W is for Wine

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!

V is for Violence

The Bible is full of stories of violence. From beginning (Cain murdering his brother Abel) to the end (war that ravages the entirety of the planet), the Bible is a testament to the incredible inventive and pervasive nature of humanity’s dark and selfish violence. The time that the Bible was written into was violent and produced some of the earliest law codes that placed limitations on the violence that people could inflict on each other, even in retribution for violence done against them. The Code of Hammurabi and the Levitical law of the Bible both contain the rule of “an eye for an eye” to specifically reduce the escalating cycle of vengeance that ends in wars.

Roleplaying games are full of violence too. Most roleplaying games today thrice off of various combat simulations and conflict resolution mechanics of varying levels of tactical expression. Finding justice for wrongdoing is a common theme throughout RPGs and being the force that stands against injustice and drawing the line against a violent oppressors is something that comes up frequently, but what if there was a another response against the violent offender? What if the response of force against force wasn’t the only option? Jesus had something to say about this specific issue.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42 NIV)

Many have cited this example as a reason to endure abuse or to merely passively engage with an offender, but there is a slightly off component to Jesus’s advice that doesn’t come up all that often. Each of the slights and responses that He discusses had a cultural context. Turning your cheek into the slap forces your opponent to attack you either with a fist and acknowledge you as an equal or slap you with the left hand and be shunned for breaking cultural taboos. Roman soldiers could force an occupied person to carry their equipment and march with them, but only for a mile. Jesus’s suggestion is delightfully loving yet subversive to show that you can’t put them down.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should turn all your combat resolutions into peaceful protests or civil disobedience, but some of the best little moments in my roleplaying experience have been when violence or killing was not an option. The time I took my players weapons away after they were knocked out with sleeping gas and they had to not only break out of jail, but escape with out their lethal tools. It was hilarious seeing them come up with alternative ways to face their opponents. I also played a character in a campaign once who had never killed a thing in his life. Whenever he attacked, he deliberately tried to knock his opponent unconscious and find the means to release them safely. When his friend was mortally wounded by a creature and he resorted to real violence and killed the beast, it was a turning point for him. Lastly, I played in an adventure where we were investigating strange doings in a mine that was being haunted by Orc ghosts whose burial grounds had been disturbed. We couldn’t make them stay dead or dissipated, so we had to do some problem solving to satisfy their angry disposition and set them at rest and it was a very compelling and interesting adventure to explore.

Basically, violence doesn’t have to be the main theme of a game you play. Overcoming adversity and even combat can and should be a big part of the roleplaying game experience, but there is no need for it to remain a bloodbath. There is something empowering and in my opinion more interesting about finding a solution that might take a bit more time and creativity than simply at the end of a bloody dagger.

U is for Uriah

uA lazy king sleeps with a woman after being captivated by her beauty and kills her husband to cover up his indiscretion after failing to trick her honorable husband into sleeping with her to explain her pregnancy. Sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, right? Wrong. It’s from the Bible.

Uriah was a man in the time of King David who had the unfortunate honor of being married to a beautiful woman the king desired. Her name was Bathsheba and her infidelity with King David and the shenanigans that followed have become a cautionary tale of the corrupting power of authority and the need for accountability for leaders. Uriah was a soldier in King David’s army and he had a lovely wife and while he was off fighting in wars for his king and country, the king slept with his wife and got her pregnant. So the King did the logical thing, he summoned the soldier home for a little shore leave to help cover up his indiscretion. The problem was that Uriah wouldn’t go home.

“Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!’

Then David said to him, ‘Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.’

So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.

(2 Samuel 11:11-17 NIV)

Uriah was too dang proud and loyal to his comrades-at-arms to take real leisure while at home so David had him killed to cover up his crime. Cool guy that David.

Murder mysteries and corrupt royals have a regular place at the gaming table and many unjust rulers get toppled through roleplaying games. How do you confront evil and corruption within the mighty? How do you try to correct those who have abused their power? Is there still hope for reconciliation or does a particular crime mean that a leader cannot be allowed to rule any longer? How is justice best served and should you be the one to help bring it?

The way this particular story pans out is pretty excellent. A man named Nathan was a prophet who spoke for God. He had come before David before and he arrived in the King’s courts with a story to tell asking for the King’s Justice. He tells the story of a rich man who had everything  and a poor man who only had one little lamb who he had cared for for years. When a guest came for the king, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and served it to his guests. Nathan finished his story and asked for the King to declare judgment. David ranted and screamed that this man must be brought forward and punished most harshly. Nathan stops and simply says, “You are that man.” The King realizes what he is done and grieves his sinfulness. He is still punished, but he becomes a much better king because of it.

The way we answer that question of how far can a hero go before they fall beyond recovery can define an entire campaign. David had his foibles, but he is still lauded as an incredible poet and warrior who knew the heart of God. Nathan (and God by extension) saw the potential for good in David and went the route of reconciliation for him. How far are you willing to go in a game to bring someone back and how much will you let stand before justice must rise above? Alignments in rpg’s give direction as to how you approach the answers of these questions, but I’d not seen many responses like Nathan’s. He’s Lawful Creative or something like that.

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.