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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.


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.


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.

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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.)

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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!

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Patreon and a Change of Heart

As you read this, our Patreon is live! If you’re interested in backing us, we’d love for you to do so, but I need to stress this up front: If we don’t get a single penny of Patreon backing, the show will continue to come out every two weeks like it has been for the last four years. We’ll continue to maintain our social media presence, and these bi-weekly blog posts will also continue. We are not in need of funds to maintain the status quo, and if all you can do to help us out is listen – that’s awesome, we thank you, and that is more than enough. Your listening support and the occasional bit of contact via our website or social media presences is plenty to keep us going indefinitely.

However, if you are so inclined, you can now support us financially, too. “But Peter,” you might say, “you at Saving the Game have always resisted taking money from listeners. Why now? What’s changed?” The short answer to that is “my mind.” You see I, Peter, have been the major road block on the road to taking donations.

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Impostor Syndrome and Angry God Theology 3

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
Mark 9:24 (KJV)

As we mentioned recently on the podcast, I started a new job a little under a month ago. And as often happens to me in new situations, that newness brought a fair bit of anxiety with it. One day in particular felt especially bad after a bunch of random things went wrong (in retrospect, most of them completely out of my control) and had me seriously questioning whether I should have made the transition at all. The next day, I casually asked my new boss if I was doing okay, and the swiftness and enthusiasm of his assurance that I was was a huge relief.

I suffer from “Impostor Syndrome,” a fairly common mental/emotional problem that isn’t an actual mental illness, but nonetheless manages to keep me up at night on occasion. (For those unfamiliar with it, this page veers close to being “too true to be funny.”) My particular flavor of it comes with a little extra wariness of authority figures and a strong inclination to disavow my expertise on virtually anything. If you’ve known me for any length of time, you’ll probably come to notice that I pepper both my writing and speech with a lot of qualifiers. Some of this is a desire to be clear in my communication, but oftentimes the message I’m trying to be clear about is “I don’t claim to know more than I do, please don’t be angry with me.” It has led to feeling intimidated by exceptionally kind, decent people like some of the folks we’re participating in Game to Grow with – and that is completely absurd. But this is a normal part of my life. I manage it, I try to leaven it with self-awareness, I get encouragement from good friends, and I try to work around it. And credit where credit is due – during my latest and most intense bout with impostor syndrome, Grant was the one with the fastest and most valuable advice for me. I never really considered it in a theological context.

At least, I didn’t until a couple of my friends on Facebook shared an article called The Faceless White Giant that dealt with, among other things, the writing of none other than Jack Chick of Dark Dungeons fame. That, combined with me catching up on my COR sermon listening, particularly the one from April 17, and the concept of Christ as a colander, resulted in something that may or may not have actually been an epiphany, but it sure felt like one.

At times in my life, I have done what can be described as “clinging to my faith with bloody fingernails.” My faith is not something I want to give up, but even as a practicing Christian, sometimes I can find it hard to believe. Love and forgiveness for me – knowing what I’ve done in my life and just how it has hurt people – seems a little “out there.” (Although the concept of Hell can be all too easy to accept in my darker moments, in those same moments, the very concept of Heaven can seem absurd.) At least some of the “Angry God Theology” out there (and certainly my own struggles with it) is at least partially a form of spiritual impostor syndrome.  Just as I sometimes find it hard to believe that my boss at work is satisfied with or even willing to tolerate my performance, I can run into a similar trap with God. It is hard to imagine (for me) a God who is willing to forgive and embrace, but in Jesus’s character, that’s exactly what we see.

Which is, somewhat ironically, one of the things that enables me to hold onto my faith. The God I believe in is every bit as alien and unknowable in His nature as some of the creations of people like H.P. Lovecraft (stay with me!) – it is so easy for us as humans to envision cosmic forces as being malevolent or callously indifferent to us. God as He is described in scripture is vast and cosmic beyond our ability to perceive or conceptualize. When Moses asked the burning bush who was sending him, God’s reply was to tell them that “I AM” was. One interpretation of that statement is “I am existence itself.” Not everything, not the universe, but the very concept of existence. Talk about cosmic and incomprehensible.

And yet the essential nature of this incomprehensibly vast, powerful being is one of tender love and compassion for the lowly and the broken. We as humans tend to imagine powerful and vast things as nasty and dangerous. Lovecraft and his ilk are popular in part because even though what they write about is awful and terrifying, it feels like it’s probably accurate on some level. The idea that the primal cosmic force out there not only cares about us, but is willing to sacrifice so deeply to show it – that strains the limits of believability. It seems far-fetched, too good to be true. And the fact that it’s so hard to believe is one of many things that convinces me that it’s worth believing. It is not something we humans would come up with – it is outside of our frame of reference.

This will not, I’m sure, convince anyone who has lost their faith to take it up again, and I’m even more certain that it won’t convince those who never had it in the first place to develop it now. But if you’ve struggled to hang onto a faith that can be hard to grasp at times like I have, and particularly if your own guilt has been making your grip falter, it’s my sincere hope that this gives you another handle. We need to accept the good, despite how unlikely it seems.

Truth, as they say, can be stranger than fiction.


Starting a Podcast, Part 5: Consistency

Oh, hey, it’s Grant again! It’s been a while—new kid and all—but I’m picking up where I left off in our impromptu “Starting a Podcast” series. In this post and the one or two after this, I’ll talk about professionalism—that quality which promises reliability and responsibility. I want to cover several aspects of podcasting professionalism, but I’m going to start with the most common problem facing new podcasters: Consistency.

Deliver what you promise

That right there? That’s the most important piece of podcasting advice I’ll give you throughout this entire series.

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You Must be This Treacherous to Ride the Story 1

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order and Spec Ops: The Line.

I ran into an interesting roadblock recently while playing Wolfenstein: The New Order. At the end of the first chapter of the game, you’re presented with a sadistic choice by the villain and the game is pretty insistent that you actually make it. Failing to choose gets your entire squad killed and when you reload the save, you’re right back at the decision point. I watched that scene where you stare down the villain and he kills your squad a half-dozen times and almost stopped playing entirely at that point. I was ultimately talked out of that decision by some of the other folks on the Gamers With Jobs forums, and while the material that follows is surprisingly rich for a FPS game, there’s still a nagging metaphorical splinter in my brain about how I really shouldn’t have betrayed that squad member just to continue the story. It seems that playing Spec Ops: The Line back in the day had more of a lasting impact on me than I’d given it credit for.

Spec Ops: The Line escalates the misfortune, chaos, and suffering caused by its hard-charging, hot-tempered protagonist steadily over the course of its story and eventually (mostly via loading screens) starts telling the player that they can make the awful things stop happening if they quit playing the game. That idea resurfaced in my mind as I was looking at the sadistic choice sequence in Wolfenstein.

I have a hard time with stories that require me to be treacherous or duplicitous to move forward. I actually stopped playing Fallout 4 before the end because I could see that was the way the story was headed, and I don’t like betraying the trust of even really bad people. I don’t like having to compromise morally to get to the rest of a story.

Yet even the stories central to my Christian faith include some treachery and betrayal. The infamous example is Judas Iscariot, of course, but the Biblical figure my parents named me after certainly had his share of less-than-stellar moments where loyalty was concerned. From trying to escalate Jesus’s mostly-peaceful arrest (that Jesus was cooperating with) into violence in John 18:10 over Jesus’s objections to his denial that he even knew Jesus in Luke 22, he demonstrated that, under enough stress, even his loyalty could crack.

And here’s the thing: Jesus forgave him. In John 21, Jesus not only forgives Peter, but also puts him to work. Once again, God shows his ability to work through and with human frailty to accomplish his purposes. Peter’s story continued beyond the act of betrayal.

And that brings me to a realization that I had only after I started writing this blog post. A lot of my supposed virtue in games (and in life, if I’m going to be at all honest) comes from a well of pride. “I’ll defy the villain even if he kills an entire squad instead of just one of them. My integrity is worth more than those lives.” No, actually, it’s not. And it’s further not necessarily doing anyone any good to insist on always playing the good guy in everything. Now, it may not be harming anything either, and certainly playing upstanding characters can be a lot of fun, but when my internal narrative is such that I’ve convinced myself that I can’t play someone with major character flaws in a fictional context because that would reflect poorly on me, then perhaps it’s time to stretch a bit, especially because I have a nasty streak that I sometimes subconsciously feel I can let out as long as it’s fueled by “a good cause.” Like a lot of people of faith over the years, I have a problem with wanting to cultivate an image of outward purity when the truth is that on some essential level, I have the potential to be absolutely monstrous.

Fortunately, at times like this, I have my co-host. Grant has been running a Rogue Trader game for us, and as many of you are no doubt aware, the Warhammer 40k universe is a little thin on people of flawless virtue. My aloof, toaster-obsessed, pipe-smoking Explorator may be a humorous and strange character, but he’s not anyone’s role model. In fact, he’s even a poor example by the warped standards of his own society. But he’s also not a channel for sadism and cruelty – he’s just a self-interested, socially inept guy who is also a little weird. And while playing him isn’t as comfortable as playing some of my previous characters, at least he’s getting me to remove at least a few inches of the self-righteous stick I have lodged in my hindquarters, or to put it another way, it’s allowing me to start sawing off parts of the log I have in my eye so I can start getting rid of it. Unfortunately, that’s a long log. I have a feeling I’m going to be sawing for quite some time.


Gaming Curriculum: Extra Credit, Part III: Miscellany 1

A lot of the time, these are generated by a lack of other ideas, and I find them a useful way to fill a creative gap while still handing out something useful. That’s not the case this time – I have a couple of things that I especially want to recommend this time. Quality over quantity for this one; I just have two things, but they’re both phenomenal.

The first one is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I just discovered this recently after having been kind of tangentially aware of it for a while, and it has pushed just about everything else out of my listening rotation. Even other podcasts that I absolutely love have been fighting for my listening time with this. Mr. Carlin has a way of presenting historical narratives that is absolutely riveting and if your brain works anything at all like mine does, you won’t be able to stop the gaming ideas from coming. In particular, he focuses a lot on the human side of things and first-hand accounts; there’s a strong emphasis toward “putting the listener there” as much as possible. He also shows a great deal of respect and charity toward a wide variety of different world views and cultures, which I really appreciate as a listener; he’s more one to ask you to think about why horrible things happened and how people got through them than one to rant about how awful things were or sneer from a modern moral pedestal at “backwards” people from ages past. He also references other, fictional works, which makes putting stuff in a gaming context easier. Lord of the Rings actually gets referenced a lot during the WWI series.

As I just hinted at, I particularly recommend the six-part series “A Blueprint for Armageddon” which focuses on the first world war, and currently has me ruminating on ideas for a low-fantasy setting that resembles pre-WWI Europe.  I haven’t listened to anywhere near everything he’s put out so far, but I only have one or two more pieces of audio before I have to start buying his older stuff, which I will be doing happily and without hesitation. His current series, King of Kings, is also excellent, and it deals with the events (going all the way back to the founding of the Persian empire) that eventually lead up to the Battle of Thermopylae (the infamous stand of the 300 Spartans).

A few words of caution, though: this series is not for the faint of heart. Carlin gets pretty graphic at times as he describes, for example, just how terrible a WWI battlefield was or just what they did to the leaders of the Anabaptists that took over the city of Muenster when they caught them. Hardcore history has helped me understand and appreciate the value of horror about as much as talking to Kenneth Hite and Greg Stolze did, and that is high praise indeed.

The second one is much lighter in tone, and is more specifically gaming-focused. I had to go back and check to make sure we hadn’t included it in one of the previous podcasts or blog posts in this series, and I’m still not 100% sure we haven’t even after checking just now. Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick webcomic (the link goes to the first strip) is wonderful gaming inspiration for anyone in the hobby, but especially those running D&D games. It starts out as just a silly webcomic about a D&D adventuring party (complete with breaks in the fourth wall) and succeeds fairly well as just a humorous thing to read, but as the story goes on, the story gets more serious, more complex, and more interesting, and while Burlew’s setting is kind of generic by necessity, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it once the story starts scratching below the surface. Reading it will teach you interesting lessons about dealing with various problem characters (Elan, Belkar, and Vaarsuvius all represent different problematic PC archetypes, though that is far from all they are, and they have important roles to play in the story), developing a world as you go, heroism, villainy, storytelling, and so forth, but I think one of the more interesting and subtle lessons it teaches (perhaps without even meaning to) is how much you can get across with some fairly spare descriptions. The characters in Order of the stick aren’t quite traditional stick figures, but neither are they particularly detailed, yet the simple, clean art conveys a great deal.

Unlike Hardcore History, this one is probably fine for anyone over the age of 12 or so; while there’s some mild language, a fair bit of violence and the occasional sexual reference, nothing is particularly graphic, and the good guys are clearly marked and in most cases, pretty clearly heroic.

As usual, I’d love to hear if you get anything out of either of these, and I’d also love to hear any recommendations you might have.