Fuzzy Lines of Knowledge 1

Those who listen to the podcast (which I would assume is basically everyone who will ever read this) know that I’ve been trying to finish up a degree in network security for several years now. I’d been hoping to finish it this year, but a recent trip to the community college where I’m taking my classes yielded the unfortunate news that I’m actually four classes away from graduation, rather than two. Kind of a bummer, but now at least I know exactly what I need to graduate. It occurred to me as I sat down to write this that despite the fact that I’m closing in on 40, a lot of my friends and colleagues are also in school, and that I’ve been in it more or less continually since I graduated from high school, despite the fact that in my late teens and early twenties I was burnt out on it and was a much worse student than I am today.

“That’s nice for you, Peter, but what does this have to do with gaming?” you may ask. The real answer is probably “not much” but it does bring up some interesting thoughts about character advancement. Most of the time, character advancement in an RPG has some kind of “ding” to it. You collect XP or character points and eventually buy a measurable improvement in something. You used to have no ability to pick locks but now, all of a sudden, now you can pick them half the time. There are a few games out there that base advancement on usage (Burning Wheel in particular springs to mind) but they’re rare.

On a mechanical level, it makes sense – real people learning skills do so gradually. My own knowledge of computers started out with a virus infection back on 2009, led to me building a PC for the first time, listening to a security podcast to avoid having it happen again, and then led to classes and more self-teaching that have brought me up to the level of competence that should be sufficient for an entry-level IT job at some point in the near future. However, most of the time, the process is gradual. I didn’t jump from complete ignorance to low-level professional knowledge in a sudden spasm of development – I picked up a few facts here, a few more there, learned how those facts work together, and slowly it came together. I no longer have any trepidation at all installing software (or even operating systems) poking around in the guts of a computer, swapping cables, etc. I have the beginnings of some instincts as to why systems behave the way they do when something goes wrong, but if you asked me to point to a specific date when that transition occurred, I couldn’t do it. The lines between ignorance and knowledge, trepidation and confidence, are fuzzy and ill-defined. And, for that matter, exactly how much I know (and how much I don’t know) is similarly hard to nail down because of the way the human mind works.

While clarity is often more important than flavor in an RPG context, I wonder if there’s some value in taking the time to describe what each level of competence means in terms of a character’s own perceptions and those of the people around them. This can lead to complicated feelings around one’s own knowledge and skill sets. For example, I feel pretty good about my computer skills when I’m talking to family, friends, and coworkers, but I feel considerably less at ease when talking to folks who actually work in IT, because I know they have more “ranks” than I do, and I worry about getting a job in the field even after I graduate because I feel like I’ll never “catch up” to the entry requirements. This strikes me as something that could be really interesting in games, but I’m not sure I’d want to attach more numbers to an already-crowded character sheet. I do, however, feel like some notes in a character’s backstory about how they feel about their skills could be an interesting bit of character development. Does the guy with a lot of ranks in lockpicking feel awesome when he pops a locked door open, or does he feel like knowing how says bad things about who he is as a person? Does the wizard cast her spells with flair, or does she try to avoid using magic for fear of looking foolish and “doing it wrong?” How do these people feel about what they can do, and how do they feel about how they got there? Do they think that because they learned gradually that most of their knowledge is out-of-date, or do they feel more confident for the practice? We seldom do much to explore how characters feel about different aspects of themselves in a gaming context, but I think there’s probably a lot of interesting and fun material to be found there.

As usual, I’d love to hear your opinions on this stuff, both the real-world and in-game bits.

Episode 80 – Mechanical Morality Systems

Download this episode (right click and save)

Grant and Peter break down the various advantages and challenges of using mechanical morality systems in your game and also dig into the reasons why such systems exist in the first place. In addition, we plug Tavern Con, Innroads Ministries in general and The MacGuffin Factory in particular, and Electric City Comic Con.

Tavern Con (no official link yet)
The Macguffin Factory
Episode 25 with Jack Berkenstock
Electric City Comic Con
Episode 140 of KARTAS

Scripture: Proverbs 12:5, Job 28:20-28, Romans 12:21

Theoretical RPG Concepts: Bleed 1

This is the first post in what I hope becomes a semi-regular series of introductions to some of the more academic parts of RPG experience. I’d be particularly interested to hear what you folks think about this stuff and also how interested you are in hearing more. -Peter

One of the things that I discovered when I started listening to RPG podcasts way back in the day with Sons of Kryos was the idea that people think about gaming on a much deeper level than I’d previously even considered they would. Further years of podcast listening (and eventual involvement in podcasting myself) has shown me what a monumental understatement that was. There are some very interesting people out there doing some very interesting work of how the games we play affect us. Some of those people are folks like Grant and me – enthusiastic hobbyists who enjoy unpacking the various aspects of the things we enjoy. Others, however, are more serious academics. We reference Jack Berkenstock of the Bodhana Group and their focus on using tabletop RPGs as a therapeutic tool on a fairly regular basis, but if you’re into this more “meta” thinking, there’s another name you should know: Sarah Lynna Bowman, PhD. She is the author of one of many books I really, really need to get around to reading one of these days: The Functions of Role-Playing Games. She has also written a number of interesting articles and blog posts, but the one I’m going to focus on with this blog post is on the concept of bleed. (She’s also, as one might expect from someone who has chosen this particular field of study, a really interesting and approachable person. I’ve had very limited interaction with her, but I’ve always come away impressed.)

The original blog post that I’ll be referring back to can be found here. I would heartily recommend reading the entire thing (it’s very readable) but a quick TL;DR is this: bleed is basically the place where player and character meet. She describes two separate types of bleed in the blog post: bleed in, where the emotions, relationships, and even physical state of a player affect the state of their character and bleed out, the opposite process. Dr. Bowman also mentions that the existence of the phenomenon is something a lot of gamers don’t willingly accept, as it runs parallel in some ways to the ideas of gamers learning real magic and calling up real demons that were part of the Satanic panic back in the 80s and 90s.

Bleed is one of those things that happens in gaming that can be good or bad. It can lead to greater investment and enjoyment, or it can lead to unhealthy behaviors and pain. People sometimes seek it out and sometimes seek to avoid it. And I think it’s one of the reasons why, as a Christian, I’m a little hesitant to play certain kinds of character. I’m fairly susceptible to bleed – a former gaming group of mine (not the one Grant and I are in now!) formed an in-game clique and ostracized my PC somewhat. I didn’t deal with it very well at all and was ultimately told that the gaming group was a poor fit for me (something that was true, but that I also didn’t deal with particularly well). On the flip side, in the Shadowrun game Grant ran for a while, our player characters wound up being nearly as close of friends as the group itself was, and it was almost like hanging out with more friends than I actually was. In-jokes developed and experiences were shared. The experience was richer for my level of immersion and, yes, bleed.

Because I’m so susceptible to bleed and have actually come to see it as a core part of my gaming experience, I find it hard to play against “type” – playing a character radically different from me, particularly one with very different values from my own, feels wrong or dishonest on some level. This limits my “range” as a gamer and tends to lead to Grant lamenting that he’s always dealing with some re-skinned version of me when we game together.  (By the way: if you experience more bleed than you want to, there are some thoughts on how to manage that in the original article.) To make matters even murkier, that’s not a thing I particularly want to change. I don’t mind being a little boring in service to being consistent. It also bears mentioning that I don’t experience much bleed at all when I’m GMing – that process feels more like a series of writing prompts to me than acting.

As is usual, I’m very interested to hear what you all have to say on this topic.


Episode 79 – Character Advancement 2

Download this episode (right click and save)

Grant and Peter get together to discuss a topic that we often take for granted in our gaming experience: how our characters advance in gaming and what that says about our games. There’s some comparison to XCOM 2 (which Peter has been playing quite a bit of lately) but the conversation branches out from there pretty rapidly. This episode is also Peter’s first crack at production, so be kind if the audio is a bit rough.

Scripture: 1 Samuel 2:26, Ephesians 4:11-14

Cutting Silence

Next week, you’ll hear something completely new from Saving the Game, though with any luck, you won’t much notice – it’ll be the first episode that I’ve edited the audio on. Grant has his second child on the way, and he and his wife are understandably a little busy at the moment with preparations for the new kid’s arrival, so I told him that if he got me a good set of documentation (which he did), I’d take on the task of editing the podcast for the next episode or two.

What I didn’t tell him (though I’m pretty sure he’s figured out in the meantime – Grant is, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, a pretty smart guy) was that the idea scared me out of my mind. I tend to be a fairly risk-averse person, and I also tend to view new tasks as more difficult than they ultimately turn out to be. Still, it was something that needed to be done, and I’d been doing the podcast for over 3 years without ever touching the editing side of things, so I figured it was time to give it a try. In my defense, my trepidation wasn’t completely unwarranted – editing is about as critical as tasks get for a podcast, and I need to be done a week from the day this blog post drops.

Have no fear, I’ve got a releasable (though not quite perfect) version done already. It actually went better than I expected, which is a fairly standard experience when I try something new I’m worried about. However, it didn’t go perfectly, but that’s okay, because I got some interesting food for thought out of the experience. (And also some sound editing advice.)

A large part of the editing process for a podcast is going through and pulling out long stretches of silence. A lot of the time when we humans are talking, we pause for a couple of seconds mid-sentence to collect our thoughts. This is a normal part of conversation as it happens, particularly if you’re talking about a conversation that requires thought, or if the person talking tends to be a little more introverted or introspective (so the two of us, both introverts and talking about gaming and theology tend to generate a lot of silence). However, when you’re listening to a podcast, the flow can be a bit jarring if… … …someone… … …pauses… … …for a bit too long in the middle of a sentence. So naturally in editing, you go through and cut large portions of this silence out. (You also cut out a metric truckload of “Umms,” “Uhhs,” “Ahhhs,” and “Y’knows,” lots of Darth Vader breathing, the occasional cough or sneeze, Blarey the Podcast Train, and a conversation about whether or not you’d remembered to use the right microphone. For the record: I had and I hadn’t – at the same time. I was using the right mic in the recording software and the wrong one in our VOIP call).

Cutting a lot of that silence is good, but as I learned from talking to Grant after my first pass over the episode, you don’t want to cut too much of it, either. Some pausing (and even the occasional “um” or “uh”) actually makes the flow of a conversation sound more natural. There’s also a heck of a metaphor there for the way we live our lives and run our games. It can be good to try and make things more efficient up to a point, but cram too much in – in any number of contexts – and the breakneck pace you’ve created will carry you past stuff you wanted to appreciate before you really got the chance to enjoy it. This can be equally true in games where we rip past enjoyable role-playing interludes or even some enjoyable table talk in the hope of “moving the ball” just a little bit more in terms of plot or even combat, and it can be true in life when we over-book ourselves out of the fear of “missing out” or even favor the efficient over the enjoyable without really considering the alternative. (One time I’m really glad I didn’t do that was when my wife and I went to visit Grant and his wife last fall. I’d never been to the South before, and driving through the mountains while the leaves were changing is an experience I’m really glad I didn’t miss by flying instead of driving.)

So the next time you’re planning something, be sure not to cut all the silence. You might find that leaving some of it in lets you appreciate things more.

Episode 78 – Listener Mailbag 1 1

Download this episode (right click and save)

Grant and Peter read and respond to listener emails this week! We got some very interesting emails: One from Brady, asking about Habitica, a series on bible stories, and our unfulfilled promises; and one from Gameable Pixar Podcast’s Kris commenting on Manichaeism, alignments and dualism, and housework. Plus, Grant teases some upcoming site changes (forums!) and we remind everyone that Peter writes blog posts for weeks without new STG episodes.

Scripture: Proverbs 11:14, Mark 4:21-24, James 1:22

Beside Myself

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you’re probably aware that I’m looking forward to the release XCOM 2.

Okay, that’s a huge understatement. I’ve been going nearly crazy with anticipation, and it’s only intensifying as the date gets closer. It’s understandable, I suppose. My first real memory of getting into a digital game in a big way was Julian Gollop’s Laser Squad on the Commodore 64 back in the late 80s (yes, I’m old). Not so coincidentally, Mr. Gollop also was the creator of the original X-Com back in 1994, but I somehow missed that one when it was new. I did not, however, miss Jagged Alliance 2, Silent Storm, the UFO After[word] series, or a number of other games in the genre. Including, of course, the new XCOM released by Firaxis a few years back which, despite a Steam library that’s bloated with bundle games, I have put right around 200 hours into. XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within is one of my favorite games of all time, and the sequel looks to be more of the same with further levels of Firaxis polish on it, so yeah, I’m really stoked about it. I have purchased the deluxe version of the game on pre-order, and I have requested vacation time around the release date (postponing a traditional post-holiday week of vacation in the process). I’ve spent a bunch of time watching lets play videos (something I virtually never do) and have scoured the website for information. I’m trying to get as much of the experience as I possibly can before I get the game for real.

I go through something similar, albeit on a much less intense level whenever a new Magic: the Gathering set comes out. Once spoiler season starts for the new set, I eagerly check to see what new cards were revealed on my lunch break at work and start thinking about what decks those would go into or what new decks they’d suggest. By the time the prerelease rolls around, I’m pretty excited. And the same is almost always true when I get to start a new RPG campaign (especially if I’m GMing and get to share the world I’ve made with my players).

There are people who will will say that the anticipation is more fun than actually getting the thing, but I’m not one of them. When the waiting period ends and I get The Thing (whatever it is), the anticipation often seems to intensify the enjoyment I get out of it, but usually the fun of digging into all of the complexities and possibilities of The Thing far outweigh the fun of imagining what it’ll be like. The stuff that really grabs me is almost always something I have to dig into and interact with in a major way – I used to feel the same way about Lego sets when I was a kid.

Oh, by the way, I’m 37, married, and have a full-time job, a car payment, and I serve on two volunteer boards. I’m in management at my job. I have responsibilities and obligations – adulthood has happened to me, with all of its freedom and all of its shackles and all of the paradoxes that those two concepts imply, and I do take it very seriously.

In a lot of ways, new games give me a way, however briefly, to reconnect with the excitement of being a child, and I think that’s extremely valuable. Adulthood can be a grinding experience, as many (if not most) of you reading this will know. When the various things from the last paragraph start stacking up, I can get some satisfaction out of doing them well or handling them efficiently, but oftentimes there’s not much in the way of joy or excitement to it. I go to work, pay my bills, and otherwise handle my obligations because it’s the right thing to do on my good days and because I know that there will be consequences if I don’t on my bad ones, but I seldom get the same giddy “I can’t wait!” feeling except for when my hobbies are involved, and that in and of itself is one of the best arguments for having them that I could think of.

As always, I’d love to hear what any of you have to say – I’d love to hear about the stuff that gets you all giddy with excitement, and (of course) if any of the rest of you are going to be playing XCOM 2, I’m certain I’ll be plenty excited to talk about that after Friday.


Episode 77 – Surrender

Download this episode (right click and save)

Grant and Peter tackle a pervasive problem afflicting gamers everywhere: A collective inability to handle surrendering PCs and NPCs properly. It’s a topic we’ve had on our to-do list since we started the podcast back in 2012 (Grant credits Fear the Boot #268 for inspiration), and it turns out to have important ramifications for how we play our games. Plus, Grant and Peter briefly discuss the Microscope RPG and issue a call to action: Listeners, fill our mailbag!

Scripture: Jeremiah 38:17-18Philippians 2:5-8

Starting a Podcast, Part 4: Standing Out in Crowded Spaces 2

Hey, folks—Grant here, making a rare blogging appearance! I wanted to follow up on Peter’s “Starting a Podcast” series with my own suggestions. This won’t be as formalized as Peter’s multi-step procedure; rather, I want to touch on a few specific points which need serious consideration. So, let’s start with the most difficult.

Standing out in crowded spaces

Here’s the bad news: Statistically speaking, when you start your podcast, it’s a good bet I won’t care about it.

I keep a close eye on /r/podcasts, and that particular subreddit is constantly barraged with “We just recorded our first episode, tell us what you think” requests. I’ve never found any of those podcasts interesting, and after thinking about it, the fundamental problem is that they don’t have a unique voice. I call this the “two guys talking about stuff” problem. So many podcasts are two people with no particular expertise and an unoriginal approach to their topic or topics, which appeals to basically nobody. Many don’t even have a particular subject to podcast about, instead talking about “whatever”—and I can hear the same irrelevant chatter waiting in line to place my lunch order, without cluttering up my phone.

Nailing down that unique voice requires you to think hard about two related components of your podcast’s identity: What are you talking about? And what differentiates you from other podcasts in your niche? (more…)

Two Types of Paladin 6

Quick shout out before I get on with the rest of the blog post: in keeping with my resolution to get out and play games in meat space more often, I made it to Commander night at my local FLGS this evening. Troy and DJ – it was great gaming with you guys. You really made me feel welcome and I had a ton of fun. -Peter

I’m about 3 years late to the Diablo III party. I’m about 16 years late to the Dresden Files party. Ah well. Better late than never. In starting to consume both at the same time, however, I noticed something: Diablo III has a fair bit to say about Paladins, and I think some of it is really useful for making an oft-maligned class actually fun and interesting in games.

First some quick background, though. The self-righteous, overly-zealous, utterly inflexible, or otherwise just plain insufferable paladin is a stereotype as old as the proverbial hills in gaming. A lot of the time, paladins in fantasy games act a bit like Space Marines in the Warhammer 40k universe: violent, loud, and constantly spouting terms like “heretic,” “smite,” and “cleanse.” While this can be fun for a certain type of game, the perception has crept in that this is the “right” or even only way to play holy warriors, and, well, that’s just not true.

Diablo III, of all things, quietly hangs a lampshade on this. I played my first run through the game as a Crusader, the “Paladin” class of the game – a big brawny guy encased in armor and using a shield and an enormous weapon. Early in the game, you recruit a Templar as a companion – and at that point, the contrasts become evident. The crusader comes from an order that revolves around mentoring a single apprentice who takes everything from the mentor – including their name – when they die. In addition, the Crusader is a fairly calm, soft-spoken, and even-handed sort. The Templar, on the other hand, is more the Space Marine archetype. Loud, wrathful, zealous, and a little unstable. Where the Crusader seems to look at all the fighting he has to do with a kind of patient resignation, the Templar revels in violence and seems to be constantly chomping at the bit to get back into the fight. And his order took him as a criminal and basically tortured him until he forgot his past life, then rebuilt him as they saw fit. The Crusader is audibly disturbed by this and tells the Templar “they left you empty, friend.” And then there’s Michael Carpenter, the Knight of the Cross from The Dresden Files. Michael is a family man – a married father of several children – who still goes out and risks his life fighting supernatural evil because it’s the right thing to do. He is kind, patient, and when tries to correct the behavior of others (particularly Harry) it’s done in such a way that makes it obvious that he’s saying something because he cares – not just about the ambient moral purity of the world, but about the life of his friend and the quality thereof. He prompts Harry to be a better person at least in part to make Harry’s life fuller and more meaningful.

Two other fictional characters also go well into the mix: Nick Valentine, the detective from Fallout 4, who in the middle of a pitched battle will shout things like “Are you sure this is the last mug you want to see?” and “This doesn’t have to be the day you die!” even as he’s ducking for cover and returning fire (and so many other things that I won’t spoil), and the Paragon variant of Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect trilogy, who despite being a person with an unbelievable amount of responsibility piled on him, still finds time to talk a distraught former slave down from hurting herself, comfort a grieving mother in a lawless slum, and heal a criminal dying of a terminal disease who just seconds before had cursed him and waved a gun in his face. These kinds of multi-faceted good people who actually embody the description of love Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 not only are more tolerable for other players at the table, but they’re ultimately more interesting characters. They’re also much more authentic and believable paragons of virtue than a lot of people play paladins as.

I’ve kind of taken a break from playing outright holy warriors for a bit – but some of these new examples make me want to pick the archetype back up again. In the meantime, if you’ve seen any particularly good or bad paladins in your gaming history ad want to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.