, as I thought about it, I realized that before you can understand city streets, you have to understand cities–why they exist, why they form where they do, and what factors govern their patterns.  So this is a look at cities; we’ll come back to the streets another time.

There are two general categories of reasons for cities to come into existence, which we can identify as commercial and governmental, and a few subcategories of those that have some impact on them.

The primary commercial reason for the appearance of a city is resources.  Chief among these are those related to water, in three distinct ways.

Cities grow at natural harbors, because of shipping.  Thus on oceans, but also on inland seas, huge lakes, and deep rivers, trade begins, shippers move goods in and out, and a city is built around the income from transportation.  Whether it is triremes bringing goods in and out of Greece, galleons carrying gold from Mexico to Spain, steamboats on the Mississippi, or oil tankers running between Kuwait and Perth Amboy, more goods move farther by water than by any other mode of transport, so where there is a convenient place for ships to load and unload, a city will form.

Water is also a necessity of survival.  Great cities don’t generally form spontaneously in arid deserts, unless there is a reliable water source available.  People need water to drink, but also to raise crops and livestock, to wash, and for a wide variety of industrial purposes from making paper to cooling nuclear reactors.

Water is also one of our earliest sources of power after slaves and draft animals.  Water turning wheels drove early mills for grinding grain, and eventually drove machinery that wove cloth and created many other products.  Today, at least part of our electricity is generated from moving water.

Thus if you have a natural harbor, or a river or large lake, or even a spring, it can become a reason for a city to appear.

Of course, water is not the only resource that causes cities to appear.  Mineral wealth, from coal and limestone to gold and diamonds to petroleum and natural gas, invites prospectors to gather forming communities that grow into cities.  Nor are natural resources the only economic inducement.  If there is a city at South Bay Harbor and another at North Lake Port, and one at Eastern Inlet and another at West Mountain Mine, there will be roads connecting these places–but the road from Eastern Inlet to West Mountain Mine will cross the road from South Bay Harbor to North Lake Port, and the traffic through there makes it an ideal spot for commerce, and thus if the problems of food and water can be solved easily, a city will form at the crossroads.

As we said, though, not all cities are begun for commercial reasons; some are started for government reasons.

The most obvious of these are forts, from walled cities more ancient than Jerusalem to medieval castles to cavalry troops posted in the American west.  Governments decide that they need to defend something–land, resources, people, transportation routes–and build a fortress.  People recognize that the existence of the fort means protection from whatever danger is perceived, and so collect near it.

Military forts tend to be extremely well designed for their original purposes; armies tend to be that way about encampments.  Thus within the walls of the fortress housing and facilities and accommodations for food, water, ammunition, supplies, vehicles, animals, and anything else deemed necessary to the local military effort, will have been carefully organized.  The problem is that foresight is not always perfect.  Sometimes the situation at a particular location becomes more contested than anticipated, and troop strength has to be increased, doubling or tripling the population inside the walls.  If this continues intermittently for long enough, the fort might be expanded, but the expanded fort will be less efficient than the original simply because it has to be built around what already exists.  If it is not expanded, it still will be modified, as facilities intended for storage become barracks for troops, new structures are constructed in open spaces to provide protected storage for the displaced goods, and the original plan is altered in uncounted ways.

The placement of forts is frequently sensitive to geography.  High ground is typically advantageous, so mountains and hills are often choice locations.  Often they are intended to control movement, such as passage through a mountain pass or at the mouth of a river, and will be placed above or even in the middle of such a bottleneck.  Artificial hills and even islands have been built to support such forts.  Water is again often a factor, not only because the keep needs a water supply but because rivers and lakes form natural moats which help protect that side of the fort.

Of course, outside the walls the only control the military has over the rising city is the ability to insist that nothing be built within a certain distance of the walls–after all, when the hordes come, whether orcs or Huns or Vikings or Apaches, they will readily use any such structures for cover, so the army will not permit them too close.  Thus other than that clear space, the town will grow haphazardly into a city, unless some government takes control of it.

Military uses are not the only governmental purpose that will create a city.  Sometimes they are created for administrative purposes.  Washington in the District of Columbia is such a city, built to a plan because the nation needed a centrally located seat of government to oversee law and taxes for the thirteen states that was not itself part of one of those states.  The oldest sections of Philadelphia were designed by its founder, a man granted a huge amount of land to establish a colony who had the foresight to recognize that this riverport was going to be a major hub in the development of the surrounding land.  It is thought by some that Emperor Nero set fire to the poor section of Rome (and blamed the Christians) so that he could take the helm in what may have been the world’s first urban redevelopment plan.  Such planned cities appear in places where the governments think them convenient for the purpose–centrally located in the geographical area, or on land with the potential to become a major economic center, or in sparsely populated areas where the government wants to encourage some kind of development, whether agriculture, industry, or tourism.

So these are the major reasons why cities appear where they do, and when you’re designing your world maps you should think about what cities are where and why.  That will then give you the points you need to connect with your country roads, and frame your map.


Previous article:  Aphorisms.
Next article:  Shock.

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.

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.

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.


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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.


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