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).


  1. The general idea is very inspiring. As you know I come from a Catholic education where, from my personal experience, the idea of working outside of a predetermined path of education and learning sounds almost blaspheme. If I think of some of the "educators" I met within the ACR (Associazione Cattolica Ragazzi - Catholic Youth Association), I can't come up with a single one of them who could possibly be open to think outside the book - so probably the idea of randomising a discussion would be terrifying to almost any of them! In general the idea of losing control can be scary, and definitely destabilising when your system of education is so tight. Which makes it worse when it comes to ethics and the growth of a man as a moral being. Ok, I might be losing the initial focus now...what I wanted to say that despite the idea being very interesting and inspiring, it would be extremely challenging to implement it in a system of religious education like the Catholic one - at least from my own experience. I could go on for ages on how that system could be improved of course, but I might as well start my own blog then :)

    1. Thanks, that's really interesting. I almost put a comment about Catholics and evangelicals in my initial post: with its strictures for moral theology, and interpreters of the Catholic tradition, "Catholicism" itself is perhaps more likely to be engaged with in novel and interesting ways than the scripture it supposedly looks to as the word of God.

      The free churches on the other hand vary widely, but without any denominational structure it can often be the case that specific texts are hand-picked to support whatever ideology an individual community adheres to. I think we see this on a large scale in the States; like the omnipresent evangelical scare-mongering around "THE RAPTURE" being lifted from one very vague verse, 1 Thessalonians 4:17.