Peter Martin


Episode 106 – Limiting Evil


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After over two years as a two-person show, Saving the Game is proud to announce our new permanent host Jenny Dickson! This is her first episode, and she’ll be joining us going forward.

The episode starts off with an introduction of Jenny and then moves into our Patreon question about hacks and drifts, and then the three of us dig into our main topic: limiting the evil of villains in games. We cover why to do it, how to do it, and what effects it has on the story you’re telling.

Scripture: Exodus 5:6-8, Judges 3:13-14Revelation 3:14-19

Links:
High-Heel-Face Turn on tvtropes.org
Star Wars in Traveller
The Fugitive
Episode 17: Lines and Veils

Undertale


Turbulence at the Light End of the Gray Scale

In the upcoming Episode 106 there is some mention of “shades of gray” not just meaning the darker end of the spectrum. And then today I ran across an article titled Democracy and the Demonization of the Good by Richard Beck. While the article is primarily inspired by thoughts about political discourse, the combination of the “light end of the spectrum” and that article has gotten me thinking about virtue and the ways in which good people can come into conflict.

Sometimes conflict happens because one side is evil, or both of them are. The classic examples of fighting Nazis, hunting serial killers, and tracking down thieves and crooked businessmen or politicians all apply, as do the ones of war in the underworld, either figuratively (as you’d see in a campaign with rival gangs fighting) or, heck, even literally in some games. But oftentimes, it’s not because one party or the other is monstrous. Some of the most awful and brutal conflicts in all of history were fought, not because of cruelty or wanton malice, but because of obligations, bad information, and poor communications. World War One, arguably the most horrific and brutal conflict in all of human history, was fought not over clear-cut moral grounds, but because of obligations, strategic calculations, poor communication technology, and a host of other factors that had nothing to do with evil at the start. There would be plenty of evil after it started, but aside from a single assassination that started the dominoes falling, there’s not a lot one can look at in the lead-up to the war with a terribly condemning eye if one is at all interested in being fair, especially with the distance that history provides. (Hardcore History and Extra History each did their own excellent muti-part series on WWI. I recommend consuming both.)

A bit closer to home, the Church in the US in particular is divided on a number of contentious issues, which has left sincere people of faith on both sides struggling to reconcile some of the differences that have come to the fore, and in fact if you look at Church history, this is nothing new. Religious schisms and conflicts are littered throughout the history of the church. We touched on one of the more dramatic events stemming from this in out Historical Heresies series when we talked about the First Council of Nicaea.

This is a contentious topic and one that gets people angry in a hurry. It can be difficult just to talk about in a civil way. Why would anyone want to game about this?

*ahem*

The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity. -C.S. Lewis

Okay, so C.S. Lewis has provided the “why” but what about the “how?”

It isn’t hard to imagine how evil winds up in fights. Caring either only for itself or for some sinister goal, evil has nothing to lose from conflict and is perfectly happy to escalate matters as far as is necessary for it to triumph, consequences be hanged. Good, on the other hand, usually only gets mixed up in fights when something important is threatened, but that’s not usually the entirety of it. If you want to bring two good people or groups into conflict, here’s at least one way it can start.

  1. Good, as previously-mentioned, only tends to get involved in conflicts to protect or preserve something important. For example: in our D&D game, the party is planning to confront a hag who has struck a bargain that will cost a young couple their firstborn. This is a major threat to innocent life, something that’s definitely worth preserving. So to have a seed of conflict at all, you need to create a situation that threatens something one of your good sides cares about.
  2. Once you’ve accomplished that, you’re going to need to set it up so the only solution that the side feeling threatened can see to their problem will imperil something important to another good group. Side note: using Moral Foundations Theory can help keep this from feeling too forced or cheesy. If one side’s Care actions threaten another side’s Purity ones or vice versa… …you’ll have a conflict that will feel very familiar to anyone who pays attention to politics.
  3. At some point, someone is going to have to assume the worst in someone on the other side, and then they’re going to have to do something that makes the other side assume the worst too.
  4. Someone needs to escalate.
  5. Congratulations, you have a conflict.

And this is about the point at which the player characters should probably come in. To use this type of conflict to its fullest potential, it’s probably best to make the sides roughly equal in how sympathetic they are. The conflict will probably be thorny, resistant to easy solutions, and exhausting to resolve if the GM has done their homework, but if the PC group manages to pull it off, the resolution will be extremely satisfying. It is worth noting that all of these same traits mean this is probably best as a sometimes thing rather than a constant theme in your games, but if what we’ve said for four-plus years about games being good moral practice is at all something you agree with, this seems like a particularly good type of practice to be getting these days.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. – Matthew 5:9

This week’s featured image is from Agelshaxe and is used under Creative Commons.


One Foot in Front of the Other

It has been a rough couple of weeks, no two ways about it. Those who follow me on social media may have seen a blog post from my personal blog memorializing the passing of the first pet my wife and I had together: our beloved cat Storm. His death and the loneliness and emptiness that left behind in our apartment was heartbreaking. I remember at one point looking at my wife and saying “I am tired of being sad, and I am tired from being sad.” But as hard as it was on me, for my wife it was worse, and her grief was as difficult for me as my own was. At times, more so.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. -Romans 12:15

Grief and sadness are exhausting, and I’ve had a lot more rough, half-asleep mornings in the last couple of weeks that I’ve had in the last couple of year. And yet even when the loss is crushing, such as in the case of the loss of a parent or, worse, a child, society doesn’t long excuse the grief-stricken from their daily duties. Work must be done, obligations must be attended to.

And that goes triple for those who, paradoxically, are going to experience grief-triggering events the most often – soldiers, law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, firefighters, and so on.

You know: player characters.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. -Matthew 5:4

Your average PC probably sees a lot of death, destruction, chaos, and carnage just in their first adventure, to say nothing of their entire career. And they generally press on through it with nary a complaint. This is a genre trope in a lot of cases; superheroes, pulp adventurers, crack special forces troops and so on are often portrayed as “psychologically indestructible” or at least sufficiently hardened, trained, and/or outfitted with coping mechanisms to handle the stress and tragedy of what they deal with. That can be great for lighter, more cinematic, and/or high-adventure campaigns and is certainly a valid way of playing. It’s not the only valid way, though. Some games choose to tackle the stressful, painful, exhausting side of adventuring and the emergent content from those systems is fascinating. (Two properties that explore these themes that probably don’t need any more plugging from me, but are going to get it anyway are This War of Mine and Unknown Armies.)

I’ll admit to a certain level of bias; as a gamer, I’ve begun to feel a bit of what I could term “violence fatigue” in relation to my entertainment. So much of the gaming experience seems to revolve around killing things, and after a while (perhaps as a function of getting older) one starts to tire of all the cleaving and smashing and shooting. In fact, I’d say that exposure to so much violent entertainment over the course of my adolescence and adult life has actually sensitized be to it rather than de-sensitizing like concerned folks often worry will. I’ve allowed some of this to consciously bleed into Lambert in the D&D game. He’s still perfectly capable of fighting and killing if need be (ask the phase spider that scared the living daylights out of us a few sessions back) but he’d really rather not; Lambert knows that violence and death (especially with sapient beings) often leads to grief and suffering. He also recognizes that sometimes, it’s necessary. Lambert lives in a fantasy world with evil things that exist pretty much solely to cause the misery he wants to prevent. That dichotomy (and the high quality of the rest of the gaming group) has allowed for some very interesting character interactions.

A reluctance to wade into battle isn’t the only application for more emotionally vulnerable (or even just emotionally complex) PCs, though. Allowing PCs to feel things and react appropriately is an underutilized trick in a lot of mainstream gaming. One needn’t be all melodramatic and angsty about it. Lambert certainly isn’t an “emo” character, but he’s very much a “Protestant work ethic” kind of guy who pushes himself very hard. In his particular case, he tends to cope with that stress by bantering with the other two PCs, whom he trusts even if not everyone else in the colony does. It takes the edge off and lets him keep going without getting overwhelmed. It’s not a front-and-center part of his character on every adventure, but it does add a bit of texture. And that texture helps keep the game fun, at least for me.

Which can be good when the game is one of the ways I, as a player, manage some small measure of the stress in the real world. Sometimes, knowing how my PC keeps putting one foot in front of the other can help me do the same.

 

This week’s featured image is from Brent Newhall used under Creative Commons.


Retracing Old Steps

Mass Effect: Andromeda is coming out next month, so I’ve dived back into the second and third games in the series. (I skipped the first because I don’t have it as part of a digital game client and I’m not exactly sure where my discs went.) It’s interesting the things you notice when you go back to something familiar, but that you haven’t engaged with for a while. I realized on the first playthrough just how much there is about redemption and forgiveness in the third game of the series; but back in 2012, I hadn’t done over 100 episodes of a podcast where I examine media and gaming through an explicitly Christian filter with a bunch of other folks doing the same, so the lenses I now view media through are a bit more polished, as it were. Also: it’s been five years and I feel like I can play a little more fast and loose with spoilers now. That said, spoiler warning for the first three Mass Effect games, particularly 2 and 3. If you haven’t played them, they’re well worth your time.

One of the things that has stuck with me is the character of “Subject Zero,” better known as Jack. When you pick Jack up in Mass Effect 2, she’s a very troubled and violent person with an extremely traumatic past. As the subject of a bunch of brutal experiments designed to enhance both her biotic (essentially telekinetic) potential and simultaneous conditioning to fight as a child, she’s pretty darn messed up when you pull her out of a maximum-security prison station in game 2. If you play the game as a “Paragon” like I did, Shepard (the player character) works with her enough that she starts overcoming a few of her issues as the game goes on, but it isn’t until game 3 when you come across her as a teacher of other biotic students at a private school, and a good one at that, where you truly see the level of redemption she’s achieved. A woman who was once a vicious, lawless killer carving a path of rage and destruction across the nastier parts of the galaxy is now a devoted and fiercely protective teacher. She’s still got a sharp tongue, but there is genuine compassion in the way she treats her students and genuine gratitude toward the people, from Shepard to the Alliance personnel who gave her the job, that provided her with a fresh start.

Which brings up an interesting point about redemption: it’s seldom something a person can achieve on their own. People may break bad habits and establish good ones, but in order to truly complete the process, someone has to actually let them have a shot at being restored to some kind of community with other people. This has a lot of interesting story implications in game. How much do you trust the villain that’s reformed? What do you do with bad guys who are suddenly trying to do something good? How do you tell sincere willingness to change from a ploy? Let’s assume you’ve decided to give someone a second chance. What does that look like in this story? In this setting?

The second one that sticks with me and the thing that actually made me cry a little bit the first time I played the game was what happened on Rannoch, the homeworld of the Quarians and Geth. The backstory of those two races seems like a twisted and partially-inverted version of Paradise Lost. The Quarians built the Geth, a sapient race of what boils down to laborer robots, to assist them on their homeworld of Rannoch. The design was a little too good, and one day a Geth gained both sufficient self-awareness and boldness to ask its Quarian supervisor if it had a soul. The Quarians, fearing the response from the galactic community, attempted to wipe out the Geth, which resulted in a war they lost, badly. Driven from their homeworld and wandering throughout space on fleet of ships, and also stuck in environment suits from infancy due to immune systems that function poorly away from a homeworld they no longer have access to, the Geth are God, Lucifer, and Cain all rolled into one. The Geth even refer to them as “creators” rather than their racial name. And the Geth, paradoxically, are willing to forgive the Quarians and welcome them back as long as price isn’t their survival. In a series of events that plays out over an hour or two of gameplay, Shepard is able to learn both sides of the story and broker a peace between the formerly-hostile races. Interesting, the Geth, not being biological, have perfect memory and absolutely zero interest in holding a grudge. The level of forgiveness and sacrifice that goes into the reunification of those two disparate factions was the thing that actually opened the tear ducts up on me. One of the Geth, called Legion (a direct reference to the bunch of demons in Mark 5:9!) because of the way Geth operate (as a host of networked virtual machines, essentially) uploads itself and “dies” in the process. The sequence ends with a hulking Geth combat platform gently offering to let the Quarians come home. It’s also noted that the ecosystem of the homeworld the Quarians need so badly has been carefully preserved for over 300 years by machines that can survive in vacuum. The Geth were looking for an opportunity to reconcile with their creators.

There’s more beautiful symbolism and mythic resonance in that story than I can unpack in ten of these blog posts, but it does serve as an excellent example of the C.S. Lewis quote we used to say all the time on the podcast:

“The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.”

Interestingly, that phenomenon even works when you’ve previously had some familiarity with the myth – a little time away from a story brings back a lot of its significance. And the significance of forgiveness, freely, even eagerly offered is something we can all stand to remember a bit more these days.

 

This weeks featured image is from Tony Alter, used under a Creative Commons license.


A Sense of Menace

Last session in the D&D game, we came to a horrifying realization: a powerful evil NPC we’d covertly stolen an item from (a witch/hag that goes by “Auntie Bloat”) at the behest of a good NPC had found the colony and had managed to sneak in and make a deal with one of the farmers that would result in her taking the infant he and his wife have on the way. It was unexpected and shocking, but it galvanized us into action almost immediately. In a very real way, this will be what the game is about until the threat is removed.

However, unlike a lot of scenarios like this, Grant has left us with a somewhat longer window before we have to act, which does several interesting things.

First, it creates a sense of looming dread that we’re going to have to live with for a while. Incidentally, Grant seems fond of this – we agreed to an unspecified favor for a water fey earlier in the game and that won’t be coming due any time soon; we’re about two months in the world’s time into the game, which means we have about 10 more months until that favor comes due. The saving of the newborn is going to have to happen at least 2-3 months before that, however, which gives us both time to prepare and time for the situation to get more complicated. There’s also the near certainty that the party is currently no match for Auntie Bloat. Which means we need to gain some levels. Plural. Fast.

Second, speaking of getting more complicated, it’s pushing us to solidify alliances we’ve started forming. The party has sought the aid of Rishi, a Kenku sorcerer and the first friendly NPC we met on the island that didn’t also arrive on our ship. But in order to get that aid, we have to help him secure another teacher for his apprentice should he die in the effort, which means we’re going to be traveling to another nearby island (or perhaps several) in the archipelago on a just-salvaged boat we recovered from some gnolls that had been eaten by giant spiders.

Finally, it’s acting as a mechanism to tie several plot threads together. As mentioned in previous blog posts, the party has been building relationships and a reputation as folks useful to the colony (and to a lesser extent, the Kenku), and as such has been able to call in some favors. The boat itself is a massive favor that Governor Hester Warwick has granted us because while the party is so often the bearer of news of new complications that she gets a headache every time we report in, we’ve also gotten results every time she’s sent us to do something. Rishi is willing to help us because we’ve helped him and the Kenku in a big way once already (in fact, he was the one who sent us to steal the item from Auntie Bloat in the first place). And the colony is starting to expand to the point where the target painted on us for various threats to zero in on is getting bigger and more brightly-colored.

This long-term approach does have a single significant drawback, however: it’s far enough out, there’s a certain risk of losing the sense of dread, and on the other side of the coin there’s also a chance (as killed the Shadowrun game) that the players will become paralyzed with second-guessing and not go anywhere. Do that long enough and even a very good campaign can die.

Still, I think there’s a lot of value in taking this longer view. In a previous campaign of mine, a generally very successful one, we sat down at the end and realized that the player characters had started at level 5 and had wound up at level 21 less than six months of game time later. Their journey had been a constant charge through an unending chain of immediate threats and un-ignorable emergencies. They’d had no time to breathe at all; in the real world, even hardened combat verterans couldn’t keep up the pace they’d kept up, and in retrospect, that had been poor storytelling on my part.

So I think there’s some real value in placing a problem that’s certain and scary on the horizon and letting the players get to it over a longer period of time rather than dropping it on top of them and forcing them to react NOW like so many GMs, including me, have done.

As usual, I’d love to hear your comments on this topic. How have you and your gaming group paced your threats, and how did it work out?

 

This week’s image is used, unaltered, under creative commons and comes from Schizoform.


Heroic Legacies

A few sessions back Lambert, my PC in our D&D game, almost died in a fight.

The party is a fairly low-level one, and the giant spiders they were fighting could do a decent amount of damage. Lambert was rolling poorly, and the spiders were not – despite his high armor class, they were landing a lot of hits on him and the situation was starting to look a bit dire before the faerie dragon NPC we had with us intervened and gave me some breathing room. Lambert quickly drank a healing potion and he was back in the fight.

That time when things got dicey got me thinking about what kind of impact Lambert’s death would have on the colony, and what kind of impact his life had produced up until that point. Without going into too much detail and boring you all with a gaming story, the effects would have been pretty substantial. Lambert had both a leadership position and a useful set of skills he was neither shy nor reluctant to use on the colony’s behalf, and had he been eaten by a giant spider, there would have been a substantial hole there to fill.

Which leads me to a short, if critical point: if you’re aiming to play heroic characters, what kind of legacy are they creating? A lot of the time, the more heroic PCs in fantasy games especially are defined primarily by what they’re willing to stick the business end of some weapon into, and, it follows, how many of those things they’ve vanquished. Certainly, a lot of fantasy settings are dangerous, monster-infested places and the dragonslayer’s role is a critical one, but oftentimes the things that really make PCs important in the world are the ones that happen when they’re not fighting, or at least after they’re done fighting.

The PCs in the colony game cleared out, but also thoroughly scouted, an ancient, abandoned monastery that’s currently the seat of colonial government. While in that same monastery, they worked out a deal with a freshwater faerie to secure a supply of clean water for the colony. They made peaceful contact with the Kenku village, they made peaceful (if somewhat exasperated) contact with a faerie dragon. They’ve identified the territory of a dangerous predator (a wyvern). They’ve found fertile land, helped find mineral deposits, located a wrecked gnoll ship, and rescued a bunch of lost colonists from an interdimensional “pocket plane.” Lambert has also done a lot of work on finding out which plants on the island are edible and/or medicinal.

They’ve also become known as the bearers of stressful news to at least the governor, who has come to realize that they get things done, but also often bring news that complicates matters every time they come back from some errand.

In short, they’ve made a difference. The people in the colony are safer (much, much safer) better-fed, and better-sheltered than they’d be without the help of the PCs or some other characters like them. In addition to problem solvers and threat-eliminators, they’re scouts, pathfinders, and trailblazers, and that has made them heroic without there needing to be a constant stream of monsters or even a known “big bad.” And like most of these revelations, it’s been equal parts serendipity, improvisation, good GMing, and a complete surprise.

I guess the take-away here is that if you’re looking to make heroes, especially ones tied to a place, look specifically for opportunities to do things that benefit that place in ways that aren’t just taking threats out. Try and find a way for them to leave a legacy. You’ll probably find yourself having even more fun than normal.

This week’s image is from Pedro Ribeiro Simões, used under Creative Commons.


Clean Slate 1

On this New Year’s Day, hear the good news that God allows do-overs. God created do-overs. We get a second chance…or a third, or fourth, or fifth…or seventy times seven. -From the January 1 church bulletin of the Marengo United Methodist Church.

A lot of us make resolutions around this time of year – things we want to do better or stop doing, and therefore be better. This has proven difficult throughout human history – in fact, the Bible itself can be boiled down into “stop doing the things!” It doesn’t typically prove to be any better on an individual level. We start the new year full of life and excitement, determined to take on the world and our own bad habits and then life eventually grinds us down until sometime around August, we either have completely forgotten what our resolutions were, or we’re so dispirited that we have trouble seeing the point.

Some of this is just human nature and even human physiology. There’s some pretty compelling science that habits – never mind actual addictions – are so heard to break because the more we repeat something, the more it physically affects our brains. Common behaviors form what are essentially hard-wired neural pathways. This isn’t always a bad thing, mind you. This is also the reason why things like tying your shoes no longer require conscious thought by the time you’ve reached adulthood. But that also means that bad habits get hard-wired in as well. (So in Psalm 139:14 when the word “fearfully” comes up, it’s not hard to see this powerful double-edged psychological sword as part of the fear.)

So what does that mean for someone trying to change as a Christian? Probably lots and lots of things, but several big ones I want to focus on.

The first is that, as you may suspect, games are actually your friend in this!  One of the ways that works well for some people (me very much included) to form better habits is to game-ify the process. (If you doubt this, you really should take the time to watch Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on the subject.) As some of our listeners may already suspect, this is where I bring up Habitica. If you’ve never looked at it, look at it. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic to-do list app, and the RPG elements are obviously a bonus. The free version is more than adequate, though it’s helped me enough that I decided to subscribe at a small monthly amount ($5). That gets you access to… …snazzy-looking cosmetic stuff, mostly. There are other tools out there as well. This Lifehacker Article covers some of them, including Habitica (called Habit RPG back then).

The second is accountability. I’ve had some fairly poor results sticking with an exercise regimen in the past, and since I’m now no longer getting much exercise at work, this is getting more and more important with every passing day. I asked some members of a small, private Facebook group I’m in to periodically check in with me about how it’s going, and Grant’s wife (who is a member of that group) has been pretty diligent about not letting me forget this is a thing I’m supposed to do. The trick, for me at least, is to not have be a beatdown, just a check-in.

The third is that it can be good to keep your ears open. I had a horrible time keeping up any sort of regular prayer schedule until I heard about this prayer that can be said quickly as I step into my morning shower and learned this method of praying through my day that I can do at night. I tried them and they stuck. Don’t be afraid to grab tools where you can find them.

Finally and most important is grace. God is far, far more patient with us than we are with ourselves. The Bible is a continuous loop of screwing up and being forgiven from Genesis all the way to Revelation. (See the link under “stop doing the things!”) God has forgiven, does forgive, and will continue to forgive, and while none of us will ever reach Christ-like perfection this side of eternity, we can get better. There’s also a nugget of wisdom I’d like to share from a close friend of mine. I came to him feeling guilty about how hard it had been for me to resist a habitual sin. I’d managed not to do it this time, but the amount of effort it had required from me had me down. His response was “Just because there was a struggle doesn’t mean you lost, dude.” Now to some folks, that may seem obvious, but to me, that was profound.

I still have a lot to work on this year, but there is something wonderful and enticing about a clean slate, isn’t there?

 

This week’s image used under Creative Commons comes from Travis Isaacs.


Morality, Privilege, and Redemption

Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” -Matthew 9:13 (ESV)

We had a very interesting moment in our D&D game this past weekend.

First, a bit of set-up. The player characters had been sent off to explore a previously-unexplored area of the island with the goal of finding minerals, specifically iron ore. While looking around, they encountered a massive, 12′ wide track where the vegetation had been stripped down to the ground. A bit unnerved by this, the player characters readied weapons and cautiously followed the track. At the end, they found an absolutely ENORMOUS beetle gnawing placidly away at the vegetation and moving at a pace that would make a sloth seem like a drag racer by comparison. It was huge, but it was also profoundly non-threatening.

And that’s when the faerie dragon decided to start messing with us. Unbeknownst to us, we had wandered into the territory of a non-malicious, but extremely mischievous one, and it started its pranking of us by attempting to get my PC to ride the beetle like a rodeo bronco via a suggestion spell. Lambert, being a cleric with both a high wisdom and a proficiency bonus to his will save, beat the spell handily, but Grant described the suggestion as a strangely-strong but fleeting impulse. Lambert had just finished describing this to the rest of the party when the giggling in the woods started. Aster, the party’s rogue (played by Grant’s wife Krissi) immediately fired an arrow at this unseen, giggling force in the woods. What actually took place (as we discovered later) was that the dragon used an auditory illusion and flew off to prank us more in the future, which resulted in some real hilarity and a detente with the faerie dragon over fruit compote (yes really). That was all later in the session, however.

What happened immediately was the PCs hearing a scream of agony that trailed off into the woods. And this is where it really got interesting. The party rushed into the woods to investigate, and found Aster’s arrow stuck in a tree. What followed was a discussion where Lambert expressed concern that they had harmed something that wasn’t actively trying to harm them (riding the beetle probably would have gone unnoticed by the beetle) and also worried a bit that they’d made an enemy of something with mind-controlling abilities. Aster countered (reasonably) that she hadn’t actually been trying to harm anything and the arrow was intended as a flushing tactic. There was a bit more back and forth with Lambert looking more than a little distressed and Aster asking him what she should have done instead (which Lambert really did not have a good answer for). Aster ultimately apologized to Lambert and said she’d alter her tactics in the future (a promise she kept later in the session at some personal risk).

Toward the end of the conversation, Krissi said to me “Lambert is just starting to realize what a different set of base assumptions Aster lives with, isn’t he?” Aster had a much rougher background than Lambert. He had grown up as the son of loving parents and then went into the clergy, and from there into a monastic order where he spent 15 years in a monastery surrounded by natural beauty, holiness, and peace. His background had taken a core of kindness and civic responsibility and nurtured that until those traits defined him.

Aster, by contrast, had probably stitched up a knife wound somewhere on her own body by the time she was eight. The illegitimate child of an elven noble and a barmaid, she’d grown up on the streets and had finely-honed survival skills that depended on being the fastest shot and the quickest thinker. She hadn’t had the luxury of being able to reflexively go to mercy and kindness in her life – those traits would get you killed, messily, on the streets. Much like in a modern prison, you had to be tough if you wanted to keep on being at all.

In the context of that background, the arrow shot made complete sense. In Aster’s world, you rarely got any warning at all, and when you did, you sure didn’t want to waste it. Parley is a luxury the streets will seldom allow you. In the context of Lambert’s world, it was different – even in this new place far from home, he was already safer than Aster. Encased in armor, carrying a shield, and possessed of a high resistance to mind-influencing magic, he did have the luxury of parley. The list of things that can one-shot an armored healer with strong mental resistance is a lot smaller than the list of things that can one-shot a lightly-armored rogue. (The reverse, however, is also true. The rogue can put a much larger list of things down quickly thanks to sneak attacks . Have I mentioned lately how great 5th edition D&D is?)

No matter how you slice it, though, Lambert’s morality was a privilege he had born out of privilege he’d already had. And so it is in real life, too.

Desperation can push people to do all kinds of things society frowns on. Poor areas are dangerous because poor people are desperate, and desperation makes things like robbery, drug dealing, and murder seem more reasonable. It also makes things like drug use seem more appealing because it offers an escape from the misery. Children are born without one or more parents because accidental conceptions happened (again as a brief escape from the misery of daily life) or something deprives the child of one or more parents, whether it be through death, prison, or abandonment. It can lead people who aren’t cruel, evil, or even particularly short-tempered to do things like firing an arrow at someone who may not have meant them any real harm.

That in turn makes it all the more meaningful when one of those people, used to desperation and a hard, unforgiving world actually takes a risk and suppresses those instincts, which is exactly what Aster did later on in the same evening. The fact that Lambert had been disturbed affected her enough that when she went up against the mysterious, pranking force again, she left her bow out of it and ultimately set the stage for us to make at least a temporary ally out of the faerie dragon.

She rose above the pain and horror of what she came up through to spare the feelings of a friend with no such baggage who had expressed concern about her actions. If that’s not redemption, I don’t know what is.

This week’s image is used under Creative Commons from Nick Perla


Plunged Into Darkness

As I was working today, the unexpected happened: the building lost power. Since I work in a warehouse without much in the way of windows and it’s for a company that sells IT equipment, the effect was pretty dramatic. The building was plunged into inky darkness, lit only by a few laptops we had running that switched to battery power and the activity lights on the servers (which had uninterruptible power supplies). A few minutes later, the UPSes on various desktop PCs started to beep as their batteries drained down and my boss shut down the lab servers so they could come down properly. Then we basically stood around with cell phone lights and flashlights we normally used for working inside computer cases and talked – jokes flew about what various people were doing to knock the power out to whole building, and when it became apparent that this wasn’t a problem that was going away in 5 minutes, we decided to get lunch at a nearby sandwich shop. In a moment, without warning and without time to plan or even react, the environment I was in changed completely.

I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this already.

As I sat there eating my sandwich, the gaming implications of a sudden environmental change started percolating in my head. Now, I’ll lead off by saying that one of the things that made the idea pop into my head in the first place is that the change that happened to me at work today was dramatic, sudden, and inconvenient, but it wasn’t hazardous. The parameters of my day changed in an instant, but that change didn’t threaten my safety at all, nor did it do so for my coworkers. The sudden absence of electricity didn’t mean we were suddenly in danger, it just meant we couldn’t do our normal work. Similarly, these same kinds of nuisance (or even beneficial) sudden changes can spice up a gaming session. Some examples I thought of as I was working on this:

In a modern game, the power goes out (like happened to me). You really don’t realize just how much we depend on a steady flow of electricity in the modern world until it disappears! In addition to losing the lights, we couldn’t use our computers any more, by extension, we were limited to our smartphones for internet access, and we couldn’t even heat our lunches up in the microwave. Even fairly menial jobs these days have some kind of digital component to them – at my old job, all of the books I received went into an inventory database, so if we lost power there, we were dead in the water as well. Nothing shuts down the modern world like taking the electricity away.

A flash flood, avalanche, or landslide washes out or blocks a road or bridge the PCs need to use to travel somewhere. Suddenly being stranded somewhere or having to take a radically different (and probably longer) way around is a good way to either make a party experience one area in more detail or see a much larger stretch of territory than they would have otherwise.

A message arrives (via courier or cell phone as appropriate) to inform the PCs that some drastic change has happened in the world. Depending on the game, this could be a regime change, an inheritance, an important technological breakthrough, the end or the start of a war, first contact with another sapient species, or any number of other dramatic events. Particularly in a world that’s industrial but does not have modern communications and logistical technologies, it can be nearly impossible to stop certain things once they’ve been set in motion. In fact, that’s how the first World War started. That doesn’t mean, however, that the PCs can’t do anything, just that they’re now operating in a different setting.

Due to magic, advanced technology, or weird science, the PCs suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves Somewhere Else. Grant used this to great effect in our D&D game when he transported us to an extradimensional fortress set up by an insane spellcaster. Having to suddenly grapple with an entirely new set of environs (particularly unfamiliar ones) gives PCs an opportunity to explore and forces them to think on their feet.

I’m sure you can think of other examples (and I’d love to see them in the comments).

One important thing to keep in mind when using elements like this is that a little goes a long way. A dramatic twist or environmental shift can add a lot of drama and excitement to a session. Having a whole panoply of them runs the risk of making the players feel unmoored in the setting at best and railroaded at worst. That caveat out of the way, though, I think a lot of games could benefit from a dash of the unexpected.