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)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Honorary gnomes

All this WoW blogging has brought some traffic back to the site. Maybe I should just turn this into a WoW blog. (Won't happen, but I've had worse ideas.)

One of the traffic sources was from the Gnomeregan Forever guild website, apparently impressed with my post on Operation: Gnomeregan and an offer to make me an honorary gnome.

My favorite character is and will always be my draenei paladin, but I actually do play gnomes. Well, sort of.

Hassium, Warlock Supreme Totally not a warlock, and I have no idea why that demon is following me around.
Halanium, Warrior of Gnomeregan and part-time gardening enthusiast
The above screenshots are both of my gnomish characters. Hassium made it to level 80 in Wrath, but didn't get played in Cataclysm. I was volunteered as raid leader not too far into Cataclysm, so there wasn't really time to level a bunch of alts. It doesn't hurt that it was taking me a while to adjust to the changes Warlocks received in Cataclysm. I also had been wanting to try out a Warrior for quite some time.

That's when Halanium appeared on the scene. My plan had been to level him as a tank in the dungeon finder, as my main was a Paladin tank and I wanted to see how the differences between the two classes played out. Then I remembered that I hadn't really explored any of the changes to the questing experience after Cataclysm was released, so Halanium went out into the world to kick butt in the name of Gnomeregan.

Oddly enough, all this talk of gnomes convinced me to play Halanium again. He'd gotten to level 85, but I've been well occupied in Mists with my Paladin.  (Okay, and a druid healer.) I have no idea how long that'll keep up, but it's been fun getting back into another character.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Community Blog Topic: Adding fourth specs to WoW

You'd think this was turning into a WoW blog, but it really isn't. I have all kinds of other things to write about. For example . . . um . . .

Hey look, another WoW blog topic!
With 11 classes, 34 total specializations, and 13 different races, you have plenty of options for the game. A few more couldn't hurt . . . right?
If you aren't familiar with the class specializations in WoW, let's start at the beginning.

WoW has always had three specializations (specs) for the classes.  These would allow you to distinguish your character from others of the same class, as well as offering different gameplay.  This could be minor, such as the difference between two different DPS specs, or it could be major, such as the difference between a tanking and a healing spec.

A few classes have bucked the three-spec rule at various times.  Death Knights started out in Wrath of the Lich King where each of the three specs could be a tank or a DPS spec.  Blizzard eventually removed this capability, making one spec exclusively a tank spec, while the other two stayed DPS.  Druids always had three specs, but the original melee spec, Feral, supported two druid playstyles and shapeshift forms.  Cat form was the druid melee DPS, while bear form was the druid tank.  Although each spec had its own talent tree, most of the abilities in the druid talent tree had caveats in the form of, "If you are in Bear form, X; if you are in Cat form, Y."  Eventually, Blizzard simplified this by making each a separate spec, resulting in druids being the only class in WoW to have four specs.

The question of how to add a fourth spec to the other classes has been a popular topic of speculation since that change.  I certainly wouldn't mind it being done, although it's not like we lack for options in the game as is.   Where I'll disagree with others when this topic is broached is in the right way to make it happen.  As I see it, there are a few principles to consider in any proposed changes to the classes:
  1. Does it fit with the lore/theme/flavor of the class?
  2. Does it require changing the mechanics of the class?
  3. Does it require changes to any other game features?
  4. Does it fill a niche, or conflict with existing archetypes?
  5. Is it intuitive to new and/or existing players?
To my mind, most of the ideas floated for new specs clash with at least one of the questions above. Some simply don't fit thematically, either in WoW or with classic fantasy tropes. Others would mandate adding a lot of new abilities to the classes, to the point that the classes might not be recognizable for it. Asking for certain pieces of gear to have more demand is fine, but generating unheard of themes for the classes is the wrong solution.

I won't say some of these ideas would never be introduced, or that it would be impossible to change the game to make these things possible, but their implementation would be significantly more complicated than many people realize.

All the same, some of these ideas aren't without merit. I'd like to address most of the most popular suggestions for new class specs. You might want to get comfy.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Community Blog Topic: The re-retaking of Gnomeregan

I still have a lot I want to say about my D&D campaign, but that series has settled comfortably on the back-burner for now. I've decided it's going to be easier to write about it after it's actually finished, and we'll (hopefully) cross the finish line in September. In the meantime, another communal topic has captured my attention.

The various factions and peoples of Warcraft have had some very interesting and well-told stories. However, some groups are more prominent than others. For example, the orcs and trolls are currently in the midst of a civil war, the completion of which will be the dominant story for the conclusion of the current expansion. Other factions have faded into the background, with little said about their activities for quite some time, at least in-game. The draenei are a frequent example, who practically vanished after the Burning Crusade completed, as are the goblins, who landed on the shores of Orgrimmar only to have their faction leaders vanish into thin air. Players want to see these stories continue, particularly if they play one of these characters and have a vested interest in the outcome.

As for me, I feel there is one race that has received the short end of the stick more than any other. For this faction, Blizzard has truly given their story short-shrift. This short-coming is epitomized in the only real attention they've received, in-game, in the entirety of the game's lifespan so far.
Operation: Gnomeregan - An absolutely wasted opportunity of storytelling on Blizzard's part.

(See the rest below the fold)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Community Blog Topic: Is leveling (in WoW) too easy?

Once again, I'm taking up a topic introduced elsewhere.  You're welcome to read the background that prompted this question.  As I said last time, I don't write about WoW much,

Starting a character is World of Warcraft really isn't difficult.  The game holds your hand through a lot of the earliest moments of the game, and that's understandable.  Bringing in new players (i.e. customers) means having a low barrier to entry.  Leveling a character isn't restricted to the starting zones (which serve the role of a tutorial level.)  Eventually you're sent into the wider world for ~70 levels of fun and adventure.
The hardest part is making a decision.
Is leveling too easy?  I think answering this question properly requires breaking down the question into three related questions:

  1. Is leveling easy?
  2. Is leveling fun?
  3. Does leveling prepare you for the end game?

See the rest below the jump

Friday, June 07, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - Misfire

Truth be told, the current campaign is actually my second attempt to run the Mar Tesaro setting again.  The first attempt failed through no fault of its own.  Like so many games before it, real life ended up getting in the way.  After the conclusion of a prior campaign, a number of people went on hiatus to spend time with their families, and one of the interim games became the reborn Mar Tesaro campaign.  We had about four sessions or so before the remainder couldn't spare the time to play.  By the time they were ready to play again, so was the rest of the group, and it was the consensus that starting fresh would be better in the end.

The short campaign that resulted ended up having little in common with the current campaign, although a large part of that was the result of being unable to introduce the larger themes and ideas right away.  I still think what resulted is interesting enough to write about.

The two characters in the group (and I must say that running D&D 4E for two people is really complicated) were Traster Dewshining, an eladrin* swordmage who survived the transition to the new campaign, and Dertritus Grubstake, a dwarf ranger with a huge spider companion.  Dertritus didn't make the transition, and I'm rather glad.  Why?  Well, here's his inspiration:

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - The gods must be crazy

In the last installment of this series, I introduced the various factions that would be inhabiting Mar Tesaro for a new campaign.  I want to focus on the founding of the Council of the Nine, the organization of leaders from the major religions present on the island.  This group ends up becoming a major player in the campaign.  Before I can explain the Council, however, I need to talk about the first campaign.

When you run multiple campaigns out of the same setting, I imagine there's a lot of temptation to maintain a storyline for the setting.  Events from the previous campaigns become the stories and legends of the new campaigns.  PCs transition into important NPCs, historical or otherwise.  This can be satisfying for the GM because you're now telling one coherent story, which makes your setting deep and detailed.  Players, on the other hand, probably find this a bit obnoxious.  Homebrew settings can be a pain to learn already, but throwing in multiple campaigns worth of history can really complicate matters.  Add in NPCs who the GM favors, since they used to be PCs, and you can really alienate the players.

Still, the potential to tell an interesting story can make the effort worth it.  I might not have made my PCs from the first campaign part of the canon, had it not been for the actions of one elven cleric:  Amelia Lightfoot.
I'm assuming she's so happy because she just got out of her armor.  Artwork by Mario Pons.
(See the rest below.)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - Meet The Factions

When I first ran the Mar Tesaro campaign, there were a few major factions running around.  There were the three racial nations comprising the island:  Dwarf, Elf, and Human.  By the time my players showed up, the Elves were pretty much in control of everything, although with civil wars there can be significant lag time between the end of the war and various participants admitting it's over.  There was also the cult of Mordan, which played the active role of "bad guys" for the campaign.
Civil war doesn't seem quite as scary in comparison.
My goal for the return campaign was to have a much greater variety in the groups who made up the sociopolitical landscape.  I also wanted all of my players to be natives of the island, not visitors, so having a variety of factions for them to incorporate into their personal story would really help integrate the characters with the setting, as well as providing resources and contacts for the players.

Below is a list of the major factions I decided would be a part of the setting, as well as a brief description of each:

Monday, May 27, 2013

Community Blog Topic: What is wrong with WoW?

I don't think I've written about playing World of Warcraft on this blog more than once, but I'm always willing to give topics their due.  Over at WoW Insider, this week's community blog topic is about the players' complaints about the game.
Sit back, m'boy.  This is gonna take a while.
So, what is wrong with WoW?  Given the amount of time I put into the game, you wouldn't think I'd have much of anything to complain about.  Truth be told, a lot of the complaints about the game tend to be more about rose-tinted nostalgia, looking back at the game when players first fell in love with it.  Sometimes it's best to keep a project out of the hands of those who love it the most.

For my criticism of WoW to make the most sense, first I need to talk about what there is to do in WoW.  (On a side-note, none of this applies to PvP.  That game really doesn't change too dramatically.)
See the rest below the jump.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - Setting the stage

When I was dreaming up the campaign that would bring players back to Mar Tesaro, my goal was to update the setting.  While I could always just run that same story again, it wouldn't really be mine.  I wanted to keep the island, keep the key events and characters, but move time forward so that it's effectively a different place.

In order to set the stage, it probably helps to look at the state of things when the first campaign ended.
War is hell.  Unless you're playing games.  
Then war is awesome.
Mar Tesaro is an island nation with a lot of problems.  The most prominent feature of the place is a mountain that dominates the southeastern portion of the map, which is home to an overprotective nature spirit, Fiore.  Some time in the past, that spirit was locked away so that people could mine the vast deposits of gems and minerals from the mountain in a wrath-free environment.  Wars came and went as people fought over the mountain.  Eventually a lich took the throne and threatened the global balance of power.  Three nations (human, elf, and dwarf) came together to knock him off and took control of the island for themselves.  More wars came and went, this time of the internal variety.

When the first campaign started, the players were strangers to Mar Tesaro.  A civil war had just finished up, and the elves were the grand winners.  By the time the campaign had ended, the players had freed (and re-imprisoned) the lich-king Mordan (not to be confused with that other guy), released the trapped mountain spirit Fiore and restored balance to the force.  Well, most of the above.

Since I want to advance the setting several years after these events, what are the premises from that campaign?
  1. The primary economic engine for the island is now defunct. With Fiore released, it is no longer possible to mine any minerals or gems from the mountain.
  2. The military might of the island is mostly depleted.  The elven forces crushed the humans and kicked out the dwarves.  Then Mordan returned, taking a chunk out of what remained.  
Clearly, the victorious Queen Alessia has some issues on her hands.  So, what would any good leader in a fantasy setting do?  Hire adventurers.  (See the rest after the jump.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - Prologue

As I've said in previous posts, I've been running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for the last several months.  Since writing typically helps me to organize my thoughts about topics, I thought it might be worthwhile to start a series on the setting of my campaign.

Back in 2006, I'd never played a tabletop RPG.  I was introduced to Shamus Young's website via his webcomic, which lead me to his synopsis of a campaign set on the island of Mar Tesaro.    Reading his stories made me want to try the games for myself, so I went to my friends with a proposal that we play D&D.  "Sounds great!"  they said.  "What are you going to run for us?"

Instant campaign.  (Some assembly required.)

This was a pretty daunting prospect.  It wasn't just that I hadn't played an RPG before, much less run one, or that I knew almost nothing about the game itself, but the fact was that I didn't really know what to do for a story.  I certainly wasn't about to write a new setting myself, and I didn't know anything about the established D&D settings like Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk.  Mar Tesaro, however, looked perfect.  I was familiar with it, there was just enough detail available to provide for a campaign, and the story was already provided; all I had to do was plug in my players.

I've written about how that campaign went.   In retrospect, I made a lot of "new GM" mistakes. I treated Shamus's campaign too much like a script rather than a guideline.  I expected my players to interpret the clues and come to conclusions the same way Shamus's players did, and that's really just asking for trouble.  With a few notable exceptions, I basically presented Shamus's setting with only the thinnest veneer of personal touches to it.  Half the time I used his NPC dialog verbatim.  This wasn't a sophisticated effort, but everyone cuts their teeth some way or another.

In the years since that game ended, I've learned a lot about the finer points of running and playing games, both from having more experience and from listening to others tell their stories.  One question I kept asking myself, though, was how to take that Mar Tesaro campaign and do it right, make it mine, apply all the ideas and lessons I'd absorbed since the first game.

Last year, my players returned to Mar Tesaro.  This series is going to be about how I turned that beginner's effort into a mature setting and story.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Heeding the Whisper - Epilogue

This post comes about five months late.  Part of this is because working on a D&D campaign has left me rather apathetic about writing in other arenas.  A significant part of this, however, is that I was also reading Frank's dissertation, the source of the entire series, and I wanted to finish it before I wrote this addendum.  I'm not that slow of a reader, just a lazy one.

In any case, the dissertation was a real eye-opener.  It's interesting how something can transform from the original, academic document into the Bible-study style product that resulted.  Frank indicated an interest to do more with the project; I do hope he turns the dissertation into a book, it's very well written.

Looking back at the series as a whole, an interesting picture begins to emerge.  The problem we have, not just as Christians but as a society, is that we idolize work.  It becomes a locus of identity, we expect it to be meaningful and fulfilling, both financially and personally.  We extol the pursuit of passion and denigrate labor.  We spend years of our lives and accrue incredible debt in the pursuit of degrees which facilitate work.  Any efforts to change that path and pursue a new career seems daunting, enough to invoke indentity crises.  On top of this, the people who are there to offer spiritual guidance frequently have a very different view of what it means to seek a career than those in other professions; a pastor describing how and why he chose to go into ministry is going to tell a story that sounds surreal to someone explaining why they chose to become an interior decorator.

It's really no wonder to me we have a screwed up perspective on vocation.  We expect much of it, and yet treat it as an entirely separate category of life from faith.  We frequently expect God to bless it as a venture without treating it like a consecrated activity.  If this entire series could be summarized in one point, it would be that our career, our job, is supposed to be an extension of our faith.  It is a powerful vehicle for serving God and loving our neighbor.  When we forget this, we turn our vocation from a means to an end.

This is the very heart of the struggle I had in college, and I suspect many people feel the same way in that situation.  You're trying to figure out what to do with your life.  You expect the clouds to open up and a divine proclamation reveals the answer.  There's a very real fear that missing out on this will not only mean you have missed out on God's intent for you, but that you are not truly serving him as you were meant to.  How much of that thinking stems just from the way we talk about "calling?"  It completely misses the point.  It's not about what  you are doing, but why, and how.  A quote from the series, whose attribution I can't remember anymore, said, "God loves adverbs.  He doesn't care how good, but how well."  (Google tells me it might be Charles Taylor who wrote this originally.)

When this series started, I was cautious.  In the aftermath of it, I'm thirsty for more.  The entire approach helped me think about calling in ways I wish I would have ten years ago.  I'm eager to explore it further, and I can't wait to see what Frank does with the material.