Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Men

It's been utterly bizarre to see the riots ripping across Ferguson, the massive protests, and general mayhem all around. I grew up in the St. Louis area. These are the sorts of things that happen elsewhere. St. Louis has its problems, but it's always seemed like a rational place, a safe place. Perhaps that was naivete on the part of a sheltered youth.

Nevertheless, the firestorm all began because of the actions and death of a man, Michael Brown. At this time, here's what we can say with certainty: On August 9th, Brown stole cigars from a convenience store, using his imposing figure to intimidate the proprietor, even shoving him around. A few minutes later, he was stopped by a police officer, Darren Wilson, leading to a confrontation that prompted Wilson to fatally shoot Brown. We learn more about that confrontation as the days go on; a lot of people have already reached conclusions as to whether the shooting was justified or not. My point actually has little to do with that.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: City Folk (Part 3)

Marcus, aka The Hawk, has been occupying his time, albeit nervously. Early in the morning, before the other players have split up, he receives a Sending from Tralene. 

Fantasy settings tend not to have cell phones, so long-distance communication requires magical work-arounds. Among the various solutions are Sendings, magical rituals which send a telepathic message to the recipient of limited length. The recipient can also respond in a limited fashion. 
"Good morning, sir. Is your refrigerator running?"
It's a careful balance determining how common such communication should be in your setting. Making them exclusive to the players, or the few rich and/or powerful people in the world, can leave the setting with a feeling of isolation. The world will feel imposing, but establishing any lasting connection with the places you've been will be next to impossible. If those communications methods are too common, the players lose any prestige in having access to it themselves; keeping it from them in any way becomes an artificial hindrance. The same can extend to other magical substitutions for modern technology; overuse can lead to thematic muddling, raising the question why you didn't simply play in a modern or sci-fi game in the first place.
 (See the rest below the fold.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: City Folk (Part 2)

In the last installment, Traster, Ronan, and Zeus found some ways to keep themselves occupied in the city, meeting interesting people in the process. While they were busying themselves with trading useless treasures for useful gear, Glabrous and Hawk opt to tackle some errands of their own.

Plus, these places never have amulets in your size.
The Temple of Avandra
The city of Sar Diga is home to the chief temple of Avandra in Mar Tesaro. Glabrous announces his intention to visit the place, in particular to have an opportunity to convince its leader to support the Brotherhood in its mission. Marcus politely declines, wandering off to explore the city; being a druid, most temples make him uncomfortable.

(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: City Folk (Part 1)

Up to this point, the players have been adventuring at a steady pace: Killing horrible monsters, rescuing the captured operative, and rooting out the traitor to the uprising. The players have some items stacking up on their agenda they'd like to attend to, such as spending the filthy lucre they've attained so far.

"What do you mean  you don't accept enchanted gauntlets as payment?!"
The players split up to deal with various issues.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Intermission: Edge of the Empire

It's been more than a month now since the last entry on the Mar Tesaro game. Writing took an unexpected hiatus, first for a much needed vacation, and then so I could properly prepare a couple of one-shot games for Charm City Gameday. Things have still been busy, but it seemed like there would be time to discuss a game I played at CCGD, the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG.

In case you didn't know how to click a link to figure out what I'm talking about.

The actual session was a mini-adventure put together by Fantasy Flight, the company that produced the game. The story elements of the session aren't really important, although it was fun. It was definitely made for beginners, as the players are gradually introduced to the various elements of the system, such as the dice, skill and combat mechanics, space combat, even character advancement.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

World building, granularity, and the long payoff

When I wrote about the introduction of the Patriarch, I mentioned that he never spoke for himself, but had a red imp familiar who sat on his shoulder and spoke for him. This was an attempt at world building that never came to fruition, and it's a pretty common problem for GMs.

This is a perfectly reasonable arrangement.
There's a principle for dramatic narratives known as "Chekhov's Gun," which says that you generally remove any narrative or contextual elements that aren't necessary to the story. If you point out a gun on the wall in act 1, then it ought to be fired by act 3, otherwise it never should have been pointed out at all. You could reasonably extend that idea to RPGs, cutting out the unnecessary fluff and narrative clutter, but it's not the same process as with a novel or play.

The way I understand it, there's two general ways this plays out at the table.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: Family Matters

Following their rescue of the captured spy, the players make their way to Sar Diga to help The Family deal with traitors in their midst.

I've written at least a bit on Sar Diga before. It's a well-connected hub of commerce: It's not terribly far from the capital, it's a hub of fishing off of Lake Kheldram, and it's sitting on the coast. Merchant and passenger ships coming from the east make their first stop here, so there's a lot of commerce that passes through the city. The gothic aesthetic of the city distinguishes it from the others. It's the perfect place for a crime syndicate to make its headquarters.

Like Thief but replacing technology with magic.
The Family isn't really familial, but the ranks in the group are organized by lineage. The head of the group is the Patriarch, an elusive figure whose true identity is known only to his inner circle, the Brothers. There are five Brothers in the organization, each in charge of respective fields of crime: Prostitution (Thalia Cyanal), gambling (Haneth Tsalaxa), black market goods (Imre Levalle), and organized theft and protection schemes (Kahveh Harandi). The fifth Brother, Dimos Seeren, acts as liaison between The Family and the Boland Brotherhood. After that, the organizational breakdown goes through nephews, then cousins, then various levels of "friends of The Family."

The players don't know how to get in touch with their liaison, but they do know how to find the Greeter.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The Lion and the Unicorn

As the players prepare to leave Dockhouse to further their adventure, their host, Colton, gives them a warning. As a man privy to rumors, he's heard talk of a traitor within the Family, prepared to sell them all out to the Queen. Although rumors like this circulate frequently, the threat of a crushed rebellion certainly raises the stakes. Colton tells them to keep an eye out for things in Sar Diga and bids them farewell.

In Hillstead, the players quick meeting with Glabrous and their next Brotherhood contact, and the players are off and on their way to Fol Thron, capital of Alessia's empire.

Fol Thron would later be fleshed out a bit more, but at this point it was just a generically large city with a few interesting land marks. This is one of the challenges of using your own setting. You usually have the time to flesh out one location really well, or you can design a broader setting, but any given location is by necessity less interesting. Of course, that's assuming you need every street named and every building assigned. I've found it to be most useful to give the important details and let imaginations fill in the rest. 
The players have to figure out what happened to the spy, with only half a letter and a hastily scribbled riddle. It turned out to be a lot less complicated than you'd imagine.

(Read the rest below the fold)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: High Stakes

After the players, agents of the Boland Brotherhood, finished dealing with the kraken in Lake Kheldram (because krakens are clearly freshwater creatures), they made a brief detour to Hillstead on their way to Fol Thron. While here, they retrieved the half-letter in the hopes of deciphering the missing agent's clues, as well as to meet up with their fellow traveler, Glabrous Emerald-Eye.

Why were they meeting Glabrous in Hillstead? Aside from Glabrous's player being absent for the first session, Glabrous was in Hillstead convincing the leaders of other churches to support the Brotherhood's cause, for it is in need of allies.

Of course, most revolutions start this way. The Brotherhood needs allies, and the players will spend a great deal of the game recruiting for the cause of unseating the Queen.

Actually, this is one of the things I tried to bring in early to make player agency matter. If the players are plotting a civil war, how will their actions bring it to a favorable conclusion? I wanted them to be thinking about how their actions would direct the outcome of the war, rather than simply having events unfold around them.
To make sense of the sides, we have to travel back to the past.
(Read the rest below the fold.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Return to Mar Tesaro: The tale can now be told

It's been roughly six months since this D&D campaign ended, and nearly as long since I last wrote about it. There are several reasons for why this series has been on hiatus for so long, and just as many for why I'm finally starting it again.

Since it's been a while, a recap might be good (or you could just start here).

The land of Mar Tesaro has a troubled and storied history. The current queen, Alessia, fought tooth and nail to get recapture this land from a supremely powerful lich, consolidate her power in a devastating civil war (culminating in the return and defeat of said lich), and then rebuild in the aftermath. Along the way, she made friends and enemies. One particular group of enemies wouldn't forget the civil war, determined to overthrow the queen and restore the previous ruling order, calling themselves the Boland Brotherhood. The players cast their lot with the "Rebel Alliance."

It's a lot like this, except instead of space ships we had wizards on gryphons. Otherwise, exactly the same.
The telling of this story will be interspersed with commentary about actually running the game. Those bits will be in block quotes.

Speaking of which . . .
(Read the rest below the fold.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 3

8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”8:31 The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)
Have you ever given, or received, an evangelistic tract? I consider them to be something akin to street preaching, not a particularly effective tool but not one I can say is 100% ineffective.

Sometimes those things make us look bad. Sometimes they make us look really bad. Take, for example, this old Jack Chick tract. Although Dungeons & Dragons isn't a particular bugaboo these days, you'll still find folks who think Harry Potter is going to indoctrinate their children into the occult. All the same, the RPG community still passes around poor Blackleaf as a joke. I realize that even the most genuine attempts at evangelism can open a person up to ridicule, but I think we can all agree that something that sticks around as the butt of a joke for 30 years is a problem.

The point of the chapter for week three was that evangelism is almost entirely about relationship. Most tracts are used in a "fire and forget" manner, shoved into the hands of passersby on the street in the hopes that someone will read it. What if they do? Who explains the meaning of the text to them? Who helps them find a Bible to actually look up the things that are said in the tract? Who helps them connect to a body of believers in their area? Who helps explain to them what being a Christian even means?

It's not even just tracts. When I was in college, we used to hand out food as a means of "ministering" to our community. The hope is that someone receives some free food, sees the love of Christ behind that action, and becomes curious enough to probe further, offering an opportunity to share the gospel. We used to make care packages (instant drinks, ramen noodles, candy, etc.) for the new freshmen. We'd hand out snowcones at the festival showcasing all of the student groups. We'd hand out hot cocoa to people during the winter. In the spring, we'd hand out Poptarts. I was part of that for four years, and I can probably count on one hand the number of people who even stopped to ask why we were giving away food, much less wanted to ask about this "Jesus" fellow.
From PRC's study on the "nones"
It only compounds the problem further that Christianity is becoming much less "standard" as far as cultural knowledge goes. As the general public moves away from church, it's much less likely for anyone to even know the basic Biblical stories, much less what specific terms of theology mean. As with Philip and the eunuch, how can they understand if there is no one to explain it to them?

I won't discount the potential for one person to sow while another person reaps. However, so much of the world views us as uninterested in the person we are talking to, instead seeking another notch in our belt, another conservative voter, another tithe in the church coffers. If we want people to take our attempts to share our faith seriously, our attempts have to look genuine. If evangelism is like a meal, we need to sit down and grab a menu, rather than hitting up the drive-thru.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 2

The subject for week two of the study was on the value of stories during evangelism and spiritual conversations. Illustrative stories can be very helpful for explaining an idea; Jesus always seemed to have a parable at hand to explain the nature of God or the Kingdom. Paul began his speeches before gentile audiences with stories. It's just a well known idea, people like stories. There's no faster way to draw in an audience than with stories.

More specifically, however, this chapter looked at stories from your spiritual journey. This can be a tricky area. It can be easy to ignore, overlook, or even ridicule the stories others have of experiencing the supernatural. They can be brushed off as coincidental at best and signs of mental illness at worst. The experiences are no less meaningful to folks, however, so it's important for Christians to understand how to respond to these stories and use them as tools of evangelism. Incidentally, it's not just Christians who have stories of the supernatural or spiritual experiences.


From PRC's 2009 study of the rise of the "nones."
One of the points we discussed was just how important being able to share these stories can be. I thought I'd use this week's post, then, to share one of my own stories, one in which I almost died.

(Continue reading)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Holy Conversation - Week 1

Last year, I was in charge of my church small group discussions about Calling. I decided to write about the material in addition to leading the discussion. (All of those posts should be available here.) I'm leading the group again this fall, so I thought I would write about it again. This year, we're going through the book Holy Conversation by Richard Peace.

The overall point of the book is that evangelism is in a wayward state in our current cultural climate. For a lot of people, it means tracts and pamphlets, brimstone condemnations, self-righteous judgment, that sort of thing. Even if you dial that back, just the act of telling someone that their beliefs are wrong or their actions sinful is the worst possible social blunder, impolite at best and offensive, bordering on a human rights violation, at worst. On the other end of it, many Christians have taken such cultural frowning on proselytizing to heart to the extent that even talking about their faith is uncomfortable. The goal of the book is to move back towards a model of relational evangelism, purposeful and personal without being offensive.

I'm not unsympathetic to the idea. Drive-by, shotgun-style evangelism is a net with very big holes in it. I can't say it doesn't have a place, but it's not going to catch a lot of fish. Religion has become a very personal thing, not a public expression, in the last several decades (for better or worse.) Even Pope Francis is on the same page:

He smiles again and replies: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."
I feel like the Pope is a bit too heavy handed with the Universalism-angle in this interview, but that could be the translation. The bottom line is that conversion is a different process for everyone, and that makes it a very personal thing. Formulas and presentations aren't necessarily the way to go, but a direct relationship can make for a much more natural progression.

The first week focused on the idea that everyone is on a spiritual journey, and half the battle in having a productive conversation about faith is understanding where your friend is on their own path how to address them in that place.

Frankly, I think I missed the point of the study in the first week. The goal of the study is to help make evangelism a natural process, getting away from heavily religious terminology that might scare or confuse folks, working on a personal level. What did I do? I prepared a discussion that tried to form a biblical basis for the idea that everyone is on a spiritual journey. I tried to establish a connection between the ideas Peace was laying out for the conversion process and traditional theological ideas. If you're used to thinking in technical ways, it's hard to break away from that.

Hopefully the coming weeks will be more natural. It's frustrating to me so far that each session is very light on material; preparing an actual "lesson" seems counter-intuitive to the goal of the study, but hoping that three pages of material focused on a single idea can generate 1-2 hours of conversation seems overly optimistic to me. Still, I look forward to seeing how the study turns out.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro: Band of Misfits

As I said a few weeks ago, the D&D campaign will be finishing up this month. We have our final session next week, after which I have much more I want to write about the game. However, I think a good prelude to that discussion would be to talk about the actual movers and shakers in the game, the player characters.

In a previous entry to this series, I mentioned that my players decided to take up arms with the Boland Brotherhood, a secret rebellion plotting to overthrow the Queen. They wanted to be lieutenants, not leaders, SEAL team 6 instead of the Security Council. D&D games work much better if the players aren't spending the entirety of their time politicking, so this brooked no arguments from me. The characters had a purpose, and I had a vehicle for sending them into adventure.

So, who was this cast of adventurers?
(Read the rest below the fold)