This is Faith in Play #63: Inadequacy, for February 2023.
Decades ago comedian Bill Cosby got a lot of laughs from a sketch about Noah’s conversations with God. Throughout Noah is full of doubts and questions (“Am I on Candid Camera?), not at all happy with what he has been instructed to do.
We don’t know how Noah actually reacted to God, other than that he did build the boat and follow the other instructions. However, the Bible gives us many examples of people who did not believe they could do what God was telling them to do. Even Abraham, when told that he would have a son, in essence told God that he and Sarah were well past childbearing age. The two biggest examples are Moses, who argued with God at the burning bush saying that he was the wrong person for the job until God equipped him with several miracles-on-demand and the assistance of a sidekick, and Gideon, who kept asking God to prove once more that this really was what God wanted him to do. They are among those who felt themselves inadequate for the task to which God had called them.
And perhaps they ought to feel that way. We, too, should not be upset if we feel inadequate for the tasks to which God calls us. We should be more worried if we feel we are adequate–even Paul said that he could do what he did solely because of God’s grace toward him. Feeling inadequate might be a good sign.
The question this month, though, is whether that is something we can do in our role playing games. Can we create the stories in which the characters recognize that they are inadequate for the task and yet they try and indeed succeed? And can we do it without the impression that the referee is pulling a rabbit out of the hat to make it possible, that is, that the players did this, not the referee?
Before you write this off as ridiculous, I would observe that The Lord of the Rings contains just such a story: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee have absolutely no hope of carrying the One Ring into the heart of Mordor and destroying it, and yet they succeed. Perhaps Gollum’s last-minute interference that saves the mission might be referee sleight-of-hand, but in fairness they never should have been able to get to that point. Stories of impossible missions being accomplished by inadequate heroes are plausible, possible. The only question is how to facilitate them in play.
If we look at our example of Gideon, most of the miracles reported are in essence God reassuring him that victory is certain, but for the last in which God directs him to adopt an absolutely ridiculous and hopeless strategy which perhaps for its very absurdity succeeds. That does not help us much, although it might be worth noting that a similarly ridiculous absurd strategy brought down the walls of Jericho for Joshua.
With Moses, though, we have God providing a series of miracles up front, and a bit of assistance in the form of his brother Aaron, but then as the story progresses God provides additional miracles as they are needed, and that brings to mind some possibilities.
Twice in my stories about Lauren Hastings, I have had someone give her magic items without telling her anything about them. The second time, in For Better or Verse, someone she trusts implicitly gives her three objects which I, as author, knew would matter to events she was going to face, but which she could not identify without assistance. That’s useful, because if the characters have items which have powers which they can discover when they need them, they won’t know what they can do until that point. I previously discussed the first time I gave her objects, in RPG-ology #32: Doing Something, when I gave her five objects of which I knew what one of them was and simply thought that the other four were the kinds of things about which I could come up with something eventually. I did figure out what they all did; one she used frequently, one was significant to the story, one she honestly has not used at all, and the fourth proved to be critical to a climactic moment in her story in a later book. But that gives me another idea.
In a game it is difficult for the referee to anticipate what the players are going to do, and what they are going to need. What, though, if the characters are given several items whose power or purpose is unknown, even to the referee, which can be determined at need?
The easiest example that comes to me would be if they are given three scrolls, not told what they are but that they should only open them at direst need. Then whenever the characters decide that this is their direst need so that they resort to opening one of the scrolls, the referee can assess the situation and decide exactly what sort of magic the scroll will do, and do that. Using Moses as an example, perhaps his first scroll parted the water of the Red Sea, his second brought water from the rock, and his third summoned the mana from heaven. Yet if one way or another he solved those problems with other skills, he would have the scrolls to use for different problems, such as summoning the quail, or dealing with the renegade Levites. Think of it as a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The referee need not determine what the scrolls do until the characters use them.
Speaking of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, you could do that–give the characters a hat, or a bag, or a briefcase, or something that is a container, which when they open it contains an object which can solve their current dilemma if they can figure out how to use it. In a similar vein, in my youth I read a Get Smart paperback (I believe it was called Max Smart and the Perilous Pellets) in which he was rushed out the door on a mission so quickly that he didn’t have time to be briefed by their special equipment division and was just given a bag containing several objects he would have to figure out along the way.
For a less magical application, perhaps someone gives one of the characters a piece of jewelry–a medalion, or a ring, or something similar. At a critical moment this might be recognized, but the referee need not decide what it is until that moment. It could mark the character as an emmissary of an important king, or a member of a secret society to which a particular guard belongs, or part of an important family. Similarly, an ordinary but decorated object, such as a walking stick or a weapon, could be something that would be recognized as having belonged to a particular individual of significance. These options might give the characters access to some place that would normally be closed to them, or passage on some form of transportation, or even the support of some group of people that will turn the tide in their favor.
The trick in all cases is that the characters, and indeed the players, do not know what they have or how it might help them, and perhaps would not even consider the possibility that this, whatever it is, gives them the power they need to do what appears impossible from where they are. Thus they still perceive themselves as inadequate, unaware of the power that they have been given, and they still are able to succeed in the quest as they discover what they are able to do. Meanwhile, the referee need not decide how any of these objects will help until the help is needed and the object becomes significant in resolving the problem.