Pain

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” -Psalm 147:3

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Revelation 21:4

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” -Wesley, The Princess Bride

It’s often said that the two certainties in life are death and taxes, but I’d humbly suggest that we’ll all become acquainted with pain long before we’re aware of the tax man. Pain is varied, it is all too common, and it is all too often ignored in our gaming experiences.

So much of the pain that colors our lives is relatively undramatic. A stubbed toe, a small disappointment, even the crushing blow of the sudden loss of a loved one or the nagging ache as you realize that your life will never be quite what you’d hoped – very few of these moments turn up in heroic fiction, and when they do, they are often tangential to the plot. This is not, however, true in our lives. A staggering number of us come from broken families,we all have regrets, disappointments, and illnesses. It is a part of the human condition that we will suffer in a multitude of ways, great and small, between the time when we enter this world and the time when we leave it, and often that pain changes us and shapes us in a variety of ways, and as with so many things, what defines us (and our characters) is not so much that we have pain, but what we do with it.

Some folks are crushed by their pain, retreating into bitterness or madness to escape it – in fact, this is a semi-canonical explanation for where The Joker came from. Crushed beneath the weight of “one bad day” he becomes a sadistic, insane madman, anxious and eager to share his pain with others. Others retreat from the world entirely, becoming hermits or even catatonic.

Others deny it or brush it off with exaggerated indifference. “It’s nothing to me.” Oftentimes this is a trap the immature fall into – seeing the very experience of pain as a weakness to be excised, or if that is impossible, at least denied or ignored. The problem with this approach is that pain is very persistent. It will eventually make itself known, and will reach a point where it can no longer be ignored.

Still others wallow in their pain, allowing it to define their experience. A lot of really good art gets made this way (everything from paintings to poetry to music) but being defined by misery and suffering this way robs people of happiness they could otherwise experience and strains relationships.

Finally, there are some who acknowledge their pain, but push through it. This is one of the better responses, and covers everything from working out to the artist pushing through rejection, to forging new relationships after the loss of a loved one. People treating their pain this way will often seek help with it, which is also healthy and can lead to a lot of growth. (For an interesting treatment of this concept, check out this TED Talk by Jane Mcgonigal.) It should probably go without saying that this last approach (and helping others with their pain) is the way we’re ideally expected to behave as Christians. The Apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” in Romans (Romans 12:15) and scripture is thick with admonitions to help the poor, the sick, the needy, and those suffering (and there’s that word again: suffering) from all sorts of trouble.

Narratively, I think we leave a lot on the table when we boil our adventures down to a series of tactical puzzles (and this from somebody who would be unamimously voted “most tactically-minded” by at least his current gaming group and probably several previous ones). One of the things that made Grant’s successful Shadowrun game so great was that the PC group was very empathetic (at least by the standards of shadowrunners) – they were careful about the amount of pain they caused to innocent people, and seeing those same people in bad situations moved them to do something about it. Now in fairness – they also caused a fair amount of pain to those they felt deserved it, which was often the in-game manifestation of one of my real-world character flaws: a streak of viciousness that can pop out when I’ve conned myself into thinking it’s justified.

Pain, and our response to it, defines our character and our stories, and it should define our characters and their stories as well. The next time you sit down to make a character or play one, give some thought to how they respond to the hurt in their life and the lives around them, why they feel and act that way, and how that affects the story. And, if you’re anything like me, it may also be a good idea to repeat that exercise with yourself in the real world from time to time.


Episode 67 – Breaking Canon (with Kris Newton & Katrina Ehrnman-Newton)


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Kris and Katrina, hosts of the Gameable Pixar Podcast (formerly the Gameable Disney Podcast) join Grant and Peter in a special crossover episode on breaking established setting canon! Gameable Pixar just released a pair of episodes discussing The Prince of Egypt, and they invited Peter and Grant to join them in the second episode.  They return the favor in this episode, where we discuss how to break canon in settings with high player investment—from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to Biblical Egypt, Israel and Caanan.

If you want to give the Gameable Podcast a try, we suggest picking your favorite Disney or Pixar film and listening to Kris and Katrina discuss it in the relevant episode! They also particularly recommend their episodes on The Black Cauldron and The Nightmare Before Christmas as introductory episodes for interested gamers. To pick up with The Prince of Egypt, start with GPP’s Bonus Episode 9: The Prince of Egypt and follow up with Bonus Episode 10: The Prince of Egypt Discussion. They’re also on Twitter and iTunes.

Also mentioned in this episode: Electric City ComiCon; StoryWonk’s Dusted podcast; and an awful lot of superheroes.

Scripture: Isaiah 55:8-11, Jeremiah 23:28-30, Matthew 23:13-15, Romans 15:4


Blog: A Pair of Unrelated Things

I have a couple of disparate topics for this week’s blog.

Crossover:

First and foremost, we just recently wrapped up an exciting project with Kris and Katrina over at the Gameable Disney/Gameable Pixar podcast. We’ve crossed over with other podcasts before, but those have typically taken the form of a pair of one-episode “host loans” where one of us (usually Grant) does an episode of another podcast and one of them does an episode with us. Our most recent collaboration with the gameable podcast folks went a bit more in-depth than that. For starters, all four of us appeared on both of the crossover episodes, and the discussion centers around The Prince of Egypt by Dreamworks. The episodes of both podcasts are intended as companion pieces to each other and reference each other a bit. Be sure to catch both! As an additional aside, Kris and Katrina are both a pleasure to work with and just to associate with. We had Katrina on to talk about prophecy back in Episode 58, and we hit it off with her well. The interaction with both her and Kris was, if anything, even better. They’re both really great folks – friendly, smart, and full of both insights and humor. I’ve recommended their work so much by this point that some of you are probably tired of hearing it from me, but – tough. They do a really fantastic podcast, and especially if you like our tight, topical focus, you are doing yourself a legitimate disservice if you’re not listening to them, too.

CCGs and a Possible Event:

After our episode last week on collectible card games, we were contacted by a listener named Justin Lowmaster who expressed interest in setting up a StG community Hearthstone tournament. If you’re unfamiliar with Hearthstone, it’s Blizzard’s free-to-play digital CCG, available on most non-console platforms (including mobile devices.) More information on it is available here. Since Justin has done the work of coming up with the idea in the first place (something that neither Grant nor I did) I thought it was only fair to use the blog to gauge interest. So, how about it folks? Anybody interested in claiming a bracket slot in a Hearthstone tournament? I can promise that anyone who plays me will probably have a very easy go of it. I’m neither very good, nor very experienced, nor do I have much of a card collection in Hearthstone. Grant, on the other hand, is a very different story. Watch out for him, no matter how much he downplays his skill and resources. He’s humble, but he is also wily.

In other CCG-related topics – is anyone else out there excited for any of the upcoming Magic: the Gathering releases? I know I’m pretty stoked about both the Battle for Zendikar set coming out in October and the new Commander decks being launched in November. I talk about Magic fairly regularly on Facebook and have even entertained the idea of doing a series of posts about it over on my personal blog, so keep an eye out for news of that if I ever manage to get it started.

And that’s all I’ve got this week. As usual, please comment on this if anything strikes your interest, especialy that Hearthstone tournament. If we can get a decent-sized group of folks together to do that, it would be a fun community bonding exercise.


What Aren’t You Interested in Playing or Running? 1

A lot of the time, when a gaming group gets together to pitch ideas for their next game, it’s almost an overwhelming avalanche of ideas at first (or maybe that’s just my experience, but that’s all I’ve got to work with, so I’m going to run with that assumption). And usually, just about everyone at the table is fine with just about all of the ideas. However, I’d like to direct your attention to the number of qualifiers in the last sentence, because everybody has a few deal breakers and they seldom match across an entire gaming group, and they also will change over time. Leaving aside material members of your group find offensive, inappropriate, or painful/triggering for some reason, there’s still going to be a disparity of taste in your group that you have to work around.

For example, I’m not terribly interested in anything that prominently features vampires, will need some serious convincing to play in a Star Wars or Star Trek game, and I also very strongly prefer my games to have what Ken and Robin refer to as “nerd tropes” in them – that is to say elements of science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror. I have no interest at all in my PC having a romantic relationship with another character in the world, and perhaps most importantly, I really don’t want to play a bad guy.

I know of other players that prefer their character have thick swaths of darkness, who don’t like Westerns (which makes me sad), and who prefer not (or even refuse) to play anything that isn’t their preferred edition of D&D or Pathfinder.

Once you get a group together, it can be challenging to get all of these “holes” lined up in such a way that you have a game that isn’t a deal-breaker for somebody at the table, and occasionally you hear of situation where people stop trying and form new groups because some player or group of players has a set of deal-breakers that the rest of the group can’t work around. And while this can sometimes be a shame and a monument to stubbornness, I’m going to go a little “out there” and suggest that it might not always be so negative. That will not, however, from suggesting that perhaps some of our dealbreakers (including mine) couldn’t benefit from a little bit of re-evaluation from time to time. Am I really that against anything involving vampires, or did I just need a breather? My recent acquisition of several Night’s Black Agents products, including backing the recent Kickstarter for the Dracula Dossier suggests otherwise. I’ve certainly enjoyed stuff in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, and my objections there are mostly grounded in fears that, as a fairly casual fan of both properties, I’ll have insufficient “setting cred” to participate well. And I’m sure a game set during a sufficiently interesting time and place could overcome my ravenous craving for the fantastic in my gaming experiences. I could probably use to “stretch” a bit on these ones.

On the other hand, ask me to play a romantic lead or a villain as a PC, and it’s going to kill my buy-in. At best, I’ll be bored. At worst, I’ll be uncomfortable, and either will make the game awkward or otherwise un-fun for other folks who want these elements in their gaming. That isn’t to say that nobody I game with ever gets to do these things again, though – just that they needn’t invite me. And that, I think, is where the balance needs to be struck. Sometimes you need to stretch and flex a bit, but if you can’t or won’t and the rest of the group really wants to do something you have no interest in, it’s very much okay for them to proceed without you, and both you and they should be okay with that. This set of circumstances should also NOT spell the end of your friendship or contact with the old group, either! And this is where, by the way, the positive comes in. A lot of the time, events like this can create new gamers or groups as players or GMs find themselves a little short of the number of people they’d like for a given campaign. It also can create a loose network of gaming groups in a region after a while that will freely swap players around, which leads to cross-pollination  of ideas and storytelling techniques, which is ultimately good for the hobby. If some of my older gaming groups had never broken up, it’s unlikely that I’d be writing this blog post today. So be flexible, but if you can’t bend any further, don’t make everyone miserable – start something new.

I’d be interested to hear what your “deal breakers” are and how much wiggle room you’ve got in there, as well as any stories that have arisen out of a group splitting over different creative desires. Let me know in the comments!


Episode 66 – Gatekeeping (with Mike Perna) 1


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Mike Perna of Innroads Ministries and Game Store Prophets joins us to talk about a complex problem in both faith communities and geek communities: Gatekeeping. Mike’s joined us before for Episode 33 (“Our Origin Stories”), and he was a perfect fit for this topic in many ways. He previously wrote an excellent article on gatekeeping, and has a lot of wisdom and experience to share with us.  We hit on a lot of small details—’controllers’ vs. ‘facilitators’; gatekeeping in church and in geek culture; comments on “pastoral customs” by Pope Francis; and others—but our focus is on solving the problem when you encounter it, not just documenting it. It’s a rather thoughtful episode, so enjoy, and tell us what you think in the comments!

Scripture: Ezekiel 16:49-50, 1 Corinthians 12:21-27, 1 Peter 3:8


Fitting a Game With a New System 11

In my last blog post, I lamented the heaviness of the GURPS system relative to my own available prep time and went over some of my thought process in finding a new system. This week, having settled on FATE, I’m going to go over some of the specifics of converting the game over. I’m far from an expert at this, so take this more as a set of observations than any sort of useful guide.

First and foremost, I have definitely decided on FATE. I snagged the FATE Core System from my friendly but sadly not-very local game store, Games Plus in Mt. Prospect, IL. I’ve also ordered a set of FATE dice and the toolkit book online. I feel a little bad not having grabbed those at the store too, but it’s over an hour’s drive and I wasn’t as sure that I’d be using FATE when I bought the core book as I am now.

Here’s what FATE has that’s making it more attractive than GURPS right now:

  • It’s simple. While I love GURPS (it was what got me into the hobby in the first place, after all!) and I especially love the newest edition now that I’ve invested in it a bit, you would be hard-pressed to find a playable game system with more pages of rules text. The core book is actually a 2-volume set that clocks in at just under 600 pages, and with the exception of about 50 pages, the entire thing is rules and examples of those rules being implemented. A lot of it boils down to simple concepts, but that is still an impressive corpus of material. And that’s before you get into magic and powers, before you get into advanced technology, before you get deep into the martial arts system – you get the idea. In order to get everything I wanted into the GURPS version of the setting, I was referencing something like twenty separate books. I’m going to be using two books for FATE, and they’re smaller – both in terms of page count and page size. The FATE books are about the same size as a novel, whereas GURPS books use the more traditional RPG form factor.
  • That simplicity translates into a shallower learning curve. A FATE character sheet fits on one side of about a half-sheet of paper. If your write small like I do, you could probably fit it on a 3×5 card. By contrast, the GURPS character sheets for the play group filled 3-4 full sheets of paper. This means there is a lot less to keep track of in play, a lot fewer systems to teach, and a generally shallower learning curve. It also knocks GM prep time down dramatically.
  • Aspects. I don’t think there’s a rules concept that’s been stolen for homebrewing more than aspects. For those unfamiliar with them, Aspects are a bit of descriptive text such as “Foppish Minstrel” that can be either Invoked (used for the PC’s benefit by spending a fate point) or Compelled (used to their detriment to make the game interesting with a Fate point given as compensation). They’re a really interesting facet of FATE’s game design, and I look forward to seeing the ones my PCs come up with.
  • Versatility. It’s going to look different than GURPS, but I’m pretty sure everybody will make the transition. This is a really good thing, because, as I’ve described previously, my player group contains both an artificial intelligence and a wizard. In addition, the world has supernatural monsters, aliens, advanced technology, and so forth. Versatility isn’t just nice or useful, it’s essential.
  • Speed of play. There’s not a lot to keep track of in FATE, and it leans heavily on story rather than mechanics. That should allow us to get the most out of our sessions.
  • SRD: I have a copy of the rules in print, as does Grant, but the rest of our group can access them for free online without resorting to piracy.

That’s all to the good. There have been some unforeseen consequences, though: FATE is extremely collaborative, to the point where coming up with certain aspects of the world is intended to be a group activity. This is very different from GURPS, which is a more traditional “the GM makes up everything and the players discover it” type of game. To be honest, even though I wasn’t expecting that and could probably work around it, I’m actually looking forward to see how it goes. The other one is that even though I’m not going to be using GURPS for the campaign’s rules per se, I’m probably going to keep a few of those books handy for ideas for story elements, technology, etc.

I know from comments on the prior blog post a few of you out there have had the experience of switching systems on the fly. I’d love to hear how it went and what went into the transition. In the meantime, I’m pretty excited to see what Grant cooks up in his Unknown Armies game.


Episode 65 – Non-Human Characters


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Grant and Peter are back to talk about non-human player characters—the weirder, the better! After a quick reminder to rate and review us on iTunes or Stitcher, we get on with our main topic. We run through the spectrum of inhumanity: Near-humans, former humans, intelligent animals, and more! Then, we go through questions players (and GMs) need to ask themselves about these sorts of characters to make them effective, believable, and interesting.

Scripture: Genesis 1:21, Hebrews 13:2


When the System Doesn’t Fit 2

I’m on vacation this week, and as such, my routine is a little off. I forgot I had a post to write until Grant jogged my memory, so I apologize that this post is coming a little later than they typically do. -Peter

Recording Episode 64: Matching System and Story got me thinking about the topic referenced in the episode title, but I kept mulling it over for a long time after we finished recording the audio for the episode. As I’ve referenced on the podcast, I’ve been GMing a GURPS game for the gaming group that Grant and I are in. There’s been some good player buy-in and our gaming group’s inter-player dynamics are good enough to make many groups green with envy, but despite all of that, I put the game on what’s hopefully a short hiatus last week.

The reason was, of all things, prep time. GURPS is a really neat, really useful system, and it’s capable of having an AI that operates remotely in the same party as a ninja, a wrecking machine with a combat exoskeleton and a heavy assault rifle, and a wizard/field scientist. However, at the power levels my PC group is operating at (800 points), all of that awesome requires awesome challenges, and often awesome foes, and when a goon takes you 45 minutes to an hour to stat up properly with the aid of character generation software, something has to give. GURPS’s simulationist mechanics also tend to move slowly in combat, and it’s really, really easy for someone to take a rifle round and die. None of this is to say GURPS is a bad system – I’ve used it before and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t fitting quite right with the feel I wanted – my intention was something closer to an action movie – and even if that was going perfectly, the prep time was more than I could handle.

I entertained a number of different system ideas – I have a fairly substantial library of generic and semi-generic systems, but as it turns out, this was a thorny one.

  • Feng Shui 2 just came out, and as a Kickstarter backer, I have a copy. It is specifically geared for action movie style roleplaying to boot. But there’s no way to model Grant’s really interesting artificial intelligence PC. Egeria (the PC) is a massive supercomputer/data center in the bowels of the Intrigue, the warship the PC group is based out of. None of her abilities are physical in any way – she operates by accessing things remotely, hacking, piloting small drones (or larger ones), and receiving A/V feeds from the other PCs. There’s nothing at all like that in there. Dang it. Scratch that one.
  • GUMSHOE is a system I’ve really been wanting to try running for a while, and I have a good selection of different products that could be hacked together in different ways. However, none of them really cover the AI or the science-y wizard. No dice on that one, either.
  • Mutants & Masterminds would probably allow a pretty clean PC translation, but the four-color nature of the artwork and writing was causing me cognitive dissonance as I read it, and the prep time would likely be only slightly less intensive than GURPS, though it would probably work in a pinch.
  • D20 Modern has the same prep time issues as Mutants & Masterminds, and also couldn’t handle Egeria.
  • Savage Worlds is a fantastic system, but we just used it for our last campaign, and it too would have some trouble with the AI and the wizard.

Finally, in frustration, I did what I should have done first: asked my gaming group for suggestions. Grant suggested the FATE system, which is ultimately going to be what I’m going to try converting to. It’s both generic enough and narrative enough that it can handle the PCs and an interesting assortment of bad guys, the rules are available free online, which is useful to both me and my players, and it’s flexible enough to handle the specific tone I’m trying to set. I’ve got some time off this week, so I’m going to start the conversion process.

The take-away from my whole ordeal is this: If you find yourself in a situation like this and get stuck, make sure you ask for ideas from other folks as as soon as possible. If you’re stuck, there’s nothing like another person’s brain to get you UN-stuck. Other roleplayers, particularly ones that have played and/or read a lot of different systems, are your best resource for clearing the mental logjam. It’s also not a bad idea to diversify yourself a bit. One of those systems sitting on your bookshelf might be just what you need some day.

 


Episode 64 – Matching System and Story 1


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Grant and Peter are back, with Fear the Con 8 behind us and new gaming horizons ahead! Grant’s had some major changes in his local gaming group, which prompt some discussion, but soon enough it’s on to our main topic: Picking a system that works best for the kinds of stories you want to tell while gaming. From universal to simulationist to light-weight indie games, we weigh all the considerations we can to help you pick the right game. Plus, some (well-deserved) plugs for System Mastery [sometimes NSFW], and this clever trick for making your own Fate dice!

Scripture: Proverbs 4:6, James 3:17