role playing games

The ever-reliable Cambridge Evening News reveals that dark forces are gathering in Cambridge: “Magus Lynius Shadee, self-named King of All Witches, has announced he will open in the city centre by December 24” (I don’t know what it means for a magus to “open in the city centre”, but I’m not sure I want to stick around to find out). Local church leaders aren’t too pleased about this, and warn of bad juju.

This set me thinking about the time the vicar at my former church told us that educated Cambridge Christians hadn’t taken the stuff in the Bible about demons seriously enough. Basic theism is all very well at first, but inevitably you move on to the harder stuff. Initially, you’re all “everything that begins to exist has a cause” but before long you start thinking that the Resurrection is pretty good evidence for Christian theism (after all, as the Christian sort of God exists, it’s likely that he would raise Jesus from the dead, therefore the Resurrection is not terribly unlikely; therefore, given the New Testament evidence, the Resurrection happened; therefore the Christian sort of God exists).

Tragically, for some people even that’s not enough. Not satisfied with a Trinity, they crave other supernatural beings. From there, it’s a slippery slope to “I had doubts about the validity of that Resurrection argument / fancied that boy/girl/sheep / had a bit of a funny turn late at night: SATAN DUNNIT!”

When I was a lad, the school Christian Union leaders told us Dungeons and Dragons was a doorway to danger, a gateway into Satanism. I’d like to suggest that Christianity is a gateway to Dungeons and Dragons. This isn’t a completely new idea: arkannath suggested it in the comments of one of my old posts, which you might also enjoy.

Father David Paul’s (Cleric level 1, patron: Papem, god of guilt about sex) warning that “People who go to these things often end up with mental problems” is best read as a caution to people with poor Will Saves. Rev Ian Church is clearly some sort of adventuring cleric (level 3, patron: Jeebus, god of circular arguments) on a quest to put a stop to Shadee (Wizard level 5, necromancer). Our hero has tracked the villian to his underground lair, wherein “there were several ritual and seance rooms and what really struck us was the intense and extreme cold in the rooms”. Church (by the way, am I alone in thinking that naming your cleric “Church” is only one step up from calling your characters “Bob’s fighter 1”, “Bob’s figher 2”, and so on? Not sure what the DM was thinking with “Shadee”, either) neglects to mention how he turned several undead and avoided some tricky pit traps while he was down there, but we can assume he’s just being modest. There were plenty of XP given out that day, I can tell you. Still, it looks like Shadee escaped, and now the campaign is coming to the streets of Cambridge. The local peasants are pretty excited by the prospect.

The Thursday crew were down a couple of people, so we decided it’d be a good time to run a one-off of Dogs in the Vineyard (mentioned previously here).

The Dogs are young men and women sent to the frontier towns established by the Faith (which isn’t quite Mormonism), to bring practical and spiritual help to the community. Sometimes it’s the sort of help that comes from the barrel of a gun. After the basic character generation stuff, the game starts with each player saying what they hoped their character accomplished in training, leading to a conflict where the GM takes one side and the player the other, and the character gains another character trait as a result. All the conflicts in the game are like poker matches with dice, with each side having a pool of dice for raising and seeing.

Dramatis Personae

Brother Jeb, played by Tom who jacquic knows: ex-thief who converted to the Faith. At 30, he’s a bit older than the other Dogs, who are in their late teens/early 20s. Jeb hopes he can beat a demon. He wakes up in the middle of the night having sleep-walked into the storeroom of the Doghouse, mysteriously left unlocked. Whispers in his head are tempting him to steal the valuables in the storeroom but he spots something like a shadow in the corner and throws some sacred earth (which is also in the storeroom) at it. Brother Jeb got a trait of “I exorcised a demon”.

Brother Isaac, played by Rob who is not robhu: child of converts, very strictly brought up on an isolated farm, tends to see things in black and white. Hopes he can learn something about the real world. As suggested in the rules, Rob played Brother Isaac before the change his player wanted, and scribb1e played the thing trying to make him change. Isaac follows a thief who steals fruit from a stall in Bridal Falls (which isn’t quite Salt Lake City) and finds he’s taken it to his home to feed his starving family. Great raises and sees: Isaac: “You should have gone to the Faith for help”, Thief: “You’re the Faith, you help” (what the rules call Reversing the Blow). scribb1e ran out of dice and Isaac’s player narrated how Isaac makes the man take the stuff back and then Isaac buys him food instead. At Tom’s suggestion, Isaac got a trait of “There’s always a perfectly reasonable solution”.

Brother Ezra, played by me: 3rd generation Faithful, brought up on a big farm with brothers and sisters all over the place. Overcompensates to get attention. Ezra already had “I was top in Sunday school” as trait, so I decided Ezra shoots scripture from the hip and thinks that can solve anything. I wanted him to learn some humility. The conflict played out in the Faith’s hospital, where he tried not very successfully to comfort a dying girl with words from the Book of Life. She died, and he got “I can’t do everything by myself”. He took quite a lot of fallout, which lead to a relationship to the dead girl, and a bump to his “Heart” stat.

The town, played by scribb1e, was the rule book’s Tower Creek example with the names filed off as scribb1e knew I’d read the rule book. Tower Creek is recommended for new players as it’s hairy: it goes all the way to hate and murder in the Something’s Wrong progression, stopping off for some adultery and false priesthood along the way. In our version, it was called Dove Hill. Brother Ezra has a great aunt there, Sister Polly, and Brother Isaac has a cousin, Celestina.

Dove Hill

<lj-cut text=”Cut for demons, miscarriage, adultery, and mayhem”>The Dogs ride in to Dove Hill and end up at the Steward’s place. He’s asking for a blessing on his wife, who can’t conceive. The players think he’s talking about Sister Eleanor, who’s with him, but it turns out he’s also married to Sister Celestina, and she’s the one who can’t have kids. The Steward has 3 daughters by Eleanor who are married off, but hopes for a son to run the farm. The Faith allows polygamy (but not polyandry) but Eleanor doesn’t approve: Celestina is an interloper and young and pretty to boot.

Ezra and Isaac go with Eleanor to the local creek and find Celestina. They split up to have private conversations with each woman. Eleanor tries to persuade Ezra that Celestina should be made to divorce the Steward: the lack of children shows the King of Life doesn’t favour the marriage. There’s a conflict but Ezra knows that the Book of Life says the King of Life hates divorce, and he wins easily.

Isaac talks to his cousin. Celestina says that Eleanor won’t leave her and the Steward alone together, which makes the whole conceiving thing a bit tricky.

Back at the Steward’s place, before the Dogs can get into this, there’s a knock on the door. Sister Maria wants something, and holds a whisphered conversation with the Steward. “You can’t ask them to do that, it’s wrong”, he exclaims. “That” turns out to be naming Maria’s baby. Fine: it’s one of the duties of a Dog. The only problem is the baby is dead. Stillborn, and buried in a pathetically small grave near the meeting house. The players hew pretty closely to the Mormon idea of baptism for the dead, even though the rules allow them to make up the Faith as they go along. There’s no conflict as all the Dogs decide they’ll perform the naming ceremony over the grave, and do so post haste. Ezra decides to name the baby Grace. Maria sings “Amazing Grace”, and it’s kind of poignant.

On the way back, the Dogs meet Brother Nathan, the local lawman. He wants them to carry out a wedding. Fine: it’s one of the duties. But he actually wants them to confirm a wedding that Sister Polly carried out, between him and Sister Celestina. Turns out Nathan and Celestina were having an affair, and Polly got it into her head that the best way to deal with it was to marry them: after all, a man can have two wives, so why can’t a woman have two husbands? Ezra and Isaac win a conflict with Nathan on whether they’ll promise to do the wedding.

Meanwhile, Jeb wanders away from the lawman for some reason, and finds Polly’s house. She admits to the wedding, but says she was just trying to do the right thing. She tries to persuade Jeb to leave town as nothing good can come of the Dogs’ presence, but loses the conflict: Dogs have a duty to sort this stuff out.

The Dogs sleep in the Steward’s haybarn. Jeb is awoken by the feeling he got when the demons attacked him in the storeroom. He tracks it past the Steward’s house and thinks it’s gone to Polly’s place. The conflict here was odd: the stakes were “Do I track the demon?”, but scribb1e and Tom weren’t too sure how to raise and see in this metaphysical conflict. scribb1e gave away more of the location each time she had to block, which seemed wrong: if she’d taken the blow or Jeb had reversed it, maybe. Anyhoo, Jeb came back for the other Dogs. It was morning by now, and they all rushed over to Aunt Polly’s.

Jeb continued to experience the Reek of Wrongness about the place, but the other Dogs sense nothing, and just see an old lady in her nightgown. Maybe she’s in danger. They rush inside. It’s a one room house with no visible demons. Hmmm… Jeb asks Polly to hold his Book of Life for him, but she demurs. Uh oh. We kick off a conflict with stakes of “Do we find out what’s going on?”, which escalates suddenly when Polly becomes possessed and starts flinging kitchen knives. At this point, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, and we decide we’ve probably got the stakes wrong. scribb1e reckons she should have just narrated us finding out Polly’s a sorceror and then let us decide what to do as a conflict. As it was, when Jeb accused Polly of invoking the demons to try to help Celestina, scribb1e gave way: we’d worked out what was going on.

We were running out of time and didn’t want to start a follow on conflict. Jeb’s all in favour of shooting Polly, but Ezra’s reluctant to shoot his old aunt, even if she’s been summoning demons which, rather then helping Celestina get pregnant, have been causing miscarriages and stillbirths. Just for fun, Ezra’s the only one with a sidearm (the other two have long rifles which are back in the barn) so there could even have been some conflict between the Dogs.

We’d decided Nathan can’t marry Celestina because it’d be condoning adultery, and their marriage was invalid in any case, because Polly’s a false priest. scribb1e reckoned Nathan might try to leave the Faith and take Celestina with him, but we never played that out.

In the end, we had to stop as it had gone midnight, but alas, the juicy conflicts were still to be played out. lumpley recommends against spending too much time with everything shrouded in mystery: the fun in Dogs is resolving the impossible situations, not in working out who’s sinning against whom. I don’t think scribb1e did too much of the mystery stuff, but we did spent a while resolving the initial conflicts where everyone in town wants to persuade the Dogs to back their side.

I think another hour would have enabled us to sort the sinners out to our satisfaction, and that more practice at the game would have enabled us to sort out stakes for conflicts better. We spent some time sorting out how the rules worked, too. The co-operative story telling was interesting. scribb1e said that GMing it felt not too dissimilar to being a player, and indeed it was Tom (in his initiatiory conflict) who turned the supernatural dial up from demons as bad luck to demons having some visible presence, albeit as shadows where none should be. I enjoyed it and liked the poker raise/see mechanic for conflicts, even if it wasn’t clear how to use it for conflicts which weren’t with a particular person. Would play again.

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

I recently happened across lumpley‘s Mormon gunslingers game Dogs in the Vineyard. This description from the author and this review give a flavour of the thing, and some details of the poker-like conflict resolution rules. It looks fun, very different from the mechanics-heavy stuff (D&D and friends) and focused on helping the group create a compelling story by pitching the characters into conflicts with no easy answers. Playing the eponymous dogs, you’re in a game world where the religion really is true and your job is to defend it, bringing the towns you visit back onto the straight and narrow, using words, ritual and, when all else fails, a six-shooter.

scribb1e found a bunch of alternate settings for it, all based on the playing characters sworn to defend an ideology the players probably disagree with. My favourite is Fashion Experts on a Reality TV Show, mainly for the fashion version of the game’s “Something’s wrong”, X leads to Y progression.

Following scribb1e‘s further suggestion that there should be a CICCU version, I’ve come up with Staff Workers in the UCCF, in which our intrepid players are running characters who are the paid staff sent to help university Christian Unions. In the game, they’d deal with CUs who’ve strayed from the Doctrinal Basis, so the equivalent to a town in Dogs is a university CU (or possibly a college CU in the Reps in the CICCU variant). The Desert People are the liberal Christians, maybe the SCM (they might also be the other religions evangelising on campus, if there are any). Actually, it might make sense for the Desert People to be Fusion and the SCM represent the corrupt religion of the Territorial Authority, I suppose.

I’ve not quite worked out what the CU equivalent of shooting someone is, any ideas?

Here’s the Something’s Wrong progression:

Pride (manifests as self-righteousness)
-leads to->
Sin (manifests as demons outside, e.g. the Student Union refuses to let you book rooms, the student newspaper writes nasty things about you)
-leads to->
False Doctrine (manifests as corrupt religious practices and heresy, e.g. charismatic stuff like speaking in tongues and falling over; rejection of Biblical inerrancy; rejection of penal substitutionary atonement; acceptance of homosexuality)
-leads to->
False Priesthood (manifests as demons inside, like like CU members going out with non-Christians, sleeping with their boy/girlfriends (esp. if they’re the same sex, obviously), getting drunk)
-leads to->
Hate (manifests as apostasy (defection to Fusion, the SCM or to atheism), schism)

I probably will pay up for the PDF of the Dogs rules, so I’ll have to see how far I can go with this, but it might actually be a fun variant of the game.

AD&D is 30! Rejoice and be glad. Slashdotters’ comments on the story predictably revolve around how little sex AD&D players (or other geeks) get. This is reverse psychology applied to the universe at large: if the Slashdotters make enough jokes about it, the universe will feel compelled to prove them wrong. Or so they hope.

Among the votive offerings to an uncaring universe, there appeared RPG player staples like Eric and the Dread Gazebo and The Dead Alewives sketch. I’d like to add The Lord of the Rings: The RPG to the list.

Darque Dungeon (spot the LJ Goth references) is a parody of Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons, a Chick strip in which the best part is Mike praying for her… That’s Christian for “I’d like to be buried with you [shurely “in you” – Ed.]. Up to the balls”. It’s funny, because you know it’s true.

While we’re on Chick, it seems he lawyered the original site of Cthulhu Chick, a parody of Chick’s The Choice. Luckily, Eric S Raymond has a copy. Chick vs ESR! Fetch the popcorn. Fetch the precedents cited by Brad Templeton. And remember: ESR has guns. Lots of guns.