Category Archives: A-Z 2014

T is for Tests

tThroughout the Old Testament, there is an abiding theme of God testing His people and putting trials in front of them in order to demonstrate or prove their faithfulness to Him. The most famous of these tests is a story about Abraham and how God tested his priorities and his faith in God’s ability to keep His promises.

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’

‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.

‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’

Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.'”

(Genesis 22:1-8 NIV)

Now that’s a crazy story. There is so much controversy tied up in this. How could Abraham possibly feel justified in killing his son?!? Especially since as part of Abraham’s story he had been childless and waiting for so many years waiting on the promise that God would give him offspring even as he entered into old age. And we don’t know how old Isaac is in this story. Most artwork depicting this scene show him as a young man or child, but some believe Isaac may have been a grown man when this happened, which really changes his role in the story.

These tests seem harsh and cruel, but the response that God heaps out on Abraham is also mighty. In games, tests are a regular part of the way that we challenge players. Their decisions, their priorities and their integrity is on display throughout games and how they handle the decisions that are put in front of them. Tests sometimes put temptation directly in front of the player and see what they do with it  and what that says about who they are. Like Galadriel in the Fellowship of the Ring when she rejects the One Ring and remains who she truly is. I did this in my once a month lunch game of Dungeon World by dropping a magical cursed dagger in front of the halfling thief who was more than intrigued when it started whispering to him and offering him power at a price. I did something else like this in a special one shot adventure for one of my long time players who was performing the ritual trials required to become Queen of the Dark Elves. The end of the ritual would have given her the chance to reform the crystalline heart of the Drow and rededicate them to Lolth’s service or she could carve out her own heart and place it on the crystalline pedestal and take the Drow heart for herself which would free her people from Lolth’s influence. It was a weird test and she wasn’t sure what it would mean for her or her people.

Tests bring out some of the best of us. It is the challenge of not knowing how we will respond that makes it interesting and roleplaying games are awesome at this kind of thing. So test yourself, test your players, and put situations that are more complicated and challenging than merely knocking down pegs, but that draw those deeper questions out about who you are and who you are playing. It makes for a much more compelling experience and takes advantage of all the fun possibilities that roleplaying games offer to explore identity and morality as well.

S is for Saints

s Throughout the history of the church as it has expanded and grown, there are incredible stories of pioneers of the faith who did incredible things and from whom I have learned many lessons. In the traditions of the church, many of those men and women have been officially recognized for their faithfulness and for the way that God has worked through them by canonize nag them and referring to them as saints. Stories abound of the powerful actions attributed to their names and of their legendary deeds and service. They certainly sound like the heroes of old to me. That isn’t to say that many of them weren’t broken people who were not the paragons of virtue that we want to see them as or that they have been reported to be. Church annals may have been kinder to them than they probably deserve and as history gets more distant that is only more likely to be the case. There are a great many of these honored elders who have gone before and have much to teach about life through their experiences.

Now I have to preface this with the fact that I am a Protestant by tradition. My perspective on the saints is one of respect and honor towards those who have gone before without assigning any deeper respect than that. I was actually raised to think that honoring the saints was a form of idolatry, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to respect the lives they have lived and the things we can learn from them. The legends and stories that surround these honored men and women gave direction to the way they are categorized and the scope of how we learn from them. As this is not part of the tradition I grew up in, I was always fascinated by the nature of patron saints and the various elements of society and specific places that they oversaw.

For example, if you are an archer and are looking for a particular saint to reflect on or learn from, Nicholas of Myra is the guy for you. You might also know him as St. Nick (aka Santa Claus). They multitask pretty well. If you are a soldier looking to learn about various martial roles, George might be the one for you. He supposedly killed a dragon in Libya and was also the saint over many types of infectious skin conditions. Tough combo. If you are a musician looking to learn about using your gifts for good, Julian the Hospitaler oversees both minstrels in general and fiddlers to be more specific. If the sea is of interest to you and sailing is more your thing, then Brendan the Navigator can provide insight. His stories include one where he landed a boat on a little island and leads a service only to discover that he had landed on the back of a whale!

Many of the stories of these honored dead are probably great exaggeration so but the fact that they oversee particular domains and sections of life and activity lends itself to the polytheistic pantheons that often populate roleplaying games. One way of integrating this is having characters dedicated in the memory and service of these patron saints. Maybe these saints are Greek style demigods or maybe they are simply dedicated mortals who hold a sacred place now in honored death and can pass the power of their patron deity on to their devoted. Either way, the history of the saints and their various specialties can lend themselves quite easily to a game setting that is quite interesting.

R is for Resurrection

rI’ve been excited about how today’s letter mapped out since the A-Z Challenge started. Yesterday was Easter, a day that for my faith is specifically focused on celebrating Jesus’s return from the dead, proving His claims to deity and defeating both sin and death through His sacrifice. For my particular faith, the resurrection is a huge deal. There is a reason I named this blog and my twitter handle Raise Dead.

“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-26 NIV)

In games, people coming back from the dead is a mechanic designed to embrace some of the mystery of death while also helping players have some kind of way to continue with a beloved character after they lose them. It helps us keep the role going in a roleplaying game. With resurrection, there is an extra life. The safety net of coming back from the grave enables us to live in confidence and be heroic, which is what a good roleplaying game does. In my life, the same is true. Because of the hope that comes from the resurrection of Jesus and His promise that there is hope beyond simple existence. There is something freeing when you know the way the story ends. Resurrection means another chance. Resurrection means that whatever the world brings and throws against me, there is a chance for hope and life because death is merely an end.

It can be abused and give permission for players to take death too lightly (though some may like that kind of gameplay) and on the other side, not having access to this type of game can make you extremely cautious about how you play your character because the finality of death can mean the end of a beloved character. In some games I’ve seen, having a respawn or constant resurrection effect can create a particular feel of gameplay where death may be an inconvenience and instead makes you question the value of the death your giving up. Death almost becomes a tool for the player at that point. Other games, like 13th Age, make the magics for dodging death very rare and increasingly challenging so that the player has to be careful up to a point, but perhaps the major players within a campaign are also being just as cautious with their own lives and maybe seeking to abuse the player characters resources when it comes to resurrection as well. Either type creates some very interesting possibilities for gameplay. I’ve imagined a game setting where resurrection is the point by which the game really begins. Kingdoms of Amalur used this as the introduction of their game. What if returning from the dead with no memory of a previous life except for vague inklings of what came sets the stage for the beginning of a campaign? Or even if you have full recollection of why you came back, but you came back different. Having died brings an insight or a new perspective that was missing before, perhaps a new sense of purpose that drives your characters and leads them in new directions that they never anticipated. What could the death of death mean in your game? What does a second chance at life bring to the table? Is it a menial chore, or perhaps something deep and inspiring? That’s entirely up to you, but resurrection is a powerful image and a powerful hope that I plan to play with in some game in the future.


This image is from the Saint John’s Bible, a modern illuminated text.

Q is for Quiet Voice

So often, the stories that pop up from the Old Testament are full of big flash and all kinds of special effects. Just yesterday I looked at the Plagues of Egypt and how God specifically used these major events to communicate something very deliberate about the gods of Egypt and to encourage the Egyptian king to let His people go. We love special effects. Games we play are full of big flair and powerful exhibitions. Being huge, larger than life characters with awe-inspiring power feels great! What I find fascinating is that sometimes the big and flashy takes a back seat to something more deep and real. This is most clearly depicted in one of my favorite stories of the Old Testament.

“The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’ The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:7-13 NIV)

Elijah was a prophet of God, which means that he was tasked with speaking for God and working in His interests on Earth. He is specifically honored as one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament and one of the most well known stories of his legacy is when he challenged a bunch of priests of Baal to a pray-off and called a fireball from heaven to completely incinerate a stone altar dowsed in gallons of water. So suffice to say, Elijah was very familiar with special effects. This story actually takes place right after the big fireball battle and Elijah was immensely depressed that Israel continued to reject God even after Elijah had demonstrated God’s presence and authority so powerfully. And here he finds himself on a mountain where God is going to show up in a bodily sense (which people normally believed if they were to see God their face would melt Raiders of the Lost Ark style, hence why Elijah is covering his face up when he goes outside at the end of the story). There are loads of special effects in this narrative, but what is fascinating to me and is worth taking an idea from, is the fact that there are all these major world shaping actions of the natural world around Elijah, but the thing that indicates God’s nearness and His powerful presence was a gentle whisper. That phrase is translated several different ways, also seen as a quiet voice or the sound of sheer silence. It is in the small and the quiet that God makes Himself known to Elijah and I find that very interesting.

The general assumption is that the powerful and mighty are often big movers and shakers and have all the special effects that major power can afford. But it is unsettling and unusual to see great power heralded with quiet and stillness. Using a still, quiet voice for beings of immense power can establish a sense of separation and otherness. Those who are strong don’t necessarily have to have some kind of extreme volume or impressive visage. Judge me by my voice do you? And well you should not. Other than Yoda’s sterling example of this idea, there is something subtle and gentle about having power partnered with humility. So while you are crafting powerful characters or opponents, think about what role a still quiet voice can communicate about that power or in other words carry a big stick and maybe speak a little softer. It could be unexpected and change the tone of your game and what you are saying about the very nature of power.

P is for Plagues

Sometimes God has a great special effects budget. The Old Testament is full of stories of incredible meteorological activity at God’s whim that changes the face of the planet and visits God’s judgment and presence on the world. And they aren’t just confined to the Old Testament. At the crucifixion, the sky went dark in the middle of the day and the earth shook with a tremendous earthquake that opened sealed tombs and supposedly jostled he dead out of their graves! There’s a Good Friday story you don’t hear all the time. One of the greatest collections of the massive physical representations of God’s power on Earth is in the book of Exodus. In the beginning of the book, Moses is trying to convince the Pharaoh of Egypt to let his people go, but Pharaoh is unimpressed because he has no since of who God is and besides, he has plenty of gods on his side/is kind of a god himself. The plagues that follow are iconic and remembered throughout history as the withering hand of God against Egypt for Pharaoh’s hubris.

“You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” (Exodus 7:2-5 NIV)

There is something about these “signs and wonders” that God is going to use to deliberately communicate His identity to the Egyptians. What is interesting is how specifically the signs He uses line up with the pantheon of the Egyptians. Each plague had a specific deity that they addressed and essentially challenged the Egyptian deity to demonstrate their own power over God messing in their domain. Each plague built on the last and drove home the point. This is a chart I found of the various plagues and the deity they challenged. Many roleplaying games incorporate a pantheon of powerful beings f some kind or another. If a new threat were to rise against all the others and specifically challenge them in their own domains, it could create a greater threat than the petty squabbling amongst equals. It’s the cosmic equivalent of a duel and it’s definitely a fight you don’t want to get into the middle of, unless you care about the universe or something.

O is for Offerings

Making an offering is a time honored tradition of giving up some kind of tribute or general sacrifice of your own goods to establish someone else’s power and authority over you or to right a wrong between individuals. The religious role of offerings have a strong ritualistic emphasis. Ritual has a powerful place in role playing games. From rituals that invoke power on behalf of the player characters to enemies using rituals to draw the attention of dark beings; forms and structures of ritual are fairly common in the medieval fantasy genre. Ritual plays an enormous role in the Christian faith as well. Today is Maundy Thursday, which in the Christian tradition is the day of celebrating the Last Supper when Jesus celebrated the Passover Seder with His disciples. The Seder was a piece of the Passover tradition that celebrated the rescued of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. It also includes a meal of lamb to honor and highlight the sacrificial offering to provide blood covering over the sins of the people of Israel. At the Last Supper, Jesus claims that His own broken body and poured out blood will be the ritual covering over sin as the perfect Passover lamb. With that sentiment, Jesus appropriates the traditions and understandings of ritual offerings and requirements of the books of the law with a very different resolution. 

The rules around offering and worship are codified in the Hebrew Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Specifically these rules are found in the middle book, Leviticus, which in the narrative of the Torah is while the people of Israel are on Mt. Sinai with God in worship. It’s the apex of their experience as a people and is specific about their practices of sacrifice and the rituals surrounding how the worship of God should look. These details determined their practices for thousands of years.

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. He said, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When anyone among you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.’ If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you are to offer a male without defect. You must present it at the entrance to the tent of meeting so that it will be acceptable to the Lord. You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you. You are to slaughter the young bull before the Lord, and then Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and splash it against the sides of the altar at the entrance to the tent of meeting. You are to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. If the offering is a burnt offering from the flock, from either the sheep or the goats, you are to offer a male without defect. You are to slaughter it at the north side of the altar before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall splash its blood against the sides of the altar. You are to cut it into pieces, and the priest shall arrange them, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to bring all of them and burn them on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. If the offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, you are to offer a dove or a young pigeon. The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off the head and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. He is to remove the crop and the feathers and throw them down east of the altar where the ashes are. He shall tear it open by the wings, not dividing it completely, and then the priest shall burn it on the wood that is burning on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1:1-17 NIV)

I promise not to quote entire chapters all the time, but this one was so comprehensive. It’s a practical how-to manual on making an offering, full of specific sensory details that create a visual image for the reader. The multiple tiers of offering (bull, sheep, and dove) were all an offering to do the same thing, but for different economic scales, the poor couldn’t afford a whole cow to offer so an accommodating sacrifice could be made as a gift to God and a reminder of the dependence that the giver had on God in the first place.

In games, offerings are often a hand waved element that if done right can lend credence and gravity to the divine and the arcane as you see what elements and properties make for an appropriate offering. The nature of offering and the materials used in an offering can make for an adventure in and of itself. The fact that all three ritualistic offerings were considered appropriate for the same effect, but were tailored based on the participant is also interesting. What if a ritual’s requirements scaled with the person trying to accomplish it? 13th Age did this with the resurrection ritual and it creates a more challenging set of circumstances to accomplish the same effect over time.

N is for Names

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?