Katrina from The Gameable Disney Podcast joins Grant and Peter for an in-depth discussion of prophecy in our games! You can find Katrina and Kris on Tumblr, Twitter, and iTunes, and can email them too. So, after mentioning the new website and handing out a pair of important congratulations, we get down to business with Scripture and our main topic. We define prophecy (and divination, a related topic for another episode); describe its storytelling purposes; posit some examples and sources; and spend a lot of time talking about how to introduce them in your game and use them well. Enjoy!
Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” -Exodus 4:10
“Nobody’s Perfect,” the saying goes, and truer words were never spoken. Even the saints of scripture had some impressive flaws. Moses stuttered and had a violent temper. David committed, depending on your reading, either rape or adultery and covered it up with a murder, bloodying not only his own hands, but the hands of those who reported to him in the process. Paul persecuted the church before his encounter on the road to Damascus. Peter denied Jesus three times. Thomas wouldn’t believe in the resurrection until he’d touched the risen Christ. And those are some of the less-scandalous flaws of the apostles. To say that they came from rough backgrounds would be an understatement. They were such a shifty bunch of ne’er do wells that it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say they resembled an adventuring party. We know these flaws because they’re in the Bible – the biblical authors felt it was important that we know them.
There are no flawless heroes in this world. And yet, despite these flaws, some of them disturbing in their seriousness, we still admire these folks because they were used by God to advance His purposes. Being flawed disqualified nobody in scripture from being used by God, despite some of them thinking it was so.
I recently spent some time recording some bonus content about the game Darkest Dungeon with Mike Perna of Game Store Prophets and Innroads Ministries. One of the things that really sucked both of us into the game was that the heroes you send down to flush out mutated swine, malevolent skeletons, bloodthirsty cultists and worse are themselves flawed, imperfect people. They get stressed out, sometimes to the point of becoming irrational, hopeless, abusive, or selfish. They become diseased by dirty knives and become claustrophobic when investigating abandoned torture implements. The experience of trekking through darkness and fighting things that shouldn’t even exist wears on them, and it takes a spectacular amount of time and treatment to get them fully out from under the effects of what they’ve seen and done.
Heroes from film and comics fare little better. Iron Man is arrogant and has a drinking problem. Batman is nuts. Captain America is struggling to keep up after waking up in a world very different from the one he lost consciousness in. Neal from White Collar has a weakness for pretty women and priceless works of art. The cops in Flashpoint have family and personal issues
And yet, all of those folks despite being imperfect are still heroic. There was a time in my life that I would have found all of this distressing – that it couldn’t be that these people, real and fictional, were both looking up to and possessed of flaws of various types. Something had to give. Either these people were flawed, or they were heroic.
It turns out the thing that needed to give was my own perspective. People become heroic not because they don’t have flaws, but because they refuse to let those flaws cripple them. Flaws also lend a certain believability to fictional characters – in fact characters without them tend to feel fake and cheesy. Terms like “Mary Sue” exist to describe such characters.
It’s easy to forget this when creating a character in an RPG. Many of us gamers, myself included, tend to want to make a character that resembles an alabaster statue: smooth, flawless and untouchable, with no points of weakness or vulnerability to snag unpleasantly on the protrusions of the adventuring life. Those characters, however, tend to feel flat in a story. In fact, paradoxically, the flaw of such a PC will rapidly become the fact that they have no other flaws! Flaws give a character something to work against and overcome even when they aren’t fighting the minions of the campaign’s Big Bad, but they also reinforce that the hero is a person, because people struggle. We struggle with things as simple as trying to lose weight and as profound as faith and doubt. We struggle alone and together, in tandem and in opposition. None of us will get out of this life without having to wrestle with something, and for many of us, it’s quite a few things. (And if we don’t think we’re struggling with anything, the things we struggle against are a crippling lack of self-awareness and the sin of Pride.)
So the next time you’re building a character, give some thought to the ways that they’re less than perfect, and if nothing comes to mind at that point, keep an eye out as the game progresses. My current PC in Grant’s game’s biggest flaw – that he can be vicious despite a sincere desire to do the right thing – developed in play.
With any luck, you’ll find that as you work through the struggles of your fictional self, you may find it easier to cut some slack to people in the real world.
Game designer, podcaster, and sometime pastor Josh T. Jordan joins Grant and Peter to talk about those less-than-epic games, and why they still matter! Josh is the main host of Tell Me Another and the creative force behind Ginger Goat Games. He brought us this topic, and it turns into a wide-ranging discussion about stories outside the traditional epic heroic journey, where personal concerns trump world-threatening story arcs. (We also mention Amagi Games’ “The Soap Opera” one-page game tweak.)
One of the pieces of media that’s been consistently pushed on my by friends (mostly my co-host Grant and his wife, but also some other people) is the show White Collar. For those unfamiliar with it, the show is built around the concept of a not-so-bad “bad guy” being teamed up with a good guy to do good things. In some shows this results in tensions and they find drama that way, but in White Collar, it tends to operate more on the friendly banter level. The dynamic is similar to that of a lawful good paladin and a very kind-hearted and decent chaotic good bard working together. The characters (mostly-reformed con man Neal and FBI agent Peter) don’t always agree on how things should be done and operate under different rules, but they genuinely like and trust each other, even if neither one really wants to admit it. The show is delightful you should give it a try if you haven’t.
In any case, while binge-watching the first season on Netflix over the weekend, I ran across something interesting in Season 1, Episode 9 that I feel is worth putting in the proverbial gamer tool box. [SPOILER WARNING: spoilers for S1E9 of White Collar begin here] In the episode, Peter goes to talk to a corrupt judge, who offers him a bribe. We know from eight prior episodes of character development that he’s about as likely to be bribeable as Captain America, so when he plays along, the audience knows that he’s doing so with an eye toward catching the corrupt judge in her corruption. The other characters in the show, particularly his boss, are less likely to have quite such absolute confidence in his virtue, so when the judge makes plans to give a tape she made of the interaction to a rival agent, we realize he could be in real trouble. He and Neal both begin to put plans into place to get him out of the jam, but neither consults the other first. Peter gets together a bunch of his subordinates who do trust him and starts building the case against the judge on an accelerated timetable. Neal gets together with another basically-good criminal buddy of his and they erase the tape in transit. The tape being blanked buys Peter more time to turn the tables on the corrupt judge and the dirty FBI agent he’s up against by the end of the episode.[END SPOILERS]
The episode illustrates an interesting idea: People who work together don’t always need to coordinate to help each other (in fact, a lot of workplaces rely on people not constantly needing to coordinate with the boss or each other to get stuff done). Neal and Peter never communicated what they planned to do to each other, and in fact, Peter was grateful for Neal’s help but was as surprised by it as his rival was. They worked together while working apart.
This could be, I think, a really neat thing to do in a game, but in order for it to work properly, the PCs have to really trust each other. If they don’t, you’re more likely to get intrigue than serendipitous cooperation, which may also make for good play and/or good story depending on your group, but it’s beyond the scope of this blog post. However, if you’re a GM and your players have that kind of relationship, I think you probably can get away with giving multiple parts of a split party the same news they’re going to want to react to without letting them talk to each other before they have to start moving on it, then let their actions help each other at appropriate times once the clock starts moving, and when the party finally reunites, enjoy the “that was you?” moments that will inevitably spring up. I think it’s also important for their goals to be complimentary, but don’t sweat it if they aren’t identical. In the show, Peter wanted to catch a bad guy and Neal just wanted to spare his friend some possible career-imperiling grief.
It’s not something you probably want to do all the time, but if your group will go for it, I think it could be a lot of fun to let your PCs work together without working in concert. I certainly intend to give it a try at the earliest opportunity.
This episode, Grant and Peter talk about making real-world locations you’re not familiar with into interesting, gameable locations! First, though, we have a lot of well-deserved plugs to get through. The Gameable Disney Podcast is absolutely amazing, and both of us recommend listening to its entire backlog of episodes. Christian Geek Central is awesome (and not only because Mikel did a fun interview with us.) And Grant in particular is a big fan of System Mastery, and he just sent them Deliria to review (warning: probably NSFW.) After all that, we get into the meat of the episode, and break down a bunch of useful resources to use when setting a game or scenario in a real-life location you don’t know well.
Especially dedicated listeners (or those that tuned in for Episode 50’s live recording session) have been exposed to the longest-running inside joke in Saving the Game’s history: Blarey the Podcast Train. I live about a block away from some railroad tracks, and when the freight trains come through, the engineers seem to take a perverse joy in laying on the horn just right, so the sound waves bouncing off the sides of the houses turn the entire street into a giant megaphone. There are certainly more annoying things in the world, but the blaring (blaring horn – Blarey – get it? Yeah, you really didn’t need me to explain that, did you?) of that train horn in the middle of a podcast recording session certainly makes my top ten list of recurring irritations I wish I could be rid of.
But as long as I live on this street, Grant is going to have to edit around breaks in the conversation as we all pause to allow the train sounds on my audio track to fade into the background. The train has derailed conversations and gotten them back on track when we had to pause in the middle of a tangential discussion, it’s spawned its own jingle (“Blarey, the podcast train – he’s here to ruin your aud-i-O!” [thanks for that, Branden—Grant]) and has, as I mentioned earlier, become an inside joke among the hosts, to the point that, for all of its distracting qualities, it’ll feel like the end of an era whenever I move and record an episode from someplace where the familiar rumble and deafening honk aren’t going occur.
If you keep an eye open, it’s possible to do similar things in-game. In Episode 55, Grant and I spent some time discussing our Shadowrun PCs and in particular, how my PC, Frost, developed an in-game desire to return to the punch clock world of honest (and stable) employment. We discussed how that developed out of a joke, but we barely touched on the fact that the (in-game) joke rose out of another PC’s annoyance. The PC in question got into shadowrunning in order to avoid being part of the regular working world, and mine had the gall to drag him into that world, albeit for a short time.
Another PC of mine, a paladin with some psychological baggage, changed away from a hard, grim outlook when some other PCs pointed out to him just how ridiculous he seemed scowling and brooding all the time, and a third one managed to completely isolate himself from the rest of his adventuring party by being impatient and short-tempered with another PC who was obnoxious, but generally good-hearted.
It’s not a complete measure of a person by any stretch of the imagination, but how people deal with things that are bothering them, both individually and in groups, says a lot about who they are and what their character is like. Some folks will take an irritation and co-opt it, making something fun (or at least bearable) out of it like the StG hosts have done with the train that comes through my neighborhood, wrapping layers of humor and shared experience around the problem until it’s not really a problem any more. In this way, it’s almost like the process of an oyster making a pearl. Others will allow the irritant to control their mood, like the last PC I mentioned. Others still will change because of it, and some, realizing that they are the irritant, will try to make themselves less abrasive. None of these approaches to irritating circumstances is the “right” one when you’re creating characters, but it’s worth keeping them (and any other responses you can think of; my list certainly isn’t exhaustive) in the back of your mind for character development.
Who knows? Maybe that thing that’s just a pain today will eventually turn into something with its own theme song tomorrow.
Grant and Peter return to talk about laying the groundwork for character development before the game starts! We lead off with a reminder about Sojourn 2 (and the forthcoming Sojourn 3), and a request for listener input on topics and for reviews on iTunes. Then we get into the topic at hand: Setting yourself up for successful character growth ahead of time. We go over some methods, benefits and ideas; and we wrap up with a STG first—Peter and Grant attempting to put their own advice to good use on-air. Enjoy!
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:26
I have an odd relationship with difficulty. Sometimes it just frustrates me. I play most shooters and other action games as well as most story-based RPGs on “normal” or “easy.” I tend to get annoyed when I’m playing a digital card game and the random number generator seems to favor the computer’s draws more often than not. But there are times when that falls away. I tend to thrive on a certain amount of pressure at work (even if most of it is internal), I love the feeling I get when I figure out a solution to a real-world problem, and I definitely like some more difficult gaming experiences.
I think the difference is that there is more than one kind of difficulty. One type represents being inadequate in some way I’m unable to overcome. This type of difficulty manifests in being shafted by a random number generator, being unable to twitch fast enough in a FPS or RTS to do anything but die, or even encountering an unexpected and unavoidable traffic jam on the way to work. I can’t control the random number generator, as I age, my reflexes aren’t going to get any faster, and there is no amount of good planning that will save me from the consequences of someone else, 20 minutes ahead of me, getting into an accident that snarls traffic in all directions.
The other type, however, comes from inexperience and invites growth. Some of my favorite gaming experiences have come from this type of difficulty. Way back in the late 1990s, Jagged Alliance 2 kept me on my toes and I moved a rag-tag squad of mercenaries around a map trying to liberate the oppressed country of Arulco. That game is really tough, but the toughness feels fair; enemies are subject to the same rules as you, and while they often have better numbers and equipment, they are seldom any match on a personal prowess level for your team. In addition, staying calm and using solid tactics will usually be enough to get you out of all but the thorniest jams. XCOM: Enemy Within plays out in a very similar manner, as do a number of other great turn-based strategy games I’ve played over the years.
Two more good examples are the entire roguelike and rogue-lite genre cluster and Lords of the Fallen, which I’m playing in preparation for taking a crack at a Dark Souls game. Like the aforementioned turn-based strategy games, they give you a consistent set of rules that everything in the world plays by, then puts you in a set of circumstances designed to test how well you can work within those rules. As you play, you can feel yourself getting better. When I first started playing Lords of the Fallen, a single rhogar marauder was more than a match for me. Now I can take on two at a time and usually come out victorious (if not unscathed).
Finally, there are deck-building card games, which I have very hit-or-miss luck with. I’m good enough at Magic: The Gathering for it to be fun in a casual context (and I love Commander/EDH) but I’ll never darken the door of a tournament. I tend to get my clock cleaned in Race for the Galaxy and Dominion, but I love those games anyway, I can feel myself getting slowly better, and the success I experience in all three is more satisfying not only for the failure I’ve experienced, but for the knowing why.
There is a parallel, I think, between the struggle to get better at some game and getting better at being a person and a Christian. The Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of athletic competition often when he’s talking about the Christian life, and I think he’s onto something. Resisting my habitual sins and being more loving, more forgiving, and more learned in my faith isn’t effortless. It’s sometimes really hard, in fact. But I don’t think we’re supposed to look at the struggle as a futile one we can’t make any progress in. Much like a more experienced player or a strategy guide, we have Jesus, and Paul, and countless other scriptural figures to show us at least some of what we need to do if we’re going to overcome the obstacles in our path. And even with that help, we’re never going to succeed 100% of the time. But much like with those pesky rhogar marauders, if we keep at it, we’ll eventually find that things that used to seem insurmountable to us are now challenges we have a solid chance of overcoming.
It’s our annual New Year’s Resolutions bonus episode! Our fundraiser has wrapped up (at $360 raised for The Bodhana Group, well beyond our $150 goal), and Sojourn Volume 2 is still out, with Volume 3 in the works! Also, Branden’s no longer with the podcast; we wish him the best of luck going forward. After that news wrap-up, Peter and Grant break down our resolutions for the coming year, and what we’ll do to keep them.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”—Ecclesiastes 1:9
There’s something appropriate to the fact that Solomon’s words are about 3000 years old, and while he may not have given humanity enough credit in terms of technology, he certainly was right about our behavior. There are two places I think this is relevant, with radically-different levels of importance.
The first and more important is that, as I’ve heard a number of pastors say, there is nothing we can do that God hasn’t seen before. Our shortcomings and sins are neither novel nor noteworthy, and neither is our cycle of struggle, failure, trying again, backsliding, progress, temporary success, and genuine forward progress. The story of the Bible is the story of humanity failing, screwing things up, pleading for forgiveness, getting it, doing better, and then sliding back into old habits and the cycle beginning anew. There is nothing we can do to shock God. There is no wrongdoing we can commit that will set us apart as one of the “special bad ones.” His forgiveness extends to all equally.
The second is that because of this pattern, human nature has been more-or-less constant for all of our history. We do good, we do evil. Cycles of freedom and oppression wax and wane, and one can find parallels with present events in history, sometimes very recent history. I’m sure everyone with an internet connection has seen some quote that, on the face of it, appears to be about current events that was actually from the 1960s. Or 1860s. Or 1360s. Humanity is nothing if not consistent, which is why, in my opinion, the stories we tell each other are so important.
It’s also why they tend to be so similar.
There are archetypal stories out there (how many is the subject of much discussion and debate) but the names are familiar: the Hero’s Journey, Boy Meets Girl, Monster in the House, and so forth. Each one comes with its own set of tropes and conventions. So many of us strive to come up with something original, when the truth is: we can’t. There is at least one website devoted to cataloging tropes, and it is massive. In a way, that knowledge is freeing, if you let it be. Because there is still room to combine the elements in a new way, even if the elements themselves are familiar. And in so doing, we can create something more useful than something new: we can create something meaningful, and meaningful in such a way that it can be understood.
Meaningful doesn’t always have to mean “deep” by the way; not every story we tell is going to contain some timeless, profound truth. However, if we let them, almost every story we tell, or that we let others tell us, will reveal some small tings about us. Telling stories together builds friendships, but it does so by showing others parts of us that we can’t or won’t show in other ways. Tabletop RPGs can do this better than most other means, if we let them. The collaborative nature of the experience means that the participants should be constantly playing off of each other – you can tell a lot about someone by the types of characters they create, and how those characters behave in-game. The experience teaches both us and our friends our own specific rhythms and patterns of thought while teaching us theirs in return. Oftentimes, all that’s useful for is making the session more enjoyable, but in today’s world of stress and disconnection, that’s still a worthy goal. Every now and then, though, sometimes unintentionally, the experience will teach us something profound about ourselves, deeper than we expected, but you have to keep scratching the surface to get down there.
We often get into the good stuff, the deep stuff, the really useful and meaningful revelations not by digging a mine shaft straight down, but by digging a continuous series of shallow holes, one inside the other.