Monthly Archives: March 2015


Villainy in the Easter Story

Villains.

They may not be the first thing that comes to mind around Easter, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t rife with them. Plotting villains, treacherous villains, cruelly opportunistic villains, apathetic villains – virtually every form of human evil and moral failing is on display in the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. It’s worth examining this, not only for how it may affect us directly, but how it may affect our stories at the game table and elsewhere.

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.-Matthew 26:3-5

Premeditated Villainy: The most stereotypical form of villainy is on display with the elders and religious leaders. They’ve determined that Jesus is a threat to their power base, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue. In their minds, He is dangerous, and in such a way and to such an extent that not only must the threat be removed, but an example must be made. We can be guilty of this when we engineer the downfall of others for our own gain, and in our stories, these villains tend to be powerful masterminds at the center of a spider’s web. However, this kind of scheming, premeditated villainy can also be the purview of lone bad actors. A lot of armed robberies, whether of a bank or a gas station, are planned out in at least some detail up front. It’s also worth noting that this sort of villainy can easily spawn more, drawing others into the plot to play a role that they may have never intended to play.

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. -Matthew 26: 14-16

Treacherous Villainy:  The most painful form of villainy is treason. Being betrayed by a friend hurts and it also often comes a surprise, which amplifies the pain. The motivations of the betrayer can span the entire spectrum of sympathetic or utterly reprehensible. People have been betrayed in both reality and fiction for everything from sport all the way up to grave threats on the betrayer’s own life or family. In Judas Iscariot’s case, it’s likely that his disappointment in Jesus’s lack of violent political overthrow of the Roman oppressors led him to betray Jesus.

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. -Luke 23:22-25

Passive Villainy: Pontius Pilate didn’t set out to torture and execute an innocent man, but he succumbed to pressure to do so. In his mind, the consequences of continuing to defy the mob were too high and too dangerous, politically and personally. He may have even been right. So in the end, he did something he knew was wrong in order to maintain his own position. Given the ruthlessness and cruelty of the Roman empire, it’s relatively easy to forgive Pilate, if only because his misdeeds feel so familiar. The failure to take a stand and do the right thing and the rationalization that failing to stop something bad from happening isn’t our problem or our fault are familiar paths that many, I suspect all, of us have walked down before. In stories, these villains, if they’re even seen that way, are often the most sympathetic and are certainly the most petty. The guard that takes a bribe to look the other way, the merchant who owes a favor the local crime boss calls in, and countless others who do “little things” are the foundation many an evil plot, both in fiction and in reality, has been built upon. The famous Edmund Burke quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” references this phenomenon.

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. -Matthew 27:27-31

Opportunistic Villainy:  I doubt any of the soldiers in that company woke up that morning planning to cruelly beat and humiliate an innocent man, but when the opportunity presented itself, they took to it with gusto. The casual cruelty of a child pulling the legs or wings off of an insect, the driver that blocks a lane change before an exit out of spite, the person humiliating another with an embarrassing story in front of an audience – these are all familiar scenes. People can be vicious, and sometimes the reason isn’t clear, even to the person doing it. Humanity is an apex predator, and I think some of that wiring is in all of us. In fiction, these villains can be hard to pull off properly, because they often don’t have much in the way of understandable motivation for what they do, other than that sometimes people get satisfaction out of hurting each other. This sort of villainy is best used in fiction as a complication. Someone is feeling petty today, so now the obvious solution to whatever problem is at hand won’t work. This is a strong narrative spice and should be used sparingly, or the players will begin to suspect the GM of being this way toward them.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. -Matthew 27:3-5

 

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.- Matthew 26:69-75

 

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”-Matthew 27:24

Despair and Repentance: People who knowingly do evil seldom get out of the experience without some remorse. People have varying levels of empathy, but most have some sort of internal moral compass, and even when we deny to others that what we’ve done is wrong, oftentimes we know or at least wonder differently.  This is an often-forgotten element in fiction, even if it is all too real in our lives, and I think by making every evildoer into an unrepentant monster, we pull a lot of gravity, texture, and useful symbolic weight out of our stories in the process.

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.-Luke 23:33-34

Forgiveness and Grace: It is important to remember that the end game for all of this is that God forgives us our sins, which is a very, very good thing, because I know that I have been the villain many more times than I’d like, and as much as I hate to admit it, as long as I’m alive and human, it will almost certainly happen again.


Episode 58 – Prophecy (with Katrina Ehrnman) 1


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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!

Also mentioned in this episode: First Wave and Kris Newton’s Feed RPG.

Scripture: Habakkuk 2:2-3; Daniel 5:25-30; 2 Peter 1:16-21


Blog: Nobody’s Perfect 1

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 in Darkest Dungeon pick up a wide range of problems in play.

Heroes in Darkest Dungeon pick up a wide range of problems in play.

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.


Episode 57 – Playing for Small Stakes (with Josh T. Jordan)


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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.)

Scripture: Genesis 25:29-34Matthew 20:29-31Luke 16:10-12


Blog: Working Together While Working Apart

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.

—Peter