Entertaining Temptation

Such a little thing...

 

Temptation is something we entertain as we fall into its grasp, but in the setting of a role playing game, it can also be quite entertaining to explore as a concept. I’ve been a fan of exploring the nature of temptation in my game settings and setting interesting and complicated choices into my games. I’ve written about it before in a previous blog and I think it poses an interesting challenge for players to wrestle with that is outside of the normal “hit a monster until it dies” challenge and provokes not only the character’s engagement, but the player as they determine where their personal lines and boundaries stand. It’s also something that has come up in my own life more recently. I’m doing a devotional reading through a collection of selected readings from various Christian writers over the millenia. It’s a fascinating read and the most recent one came from Thomas á Kempis’s work The Imitation of Christ and was specific about what temptation is, the role it plays, and how to fight against it. As I read, I was struck by how true it is in my life, but also in the fiction and games I enjoy.

Kempis, an Augustinian monk who lived in the turn of the 14th-15th century, writes that temptation is actually useful in our growth and development. He states that,

“Temptations can be useful to us even though they seem to cause us nothing but pain. They are useful because they can make us humble, they can cleanse us, and they can teach us. All of the saints passed through times of temptation and tribulation, and they used them to make progress in the spiritual life. Those who did not deal with temptations successfully fell to the wayside.”

He goes on later to say that,

“Temptation reveals our instability and our lack of trust in God; temptations reveal who we are. This is why we must pay attention to them.”

He goes on to speak about facing temptation and what it takes and requires to stand against it, but I was so struck by the defining and refining power of temptation in both my life, which I have found to be exceptionally true in my own life. My own fears are often drawn into light by the things that appeal to me and call out to me even when I don’t want them to and in a sense, temptation has helped me to know myself on a deeper level that is often buried and I wouldn’t otherwise get to know about myself.

Temptation is a great fit for the fantasy adventure genre. Dire whispers of dark power asking a terrible cost and promising the necessity or justification of succumbing to temptation regularly pops up in great fiction. The premise of temptation is what fuels the darkness of the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings. The idea that this tiny thing could provide the answer that each character is looking to, but at a potentially terrible cost. Watching Frodo descend into madness as he deals with the ramifications of that temptation is very compelling and many can easily see themselves in Boromir’s position as he slowly succumbed to the power of the One Ring, justifying his choices as he weighed the benefit against the cost and convincing himself of his own righteousness in the end. Temptation can lead to some really interesting choices and in games, the siren call of power at a cost is a normal theme.

In my games, magic users and rogues seem to the ones who get tied up in these questions of temptation. Is a rogue willing to take the low road of their class when it comes to sinister contacts and base or brutish robbery or will a magic user make deals that endanger their being for forgotten secrets or powers? Those are interesting questions and ones that I’ve used to great effect in my games. My newest question is, can a divine character be made more interesting by the temptation they have to fight against and prevail over to achieve all that they are capable of? Kempis stated that all saints walk through and face their temptation lest they fall by the wayside. Could a divine character have a particular temptation to stand against and define their winnowing process by which they are made stronger and stand above the rest? It’s s subtle piece of background that can not only say a lot about what a character cares about, but give a game master a great deal of direction and freedom to play with and challenge that particular character. It’s like a giant sign that says, “THIS IS SOMETHING THAT MATTERS AND IS INTERESTING TO ME, PLEASE POKE AT IT!” As someone running a game, I’d love to be handed that piece of character development.

Can you picture a cleric whose temptation is lustful gluttony? Or a paladin who struggles with pride? Or an avenger whose commitment to justice borders on wrathful vengeance? Or an invoker who is tempted by the rich accouterments of his religious upbringing that borders on greed? I can see many ways that overcoming these foibles would produce a much higher quality of hero than one just wandering along adventuring. As flaws, values, and quirks enter into the scenario of creating more interesting characters, I’ll be interested to see how the things that tempt us also enter the equation to bait those juicy adventure hooks and drive some really interesting stories home, especially as we overcome the base elements of our desires and aspire to greatness in our games.


Order of Ulfberht

I’ve been watching the show Vikings on Hulu recently, which is awesome by the way, and in a recent episode a blade with the engraved name of Ulfberht showed up. My wife Brittany started squeeing about how awesome those swords are and we immediately had to go to Netflix and watch a documentary shed watched called “Secrets of the Viking Sword.” It’s available for streaming now, so go check it out if you have a subscription because it’s worth your time. The documentary speaks to a special class of swords that were made and used by Vikings that were made of an incredibly high quality steel that mirrors technology from centuries after their origin. All these blades bore an inscription that read +ULFBERH+T. These inlaid blades had a fascinating story behind them that tells a story I think many games could use today. 20140502-222738.jpg

There are three laments that come together to make these blades so intriguing. The steel technology, the raw material for the blades, comes from the near east as far as India, which the Vikings had a trade relationship with. The swords are carried by Vikings and were very specifically designed to pierce the chainmail of their time. The really interesting thing is the name that is etched into the blade. The name is Frankish (the kingdom stretching from France and Germany at the time), but what really stands out is the use of the cross in the inscription. The cross was used to denote an abbot or bishop or perhaps even a specific monastery, but why would the pagan Vikings be wielding a sword with made by the Christians they raided? The answer is lost to time and we may never know where they got these impressive weapons, but the idea of various materials and technologies coming from around the known world to produce a powerful and game changing weapon is a really cool inspiration.

Maybe a special material is being imported that in the hands of a special order is being forged into weapons that dramatically shift a war effort or power struggle. Maybe the order is a holy rule that is specially crafting weapons with a blessing or enchantment (which the vikings may have believed was true) and they are the only ones who can produce such fine weaponry. How far would you go to claim a unique weapon like this? Who would be trying to pass cheap replicas off to make quick profit? Would you allow this superior weaponry to circulate or shut it down permanently? Lots of fun angles to approach this real world example of weapon forging and craftsmanship.


And Done

1 Month. 26 Letters of the Alphabet. 16772 words.

What a month. I hope that this prompted some interesting thoughts for you and maybe showed some things from the Bible you had not had to think about before. I want to play and make good games in interesting worlds that reflect something deeper than just simple escapism. I want a better game and I want to explore interesting concepts within the game space because I think games offer a unique place to explore ideas and see how themes and concepts work out that other media can’t do as well. So I hope this helped to encourage you to take your games some place interesting and more challenging.


Z is for Zealots

z“These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;  Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;  Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-4 NIV)

So out of the group of people who followed Jesus around on a day to day basis, there were two Simons. One got his name changed to Peter, or Rocky, and the other who was simply known as the Zealot. The word zealot implies a fanatical devotion to a particular cause, usually trying to imply a willingness to do harm to others for the sake of the cause you champion. With Simon they aren’t trying to say something about his passionate concern and care for following Jesus, instead they are referring to his membership in an organization known as the Zealots who were part of Jewish culture under the Roman occupation.

Zealots were a group who opposed  the Roman occupation of Israel through whatever means necessary. They fought against Roman rule and leadership of their nation and of the flagrant god flaunting that Roman coins and military pageantry embodied in trying to proclaim the cult of emperor worship. The Zealots attempted many times to make a stand against Rome, but very regularly participated in guerrilla resistance that often involved targeted assassinations of both Roman officials and Roman collaborators. The funny part about the little band of Jesus’s followers is that it included Simon, a Zealot known for killing Roman collaborators, and also Matthew, a tax collector who worked for the Romans. I’m sure the rest of the group didn’t like to leave them alone since they didn’t think Matthew would last very long. Jesus had a bit of a sense of humor, I’m sure in bringing them both along.

Zealots were essentially the Assassin’s Guild of their time and culture. There was an extremist group of the Zealots who were known as the Sicarri. They were so named because they carried curved short swords, called sicarii,  in case the opportunity to murder a Roman came up. The term also referred to the class of gladiator who wielded similar weapons, so it was an innocuous enough phrase to keep them from too much suspicion.

Secretive societies and mysterious resistance cells make for great drama in a game play setting. The popularity of the Assassin’s Creed video games speaks to that quite well. What secretive elements of society exist in the games you play and what motivates them to take a stand against the status quo? Are they freedom fighters on a holy mission or are they invested in the economic problems that arise from an occupying force? Where powerful conquerors come in, there will almost always be some kind of rebellion or resistance that takes a variety of forms. The Jewish Zealots during the Roman occupation are a very interesting place to find inspiration for just how they would stand up against an oppressing force and we got a brand new word to describe those who are so consumed with passion that they go to extremes.


Y is for YHWH

yRemember how I said names were important? Well today’s post is a name so important, people wouldn’t even right the entire thing down. The writers of the Old Testament tried to demonstrate a respect and fear of the God they served by not actually saying His name or even writing it down. They held this particular name in such high esteem that to write it would be to lower it. Today many people still practice a form of this discipline by only writing G-d when referring to the God of Israel. Many Christians don’t hold the name with the same sacredness as part of a more intimate friendship with God.

The particulars of the name of God get interesting because the name was never fully written out or even spoken. In the original Hebrew manuscripts that record the early Old Testament, vowels are not used. At all. So translation was already a challenge except for the oral tradition (much of which is sung) by the priests and the rabbis who could help to guide the translation effort. But then we get to this name of God that isn’t written down completely or even spoken. Whenever the reader got to the name, they would simply say “The Lord,” which is why many versions of the Bible today have a little quirk where that word is written with small caps to help denote that the big name was being used. The first time that this particular name comes up is when Moses hears the voice of God of a bush that burns, but is not consumed.

“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?’

God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

‘This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.'”

(Exodus 3:13-15 NIV)

The phrase is translated as “I am who I am” and the particular letters of the Hebrew alphabet that denote this name are Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh. It looks like this.

remember to read it from right to left.

Each of those letters are breath sounds and they form a back and forth rhythm that mirrors the breathing back and forth of air in the lungs. Yod, breath in, Heh, breath out, Vav, breath in, Heh, breath out. Given the fact that God breathes life into His creation and the same word in Hebrew is used for both breath and spirit, there is a wealth of symbolism behind this particular name of God. Because we lack the vowels for this name, it’s translated into two forms that are used extensively in the Christian tradition (since they allow themselves to use this name aloud). Jehovah, which in the Latin starts with an I, and the more recently accepted into common use, Yahweh, are both translations of the name that have found acceptance today.

Secretive names of a deity are not a new thing to roleplaying games at all. I played in a recent game where the secret name of the Raven Queen, something she had taken great efforts to wipe from the mortal world, was the driving force of the opposition in our first adventure. The rites and rituals that suround the very names of the holy is inspiring to me. If gods are simply elevated versions of our mortal selves, then they are somewhat lackluster, but if they are something much greater than all that, then even their name has to have some serious power behind it. What kind of means might a deity or their servitors take to protect that name, whether hiding it from knowledge or building in some kind of magical defense or taboo around it to keep it sacred? It’s an interesting direction to explore and takes something as simple as a name and makes it a driving, powerful force.


X is for Xerxes

xThere are a few historical figures who pop up in the stories of Scripture that warrant a second look. In the New Testament, the author, Luke, makes a very big deal about who is Caesar and who was governor of what province as Luke is primarily a historian and doctor by trade and is specifically rooting his tale in the historical reality of his time. In the Old Testament, after the defeat of Israel, first by the Assyrians who spread their people all over the Assyrian Empire, then by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, the people of Israel found themselves in captivity (as was the practice of the Babylonians and the Persians who followed them) in a foreign land. The best of the people were carried off to Babylon to be assimilated into the Babylonian (then Persian) empire and culture. So those many armies of the Persian empire who made up the huge army that faced down the Spartans in 300, Israel was one those conquered people who folded into the Persian war machine, but without the crazy war rhinos.

Xerxes’s story is found in the book of Esther, one of two books in the Old Testament specifically focused on a female lead character. Esther is a Jewish woman living in exile as an orphan. She’s cared for by her uncle and her story takes a dramatic turn when the king, Xerxes, becomes fed up with the many personal slights of his wife, the queen. He removes her from her role and throws a beauty pageant to choose his next wife who will become queen of Persia. Esther happens to win this pageant and goes from an occupied inhabitant of the Persian capital to its celebrated new queen.

That is where this story takes a turn for the awesome. Esther’s uncle hears about a conspiracy against the king and reports it through Esther. He is honored by the king for his service, which makes one of the king’s viziers jealous and that adviser decides to try and murder all of Esther’s people in retaliation. Little overkill, <sarcasm> but we’ve all been there, am I right?!? </sarcasm>

So this elaborate plot is put underway by the king’s vizier to single out Esther’s people (which no one realizes that she is Jewish at this point) and she is watching this all as it transpires. So she hatches her own elaborate plan and flips the machinations of the evil vizier on his head. She has him run out of town and the story ends with a delightful ending where the evil vizier is impaled on a pike. Grim, but fair.

Political intrigue and the behind the scenes machinations of court are not my personal cup of tea when playing games, but seeing an elaborate game of political chess come to fruition is very satisfying to watch. Setting the pieces in motion takes finesse and long term strategy that I lack patience for personally, but makes for a fascinating spider web of intrigue and mystery.

The book of Esther is read regularly at festivals within the Jewish community as a testimony to not only God’s protection, but of the courage of one person taking a stand and what one person can really do. It’s a short book and is maybe worth your time to witness one of history’s earliest femme fatales. It doesn’t take long and for someone who’s not so good at political intrigue it definitely inspires my imagination in regards to how you might navigate your way out of a difficult and potentially deadly political situation.


W is for Wine

w
I actually went back and forth a long time on this one because originally I was going to do “W is for Wrath”, but the imagery of wine is extremely prevalent in Scripture and I live in the Northern California bay right outside Napa Valley, so wine culture is something I’ve come to enjoy. Wrath is another big concept in Scripture, but grapes are an image that has several facets that I find more compelling than the righteous judgment fueled by a desire to bring justice to the broken (although that is pretty awesome too).

Wine was a pretty huge part of Mediterranean culture as it was a great region for grape growing and alcohol made water more sanitary and a safer option for drinking than normal drinking water. And it’s tasty. Wine stories start in Genesis when Noah, having just survived a crazy flood, drinks a little too much and embarrasses himself in front of his family (the story of the curse he places on his family members after his drunken episode is majorly complex, but a sobering reminder of the dangers of drunkenness). Wine becomes a component of offerings offered in step with the animal sacrifices which make a parallel between blood and wine (and they already look very similar). Jesus says that new wine must be put in new wine skins and not old ones because as wine ages in a wine skin, it expands the contained skin and stretches it out. Pouring new wine into an already stretched skin can cause it to burst, spilling the wine everywhere. The most powerful image of wine in the New Testament is at the Last Supper when Jesus sits down with His friends before His death and passes a cup of wine to them and states that His blood is like this wine and that they must drink this wine as a symbol of the covenant that He is establishing with the pouring out of His blood. Wine became a huge element of the religious ritual of communion from that point forward. The image of wine and blood as parallels is continued into the New Testament in the book of Revelation in a powerful image of judgment and death.

“Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.’ The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.” (Revelation 14:17-20 NIV)

So what is wine in your game? Is it merely another beverage of choice in the local tavern, or is it a symbolic foreshadowing? Does it hold ritualistic power or special significance? Could it unlock deeper secrets behind a dungeon entrance that only the correct goblet and specific wine open she drank in conjunction with each other. Could wine offer immunity to some painful effect while weakening your mental resolve and willpower? It has an interesting potential role to play in a game setting other than a passing detail in celebration of your victory in the local saloon if you are willing to explore and try something new. Salud!


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