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Some Light in the Dungeon

Jack Chick died this past weekend. For those too young to remember, back in 1984, Jack Chick published his now-infamous “Dark Dungeons” tract, and as we discussed with Chris Ode in episode 88, 32 years later we as gamers are still dealing with the fallout.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, -Matthew 5:44

Forgiving the dead is a strange and tricky thing, especially when they hurt you or those you care about without even knowing you exist like Jack Chick did to so many gamers. So how do we go about forgiving one of the key figure in the “Satanic panic” of the 80s and 90s? Because as Christians, that’s what we are commanded to do. The thing I like about Matthew 5:44 is that it comes directly from Jesus. There’s no room for hedging because “that’s the Old Testament” or “well, that’s one of Paul’s letters.” Nope. Jesus himself said that. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Paul and The Old Testament differed on this one. That confluence of scripture doesn’t leave much room for alternative interpretations.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. -Romans 12:14

I would suggest the “how” of forgiving is going to vary from person to person, but keep in mind a few things as you contemplate that for yourself: first, as wrong as he was about a lot of things, Chick seemed motivated primarily by a sincere desire to save people from Hell. His theology was that of an angry, pitiless God and speaking as a person who has to wrestle with some of those ideas himself from time to time, that kind of theology is often borne out of guilt and feelings of having missed the mark. As I often say on the podcast: remember Hanlon’s Razor (which can be restated as “assume good faith”).

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. -Exodus 23:4-5

However, forgiving Jack may be a fulfillment of one of our duties of Christians, but it still leaves us with the troubling problem of his legacy, and I think the best way to address that is to keep using our hobby for good. Donate time or money to things like Extra Life, which our friends at Innroads Ministries are doing for the fourth year straight, use simple roleplaying exercises as a way of enhancing teaching in your church and other charitable efforts, and probably most importantly, don’t let gaming become an “idol” that takes over more of your life than it should. Let your light shine so brightly that as Jack looks on from a Heaven that is more full than he’d dared to hope, even he can see that it reaches even into the dungeon.

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.  Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. -Revelation 21:6-7

Rest in peace, Mr. Chick.


Campaign Report: Player Perspective, Part 1

Grant has written a number of very well-thought-out reports on our D&D game from a GM’s perspective, but so far, aside from mentioning it on the show, I’ve been a little quiet on the game, other than stating repeatedly what a blast I’m having. I’d like to take some time to explain why I’m enjoying the campaign so much, and I’d also like to point out some things that are going particularly well that I think are worth mentioning. As you can see by the “part 1” in the title, I intend to check in here at least occasionally about the game.

Threats without horror

A lot of the time when GMs are running fantasy games, there is an all-too-seductive temptation to lean heavily on supernatural or horrific cruelty to create a sense of stakes in the game, impressing on the players how important their mission is with demons, undead, or mangled remains of innocent victims almost from the jump. While this can be effective in certain games, it is an overused trope, so it’s been refreshing that Grant has used supernatural horror elements very sparingly and has instead focused mostly on natural threats. The first encounter of the game was with sahuagin, who basically act like a nasty school of predatory fish – they attacked and dragged prey into the water, but didn’t curse people with foul magic or ritually sacrifice them on the beach. The biggest, nastiest threat currently on the island (at least, that we know of) is a wyvern, which is a massive, venomous beast, but isn’t demonic or evil – just big and hungry. There have been some supernatural threats sprinkled in – a spectral undead and what we think is probably a hag – but for the most part, the difficulties and adversaries we’ve faced have been very grounded – taking care of the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and trying to establish good relationships with the other people we’ve met on the island – the kenku.

It’s not all about alignment

Speaking of the kenku, one of the things I find cool about the game is that I have no idea what alignment Rishi is. I am similarly ignorant about the colony governor, Hester Warwick, and in fact about every single other character in the entire game except the other two player characters, whose alignments I know through metagame knowlege only. In addition, there is literally no way for Lambert to find out, despite the fact that he’s a cleric, because the “Detect Evil and Good” spell now simply alerts you to the presence of supernatural entities or magically consecrated or desecrated areas rather than letting you see where every sapient creature around you falls on a 3×3 alignment bingo card if you cast it enough times. That means that, in the game as in life, we have to figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t by observing behavior and interacting with characters rather than simply scanning them. This is a change in the D&D system proper from previous editions rather than something Grant is explicitly doing, but after playing a number of sessions with it in place, I can say without reservation that I think that was an exceptionally good design decision.

Things that are interesting without being epic

The kenku look like walking, wingless crows, but they also have aspects of lyrebirds in that they can mimic all sorts of sounds around them and even pass these sounds down to descendants, which is why the party can communicate with them at all. The old mystery cult monastery we cleared out as our first dungeon was full of implied story and interesting bits of world history, but there was nothing world-shattering in there, just an old building that had some history.

The desire to make things epic or jaw-dropping is another pitfall a lot of campaigns can fall into, and having a world that is interesting and feels grounded and lived-in has helped me to stay interested and engaged in the game. It seems to be pushing our group to actually live in the world a lot as well – there has been a lot more focus and a lot more in-character time in this campaign than anything we’ve done since the Shadowrun game.

Limited violence

There has been combat, certainly, but the entire game is not a string of fights connected with flimsy plot. Some of the best moments in the game have been role playing ones, and that has been consistent. Grant has done an admirable job of keeping the challenges of setting up a society and interacting with a new one front and center, and I will admit that I (and my PC) have much more anxiety about the colonists going all conquistador on the kenku than I do about the monsters on the island.

Grant would probably ask me to balance this out with criticism, but I honestly don’t have any, and in any case he has done so in his own posts already. So there.

Personal Goals

One of the things I’ve been trying to work on is my tendency to hog the spotlight. Fortunately, the other players made deeper and more complex characters than I did, so they’ve actually been helping with that quite a bit just by being awesome. Lambert is a very busy PC, but he is certainly not the toughest member of the party (that is unquestionably Garm, especially now that he’s gotten access to some magic) and he’s not the most skillful or intelligent member either (that would be Aster, the unbelievably competent rogue).

I am also trying to use this game to practice what we preach on the show. Lambert is a very deliberate attempt at breaking away from some of the more violent and self-righteous characters I’ve played in the past. What I’ve been trying to do with him is make him into “glue.” While he’s not a pacifist, I want him to be a peacemaker, and I also want his influence to be at least one reason why the members of the colony live in harmony with the natives of the island rather than conquering or disregarding them. Lambert was designed to be the kind of person who doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but helps society be better, more empathetic, and more compassionate, hopefully due to his example. I want to use him to practice humility, charity, and kindness rather than just righteous fury and decisiveness. I want him to help the other PCs become the epic, noble heroes they can clearly become. And most importantly, I am hoping that his story will point toward the life that really is life, that he will be a good example of how to be authentically human and a servant of God (despite the fact that he’s in a polytheistic setting and a cleric of a member of the pantheon therin). Time will tell how successful I am in that.


Campaign Report 4: Into The Witch’s House

Hey, folks. Grant again, and … what’s this? A bonus play report? Delicious! My recap from a few days ago was pretty negative—and rightly so, because I screwed up hard. In these last two sessions, though, I think we collectively made up for that. Character development, problem solving without violence, some great roleplaying, and a couple of nasty combats. Oh, and the rogue set a needle blight on fire and robbed a witch. Good times.

(A personal note: This blog post was supposed to go up last Friday. However, between a nasty head cold and some other issues, that didn’t happen. I apologize for not getting this out in a timely manner.)

Session 6

I’m going to try something a little different for this post. Since these two sessions were pretty action-packed, I’m going to recap each session and then immediately talk about it from a GM’s perspective, rather than packing all the GM notes at the bottom.

Recap

Kenku WitchI left the party on a cliffhanger: Rishi (the wacky old kenku loremaster) was juuuuust about to tell the party something they could do to earn the trust of Kondou (head of the kenku village) and the other kenku. (I’m going to talk about that cliffhanger in the “GM’s Notes” section below.) Well, Rishi’s task was simple, on the face of it. He wanted them to retrieve a stone tablet, about 8″x12″x1″, with a kenku carved into it. It had “gone missing”, he said, and he’d just learned where it went: It was in Auntie Bloat’s house.

“Auntie Bloat”, it turned out, was an ancient kenku witch—much older even than Rishi—who lurked in a bog at the far western end of the island, living in a fish’s skull. She and Rishi apparently were in a bit of a standoff, and the PCs offered the opportunity to shake things up. So the next morning—after waking up to the sound of Rishi shouting a story off his balcony to passing kenku—the party set off to find Auntie Bloat.

The kenku village was just a bit uphill of the small lake the party had spotted the day before, and the witch’s swamp was (naturally) at the end of the small river flowing out of that lake. Finding her was therefore just a matter of traveling down-river. This occasioned an interesting debate, however: Aster (the scrappy, urban rogue with a … limited … grasp of the concept of personal property) was strongly in favor of taking a fishing boat, even if there wasn’t anyone around to ask about that. (Her player—my wife—invoked her “It’s not stealing if I need it more” flaw, and earned an Inspiration point for doing so.) The party argued this for a bit, and eventually nixed the idea on both moral and practical grounds, but it was a good (and 100% player-created) moment. (more…)


Campaign Report 3: Exploration & Narrative Railroading

Hey, folks! It’s been about a month since our last campaign update, and I’ve got four sessions to recap as a result. That’s a lot to cover, so I’m going to break this up into two posts. Expect a follow-up later this week. A lot has happened for the PCs, and as a GM I’ve done some good and some bad things, all worth talking about. I don’t want to skimp on too many details!

Anyways, let’s talk about exploration—and bad GMing.

Recap

For those keeping track at home, I’ve written about three sessions so far. Here’s a recap of the next two.

Session 4

Ball's Pyramid (North)So after exploring the ancient monastery and clearing it out, the various colonists moved in (somewhat) and started settling down in earnest. After a day or two of helping with various chores, the PCs decided to explore and try to find an easy way to the top of the cliffs they had settled in front of. They went south, following the coastline, and found a sizable bay there that might one day be a good harbor, though the current colony location is a bit far away to use it themselves. In the distance, well to the south-south-east, they also spotted a sharp, solitary spire of rock jutting out of the ocean. (The picture I sent them to illustrate this was of Bell’s Pyramid, a pretty amazing natural wonder in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand.)

After about half a day of travel, they eventually found a place where they could get up the cliff face. They found a sub-tropical forest at the top, along with a few high places they could get a better view of the inland terrain from. That gave them a glimpse of a bit more geography—a tall, volcanic mountain in the distance, a plateau sloping away from them … and a thin, barely-visible plume of smoke rising in the distance to the west of them, suggesting that someone might live there.

(more…)


Unfinished Stories 2

Listeners to the podcast have probably sussed out that I enjoy digital RPGs about as much as tabletop ones, albeit in a different way.  Some of the first games I ever played on a computer were the old Sierra King’s Quest games, and in particular, the third entry in that series sticks with me. In King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human, you play an older teenage boy named Gwydion as he seeks to survive and ultimately escape from his captivity to the cruel and vastly more powerful wizard Manannan. I remember many evenings of wracking my brain as Gwydion, sneaking around, trying to amass the components necessary to turn my evil master into something less threatening, and once I finally managed that task, the story felt complete to me. And that wasn’t even a proper RPG, but a text-based adventure game.

From what I understand, there’s a fair bit of game left after you turn Manannan into a cat and escape, but I never really pushed myself to see it. That has happened many more times over the years, and the fragments of unfinished stories, both interactive and non-interactive, both digital and tabletop now form something of a metaphorical trail behind me. There’s my paladin/detective in service to a neutral good death god whose tale of investigating a mysteriously-immortal noble class (and the implied sinister forces behind it) in his world will never be told. There’s my Pillars of Eternity party, stuck on a late-game dragon fight I could never get past. My poor courier in Fallout: New Vegas was stranded in a deathclaw-infested part of the Lonesome Road DLC the last time I played it. There’s a party of GURPS 3e characters in a fantasy alternate history setting that I ran that never discovered that one of their number’s arranged fiance was an ocean-spanning crime boss. My playthrough of The Witcher 3 is stopped before either of the DLC packages start. I’ve got about a third of Hyperion and about a third of Night Watch to read, and haven’t been back. I still haven’t watched the final seasons of Flash Point or The Shield. And then there’s our Shadowrun party, who were just starting to make the shift from being entirely mission-focused to a proactive force in their neighborhood when the campaign ran out of gas due to PC paralysis, GM burnout, and The New Shiny.

This trail of unfinished stories is part of why I started my backlog project and yet even that hasn’t seen any progress since May (probably not so coincidentally right around the same time I started my new job). Still, it’s something that tends to gnaw at the back of my mind, and lately I’ve been trying to get to the end of some of those stories, to finish the ones I can so that I only have the ones I can’t left.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that at least one of the most famous and well-known of Jesus’s parables ends on an unresolved cliffhanger! In the parable of the prodigal son, we never do find out whether the old brother eventually relents and joins the party. That’s not the point of the parable, of course, but that doesn’t mean the story is neatly tied off, either. I think perhaps that may even be part of the usefulness story – its sudden ending leaves those who hear it with the lasting knowledge that there’s more to tell, and invites comparison to countless unfinished personal stories.

Which ultimately means even the unfinishable stories have some merit. Our Shadowrun campaign may rise again, the opening part of King’s Quest III remains one of my favorite digital memories, and the wall I hit in Pillars of Eternity has recently inspired me to restart the game from scratch and push through in a more slow and deliberate fashion, savoring the experience as I go rather than charging through to the end. And, in a more concrete sense, I still have time to do better, to tie up my own loose ends and seek or grant forgiveness, to reconnect with people I’ve lost connection with, to find new ways of living out the commandments Jesus left us with.

And when I do finish or even just continue one of these stranded stories, there’s a feeling of satisfaction that’s not always present for ones I punch through on the first go around. Sometimes putting things down for a while just makes them that more enjoyable to pick up. Sometimes the treasure that you lost feels more precious when you find it.

 

—-

Questions for the reader:

Since this is something I’m sure I’m not alone in, I’m going to conclude this with some direct questions to you.

1. What stories do you have still sitting around in an unfinished state?
2. What use, if any, do you still get out of them?
3. Are there any stories that you’ve decided to leave technically unfinished, but complete enough for you like I did with King’s Quest III?
4. How do you look at those unfinished stories? Do they hang over you, or do you put them aside and move on?


Campaign Report 2: The Ancient Monastery 1

It’s been a couple of weeks since I updated everyone on the status of our Dungeons & Dragons game. Not to worry, though—there’s been plenty of action to generate both blog posts and episode content. Plus, we’re trying something new by not missing sessions, and I’m pleased to report that this seems to be working surprisingly well!

But seriously: Last week, the party wrapped up the first dungeon crawl of the campaign. This was kind of a major milestone for our gaming group, on both sides of the virtual GM’s screen. My wife had never actually explored a proper ‘dungeon’ before, since she’s relatively new to gaming. I’d put maps together for the Savage Shadowrun we played a while back, but those were mostly floor plans I’d filed the serial numbers off and turned into heist scenarios; this was a properly-gridded dungeon, which the players had no foreknowledge of, and that was a first for our group. And for myself, this was a bit of a personal milestone: My previous D&D game was a terrible Eberron game, where I’d focused so heavily on making pretty maps that I completely neglected to put together a coherent plot. So just by virtue of entering a dungeon at all, we were off to a good start.

Good thing, too.

(more…)


Campaign Report: Supplemental Content: Meet the PCs

Grant floated the idea of doing a post introducing the player characters for our D&D game casually to me in a Facebook message earlier, and any other ideas that were half-formed in my brain immediately got stuffed into a metaphorical drawer. The idea is just too perfect to let go. So, without further ado, the player characters!

(Well, okay, just one quick ado. A word from Grant on stats: We rolled stats since that “felt more like D&D”, using the “4d6, drop lowest” method. Since I don’t mind characters actually being competent, if anyone had two stats less than 10 to start with, I let them re-roll one of those bad stats once more. Dealing with one “bad” stat is a fun little challenge, and it can give a D&D character something unique to remember them by. Dealing with more than that just gets frustrating.)

(more…)


Campaign Report 1: Playing Sharks and Daggers 5

Any time I blog instead of Peter, you know it’s gonna get weird. Today, I’m giving everyone a rundown of the first session of our D&D campaign! This game’s been rattling around in my head for years—a game heavily inspired by the Roleplaying Public Radio “New World Campaign”, but tweaked to fit our group and my own sensibilities. I’m also running this in D&D 5e, which is … well, significantly better so far (but I’ll get to that.) I’ll go over the events of the session, and follow that up with an analysis of key GMing moments.

I’m not going to give a rundown of the characters in this session, except a very basic race-and-class. I’ll save character writeups for another time, because they deserve a post all their own.

Recap

I started things off with a bit of narration to set the scene: A colony ship laden with people and goods, about fifteen weeks at sea. It’s en route to a distant archipelago believed to be rich in land, goods, and magic—the last being a rare thing indeed in the “old world”. Unfortunately, this vessel (which I still need to name!) has been separated from its sister ship, and has been driven before a hurricane for several days. It’s just run aground, and the morning light and clearing weather shows that its hull is badly damaged, and that the storm surge and winds have grounded the ship on a low barrier island.

After deliberation and a little scouting, the settlement’s governor and captain decide to unload the ship and, using her longboats and manpower, move to the “mainland” across the lagoon created by the barrier island. There’s a series of sandbars that protect the space between the barrier island and the larger landmass beyond—shallow enough that a man could walk across it in water up to his chest, and with several places only ankle-deep (at least, at low tide.)

I’m leaving out a lot of detail, of course, but that should be enough to set the scene. Enough talk—time for action!

(more…)


A Quick Note on Episode 91’s Audio Quality

You’ll probably notice that I sound a little tinnier and more distant in episode 91 than I normally do. Audacity picked up my webcam instead of my much-nicer normal microphone and we didn’t catch it until the show was being edited.

The good news is that since this was a more scholarly show, Grant’s track, which is fine, takes up more of the minutes than mine.

I have since unplugged the offending webcam, so this shouldn’t be something you (or we) will have to worry about in the future. Sorry folks!


Go Time

I have a confession to make, one that could potentially cost me my nerd card: I have zero personal interest in Pokemon Go. I’ve never gotten into the series in any form; I think I’m probably just too much of an old man and I also find virtually every anime or anime-influenced thing that’s targeted at children to be grating (the single, and noteworthy, exception being Avatar: The Last Airbender). Then again, I felt the same way about Power Rangers when I was the demographic. I have always been a little stiff in my entertainment choices, I suppose.

So it may come as something of a surprise that I wholeheartedly support the existence of Pokemon Go and I’m happy it was released. It’s giving couch potatoes a fun way to get some exercise. It’s giving lonely people an excuse to go out in public and a convenient icebreaker to engage with strangers (other players). I saw it used as an icebreaker at the M:tG “Eldritch Moon” prerelease last weekend. Young gamers and old gamers and gamers of all seriousness levels and demographic groups are discovering they have something in common, and that’s all absolutely magnificent. Heck, people who were never gamers are becoming them, which is great!

But it’s also doing something else important: it’s basically giving the church a do-over for the Satanic panic of the 80s and 90s, at least where gamers are concerned. And to my surprise and delight, the church is actually embracing the opportunity.  Churches are setting up charging stations and putting out water for people playing the game. It’s not a huge thing, just some simple acts of hospitality and kindness, but for those who grew up dealing with what must have felt like monolithic disapproval of their hobbies and interests, it’s a fantastic first step. I even saw a meme (that I can’t find, frustratingly) of Jesus’s “I will make you fishers of men” converted to “I will teach you to catch people,” which might seem a bit irreverent…  …until you think about it a bit and realize it really is just a modern re-skinning of the same message (applied to leisure rather than work, but otherwise basically the same).

So in light of all of that, I can’t help but be happy about the existence of Pokemon Go, and I think if you’re at all interested, it’s definitely a good thing to participate in. Anything that helps us humanize our fellow humans is especially welcome in our divisive age, and that’s roughly a thousand times truer in a US election year. Anything that gives us a harmless cultural touchstone and another bunch of analogies to talk about God with is also a good thing.

And yes, I know there has been some backlash from some churches and Christian media figures, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the whole “Dark Dungeons” era, and as we discussed with Chris Ode in Episode 88, there’s always going  to be some of that. There have always been those that felt that whatever The Bible/Christianity/their particular denomination doesn’t explicitly permit, it forbids, and I seriously doubt we’ll ever see the end of that particular mindset completely. I also know that there have been a few isolated tragedies where something bad happened to a player, but on the whole, the experience has been a good one for both the individuals and society.

So even though it’s not my thing, I’m really, actively, and legitimately happy the game is out there. I can’t understand Grant’s love of craft beer, either, but that didn’t stop me and my wife from picking up an assortment of regional craft beers from our part of the country to take with us when we visited him and his wife last fall. If you, unlike me, enjoy the aesthetic, I think it’s wonderful that it’s (Pokemon) Go time.

(Featured image courtesy of mobipicker.com.)