Monthly Archives: July 2012

Character Flaws

Finishing my epic D&D4e game, I felt awesome for winning D&D, but at the same time felt really sad because it marked the end of an age. Things got really complicated in my life personally, with my seminary grad school taking a turn for the hectic and time consuming as well as taking on extra work hours at the church I work at (fortunately with increased pay). So yah, life is a little interesting. This unfortunately meant that my gaming has taken a back burner, which is fine, but it is still something I really enjoy, but my old gaming group has jumped into a Mouse Guard campaign while my wife and I have stepped out of playing with them. It’s awesome that they are still gaming (since our D&D campaign was their first experience with tabletop RPGs), but now I have a gaming itch and am trying to figure out what will scratch it.

Given the playtest nature of D&Dnext, I have had a hard time wanting to jump back into a full term D&D4e campaign. I like shiny new things. I admit that freely. It’s hard for me to stick with something for a long time. I gave the playtest for D&Dnext a whirl while I was on vacation and really enjoyed it (I liked what I saw too), but it was really more of a one shot and that just doesn’t fit what an ongoing campaign provides for me. With the fluctuating nature of a playtest environment, I don’t think the time for D&Dnext as a long term game is in my future…YET.

So I’m systems shopping. Right after my 4e game ended, I picked up some new game rulebooks just to get a feel for what else was out there not because I was dissatisfied, but because why not? This became my new problem and a couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a group of guys (actually the first group of players I ran through Keep on the Shadowfell almost 4 years ago) to discuss starting a game and specifically what system we wanted to explore.

I brought D&D4e (because it is still special to me), the D&DNext playtest, 13th Age, Dungeon World, Savage Worlds, and the Marvel Heroic Role Playing Game to the table as options to explore and try out. Several of the guys knew I was already working on a campaign setting (originally to be part of 4e) that was largely inspired by Chris Perkins’ Iomandra setting (there is something about a nautical exploration that really gets my imagination turning). High adventure on the sea just lends itself to interesting story and situations, plus the constant change of new islands to explore and conquer. So with ideas of exploring my custom medieval fantasy setting, we crossed out Marvel and most the guys weren’t particularly interested in fiddling with 4e or Next. We got excited about Dungeon World, but the limitations on races and classes shelved it for another day. So that left Savage Worlds and 13th Age. I was excited about both and see some really cool possibilities in each, but it was the imagination-inspiring Icons of 13th Age that pushed us over the edge. Even though 13th Age is still in Escalation Edition and still very much being playtested, it has some really fun mechanics for combat and conflict resolution that just clicked for us.

So we started character generation (and I realized just how much I had to learn about the system still) and this is where things got interesting. We decided to roll ability scores instead of using an array. As a group of self-professing, former power gamers they all expressed the need for as much help as possible in avoiding the roadblocks of min/maxing. Rolling stats is something I’ve NEVER done in a game before and I was anxious to see if the risk in straying from the array would be as worth it as everyone has told me.

Everyone started the process rolling pretty decently. Not quite as high as the point score array, but not terrible. That is until one of the guys rolled a 4. Yup. Three 1s and a 2. Wow. Almost as low as he could possibly roll. After we stopped laughing, the poor guy (who also had the only 17 in the group) started figuring out just what to do with that tremendous liability. As we were deciding classes and races, he decided to play a halfling sorcerer with a Strength of 4. He figured he would embrace the concept of the glass cannon and run with it. That’s when things started to get weird/fun. He decided that his halfling was born with no muscles, almost jokingly, and we ran with it. What if when he was born due to his disability, his parents made a deal with the Lich King (one of the powerful Icons in the 13th Age setting) and his body was infused with a necromantic brace system made of bones that give him the ability to walk and function, but also mark him as the Lich King’s? Dang. That is one interesting unique thing.

As I thought about it, I realized that the flaw this character had and the story possibilities that arise from his attempt to overcome it are going to become one of the biggest parts of our campaign. Not only is this amazing for our game, but it’s huge in life. Walking through the difficulties in life is one of those things that we play games to avoid or to walk past, but I have found that in games having a defining flaw or struggle can create those awesome moments that live on in your stories. What’s really cool about this benefits of having this unique character flaw is that this is something I believe is incredibly important in real life as well as at the gaming table.

As I’ve mentioned before here, I am a Christian and contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean I think you have to live a perfect life. In fact, I find that it is the imperfections and weaknesses in myself that make my faith all that more real. One of my favorite passages in the Bible is a section from the second letter to the church in Corinth (in Greece). Paul (who wrote most of the New Testament) wrote the letter and in it he said this,

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:6-10)

Paul was one of the most educated Jews of his day. He was a teacher and incredibly well respected. He actually had a lot to boast about, but he mentions in his letter that there was a “thorn in his flesh,” that would not leave him alone. Despite all the incredible things he had come to believe about himself, he lacked control of himself. And even though he asked God to take it away, it remained. Paul asked God to do some pretty incredible stuff and his letters are full of how God answered those prayers, so why didn’t God remove this physical ailment/problem/struggle from him?

Having a struggle in life and overcoming it on your own strength is a huge testament in the depth of your character and your own personal strength and perseverance. In real life (and even at the game table) there come times where the problem is deeper than we can handle and we begin to lose hope. In that place of weakness, when Paul was frustrated and feeling weak, the things that God was doing through him were even more visible. Because he was weak, he had to depend on a God who was not.

So how is that going to look in my 13th Age game? I’m not entirely sure. There isn’t going to be a miracle cure (i.e. stat raising potion or boon) for my player with the 4 strength. I want to see just where this takes him and in what ways he is able to overcome his own weakness. Suffice to say, it should make for some interesting storytelling.

Ezekiel 37

“Then [the LORD] said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”

This is from the Bible, Ezekiel chapter 37. The prophet Ezekiel, a Jewish prophet, is recording the message God wanted to deliver to the people of Israel and the LORD used a story to communicate the fullness of His purpose to His people. In this story, we see a broken and unquestionably dead people being reconstructed and brought to life as a strong and powerful army. Sounds like a crazy gaming campaign to me!

The concept of resurrection and the power of bringing the dead back to life occupies a huge place in the narrative of real world  myths and legends as well as space in the rulebooks and tabletop games  across game space. There is something about the dead and our inability to move beyond the last transition of life that fascinates and frustrates us. The fact that the resurrection of the dead factors so strongly in the religions of the world only gives further curiosity to just what we do with those who have died and that curiosity and fear carries over to my game table at least.

This depiction from the writings of Ezekiel has always stuck with me because of how bizarre it comes across. The idea that a simple man could function as a divine conduit and give wind to the very breath of God raising an army of the dead into a powerful host is the stuff of fantasy (if not horror) and yet this exact circumstance is what God describes to Ezekiel as the way He will rebuild His people.

I’ve felt dead before. I was completely lost and without hope or power to act and it was the divine breath of God that gave me life. That’s what this blog is all about. I want to explore just what it means for the dead to be alive, specifically in my games. God is the breath that brings life to my old bones and I’m tired of my game being a pile of old bones as well. I’ve been playing RPGs long enough now that I’m not satisfied with a simple enter dungeon, beat down monsters, extract reward scenario. The narrative of the game and the mechanics therein can tell a story and jump into exactly what it is God is doing in the world. Here you can expect to see examples of how I’m trying to integrate this mentality into my game design, how my faith informs my gaming, and hopefully experience a little of that same breath that raises the dead and brings life to dried bones.

So RAISE THE DEAD! And the living beware.