Thursday, 21 June 2012

Random Tables and Study Groups

In my last post, I talked a bit about how relinquishing a degree of control over something (a game, a relationship, your life-in-general) can be a liberating, and transformational, experience – opening up new depths and nuances which were not otherwise possible. Old-school roleplayers are already well aware of this: noisms’ excellent multi-table system for village generation in his Yoon-Suin campaign is one recent example of the creative impetus randomness brings. Lifted from my comment on the above blog post is the village I generated using a handful of dice rolls, and what happened when I was left to fill in the blanks:

[Village Name] is a tiny village consisting of 17 people -including a headman, a priest, and an expert guide - which despite its minute size manages to maintain 5 buildings; 3 houses, 1 shrine, and 1 hall. The hall sits at the centre of fields of rice paddies, with each of the other 4 buildings occupying a corner of the village territory.

Passers-by often speculate on how such a tiny community manages to support itself - a question which is doubly vexing if one walks attentively through the rice paddies, for most of them lie either fallow or rotten, or are otherwise unproductive. The secret lies under the village's shrine, which is actually nothing more than a cover for a small underground farm of opium poppies. The village's priest is no holy man... although those who partake of his "ritual drink" may soon come to perceive him as having divine power. Most of the current residents of the village are not natives, but travellers who became hooked on the local brew, and serve their narcotic god by acting as guards, couriers, and toughs as needed.

The village sits in the shadow of two huge iron statues, crudely humanoid in appearance. Legend tells that the statues, ancient guardians of the once-prosperous territory, will animate and spring into action if they are told that the community's honour is in danger (which it most certainly is): how one is to communicate this to a deaf and dumb statue is a whole other matter.

Yeah, it’s not going to win me a Hugo Award, but it took ten minutes tops and I ended up with a perfectly serviceable village, providing at least two ready-to-rock adventure hooks. So, what about applying the transformative potential of randomness elsewhere in life? To study groups, for example?

Bible study groups are a helpful example for me not only because it’s material I know pretty well, but because you’re usually only dealing with relatively short excerpts. Thing is, within a given denomination – I’m Methodist – there are “favourite” texts and, as you might expect, favoured ways of relating to those texts. Take John 15:1-9, a very popular text, for fairly obvious reasons – the vine and the branches are nice, picturesque, pastoral, and familial images, conducive to saying all sorts of nice theological and ethical things about how we should try and get on as a community. Lovely. But the end result can be stultifying, because if you go to a Methodist (or Anglican, probably) service where John 15:1-9 is one of the readings, you are guaranteed to hear a sermon about the church as a community. Absolutely, 100%, guaranteed.

Pictured: a whole other kind of vine. "I am the vine; you are totally screwed."

So, in the interests of encouraging students to think for themselves about what texts mean – or don’t mean, or aren’t relevant for – here’s the beginning of a couple of interlinked tables for running bible study groups, to be extended at some future point. The idea would be that one or two students would roll up a bible text and an issue, and the two would be discussed in concert. FYI, there’s no real theme or context in mind for why I’ve chosen these texts in particular – they’re either texts that personally interest me, or that sum up a larger theme that runs through the books.

Bible text (roll d8)
1 – Genesis 1
2 – Genesis 9
3 – Isaiah 11
4 – Job 38
5 – Mark 4
6 – John 15
7 – Acts 2
8 – Romans 14

Ethical “hot topic” (roll d8)
1 – Immigration
2 – War and peace (or just war/pacifism; or something more specific, like – “is it cool to use robots to blow up people on the other side of the world?”)
3 – Fossil fuels/green energy (i.e. environmental issues)
4 – Animal testing
5 – Vegetarianism/veganism
6 – Same-sex marriage (I would like to take this opportunity to stress to American readers that not all religious folk are unthinkingly homophobic)
7 – Gender equality (or lack thereof)
8 – Citizens and government (what is our responsibility to the state; is it cool to break or ignore and unjust law; and so on)

Of course, a table of ethical hot topics doesn’t need to be related to any other particular book or ideology: you could switch out the bible texts for a table of Lovecraft stories, for example. What does At the Mountains of Madness have to tell us about same-sex marriage? Hmmm, okay, maybe you’d need to be a bit more selective than that; but the potential is undeniably there.

I also have in mind a table comprised of the shorter essays of Michel de Montaigne, to be used for a seminar group for undergraduate students. At the end of one seminar, someone would roll twice on the table: before the next seminar everyone would read both selected essays, and then come along ready to discuss the themes, commonalities and contradictions therein. If I get around to writing up the table, I’ll post it here – on the off-chance anyone wanted to do it themselves, you’d do alright just using the contents page of any edition of The Essays, ignoring results of “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” (thing is like 150 pages long, that’s not an essay in anyone’s book).

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

What D&D Character Are You?

Someone linked this on their blog - I forget who, sorry about that. I thought I'd take it, because procrastination is a fickle and many-sided thing which we must grasp, and savour, when possible.

Yeah, turns out that

I Am A: Lawful Good Human Cleric (3rd Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.
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Credit where credit's due, they got me there - even my "unusual hairstyle, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like." Although my physical ability scores suggest I might have been a tad optimistic while answering their questions... and my Wisdom score means that, in Type III onwards, I'm actually a pretty damn ineffectual cleric.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Living Out Of Control: Stanley Hauerwas and Random Tables

Stanley Hauerwas is, as much as theologians ever are, famous. He’s written a lot about what the church should be as a community – and just as much about how consistently Christians have fallen short of the ideal – as well as on a whole host of ethical questions, from euthanasia to vegetarianism. On top of that, he’s a genuinely nice bloke, who – despite having no idea who I am – has courteously put up with my questions on the two occasions I’ve had a chance to speak with him.

Anyway, point is, a fairly common refrain of Stan’s is that modern culture – particularly modern American culture, with its creation myth of freedom and opportunity for all – puts far too heavy an emphasis on material achievement and, resultantly, on the need to be in control. The church – at least, most churches – has been just as guilty of this as other institutions; more so in some cases, less so in others. Hauerwas suggests that, rather than worrying about power, prestige, resources, and so on, we should worry more about living a good life; accepting in doing so that the results might not be most conducive to “getting ahead in the world.” (N. B. Anyone who’s done any philosophical study will recognise this as an ontological – and arguably teleological – ethic.)

It strikes me that a lot of the discussion between the OSR and players of Type IV D&D could be shoehorned into this meta-discussion about being “in control” or “out of control.” It’s not so clear-cut as that, and there are obviously degrees of variance within the respective communities, but broadly speaking I’d go so far as to say that the OSR’s love for player-led gaming and random tables suggests they’re a lot more comfortable with living out of control than Type IV players, with their meticulously balanced characters and carefully designed and rationed combat encounters. For the moment, I’m leaving Type III D&D out: in general, I think it goes with Type IV in this example, but (as later posts will reveal) the campaign I run is actually a stripped-down hack of D&D 3.x. What can I say: my first D&D experience was with 3.0, and although I’ve since learned a huge amount about gaming and DM’ing from the OSR community, I feel bound to stay faithful to ascending AC. I’m sure if I was the same age as my favourite bloggers – Jeff Rients, for example – I’d feel differently. What we experience in our lives and what we believe are, after all, intimately intertwined (I use “we” in the general sense, I’m not intimately intertwined with Jeff at present).

Which brings me to the reason I started this rambling post: random tables. It’s pretty well-established, at least among the old-school D&D community, that random tables are not hindrance but a major aid to a DM’s creativity. Why is this, though? After all, even on a d% table you’re looking at 100 options: your brain, wonderful lump of sinew that it is, can surely do better than that.

Well, probably not, no – not unless you’re another Borges, or perhaps the writer of a medieval bestiary. The thing is, just as much as your beliefs influence your actions (another Hauerwasian refrain being that we shouldn’t ask what to do, but rather who to be), your experiences shape your beliefs. (One thing I’d like to return to, in a more philosophy-heavy post, is what this means in relation to ideas about free will and autonomy: if you’re shaped by your experiences, can you really be said to be 100% “free”?) This is as true for creative activities like DM’ing as it is for one’s morality, ideology, spirituality, and so on. It’s no accident that the vast majority of fantasy literature is at most one step removed from Tolkien fan fiction: your experiences, including what you read, shape your creativity in ways which can be inspirational, but are just as often limiting.

Random tables, like this one or this one, are tools that help break free from these limitations, without restricting the helpful part of your own creativity. Make your roll(s) and you’ve got a loose outline for something to go into your campaign: but why, who, how, where, when and what that thing is doing in your campaign world in the first place is still up to you. Your prior experiences – particularly those experiences of gameplay in the campaign – work in harmony with the randomly-generated hook. Living out of control can be a liberating experience, with unexpected and energising results: in this case, the liberation is from one’s own creative limitations. Result! Plus, rolling dice is fun: I have a soft spot for this guy because the d12 doesn’t get anywhere near enough love.

In the next post, I’m going to continue this theme with a move which might well alienate half the people I want to talk to (although hopefully not): writing a set of random tables to help in running bible study groups! Alright, calm down; I warned you this was going to be a thrill ride.

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AC – Armour Class. This determines how hard you are to hit. In earlier editions of the game, a lower number is generally better; in newer editions, a higher number is what you want.
d%, d12 – D&D uses a lot of funny shaped dice: the standard notation is a “d” followed by the number of sides the dice has. Most common are the d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d% (i.e. d100).
Types III and IV, 3.x, 3.0 – different editions of D&D, and different ways of referring to them.

Beasts and Saints and Funny Shaped Dice

This post, in a fairly haphazard fashion, marks the beginning of what will probably prove to be a semi-regular blog concerned with the most important things in my life: my faith, my work... and Dungeons & Dragons. The intersection between theology and faith on the one hand, and a game which was virulently protested by the evangelical Christian right on the other, is a whole fascinating topic in itself; but one I’ll leave for another day. (The occasional religious antagonism – for want of a better term – on some D&D blogs is another thing I’d like to talk about; not to criticise them, more to help me understand.)

Seeing as I’m due to start a new job as a university chaplain, and am in the process of finishing a PhD in Theology and Ethics, my faith and my work are pretty closely intertwined right now. But what about D&D? I plan to talk in more detail in future posts about my own playing experiences, the campaign world I’m currently DM’ing in, and the group I DM for (which, probably unusually for a group DM’ed by a Methodist theologian, is made up of six atheist and agnostic chemists). I love D&D as a game – as escapism, competition, communal story-telling, and what have you – but I also love thinking about the various ideologies and worldviews which have contributed to the game over the years, and which bring their own interpretations to the game today. (For example, I’m planning on writing something about exegeting someone’s political beliefs from how they interpret D&D’s (in)famous Law-Chaos/Good-Evil alignment system).

Anyway, that’s enough preamble, and more than enough flame-bait. Next up: the first post proper, where talk briefly about the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and try to relate it to the OSR’s* laudable love for random tables. I know, right?

P.S. The blog title, “Beasts and Saints,” comes from the name of a lovely little collection of myths about the early Christian monks – known as the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) – and the supernatural relationships they were said to enjoy with all sorts of wild animals and strange desert creatures. The idea of a small group of people, wandering into the wilderness to confront whatever awaits them there, is very D&D, I think – even if they’re journeying for reasons more to do with spirituality, and less to do with making money, than your average PC.

*For readers who might not be familiar with D&D, I’ll be adding explanations of any new acronyms at the end of my posts here. For example:

D&D – come on, seriously?
DM – Dungeon Master. The person who acts as referee for the game. Might also be referred to as GM (Game Master), or some variant thereof if you’re playing a D&D hack which needs to demonstrate how very different it is to D&D.
OSR – Old School Renaissance/Revival/Rules/Rwhatever you like, really