31 August 2014

How To Fix Religion In Your Game

It's long been a truism that gamers dislike playing clerics.  Most clerical PCs are the result of "We have to have one of everything" / "We can't adventure without a healer!!!" mindsets.  The people who play them, for the most part, were the weary volunteers, the folk who showed up late when it came time for chargen, the ones who were bullied or browbeaten into it, the ones for whom it was Their Turn To Play The Cleric.

I think a couple factors go into this.  Some claim it's because the world is becoming atheist, but I don't buy that: certainly in America, the notion that religion is less dominant than it used to be would be farcical, and the trend from the 70s on forward -- the entire history of the hobby -- is for the United States to become more religious.  But there surely is a marked nervousness about the concept in RPG circles.

This is, in fact, nothing new. RPGs have always, generally speaking, sucked at depicting religion and faith. Part of this is the OD&D dungeon fantasy mindset, where it was important to know what level your cleric was, what nifty magical toys he had, and oh, of course, what alignment he was, but pesky things like doctrine, dogma and ritual practice were afterthoughts at best. I had more than one conversation in the Seventies with players of D&D clerics where they could rattle off all the stats and items, but were shaky on the names of their gods ... except that, of course, the anonymous gods in question were "Lawful Good!"

Beyond that, the bewildering array of deities most fantasy campaigns and settings had, combined with alignment, contributed to a bulletpoint view of religion. Sure, the Sea God's about water, uh-huh, uh-huh, and sailors worship him, uh-huh, uh-huh, and, like, dolphins are his messengers, uh-huh, uh-huh, and, well ... alright, alright, he's Lawful Good!  Okay??? Nothing about doctrine. Nothing about history. Is the clergy celibate? What does a wedding service look like? Are they in favor of slavery?

We never knew those things, and since there are twenty other gods, each with their sets of bulletpoints, we don't have any traction for what any other god is about either. Three gods, sure, we could get a handle. Thirty, and who can be bothered?

Beyond that, since there's a strong streak of distaste in some circles for any roleplay that gets in the way of tactical planning and execution, we can readily see where the conflict comes ... the more so in that cleric/paladin types in D&D and other such games are portrayed, more often than not, as humorless scolds blending the worst of medieval Catholicism and the Inquisition. Their faith never does seem to benefit the party ... the only impact it has is "Damn, we can't do X because the cleric will go into a tizzy."

There are ways to mitigate this:

* Slash the number of religions in your setting. By a lot. A half dozen is about what people can handle, at maximum.

* Develop those religions. What do they believe ... comprehensively? What are their practices? How are they trained? What does the hierarchy look like? (And please, how about we not just parrot the Roman Catholic church?) Is there any similarity in temple architecture? What's their take on icons? Do they allow group marriages? Do they trouble over marriage at all? Give the players some meat to chew, here.

* Consider that in sharp contrast to how most GMs portray a polytheistic society - as, in fact, henotheistic, where people worship only one god but ignore the others - make it a genuine pantheon. It doesn't matter if I regularly attend services of the Sea God; if my daughter's getting married, I'm going to make sacrifice to the Fertility Goddess. I might recite a rote phrase to the Fire God when firing up my hearth. I'll surely sacrifice to the War Goddess before going into battle.

* Remember the posts where I talked about mages, and that the vast majority of them are going to be researchers, academics, in service, carrying out official duties and the like, as opposed to being enchanters doing nothing but churning out goodies-on-demand for PCs?  The same thing with clerics.  Clerics should not be doing nothing but lazing on barcaloungers at their altars waiting to heal PCs.  They should be working on sermons and homilies, or in long prayers that can't be interrupted, or in the middle of holy ceremonies that won't wait, or managing their parishes, or performing pastoral duties ... or off healing their parishioners.  (Seriously, I'm much more likely to have burned healing spells on my parishioner Rolf the carpenter, who just fell off the damn roof, or on his wife, who's having a rough time giving birth, or on their teenage son, who fell into the damn hearth and got badly burned trying to get Papa's supper going, than to be hanging onto them on the off-chance adventurers wander by.)

* Turn off the god tap. Seriously, folks, faith ought not be a public utility. If you're not a worshiper of my god - or at least pay lip service thereto - my healing powers ought not work on you. If I'm a white light priest in a party of murderhobos, my powers ought not work at all. But, by contrast, if you roleplay some serious faith, perhaps the local priestess of the Fire Goddess should see that, and be more favorably inclined to you because of it. Give people some incentive to do this.

24 August 2014

Doan want no time travel, no sirree

Our-modern-selves-popped-back-in-time-or-into-fantasy-worlds is a staple of gaming.  I was once asked how I’d handle being popped back into 1915 Germany.

My answer?  Get to the United States as soon as humanly possible, where I would die a very, very rich man.

I'd start with placing bets on the outcomes of the next couple World Series (I know the Red Sox win both), parlay that into the 1916 presidential election, change my investments into war industries in time for April 1917, then bet on the 1917 and 1918 World Series (the White Sox and Red Sox win, respectively) before placing a bet on the date of the Armistice. In the meantime, I win bets on the outcome of the National Hockey Association season in 1915 (Ottawa Senators), 1916 and 1917 (Montreal Canadiens), while the Toronto Blueshirts win the first NHL season in 1918. I get the hell out of Dodge and onto a remote Vermont farm in time for the 1919 influenza pandemic, win bets on the next few presidential elections, ride RCA in the stock market until my eyeballs fall out, and cash into gold holdings in early September, 1929.  Yes, I know the Great Crash was at the end of October, but there was some yoyoing before it, and I don’t want to be caught leaning the wrong way.

[Good call, just having looked it up.  The highwater mark of the NYSE was September 3rd, and the market started declining after, and cratering on the 18th.]

I promptly shift that gold to a secure trust based out of the Bank of Montreal (which off the top of my head I know survives to the present day) by no later than the summer of 1932: I forget exactly when Roosevelt made private holdings of gold illegal, but it can’t have been long after he was elected, so getting that gold to Canada (which never banned private ownership of gold) is crucial. Off to the races.

This is all information I know off the top of my head, and that might be critical: I'm minded of how Heinlein depicted time traveler Lazarus Long, who studied assiduously the time of his far-off youth -- the Kansas City and America of the time between the end of WWI and the beginning of the Depression -- preparatory to a long visit, only to be wrongfooted when he overshot and landed in 1916 in the run up to the United States' entry into the war. 

What's that you say?  Not very heroic?  I'm supposed to hang AROUND Germany?  Adventuring?? (shudders)  Even if we were, say, Americans, and therefore from a "neutral" country, it would be difficult to pass for Americans:

* Even if we were 1910s antiquarians, we wouldn't have a smooth, natural command of then-prevalent idiom.

* Our knowledge of current events would be scanty at best - quick, without looking it up, what were the top local issues in your city and state in February 1915? Who was your governor? Did the community in which you live even exist?

* Our knowledge of pop culture would be worse; how many of us could name, let alone hum, five popular songs from the 1910s? Who were the stars of your local baseball team?  What’s playing at the local picture palace?  Fair enough, a couple of you might recall that Birth Of A Nation, the most famous film of the silent era, was released in 1915.  Can you name any other film from 1915?  (No surprise if you can’t: Birth Of A Nation outgrossed the next ten films combined, tenfold.)

* Most damning, our knowledge of current technology is scanty. Off the top of your heads - by way of example - how many of you know how to start a 1915 model automobile?

17 August 2014

"OMG I am teh OFFENDED!!!"

An occasional syndrome has come up in which someone seeks to play a historical or contemporary war scenario: WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, what have you.  Then, all of a sudden, Social Justice Warriors popsup screeching -- it's insensitive, you see, and "trivializes" the true nature of human suffering that goes on in such conflicts.  How dare people turn jihad and genocide into a game?

I note their opinion (barely) and move on.

If it sounds like I treat the notion cavalierly, yes, you'd be right; I do. There are many aspects of roleplaying that many people find distasteful for whatever reason ... heck, I've seen more than one player leave the hobby because they couldn't hack the casual and pervasive violence inherent in it.

And beyond that?  A very great deal of our popular entertainment, from books to movies to music to television, is disrespectful of societal norms of decency and fair dealing. But however much "geto rap" which glorify murdering police or beating women disgusts me, I'm not going to barge in on rap discussion boards moralizing at unsuspecting people minding their own business.

We "owe" it to the victims of the Holocaust no more to not play RPGs set in WWII than we owe it to them not to play Axis & Allies, War in the Pacific or any other wargame that purportedly "trivializes" their suffering. What indeed trivializes them is the notion that a handful of people sitting around a table with dice could somehow detract from what happened to them.

In one such debate, a poster flung at me the hypothetical of a campaign with SS Totenkampf PCs.   Would I support that?  Huh?  Huh?

Surprise, said I. If someone did want to play in an SS game, I was neither prepared to commit mayhem to stop them or to screech at their inhumanity.  There is an entire GAME system out there, one of the most popular there has ever been, in which PCs as a condition of survival feed on human beings. Gamers have been portraying torturers, cannibals, babykillers, rapists, death cultists, assassins, and monsters of every hue and description for the entirety of the history of RPGs. Somehow the world continues to turn, and I don't know of any gamers who march to protest Vampire games.  (Hell, show of hands: how many of you reading this could even count within a hundred how many sentient NPCs your PCs have killed in the course of your gaming career?  Your average long-term gamer's whacked out more people than Genghis Khan ever did.)

And, indeed, how many would pull this for other historical milieus? If someone was starting up a Scarlet Pimpernel game, would anyone imply they were monsters for trivializing the real human suffering and wanton butchery of an era that bequeathed the word "terrorist" to our language? Probably not ... but then again, that was ever so much longer ago, and the inhumanity to man has passed its sell-by date.

Anyway, a lot of gamers claim to feel such issues, deeply. This is another part of this syndrome that really bugs me ... that based on glancing at a headline or two or seeing a 15 second clip on the news -- and let's not pretend; that's about as much as 90% of gamers ever see -- people can claim to have some manner of "emotional connection" to a matter that "touches their lives."

Nonsense. That's on a par with claiming that having seen Bambi as a child gives one a deep understanding of hunting for game and all of its attendant issues.

Now, yes,: someone seeing a 15 second film clip of horror and war does have an emotional reaction. But it's shallow. The requisite "Oh, how awful!" and "Oh, someone should do something!" comes out, then the TV shifts to a commercial, followed by the weather and a clip on the giant pumpkin a local farmer grew, and man's inhumanity to man gets lost in the shuffle of ordering a pizza and settling down to watch the Bruins-Senators game. If that person gives Somalia another thought before the next news clip or headline, I would be very surprised indeed.

That, to me, is the really disrespectful bit, when the agony and violence of a region that's been suffering for decades is turned into a soundbite.

10 August 2014

Scenarios They HATED

Every now and then it suits to put your PCs, if it can be managed, into a visceral hissing rage.

By way of example:

Champions campaign. The good guys are confronting the Big Bad in a hostage situation. Megaton is a known psycho and serial killer, and his particular power is an enormous point blank eruption of energy; Human Bomb-like, if you will. He has this sweet little blonde seven year old girl securely under his hand.

Anyway, the PCs negotiate to save the girl and the other hostages, and Megaton lets them go, finally starting to shove the little girl at them, saying "And here, you can have her too ..."

*** BOOM ***

... and Megaton vaporizes the tyke's head, the gushing torso stump flailing towards the party, splattering their costumes with gore. He's smiling like a Cheshire Cat as he finishes his sentence "... what's left of her. I recommend cutting her up for bouillon." * POOF * Big Bad teleports out.

The press and police are freaking out, the other kids are screaming, the girl's mother is howling ... and the players are all hissing, out loud, their faces contorted with fury.

The old ultraviolence, if used rarely and judiciously, sure packs a wallop.


Next General Player Hissing moment.

Here I had, for lack of a better term, an all-evil group; not just an edgy one, plain old full of predators. An old player was free on the all-evil night and wanted to come back to the campaign ... playing her old goody-two-shoes elven minstrel. So I thought about it some, and here's what I came up with: the elf's sister is a wild psi talent, was kidnapped, and ranged Laurelin from about a thousand miles away with a psychic "Helphelphelp!" Laurelin hires the blackguards to help.

Anyway, they follow the trail to a small time slaver in a port town, a genial old duffer who admits to buying Lindel from a kidnap ring, then reselling her to a caravan trader headed into the barbarian outback. Only then with a few mugs in him he cheerfully said how he'd never had himself an elf virgin before, recounted in obscene detail about the many times he and his men had raped her before selling her off, and finished up with ruminating about how she was probably the sex toy for the entire barbarian tribe by now. Hey, didja hear dat them Wolf Tribe warriors are built as long as me forearm? 'Tis true, mates, I seen 'em meself!

Now having issues about rape in RPGs, I had never in any of the players' memories (nor, indeed, in the dozen years I'd GMed up to that point) thrown it in as an explicit element. Well, they were doing the hissing thing, and Laura herself was a fine shade of purple. They kidnapped the slaver later on that night, and for about 45 minutes of game time tortured the hell out of the fellow, leaving the still-living husk on the wharfside for his friends to find in the morning.

They seemed well satisfied in their retribution, and more was to come ...

03 August 2014

Need a quick scenario? Stuff You Can Use

One of my weapons is a magnificent book: the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Now I'm a folklorist generally, which is why I got the book, but I realized that it's a terrific tool for gaming. Alright, let me open the book to a random page, five times. I'm going to take the first motif listed on the second page revealed:

* Egg curing. This is a folk medicine technique wherein an uncooked egg is rubbed over the patient's naked body. If used to dissipate fever or evil curses, the malady is supposedly sucked into the egg, and it's then buried in a stream.  (I'd wager that it'd be bad to cook the egg and eat it.  Something might be made of that.)  If used for diagnostic purposes, the egg is split open and examined by a haruspex.

* Moonstone. An examination of the folkloric properties of moonstone; its divinatory properties, that in some cultures it brings good luck, that in others it brings terrible luck if it isn't your birthstone.

* Soul-bird. A bird born in the forest at the same moment an infant is born, and the fate of the one depends on the fate of the other.

* Lauma. The New Guinean belief that a soul leaves a man at death and has an independent existence thereafter, something that can also happen temporarily, causing illness in the living person.

* Eagle dance. An Indian dance mimicking an eagle's flight, often associated with weather or battle magic.

There. Anyone who can't whip up an evocative scenario incorporating all of those elements isn't trying hard.

(The book's out of print, but you can find it in abundance on Amazon for as low as $8.  That's less than you'd pay for a hamburger at a restaurant these days.  Heck, you can even find the 1949 edition for sale.)