N is for Names

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In the world of roleplaying games, knowing someone’s name can potentially grant you power over them. Knowing someone’s True Name, as in the name that touches on their inmost being and personal identity, can grant you immense control over them. Names are a powerful component of our connection to a character we portray in a game. I spend an immense amount of time stressing over character names in games I play, even though I do tend to lean on a few favorite stand buys (I’m looking at you: Ugarth and Joryn).

Names communicate something deep about identity and about purpose. Whether as simple as adamah the man made of red earth always to be reminded of his origins in the base substances of the earth, or as transformative as abraam becoming abraham implying that the promise that he will become the father of nations, names carry a weight. There are numerous stories throughout the Old Testament that speak to the meaning and power behind names. Joseph, my own namesake’s, name means “God-will-prosper,” which is a huge part of his story. The names attributed to God hold special meaning as well. So many of those names speak to who He is or something about His character. In the New Testament, this use of names continues.

“‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:15-20 NIV)

The disciple Peter was originally named Simon (there are actually two Simons in his group of followers, the other one was a Zealot, just wait for letter Z,) and the name was fairly common place. It literally means, “he-has-heard,” which is a perfectly fine name. Jesus says, “you are Peter.” He essentially gives Simon the nickname Petros (the Greek name used here) which literally means Rocky. There is a nice little double meaning behind His words here as Jesus calls Simon a rock while also acknowledging His confession about Jesus as the bedrock foundation of belief in Him. Peter isn’t always known as being he most firm foundation kind of guy, or even being all that stable, but his new name is calling something new out of him. It’s a statement of something he hasn’t yet realized in himself and it’s pretty beautiful that he is called to step in to it.

When you use names on your game, are they simply labels to take the place of your pronouns in a sentence or are you evoking something on a deeper level? There is ripe potential within the names that exist in the games we play that allow us to engage on a deeper level and communicate something subtle, even if only to ourselves. It can be a call to live up to, a vision of what could be, or even a statement of intent in the direction you want to go. So why not give a little attention and put the extra effort into the character name you choose next time?


M is for Moses

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One of the most prominent and influential figures of the Israelite people is Moses. Bringer of the law, leader of the Exodus and first of the prophets, Moses is more than a big deal to the Jewish people. His work is defining to the people and he is even one who argued with God to save his people while they were wandering the wilderness. What is less apparent about Moses is that though he was an incredible orator and a powerful leader who is well known for his Heston depicted miracles, he was also a reluctant champion and may have had a speech disorder.

“Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’ But Moses said, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.’ (Exodus 4:10-13 NIV)

The language Moses uses to describe his speech is often debated as to what exactly he means by slow of speech and tongue. Some have argued that the phrase was culturally associated with a speech impediment of some kind. It is interesting that one who becomes so well known for his oratory would have such a blatant weakness. Good characters have weaknesses. In the overcoming of the conflict in their own lives, we see growth and something greater than ourselves. The apostle Paul in the New Testament comments in how he boasts of his own weakness because in his weakness, God is made stronger in His ability to do what Paul cannot. Moses, with his lack of speaking ability, becomes the greatest figure and leader of the early Jewish people and through his oratory brings the law of God to the world. So think about what weakness define your characters, whether an NPC or a playable character. There is something within weakness that can highlight a unique attribute or give direction as to how you need to rise above in order to prevail. It’s a fascinating opportunity.


L is for Leviathan

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There are a great many similarities in the stories of the world’s beginning between ancient cultures. There are elements that pop up consistently between these accounts, one of which is the prevalence of chaos and water in the time before the world’s forming. In the epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient Mesopotamian stories, the chaos of water was accompanied by a nasty water beast named Tiamat, god of chaos and destroyer. Now that is a name that’s gotten some press and attention from the roleplaying game community over the years. The dark and seething primordial mess is a terrifying concept and for eRly humanity, it was the desperate fear of the unknown. In the genesis account of creation, the chaos is mentioned and even the watery origins of form and matter, but we lack a monster. All we have is God.

What does come up in the Old Testament that connects to the same kind of stories is the presence of the sea beast Leviathan. Mentioned only three times, it opens up some great questions to biblical scholars.

“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.” (Job 41:12-34 NIV)

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty dragon-y to me. Some would reference this passage as evidence of dragons or dinosaurs in humanity’s past, but I think there is something different yet interesting going on here. This Leviathan, monstrous and powerful, is a piece of creation not the source. In the Tiamat story, the great chaos beast’s blood is the beginning of humanity whereas in the story of genesis, the great chaos beast is merely another element of creation under God’s control. The great conflict and dichotomy of chaos and order or good versus evil only really works if the two forces are equal, but that is not so this tale.

“How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.” (Psalm 104:24-26 NIV)

“But God is my King from long ago; he brings salvation on the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.” (Psalm 74:12-17 NIV)

In the Old Testament, the chaotic monster is a being made by God and within His thrall and command. Not only that, He designed it to “frolic” in the seas, he takes joy in it! The fact that the enemy of creation itself, the most ferocious opponent in the natural order whether of history or merely story, is within God’s control is comforting as you already know how the story ends. If even Leviathan can’t stand against the power of God, then there is hope for the way things will pan out. In our games, there is often the question of whether good will really win out over evil. There is something amazingly hopeful knowing that good will win out in the future, the question really changes in to what role we will play in that victory. In a game it’s an interesting question, in life it’s an even more interesting question, but if Leviathan/Tiamat/all the forces of chaos can’t stand against God’s might and his goodness, what could that mean in our games. Does it render our choices or adventure meaningless when we know the outcome, or does it emphasize the importance of the role that we play in a completely different manner?


K is for Kings

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Kings as in the books of. There are two books titled Kings and they are a detailed recounting of the rulers of the Kingdom of Israel (and eventually Judah as well, once the kingdom splits in two).in the lead up to Hess two books, the nation of Israel has had few kings, but things start to get juicy once the kings grow in power and in corruption. They are sad books in many ways. The people who God called aside for Himself had become corrupt and dissatisfied with Him and sought to emulate the ways of the world yet He is still engaged with them through the prophets He sends. You’d think the books would be better named ‘The Prophets’ since most of the stories from these two books are of the prophets interaction with the kings and the real protagonists tend to be the prophets as opposed to the rulers themselves.

One of my favorite stories of the prophets in the book of 2 Kings, which highlights some of the crazy adventures and strange happenings amongst the people of God at this peculiar time, is of an invading army seeking the death of the prophet Elisha (that’s right, remember the Bears?!?) who they knew was stirring up trouble for them.

“When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. ‘Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?’ the servant asked. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, ‘Strike this army with blindness.’ So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked. Elisha told them, ‘This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.’ And he led them to Samaria. After they entered the city, Elisha said, ‘Lord, open the eyes of these men so they can see.’ Then the Lord opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, ‘Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?’ ‘Do not kill them,’ he answered. ‘Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.’ So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.” (2 Kings 6:15-23 NIV)

There are many other stories like this one, but the cool thing I gather from these type of stories is the power of an individual and the small implementations of power. Striking someone with fire is usually the image we have of God’s power, but the simple subtlety of the way that God moves to strike back and protect His people is pretty cool. A bloodless defense of the city and from this point forward, the enemy let them be. So often in games, the most flashy and usually violent method of eliminating a threat is our best option. It’s rare that something simple and out of the box is our first idea, but it does lend itself to something substantially more interesting as a resolution. Leaving space open for creativity in problem solving is challenging because it means leaving the door open to almost endless possibility, but it does enable some really cool opportunities and some engaging stories. How far out of the box would you be willing to allow your players to go to create some quirky and peculiar answers to some challenging problems?


J is for Joseph

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I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Joseph, Technical Dream Coat and all! I am named after him, so I grew up listening to his story with rapt attention. Joseph’s story was always compelling to me because he was a beloved son who just didn’t know when to shut up. He had a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, even when he was saying good things, and he would go over the top and upset people. I’ve been that guy. Many times. Embarrassingly so.

Joseph’s story is filled with tragic circumstances, a cautionary tale that just because you do everything right that things don’t always work out the way you hoped or intended. Joseph was a straight arrow kind of guy who worked hard and had strong integrity and yet he continued to find himself in increasingly challenging situations. Those circumstances became a gauntlet that measured him and a vehicle by which he found himself in just the right place to save his family when famine struck the region and endangered all those he cared about. Instead of becoming bitter and jaded by his situation and the flagrant injustice of what had happened to him, Joseph saw the intention and direction his life was moving towards and saw what good he could be in the place he had ended up.

“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’ So they sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said. But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:15-21 NIV)

Adventure in roleplaying games tends to center around terrible things happening to the people playing the game and fighting against those circumstances. Many adventures or quests start by thrusting the players into incredibly unjust circumstances. Throwing players in prison and taking away their resources emphasizes just how unfair things can be. The Lord of the Rings starts by thrusting two poor hobbits into incredibly unfair circumstances, yet they prove to be just the ones who need to be there at the very end. There is something poetic and powerful about people being thrown into conditions well beyond their natural ability to deal and having to rise above. For some it means having your story take an unexpected detour. In Joseph’s life, his undesired detour meant life for his family and for the entire ancient Middle East. It’s a powerful narrative, could your circumstances be merely a piece of a deeper story that is still in the telling?


I is for Inquisition

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I really didn’t want to do this one. My faith is something beautiful to me, but there have been some distinctly dark periods and applications of that faith that I see uniting people and bringing hope to the world, but has caused incredible suffering that was far from its original intent. I can’t ignore that aspect and heritage of the church. All I can really speak to is my sorrow over the hurt that has been inflicted by others in the name of Jesus Christ, something incredibly far from the heart of God and of His desire for the world.

It’s kind of amazing how people fixate on particular things, as if there was only one piece that keeps the world from the perfection of God’s design. The moral imperative to remove the blemish of sin has lead to crusaders of justice (like abolitionists), but in the hands of the over zealous and misguided it has also lead to the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition. The idea of an order so focused on what they know to be right that they lose perspective on everything else and can only see success as the elimination of all other perspectives.

Many campaigns are built around the idea of a so-called “good” organization or individual fixating on a particular foible or difference and fighting to eliminate that difference from the world. The Children of Light in the Wheel of Time are a great example of this in a fantasy setting. Dedicated to purifying the world from the stain of magic, they have become blind to the infiltrating darkness that masks itself within their hatred and zeal to pursue what they perceive as purity. There are many ways you can play this, either as the actors trying to remove a perceived blot in the world, those being persecuted by an unjust order, or those working at cross purposes to an organization or individual that you will need to fight against to save those being tormented. There can even be some great opportunities for the protagonists to find themselves working for an organization like this and slowly discover and change their mind and start fighting against those they were sure were in the right to start with. No bad guy thinks they are the bad guy and in the case of persecution by religious figures, they often have immense motivation to do incredible evil in the name of what they think is right. It’s a powerful motivation and makes for a satisfying foil for players to rise up and stand against.


H is for Hell

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Hell (or the Hells) have played a pretty regular part of the fantasy role playing experience. It’s those elements that often caused people to become concerned with the games as a whole, but much of the lore and imagery that comes to the roleplaying experience has it’s foundation in the literature of Dante’s Inferno, which has informed many of the popular culture ideas about hell. It’s interesting because there really isn’t much information in the Scriptures as it relates to hell. Even the language to name/describe hell is complicated. The grave, Sheol, Gehenna, hades, death, and hell are all words used to describe the fate of the dead. The implications behind what that looks like have very little concrete statements to describe it. The most comprehensive come from the book of Revelations at the end of the New Testament.

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12-15 NIV)

Elements of death and hades are drawn into this statement of judgment and there is a certain finality to it all. It is very difficult to visualize just what this is talking about. Imagery of suffering, of burning, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but that sounds more like depictions of an outer plane of madness than anything built up in the concepts of hell as I’ve seen it in an RPG. What Dante Alghieri describes in his allegorical tale while descending through the circles of Hell with their punishments tailored to the particular arrogance and pride of the occupants is much more like the concept behind depiction in most monster manuals. The idea of circles of hell, linked planes of the damned and their fiendish tormentors, is full of setting ideas and directions that you could use as antagonists to work against. Following Dante’s path and being a mortal venturing into the darkness also has merit as a possibility. Mythic heroes venturing into the pits of there earth and the dead to bring back a lost loved one is a classic story. And even working their way out of captivity and fighting their way through the dark trails of the underworld makes for an epic tale! Everyone loves a good prison break and what better jail to break from than the great pit itself.


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