Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Missionaries to Mars

Every time there's exciting news about space, whether it's missions of exploration, the discovery of new celestial bodies, or an advancement in relevant technology, speculation starts flying about extraterrestrial life. One variant of that you don't see very often popped up in the Wall Street Journal: "Could Aliens Have Souls That Need Saving?"
Post title shamelessly stolen from Albert Mohler.
(If you don't have access to the WSJ, the discussion of said article over at Get Religion is worth reading.)

The question at hand: If alien life were discovered, would Christians have to share the Gospel with them? It's not a new question, although it's usually expanded to consider the role of cosmology in Christian theology as well. CS Lewis wrote a series of books about it, for example.

There's a few ways of looking at this.

  • The positive case would state that, since Adam's sin caused the Fall to ripple out through all of creation, then aliens would also be in need of redemption. 
  • The negative case would state that, since any alien life would not be descended from Adam, they would not be inheritors of Adam's sinful nature and thus not bound by the details of Christian theology. 
  • The demure case would state that, since the Bible says nothing, positive or negative, about life beyond Earth, then speculation about the theological ideas surrounding it is improper. 
Dr. Mohler argues the latter case, incidentally. 

As for me, I'm a contrarian on this topic. The question is hypothetical, but I'm convinced that the possibility of alien life is so poor that it's not worth taking seriously. Allow me to explain.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Chasing the Wind: Our Story

I mentioned in the first entry for this series that I've been re-reading some philosophy books. In A.J. Ayer's essay, The Claims of Philosophy, I came across this paragraph:
But for now, it may be objected, suppose that the world is designed by a superior being. In that case, the purpose of our existence will be the purpose that it realizes for him; and the meaning of life will be found in our conscious adaptation to his purpose. But here again, the answer is, first, that there is no good reason whatsoever for believing that there is any such superior being; and, secondly, that even if there were, he could not accomplish what is here required of him. For let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything happens as it does because a superior being has intended that it should.
 . . . The point is, in short, that even the invocation of a deity does not enable us to answer the question why things are as they are. 
I've left out the details of the argument, and Ayer goes on like this quite a bit more; Kai Nielsen repeats Ayer's argument in his essay, Linguistic Philosophy and "The Meaning of Life." (I don't recommend the latter. Linguistic Philosophy, as a field, seems like endless pontification on what the meaning of "is" is with the assumption that such navel gazing is profound.) There's much to say in response to this line of argument, but it becomes easier to do so in the context of the Christian world view. In other words, the response to all of these different formulations and perspectives on Meaning becomes understandable in the light of the story Christians tell about the Meaning of Life.

Maybe this comes off as surprising to some. Christians have an answer to the question of Meaning? What is the Christian answer here?

We were made to be in relationship with God.

Does that seem too simple? It really isn't. To make the most sense of this, we have to go back to the beginning. Before that, really.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

There's No Place Like Home

"Howdy neighbor!" Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
I've got another post in the works on topic of Meaning, but it's been almost two weeks since my last post went up, and I wanted to break the silence with something that's a bit easier to write.

There's been quite a bit of news about the universe lately. First, there was the short-lived bit of excitement about SETI detecting a radio burst from deep space. Then we detected an "Earth-like" planet around our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. A scientist even wrote a recent piece for the Boston Globe about directed panspermia, the theory that life on Earth originated, indeed, was specifically seeded, from extraterrestrial sources.

Most of this is nonsensical. The SETI signal is most likely Earth-based interference, or at the very least random noise amplified by natural phenomena. Proxima B, even if it's located in the "Goldilocks zone," is unlikely to be able to support life as we might appreciate it for all kinds of reasons.  Even the author of the panspermia piece recognizes that it's not a particularly compelling theory, and it only moves the goalposts when working out the problems with the chemical origin of life. (That's a topic I've been meaning to address someday.)

Still, people get very excited about the idea of life on other planets. It's certainly been a staple of science fiction since the genre came about. Given all the recent talk related to that idea in the news, I wasn't surprised to see this article: What will it take for humans to colonize the Milky Way?

Thursday, September 01, 2016

RPG a Day - Post Mortem

I started doing the "RPG a Day" activity as a way of jump-starting the writing process. You might notice the blog's been a little thin on content the last few, erm . . . years.

Well, it was certainly successful on that score. My enthusiasm for writing has been reinvigorated, although I can't say my time available for such things is any more abundant.

I'm rather proud I managed to put something up every day but the last for this. I'd been writing several of the posts at a time and scheduling them to go out, but that last one just got away from me.

In any case, I'm hoping 2016 will look better for the blog from here on out. I've been having enjoying writing my "Chasing the Wind" posts, and I hope to do a lot more with that. I've got several other ideas I've been percolating as well. No politics, though. Not that I have nothing to say on the current state of things, but it seems like a moot point; of all the voices clamoring for attention out there, I have nothing to offer that others won't say in more detail or more eloquently.
Here's to 2017.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 30

Today's topic: Describe the ideal game room if budget were not an issue.

I don't have much to say here; maybe give me a room from Britannia Manor with a digital table top and I'd be set.

For a more interesting topic, one of my own consideration: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a GM?

I ask this question because I've been thinking a lot about the games I've run in recent weeks (go figure) and it occurs to me that there's a lot to be said for learning from our mistakes.  I certainly have enough to choose from. However, there's one in particular I'm considering.

Fear the Boot frequently talks about The Golden Box. It's this concept to illustrate the idea that a player's character shouldn't be changed by the GM, at least not without some measure of consent. After all, the GM has control of everything in the game, while the player only has control over his character; take that away, violate The Golden Box, and you've breached a social contract and diminished the game.
Tread carefully.
When I ran last Dresden Files, I definitely violated The Golden Box.

I won't belabor the details, but within my game world there were five Items of Power, tied to powerful patron spirits, that needed to be claimed in order for the local ley lines to be balanced. This seemed like a fun idea at the time. The provided a physical link to a campaign idea, and offered some fun options for sponsored magic and other boons from the items.

The problem was, I hadn't opted to provide the players with any more refresh to take up the Items of Power. (Refresh is the resource one uses to 'purchase' powers and abilities, and it's the basic measure of how powerful a character is. Taking up an Item of Power usually requires spending refresh to gain access to its abilities.)

I hadn't considered this from the players perspective at the time. Here was something that, as I'd structured things, had to be taken up in order to prevent calamity, but I wasn't making it free to use. Thus, they had to give up the abilities they'd built into their characters in the first place in order to take up the Items.

That's definitely a violation.

I didn't realized the mistake I'd made until one of my players vocalized just how much he resented having to trade off the powers he'd wanted to use for the powers of the Item. In the end, I allowed the players to pass of the Items to NPCs if they so desired, but the damage had been done.

There's no great solution here. Probably would have been best to make the items free to use, although then I'd have run into issues balancing the game. Perhaps, had I been up front about the items with my players, we could have reached an understanding that would have suited everyone. The items were a central mystery to the game, so that would have ablated much of the investigation and exploration as they went.

All the same, I know how not to handle it in the future, and that's the most important part.
Cool as this is, it may not be the vision your players had in mind.

Monday, August 29, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 29

Today's topic: You can game anywhere on Earth; where do you game?

Easily, that's Richard Garriott's (former) home. That place would have some serious atmosphere for a game.

On a more substantial topic, I think the choice of gaming location is worth exploring. So today's actual topic is going to be: Where do you prefer to do your gaming?

I know of four major locations people do their gaming:

  • Someone's home
  • Game store
  • Bar/Restaurant
  • Some other public venue
I've only done the first two. Of them, my preference is definitely to game in a home. 

There's certainly advantages to be drawn from gaming in a store. You can meet new people and attract others to your game, if you're in need. Store owners like having people in their store having fun, so a gaming group can be good "advertisement," even if they don't buy much during their time there. Unfortunately, I've found game stores to be too loud to be conducive to role-playing, and often times "meeting people" devolves into looky-loos making your players uncomfortable. 

Playing at someone's home can be much more comfortable; you don't have to worry about the distractions of other gamers, although the distraction of spouses or children can counter-balance that benefit. You have much more leeway with game time that isn't centered around store hours. You're also much less restricted in terms of food and beverage, which is a definite advantage.

That's partially why some people game at bars or restaurants; I've never seen this, but I've heard stories. It just doesn't seem like a good environment for it, though. It's highly public, so "enthusiastic" gaming is unlikely to be appreciated, and you're limited to the time a business has patience for you. If it's a busy period, they're not likely to appreciate you taking up a table for four hours.
"I don't care if Middle Earth is in danger, either buy more food or get out."
As for other, I hear some people will play at libraries, or at school after classes get out. A friend of mine used to belong to a "social club" for gamers that provided gaming space. I'm sure these have their advantages, although I imagine the first two are chosen out of necessity or convenience.

All the same, my preference remains home gaming. More comfortable, fewer restrictions, free reign on food. 


Sunday, August 28, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 28

Today's topic: What is the thing you'd be most surprised a friend had not seen or read?

As this is an RPG topic, I'll assume these are properties that are at least vaguely RPG-related. To that end, I'm going to skip the obvious elephants in the room: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Yes, I'd be amazed if someone hadn't seen the movies or read Tolkien's books, but that's largely because these properties carry such huge cultural influence that you couldn't avoid them if you tried.

To this end, I'm thinking more outside the box. With that in mind:
Don't be too impressed. Every man is shaped like that in Timm's animated shows.
Super hero cartoons enjoyed a good deal of popularity during the 90s. Two of the most popular shows during that time were the Batman and Superman animated series.

Following on that success, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini followed their previous work with the series based on the iconic superhero team, running 2001 to 2004, followed by Justice League Unlimited through 2006.

It's understandable how someone might have missed the show. Older millennials like myself would have been college students when the show was on TV. Even then, it aired on Saturday nights in a time when DVRs weren't yet abundant, Netflix wasn't around, and Cartoon Network was recalcitrant on the matter of reruns. I only saw most of the series because my parents recorded it on VHS for me to watch when I went home to visit.

So why do I list it as the property I'd be surprised someone hadn't seen? Three reasons.
  1. It has been available on Netflix for quite some time.
  2. It was really good. 
  3. Few superhero cartoons that came afterwards were able to match the quality of these shows.
There's a lot of love to be had for shows like Young Justice or Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Even so, few modern series were as widely celebrated, or influential on the genre, as the JL/JLU series. It's a series I'd recommend in a heart beat to someone interested in the genre.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 27

Having not gamed in any unusual or exotic circumstances, I can't really speak to the scheduled topic for today. Instead, I'm going to backtrack to something I mentioned the other day.

When talking about "What makes a good character?" I focused on the narrative and table-centric elements: Backstory, Goals, and Personality. This time, I'd like to talk about the place where mechanics and character meet, and how that interface can be difficult.

Friday, August 26, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 26

Today's topic: What hobbies go well with RPGs?

Video games are the first thing that come to mind, given that most of the audience for RPGs overlaps with video game players. The benefit is often twofold. Players will get exposed to stories and narrative structures that provide useful inspiration to draw or borrow from when making their own stories. On top of that, seeing various mechanics at work in a video game can inform an understanding of how mechanics ought to work at the table.

That being the most obvious answer, there are some others that fit as well:
  • Writing, for the obvious reason of having experience crafting a narrative and understanding different elements of the story structure.
  • Acting, especially improv, because being able to take on the role of a character and make him real and compelling can be complicated.
  • Drawing, although any artistic skills will also find use. If you can create good renderings of characters or events in your game, you will never want for a group to play with. People eat that stuff up.
  • History, and the study thereof. This might seem an unusual one, but it's a simple explanation. Sometimes the events of history can make for great inspiration in games, especially when real events are stranger than fiction. 
  • Cooking, because who doesn't love the person who brings homemade snacks to the table?
Really, the best answer to this is, "Whatever makes you happy." That's rather the point of hobbies, right? Just about any hobby will synergize well with gaming, if only because it lets you bring additional perspective to the table. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: No God But One

A few months ago, I received a copy of Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward for review. Written by Nabeel Qureshi, it was a brief examination of jihad in Islam and the Christian response to it.

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of Qureshi's third book, No God But One: Allah or Jesus? as well. If his first book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, was the story of how his heart changed in his conversion from Islam to Christianity, then No God But One is the story of how his mind changed.

In No God But One, Qureshi takes the time to unpack two primary questions central to someone seeking to know God:
  1. Are Christianity and Islam really all that different?
  2. Can we know whether Islam or Christianity is true?
These are both questions of profound importance. There is no sense in choosing between one faith or the other if they are not meaningfully different, but if they are different, then how can you know which one to choose? This is not a process of elimination, either; they must stand or fall on their own merits. As Qureshi says of his own experience:
For me, it's been a decade since I made the decision to leave Islam, and the fallout of my decision haunts me every day. I knew it would, well before I ever converted, but I also knew that I was sure. I was sure that Islam and Christianity are not just two paths that lead to the same God, but two very different paths that lead very different ways. I was sure that I had excellent historical reason to believe the gospel. I was sure that, though I loved Islam, I couldn't ignore the problems that plagued its foundations. But most of all, I was sure that following the one true God would be worth all trials and all suffering. I had to follow the evidence and the truth, no matter the cost.

RPG a Day - Day 25

Today's topic: What makes for a good character?

Before I start, I have to say I wish more of the questions were like this. This is red meat for gamers who like to argue about their hobby.

My answer to this is going to center around the non-mechanical aspects, as I feel like the functionality of a character and the interface of mechanical and non-mechanical character traits is a different issue altogether.

Backstory

First, a good character has to have a backstory.

It's a common trope that poorly made characters have no history. They sprang from the earth, fully formed and clad in adventuring gear. Some games don't really need more than that; Fi-tor the Fighter doesn't need a backstory if all he's doing is descending into an endless dungeon to fight monsters until he dies.
Unless you're literally playing Athena, then springing forth fully-formed is probably okay.
Still, a good backstory provides a few benefits. It gives the character motivation for his adventures. It ties him into the setting, unless you're going for a fish-out-of-water character. It provides hooks for the GM to draw the character into the adventure by personalizing elements of it.

It doesn't have to be War and Peace, it just needs to be enough to understand what motivates the character and why. What benefit is all of this motivation?

Goals

A good character also needs goals

This starts with justifying why your character is even on the adventure in the first place. Frodo's life was not one long build-up leading to Bilbo handing him the One Ring, but the events of his life made it plausible for Frodo to accept the quest to take it to Mordor. The well-written character will follow the adventure for reasons besides "I'm good and the bad guy is evil" or "All my friends are doing it."

Some exceptions may apply.
It goes beyond that, though. Most people have some interests outside of their profession. Presumably, your character should have things that motivate him besides completing his quest. Do they have hobbies? Are they collectors or trophy hunters? Are they part of an organization? Are they religious? Do they have any feelings about the local government? 

This doesn't have to be an extensive or comprehensive list, but having a few things that the character wants out of the game will go a long way towards making him three-dimensional. 

Personality

To really shine at the table, however, a character needs personality, things that make him unique to the other characters at the table and those you've played as well.

A lot of people like to do voices and accents for this, which is fine. A lot of us are only mediocre at best at this sort of thing, so it's probably best to skip it unless you do some practicing ahead of time.

Still, distinguishing the character at the table goes beyond just the voice. but also the mannerisms, the tone, and other affectations. This can be something incorporated into the way the character speaks, but it can also branch into the way you describe the character's actions. 

For example, perhaps the character is shy. This could be voiced by a slight studder and squeamishness when speaking with strangers. When possible, perhaps the character chooses to stand behind other characters, being out of direct line of sight. They probably don't make a lot of eye contact, either. 
Just don't do catchphrases. The other players will try to murder you.
 None of these things in isolation may seem like much, but in concert they can take a bland, boring character and turn him into something memorable and vibrant.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 24

Today's topic: What is the game you are most likely to give to others?

This is an easy answer: Fate Accelerated Edition. Partially, this is because of my deep love for the system, which I've discussed previously. Much more relevant to the question, though, is the price point: $5.
Yep. What it says on the tin.
In fact, Larry's been known to hand out copies of this to his players at Charm City Game Day, in case you needed additional incentive to go.
September 17th. Hint hint.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 23

Today's topic: What is your best 'worst luck' story?

Oh, my best is non-gaming related, so I'll have to save that for another day. As for gaming . . .

It's often said that people create their own luck. I think when it comes to RPGs, a GM can create his players' bad luck, too. In the very first Dungeons & Dragons game I ever played, the GM did exactly that.

We were playing a party of adventurers in a pre-made adventure setting. Saltmarsh, I think? It doesn't matter. Had I more experience, I might have known there was going to be trouble right off the bat when the GM had us bother with finding jobs. Not adventurer jobs, mind you. Normal civilian employment.

See, 3rd edition D&D had rules for earning money the civilian way. You could spend your (for some classes, severely limited) skill points on professional training and earn varying amounts of money per day for your labor. I didn't spend any skill points on such because I thought my paladin was going to actually be out there smiting evil. That's fine; you can perform unskilled labor and earn money still; moving crates at the docks and so forth.

It's worth pointing out that a night at the inn was one gold. The cheapest lodging in town was to stay at the temple of the god devoted to travelers and safe roads for 10 silver a night. Using my divine might to haul cargo, I was earning . . .
Hoo boy.
 . . . Much less than that.

Thankfully, the GM decided that a game about a paladin starving in the streets of Saltmarsh was not going to be interesting and sent us on an adventure.

Unbeknownst to us, this adventure had us crashing a smuggling operation in a "haunted" house. We found a member of the smuggling ring clearly cast out from the group, as he was bound and gagged in the house. We freed him and invited him to explore the house with us, because why not? So just as we're about to discover the hidden entrance to the smugglers' hideout . . .
Uh oh.
 . . . The jerk decides to shank me in the back. With sneak attack dice. And a high level poison worth more than everything we'd find in the smugglers' den.

Somehow, I survive and we clear out the den for actual monetary gain. Except, the smugglers were apparently the only source of alcohol for the city, so now we're hated by the general populace. Even better, the jerk who shanked me was the nephew of some politician, so now we're also wanted criminals.

Gee, you'd think maybe we were being set up.

By the time this all came to light, we'd recently escorted a diplomat to the city, and she offered to shelter us under her authority. Well, on the condition that we "consummate" this arrangement. I didn't like it, but the GM had shown he was ready to let the characters sit in prison, so if I wanted to keep playing the paladin, this was the way to go. Except . . .
"Make a saving throw." Why? . . . Shoot.
. . . It turns out our kindly benefactor is a succubus. Now the entire party is broke again, because we have to pay high level spell casters to heal the level damage she caused.

Our next adventure has us sorting out an "artist" whose sculptures were just people and creatures he'd been turning to stone with magic. Can you guess how that went?
"Make a saving throw!" . . . You've got to be kidding me.
(Edit: I went back to look this up. That spell isn't even accessible to a caster until level 11 or later. At our peak, we hit level 4, and we weren't there long. By all rights, this was a crazy challenge to throw at us.)

We had similar luck when a gang of local ruffians decided we were suitable targets for bullying. Their response to a bit of backbone was to murder my paladin in the street. In broad daylight. In the middle of a crowd.
"The barbarian turns you into a fine, pink mist. The ruffians are now local heroes because everyone hated you."
Now we have to spend some money we don't have on a resurrection for my paladin. We were completely out of options, except . . .
I couldn't find any tasteful pictures of a succubus, so have a bunny instead.
Broke. Back at level 1. Reviled by the city. Our only friend a soul-consuming sex demon.

The game didn't last much longer than this. Like I said, though: Sometimes your bad luck is made for you. We rolled poorly, but even good rolls weren't going to save us in this environment.
Just to lighten the mood. Comic by Shamus Young.

Monday, August 22, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 22

I don't have a great answer for the scheduled topic, so I wanted to revisit a topic from a few days ago: What is your favorite media property you wish was an RPG?

If you've never read it, you should seriously check out the webcomic Drive. Of all the sci-fi properties I've encountered in recent years, this one has fascinated me more than any, and this is coming from someone who only discovered Firefly two or three years ago. 

Drive is the creation of Dave Kellett, best known as the creator behind Sheldon and co-director of the comic strip documentary Stripped.  The story behind Drive is absolutely fascinating. It starts with a man who discovers a spaceship, advanced technology from a far-flung civilization known as the Contiuum of Makers. From this ship, the man derives the secret of "ring" technology, and with it, the ability to break the light-speed barrier in space travel. With this secret, the man builds an empire, eventually becoming the first emperor of a second Spanish empire that spans the galaxy. It is a secret so closely coveted that only blood-relations of the royal family are permitted to know how the technology works. For a non-familia to enter the engine room of a ship is to invite a swift death.

The problem for mankind, however, is that the Contiuum knows its technology has been stolen and wants it back with a religious fervor, and their firepower far exceeds the capabilities of the Drive Corps, the new Spanish Armada.

Complicating this war is the reappearance of The Vinn, a "race" of parasites that reproduces by infecting other species, searching for their lost gods and attempting to infect every planet and race in the universe.

I've barely scratched the surface, but you can guess that there is an epic story to be told here. I absolutely love the potential playground this enables for an RPG and the stories that could be told. It would certainly be a change of pace from the standard-bearers of Sci-Fi RPGs.

It's probably not going to happen any time soon, but it's a property I'd absolutely love to see as an RPG.

A wealth of stories just waiting to be told.