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.

Episode 102 – Adapting to the Dice 4

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Happy New Year! Grant and Peter are back to talk about … dice?! After a couple of minor announcements and housekeeping notes, we list off some of the games we’d really like to try to play in 2017. We also tackle a Patreon question from Jim, who asks us about handling combat in theatre-of-the-mind games (or for visually-impaired gamers, like the Going In Blind podcast.) Our main topic isn’t so much about dice as reacting to the dice, and handling the unexpected results they can give us while keeping a consistent narration—even if it leads campaigns in strange and unexpected directions.

Games we mentioned wanting to play in 2017: Unknown Armies, 3rd Edition; Pillar of Fire; A Scoundrel in the Deep; Feng Shui, 2nd Edition; Dogs in the Vineyard; DramaSystem; GUMSHOE. Also mentioned: The One Shot Podcast and the Party of One Podcast.

Scripture: Proverbs 16:9, Leviticus 16:6-10, Romans 8:28

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.

Episode 101 – Playing Supernatural Creatures

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Grant and Peter sit down to tackle a topic selected by our voting Patreon supporters: Playing supernatural creatures! First, though, we spend quite a lot of time on a serious problem that cropped up in Grant’s Pugmire game—a case where a player had a very bad reaction to the previous session’s events. Then we tackle a question from Patreon supporter (and host of the Retro Rewind Podcast) Francisco Ruiz, who asks about games centered around specific holidays. Finally, it’s our main topic: How to play supernatural creatures, We talk briefly about whether Christians should do so at all; then we discuss ways to make that more interesting, especially regarding the traditional weaknesses such creatures typically have.

Mentioned in this episode: GullahPugmire.

Scripture: Isaiah 9:13, Romans 14:1-4

Bonus Episode 9 – “The Centurion” (by Rev. Bob Lawrence)

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Grant presents a very special Christmas bonus episode: A reading of a unique sermon given on Christmas Day, 1983, by Rev. Bob Lawrence of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.

Merry Christmas, from all of us to all of you.

Music:Greensleeves” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence“, performed by Andrew Remillard.

Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

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

Episode 100 – History and Historical Mystery

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We’ve finally reached the hundred-episode milestone! Our heartfelt thanks to all our listeners, past hosts and guest hosts, and Patreon backers; you’ve all helped make this podcast special. We look forward to the next hundred-plus episodes!

This episode, Grant and Peter celebrate reaching STG 100 and call out our new theme music (by James Opie, of Nihilore.com). Then, we plug our annual charity drive for The Bodhana Group; discuss some forthcoming changes to our Patreon; and Grant reviews Big Fandom Greenville. After that, we’ve got our Patreon question! This one’s from Jared, who asks “What game systems that you have played have felt the most compatible with spiritual growth, and what game systems that you have played have felt the least compatible with spiritual growth?”

For our main topic, we discuss a worldbuilding problem—handling historical mysteries in fantasy or sci-fi settings where longevity and data retention risk negating the mystery altogether. That leads us into a larger discussion of what the historical record might be like in all sorts of fantastic settings, and what a game master should think about when determining what historical knowledge is available during their game.

Scripture: Daniel 2:19-21; 2 Peter 3:8; John 1:1

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.

Episode 99 – Practical Advice for Running Gaming Events (with Mike Perna)

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Mike Perna of Innroads Ministries joins us at the appointed hour, to give our listeners some real, practical advice on running small gaming events for your church or community! First, though, we talk about a few other things, in no particular order: Our upcoming fundraiser for The Bodhana Group (keep an eye on our social media feeds for links to that!); the Game to Grow panel we hosted on spirituality in roleplaying games; players taking notes during games; the InSpectres game Grant just wrapped up; and Big Fandom Greenville (more on this next episode.)

We also tackle a great question from Patreon backer Doug, who asks “What, if anything, do you think is simply off-limits for a game? Is the answer different if we’re talking you personally, or for gaming in general?” (This turned out to be surprisingly relevant to our main topic!)

Also mentioned in this episode: A Game for Good Christians, STG 17, “Lines and Veils”.

Scripture: Proverbs 16:3Ecclesiastes 3:1Luke 14:28