Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Namesake

Photo by Fawkes Winchester
    When I set out to create this blog, I had a hard time coming up with a title for it. I tried to think of clever plays on words that I see many podcasters and bloggers use; 'Bored Again Christian', 'The Way, the Truth, and the Dice Magazine', 'Ears to Hear Radio', but I couldn't think of anything. I prayed for some time, and realized that my goal in creating this blog wasn't to be clever. My goal was to join a community of gamers who also shared a passion for the Word as I do. I didn't want to stray from this purpose, so I began to read the Bible and as I perused the scriptures, I remembered the verse in the book of Acts in which the apostles decided to cast lots to see who would replace Judas. And so it goes, the Casting Lots blog was given its name.

A History Lesson
    For those that are unfamiliar with the term, casting lots was a general method used to determine the will of God by the Jews and by Christians prior to Pentecost. The act of casting lots was used to describe a number of methods, but generally referred to the throwing of dice or engraved sticks as an effort to seek an answer from God regarding an important topic or event.

    The casting of lots was ordained by God under the Old Covenant, and was practiced by the high priests using special devices called Urim and Thummim. Though no physical description of them is given in the Bible, they are generally thought to be a pair of engraved stones. The Urim and the Thummim were kept within the cloth breastplate of a high priest's ephod, an ornate ceremonial robe. Though there is no distinct instruction of their use, the book of 1 Samuel 14:41 gives us some insight as to how they were used.
"Then Saul prayed to Yahweh, the God of Israel, “Why have You not answered Your servant today? If the fault is in me or my son Jonathan, respond with Urim, but if the men of Israel are at fault, respond with Thummim.” Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men were cleared."

    It should also be noted that this practice was generally to be done for significant measures and God was not obligated to always communicate through them. Anna Diehl of the Christian Post explained it this way: Flip two coins with two different sides: heads and tails. There are three possible outcomes: two heads, two tails, or one head and one tail. We don't know exactly what the Urim and Thummim looked like, but if they were at all like our two-sided coins today, then it would be quite easy for Yahweh to convey answers of "yes", "no", or "silence" through them.

Practice Today
    Being that there is no reference in the Bible regarding Christians casting lots after Pentecost, it is concluded by many that after the arrival of the Holy Spirit, this method was no longer necessary. Instead, we as believers are to rely on the Holy Ghost's guidance and derive ministry from the revelation of the New Testament. Now, this is not to say that the practice of casting lots is condemnable in this day and age. Consider this excerpt from The Tapestry by Edith Schaeffer;
    'It was 5:30 a.m. and Francis Schaeffer had an agonizing decision to make. Before his father walked out the front door to go to work, he wanted to hear what his 19-year-old son was going to do. Francis was a year out of high school and struggling to know God's will. He had put his trust in Christ as savior the year before, and that decision had turned his life upside down. his parents wanted him to stay home and become a mechanical engineer - something Francis had wanted to do as well - but now his heart was pulling him in another direction.
    He sensed God leading him to go away to college to prepare for ministry. He told his father that he needed a few more minutes to think, then he went off to the cellar to pray. He wept as he asked God for help. Finally, in desperation he took out a coin and said, "Heads, I'll go." It was heads. Then he pleaded, "God, be patient with me. If it comes up tails this time, I'll go." It was tails. "Once more, God. Please let it be heads again." It was heads. Francis went back upstairs and told his father, "Dad, I've got to go." Although later he said he would never advise anyone else to use the same method of finding God's will, Francis felt that his decision was right.' 
     So, could I cast lots to seek guidance in a decision? Totally. Would it be a bit nonspiritual? Not if I've acknowledged the Lord, taken council from His principles in the Word, used common logic, and taken advice from my peers. It should be a last resort and more importantly: should only be done when choosing between good options. Flipping a coin for any arbitrary decision is a foolish way to avoid making one's own decisions based on their sensibilities.

    When it is imperative that a decision be made, but you've used all your resources and there is no clear answer, simply make a choice. You were given the freedom to do so. But if you are paralyzed by indecision, go ahead; pray to God and flip a coin. God can be glorified by either decision.

    To paraphrase the venerable Luke Navarro, God is the Gamemaster. He is in control and He works in the lives of those who have the heartfelt desire to please Him.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Long Days and Longer Work Schedules

    And so I've returned from my fourteen hour shift and the brick factory. And now, as I look forward to my next fourteen hour shift in eight hours, I'm left to carefully juggle sleep and blogging. So this week I'll maintain that brevity is the better part of valor, to paraphrase the venerable adage (and to quote a certain favorite pillow-wielding actor at the same time, bonus point if you can guess!). Life is hectic. Theological debates, sporadic-but-heavy-handed work hours, helping out with my roommates adorable children, church, bible study, I could continue ad infinitum.

My point, well, I have no point. I'm simply writing what my fingers choose to articulate on the keyboard. Today, unfortunately, will not be a day of tabletop insight or theological discussion. Instead, I have a silly video to share with you.I believe there is one expletive in the second half of the skit, so for those particularly sensitive to harsh language, be forewarned. But don't worry! It's still relevant.

Even if it is super dorky.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Short History of Dice


Just A Little Something
    So this week's content is going to play out a little differently than our usual weeks. Tonight I have an interesting little video about the history of dice; where they come from, what cultures used them, etc. This abridged bit of content is aimed at accomplishing two things: A.) To segue into my next topic; the use of casting lots (see what I did there?) in the Bible and it's cultural and religious significance, and 2.) To give me time to finish my research on the aforementioned subject. "The History of Dice in Under 6 Minutes" is an interesting little video (albeit the humour is slightly dodgy). Any expletives are edited out if that is something that concerns you. In the mean time, keep an eye out for another, more extensive article, coming later this week!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mental Health & Gaming

Art by Cynthia Lane Armstrong
My Own Struggles
    So, I've struggled with 'clinical depressive disorder' for as long as I can remember (though admittedly, my memory is terrible). Various abuses (non-familial, mind you. My family is very great) during my childhood lead to low self-image which in turn lead to a self-deprecating attitude. Upon reaching middle school, I had become suicidal and obsessively self-mutilating. It was a dark time in my life; I had isolated myself emotionally, fallen away from my faith in Christ, and reciprocated my hurt by lashing out at others and acting rebelliously.
    By grace of God, I emerged from this dark place thanks to so many blessing He poured into my life all at once, when I needed them the absolute most. Before the day arrived that I would take my own life, the woman who would become my fiance grew to care for me and this relationship that had burgeoned pulled me away from the proverbial ledge. Together, we put my pieces back together and resolved to found our relationship by our faith. To this day, it bewilders me that the young, selfish, ignorant boy that I once was could possibly make such a decision. But again, all by the grace of God.

    Those days, I had very little solidarity with friends or family. Many of them were as troubled as I was in varying degrees, and I was ashamed to reveal my angst lest I be discarded by my peers. So, we would play video games and later, tabletop games as I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. But being the sort of person I was, the games were frivolous; saturated in 'murder-hoboism' and crude humour.
    Today, however, I have learned to use this painful past as a powerful tool in my experience with other people who are hurting. Dozens and dozens of times, I have been stopped and asked about the absonant marring that webs across my forearm. At the store, during my time at college, at friends' houses, people ask me why I would resort to something so drastic, why I choose not to hide the scarring, if I have any regrets. My answer, summarily, is this: With that past behind me, I must live with the repercussions. And in doing so, I have been given the opportunity to help others who hurt the way I did.

Therapeutic Gaming
    Now before I start to ramble, this is not some sob story. My life is grand and I love living it. Rather, I want to signify the importance of building relationships that is oft overlooked (at least to the extent that I have perceived) and how detrimental an absence of them can be. To finish this terrible segue, this is why I fell in love with tabletop games. By living vicariously through a fictional character, I could allow myself to build relationships with the others at the table.

    Thanks to the great guys over at the Saving the Game podcast, I learned clinical therapy had taken a foray into the world of roleplaying games. The Bodhana Group; a non-profit organization that specializes in the holistic treatment of children and adolescence impacted by sexual trauma, uses therapeutic role-playing games as a medium to socialize, build empathy, and provide insight into moral decision making. At the time I had learned about them I thought it was an amazing prospect. Really, it is a very logical strategy and I'm not sure why it was so surprising to me. Roleplay being used for therapy is exceptionally common. Revolving the roleplay around a constructed and ordered game would logically provide further benefit, both for the therapist and the patient.

    So, from the perspective of a naive young man, this 'gaming therapy', if you will, sounded sensational. I'm totally jazzed about the prospect of role-playing and tabletop games being able to provide more than just a source of entertainment and actually help people who are hurting. However, before I jump to any conclusions, the right half of my brain yearns to know if it works. This is difficult to quantify as I am not a therapist, nor do I have any experience in the discipline. So, I thought I'd do some research on the subject and its efficacy.

    I won't bore you by regurgitating the condensed notes of the studies and organizations I found, as I had trouble understanding a portion of it even as I read it (I'm afraid I am unfamiliar, as it seems, with the therapist vernacular). Most prominently, I came across two studies: one was a study conducted in France on the effects of  regular tabletop gaming on cognitive decline and dementia in the elderly. Of the 3675 non-demented patients, 32.2% reported regular play of at least once per week. Of the 3675 participants, 840 developed dementia during the 20 year follow-up. According to their results, the risk of dementia was 15% lower in game players than in non-players.
    Additionally, a study was conducted in Grand Valley State University, Michigan, on the use of tabletop game intervention to reduce mental illness stigma among nursing students. 38 nursing students participated which showed an increase in empathy from the students.

Going Beyond
    So, it would appear that there is evidence to support the efficacy of tabletop games and their uses in mental health. These are excellent steps to take, but it is important for me to reiterate; while playing games and providing therapy for those of us that are hurting and need treatment is certainly an admirable act; it seldom results in a permanent fix to the problem. The emphasis that we should place on this is the relationships we build with each other. As a Christian, I am called to be engaged in others' lives. Sadly, it is easy to disconnect relationships from good deeds and charity and we tend to have difficulties making that distinction as a culture.
    What's important is to build relationships with those who are pushed to the margins. Defend them, be with them, be in solidarity with them. Show them Christ by living like Christ in their lives.

    I would say that someday I hope to build a ministry of games to help those that hurt the way I did those years ago. But far more importantly, I pray that I can step into those peoples' lives and show them the love and caring that they require.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Resolve

    So here we are, 8:30 in the evening and I've made no success in coming up with something to write about. The night hangs in the sky quietly as the colors of the day fade to gray; a quiet reminder that Wednesday is drawing its final waking breath. These last couple weeks have been some of the busiest in my short life, and I'm thankful for all that I've gotten to accomplish and the opportunities I've had to support people. 
    I've resolved to post on Casting Lots every week, no matter the circumstances. So despite the fact that I have no plans or ideas for this article, I sit here before you to write whatever it is that decides to flow from my fingertips onto the keyboard.

InnRoads
    It has been on my heart for some time now; this subtle call that I've felt towards the InnRoads community. If you're reading this blog and are unfamiliar with InnRoads Ministries, I would first ask you how you found me, but I would also ask you to become acquianted with them. They are a ministry of believers (that's churchy-talk for 'Christians') who try to live Christ through their love of games, tabletop or otherwise. 
    Be it the Holy Spirit or simply camaraderie, I've been drawn towards the InnRoads community with the strong desire to support. Sure, I write articles and things and post them to the Tavern (the InnRoads Facebook group), but blogs posts and game advice aren't what strengthen a community. A community is founded on relationships with each other and with God. So little by little, my desire is to build a relationship with the men and women there; a task that is daunting for me, who by nature must exert great effort to socialize with others.

    So, I suppose this is my love letter to the InnRoads community. Maybe that's weird, but I suppose that when you write without an intentional topic, whatever it is that's in the back of your mind comes out to influence it.

Anyway, next week I shall endeavor to find some constructive content for you to enjoy. Until then...


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Masterwork Theatre: A Tale From the Coast, Part II

Art by Felipe de Barros
    "So, where were we?" I sat down to the table, back from the gas station with Doritos and Full Throttle. "Oh, we're at Port Maverick to talk to our supplies guy, uh..."
    "Edwardo Dundergruff; halfling ex-military," I reminded him,
    "Right, right. And then Guillermo was about to do something stupid," Derby said between handfuls of chips.
    "Don't worry that cute head of yours, baby. I've got this under control." Guillermo took a swig of sodapop and we resumed play.

~
    Fulvar's eyes widened with indignance as they stepped down the gangplank. A beardless Dwarf with a shorn pate stood at the edge of the pier with a clipboard in hand. Fulvar thought to himself, what sort of sick minded Dwarf would shave his beard off? Truly, this must be a base and sordid city with beardless Dwarves tramping about. And in a place of office! Faldun nearly protested aloud, but somehow he held his tongue. It was likely that Jim would get them enough trouble as it is.

    "Names." The dock official spoke curtly. Clearly this duty of his was not pleasing to him (though, by the look of the man, it would be safe to assume that there are very few things that are). Jim Crosby smiled defiantly. He would not let his good mood be spoiled by this stout sourpuss. "Name of Jim, lad; Jim Crosby. This here is my associate Faldun, pleasure to meet you, sir. Might I ask jus-"
    "Yes, very good," the Dwarf interrupted, "And how long do you expect to stay in Port Maverick, sirs?" He scriveled something on his little board, having yet to bother making eye contact with the now very bothered Jim. "Overnight stay," Jim muttered at the bald little man. He handed his clipboard to another official nearby and stepped onto a small crate, giving him the height necessary to open a much larger crate.
    "Now, if you would sir, please remove any weapons, armor, magical apparatus, or symbols of power, religious or otherwise into this crate. We will seal it with the date of your arrival and stamp it with your names and it will be stowed on your returning boat home."

   At this point, Jim decided he'd had quite enough. "Well, being a humble monk of Melora, the only armor I got is my humble garbs," he explained, "but rules are rules I suppose." And with that, Jim turned and dropped his trousers, mooning the discourteous Dwarf. "Now, if you don't feel I've been thorough, feel free to frisk me."

~

    The laughter eventually died down. My palm to my face, I asked Derby what he planned on having Faldun do. "Well, I hate this guy with a burning passion. But I also don't want to go to jail," he pondered his options carefully as I thought to myself whether this particular dock official was the type to rough a guy over before taking him into custody. I decided the Dwarf thought he was above such actions, but explained that a few armed guards have approached at the beardless Dwarf's request.
    "Diplomacy, check!" Derby exclaimed, "We don't need to make things physical, right? We're better than that. How about we pay him, say, a fine for indecent exposure and get this business over with. I'm sure he doesn't want to be around us any more than we want to be around him." I nodded in agreement, musing at the fact that a Dwarf was covering for a Human's social misstep. "Go for it."

"Cool." The die hit the table. "I got a seventeen."

~

"Well we're down a few gold, but at least we're not in jail," Faldun remarked, placing his coin purse back into the folds of his doublet. "Maybe next time take it easy on the nudity, okay?" They headed to the census and excise office to pickup their gear from the ship's cargo. Jim scoffed, "Oh, don't spoil my fun. Didn't you see that guy? He was a putz. I'm not even a Dwarf and I was offended by that ugly naked baby face." Faldun laughed as he opened the door to the building, "Your words are poetry, Jim."

    Now, with neither their gear nor themselves in custody, Jim and Faldun rummaged through the crate of their equipment and found their personal effects. But at the bottom of the box, they saw something else; a small scrap of paper, ornately scrawled on in cursive.

                 "Meet at the Leaning Lady. Midnight.                                  
                                                                                 ~Mister Whispers"

    Jim and Faldun exchanged glances nervously. Port Maverick was seeming more suspicious each minute they spent within it's confines.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Thirst for Expansion



    So we celebrated my fiance's birthday yesterday. We invited a few good friends and coworkers over and busted out the board, card, and dice games. We played our usual favorites; Munchkin, Liar's Dice, Boss Monster, et cetera, but a friend of ours came over with a new game for us to play as a birthday gift. It was called Forbidden Desert. We up it over to the table and he began to explain to us how it worked and all the fun he'd had playing it at home.

    He explained to me that essentially, you play as a group of steampunk-esque explorers in search of a lost city hidden by the sands of a desert. A storm picks up and your airship crash lands amidst the dunes, at which point you must survive the storm as you excavate the city in search for ancient technology while you repair your ship and escape. Needless to say, I was instantly intrigued. I love cooperative games like X-Com or Pandemic, and the steampunk aesthetic is just gravy on the cake. So, we cracked the box open, read the rules, and set the game up at the table.

    Sitting down, we were each randomly doled out a sort of class card. I was the miner. Being the only character capable of climbing over tiles that had been buried in sand, I was responsible for bringing my friends through the most treacherous areas that the storm had hit. We began excavating, collecting equipment from the city ruins under the sand. Our archaeologist dug up jet packs, desert-clearing duneblasters, and solar shields as our meteorologist tried his best to keep the sandstorm at bay. 
    But try as we might, the sun beat down on us harder and harder as our cantines grew drier and drier. As we treaded towards our final hope; an oasis, brimming with fresh water. We clambered towards this little paradise in the desert as the storm picked up but it faded away; a mirage in the desert. We were tiles and tiles away from the next closest water source as the sun beat down on us once more. It was over.

     So we died in the desert, but the table didn't erupt with frustrated groans and disappointment. Rather, we cheered at how far we'd gotten on our first go and we were raring to start the next round. The game was challenging, even on the lowest possible difficulty, and challenged you to really strategize as a team (as all good cooperative board games should). For only $20 (depending on where you buy), Forbidden Desert is pretty affordable.

     Of course, as is oft the case with board games the balance of the game is not perfect (is it ever, though?). Even after my first few rounds I could see factors that have the potential to throw off the games balance, but I would argue that it is a negligible level. My only real complaint about this game is that there isn't more of it. I'm thirsty for content that adds new flavor to the game.

    In conclusion, I'm not very good at closing reviews like this, so I'm just sort of going to leave it hanging in the air.
    See you next week!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Masterwork Theatre: A Tale From the Coast, Part I

Art by Abigail Larson
 Good evening, and welcome to Masterwork Theatre. Today, we bring you a tale from Avinter; a land of crooked courtiers and ethnic estrangements, in a country called Balthir. As the story begins, we find two very good friends who have lived a long life of sojourning: Jim Crosby, a rough-edged but easygoing fellow, and Faldun, a Dwarf from the land of Mordūn to the East who took to the seas to sate his aspirations of adventure. After a lifetime of wanderlust, this unflappable duo has hung up their bootstraps, retiring to the exotic Aibrel Island of the coast of the province of Avinter where they opened their own tavern, christening it the Vrock Lobster.
 Since it's opening, their surf & turf beach bar became a popular hot spot for tourists and travelers along the coast and brought bountiful trade to the natives of the island. Bards performed every night with music, comedy, and shows of prestidigitation. Gambling tournaments of all kinds were held on weekends, and the food and drink was exquisite. They even hosted great Luau ceremonies every full moon for the natives.

 Unfortunately, the Vrock Lobster's reputation tended to rein in unwanted attention just as easily. As months passed, a nasty lot of unruly thugs calling themselves the Jawbreakers started sending goons down the the bar, demanding a cut from their profits.
 Jim and Fulvar took many actions in attempt to end the harassment, but Avinter officials paid little mind to Aibrel Island and its inhabitants. To top it all off, weeks worth of their supplies had disappeared. With no news from their supplier, the owners and proprietors of the Vrock Lobster were given no other option but to investigate the problem lest the bar sink into debt.

 Leaving the Lobster in the care of their trustred friend and employee, a native Darfellan by the name of Ooo!ha'poulapi!hoo Ha'olani!ohuu (Whom they simply called Ooo!ha for short; neither of them really did get the hold of properly pronouncing the dolphin-like language of the Darfellan),  Jim and Faldun took a charter ship to the city of Port Maverick to look for supplies and answers.

~

 "Okay, so we're at sea on the charter ship?" Guillermo reached for a handful of chips as he looked over his character sheet. "Not quite. We begin in the harbour of the city of Port Maverick." I realized at this moment that I probably could have opened the scene better, but a game master deals with these things when he's on a roll. "As the charter boat traverses the dockyard's still waters, you -" Derby looked up from the arena he had been making around his figurine with his dice, "What's the name of the charter ship?" Whoops. "Ships aren't boats, yo."
 "Oh, uh-" My mind began to catalog a list of ship names as I decided which one I felt inclined to use. "Can it be called the Prowl?" Derby asked, raising an eyebrow. "Why the Prowl" I asked, expecting the worst. "So we can be on the prowl for ladies, amirite?" He and Guillermo high-fived, half out of commitment to the joke, and half because Derby was very proud of his pun. He always had a supernatural ability to make puns, consciously or otherwise.

 "Alright, deal," I conceded, "aboard the Prowl, you feel less than a warm welcome from Port Maverick. Few vessels can be seen entering or exiting the harbor and what's worse; now that the ship has anchored, the port authorities have begun lining up and patting down the crew and its passengers, confiscating weapons and magical implements." I began to draw out a layout of the dock on the dry-erase grid. Knowing my players, spontaneous combat was not out of the question. "Nothing to worry about," Guillermo boasted, "Jim's whole body is a weapon. They can't confiscate fists!"
 "Your holy symbol may be of concern, the port officials have even been taking the holy symbols of priests and clerics that get off the ship." Guillermo glowered, "This is one of the reasons I retired to a tropical island." As I finished the details of the board, I asked them what their plan was, "You only have about five minutes. Going to turn over your effects, or do you have something else in mind?"

 "Well, let me ask you this, how are the ship's crewmen responding to this shakedown?" Smart thinking from the Monk of Melora. "Looking around, it's clear the crew are pretty sour towards the port authorities." Guillermo's face was a visage of mischief. "I think I have a fun idea."

~

 "How's the inspection treating you, pal?" Jim Crosby leaned against the ship's taffrail, smiling wryly at an angry looking deckhand who was stacking crates onto a pallet. The crewman spat on the deck in the direction of the authorities. "An't hardly a port na'more," his accent was thick with the roughness of the Halsten province dialect, "Afewer an' fewer ships is passin' in by a week. Afore ye knows it, all'n shippers'll be out fer hangin'. S'a tragedy fer me an' mine. None mentionin' the trade comp'nies."
 Jim furrowed his brow, trying to understand what the man had said. Fortunately, Fulvar was accustomed to the ugly speech of Halsteners. "Aye, we're not short of trouble ourselves," he leaned towards Jim and reiterated the crewman's plight more coherently, "it would seem the shipping companies are just as unhappy as these guys are."
 "Well my friend, I think I have an idea that might help us both out." Jim wrapped his knuckles on one of the crates. "That is of course, if you're interested." Fulvar eyed Jim apprehensively. If Jim thinks I'm stuffing myself in one of those crates he's going to be disappointed, he thought to himself.

 The crewman letup from his work and turned to look at Jim with his one good eye. "Wha's 'is ye be blatherin' up, mate? Ye workin' fer angle'n gettin' me cargo pas'thru them harbor bulls?"
 Jim exchanged looks with Fulvar, who relayed the crewman's message. "Ah," Jim unfastened a leather strap he had wrapped about his shoulder and loosed an ornate scabbard he had slung over his back; an ornate shell with three swirling patterns etched into the face of it hung by a small chain from the empty sheath. "You see," Jim said, "My friend and I are monks of Melora, Matron of the Sea as I'm sure you well know and-" Fulvar firmly tapped the hammer slung over his back "Runepriest, Jim. You're the monk."
 "Nuance," he shot back, "Regardless, these trinkets, and Faldun's hammer I suppose, are important to us and we don't want to lose them. It's very likely, being the man that I am, that when the inspection comes to me a good deal of ruckus will occur." He looked over the crewman's shoulder; the line of passengers exiting the ship was beginning to dwindle. "If you were to, say, keep some of our things with your cargo, the problems I'll be causing for the authorities will give you a good chance of getting your cargo off the ship unabated."

 The crewman eyed the odd duo carefully, "I an't gon' be smugglin' any black bis'nes fer ya. One sting'n at's me head in'r stockades." Haldun stepped forward, showing the man his holy symbol, "It's just a seashell, see? Nothing illegal. We just don't want the hassle of dealing with all that bureaucratic nonsense to get our stuff back just to make a short trip into town."
 The crewman thought the prospect over, "Well, yeh, awright. S'pose t'aint doin' no harm no which way. An' if'n yer given'r harbor bulls a tough one, Tha's jus' a treat fer the crew'n me." The crewman accepted their holy symbols, weapons, and gear, storing them in one of the crates. Jim grinned a grin that would make Olidammara himself; the lord of mischief, start worrying what shenanigans Jim had going through his mind as he and Fulvar stepped in line.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Something Special

Good day, ladies and gentlemen. Many of you may have noticed my absence last Wednesday. Don't worry, I haven't died. Nor have I forgotten about you guys. Instead, I've been taken the time to work on a new project; something very special in fact. Now, I don't want to show my hand too soon, but I have a little teaser for you. Just to let you know I'm not slacking off. We'll return to our regularly scheduled programming today and I will have a normal article for you to enjoy.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Kicking Off a Campaign Right

Prelude (or 'Living Life Makes It Hard to Write a Blog Sometimes')

 So, a long Wednesday is behind me and a long Wednesday night lies ahead. Today I picked up a neat little book called Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt; a history of Dungeons & Dragons combined with memoirs of the writer. It looks like a good read and a great subject for an article. I'll be reading it over the next week or so and let you all know how it goes.

 However, tonight I find myself in a position I've found myself in many times before. Before me lies a campaign in its new beginnings. A few friends of mine and I have started a Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 game in which we are incorporating/reworking the Spelljammer rules from 2nd Edition AD&D which, if you are unfamiliar with the setting, is essentially fantasy-equivalent space travel. My players and I had devised a theme and direction for our campaign, but it was left to me as the game master to devise the opening to the game; how the characters meet and how they end up on this adventure.
 Creating a fluid and immersive beginning to a campaign is a daunting task, especially to beginning GM's. You have to create a scenario in which all the players (and their characters) are invested and immersed, create connections between the characters and to the world they're in, and establish the mood, themes, and concept.

 The easiest, and most commonly used method to address this challenge is 'handwaving'. There's a reason "You all start in a tavern..." is one of the biggest tropes in tabletop gaming. It's lame and cheesy and overused, but it's a quick, simple way to force your way through the awkward introductions phase and push into the adventure.
 Being a man who is obsessive about detail, I try very hard to avoid using 'handwavy' methods. The story, the characters, and how they all connect matter to me, even if they don't matter to my players (whether this is a flaw or a boon is up for debate). Anyway, I'd like to share some insight I've gotten from players, forums, brainstorming, etc. on how to start a campaign and how to do it in interesting ways.
___________

Where to Begin With Your Beginning

 Logically, the first step to take when starting a new campaign is to assess what the goals are in creating a first session. To speak generally, your first session should...
    • Establish your role as a GM; how you arbitrate your game and interact with your players
    • Introduce the setting, mood, and themes of the game you're running
    • Sell the game's concept to the players and immerse them in it
    • Make those players feel like their characters belong in the world
    • Bring those characters together as a group
 Ideally, a gaming group would do well to go into a new campaign in unity, building characters together with the setting and mood in mind to avoid awkward beginnings, stubborn 'lone wolf' situations, and the immersion disconnect of automatically trusting the fighter at the tavern with a badge that reads 'Player Character'.
 Give your players an idea of what the campaign is going to be like; the themes, the mood, the setting, and encourage them to build their characters with these things in mind. Often times, many problems can be solved by designing the group's characters to be tied to each others' backstory in some way. This is a great way to build cohesion before the game even starts and avoid the awkward introductions of why a lawful good paladin might be hanging out with a chaotic neutral rogue.
 Now, this option may not always be available to you. Sometimes players want to try something new (and sometime you have very stubborn players) and that's not always a bad thing. But as long as you have at least some cohesion in your group and players who want to be immersed, you can still bring a cast of characters together without that disconnect of immersion. Sell the world to your players; give their characters shared conflicts and motivations that align with each other.

 This isn't to say that you must work so hard and spend hours of prep time on your first session to make everything painstakingly perfect (it never will be). Starting in a tavern and handwaving the characters' connections and relationships is totally fine if those aren't things your gaming group care about. And more importantly, this isn't to say that if you have a problem player who actively combats group cohesion that you should stumble hand over foot to pull everything around this person's character. Problem players should be addressed outside the game-table with understanding and a willingness to address their desires, but also a firmness and an authority as the game master and as a person.
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A Couple Crazy Ideas

As a game master who has started a lot of games (far more than I have finished, I'm afraid), I've gotten more daring in my approach to a campaign's first session. Here are a few ideas to make your opening sessions a little more interesting.
  • The First Level Funnel: A fun and scary way of diversifying your characters. Each player creates three or four characters to play in your game. In turn, these characters are put through a traumatic and terrifying experience (way above their relative difficulty level) and whichever characters end up surviving become the party; brought together by a harrowing experience.
  • The 'Tarantino': When your players come to the first session, start the game off hot by dropping them directly into an intense situation (high octane combat, a big battle, a dramatic social encounter, etc.) After (or perhaps during) the encounter, describe a flashback to the players; the details of a mission briefing prior to the encounter they had been dropped into, or a tense situation that went sour. While this method is borderline railroadie, it allows the players to jump into the action and become engaged immediately and saves the group the worry of bringing their characters together.
  • The Prologue: Sit one or two players down at a time and create a short vignette-style sidebar for each character; how they came to be where they are now, how they're involved with the adventure hook, and how they know the other characters. This not only provides a set of defined circumstances in which to incorporate the characters into a party, it also helps the players loosen up a little and gives them time to get into character.
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And so concludes another week's worth of Casting Lots. How do you start your campaigns with a bang? If you have any tips that I don't know share them!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Five Gaming Podcasts That You Should Totally Check Out

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! It's been a long week at the brick plant and I've been spending the three hours of the day I have that aren't dedicated to sleeping, working, or showering on a new article about interesting ways to start a campaign. There are some great ideas I've found and tried but the article isn't nearly finished. I have resolved, however, to bring you something interesting to read every week. 

So, today I'd like to share with you a short list of gaming-related podcasts that I really think you should check out. My job (or at least the one that pays me money) pretty much consists of throwing paving stones around for twelve hours every night in a loud factory. So, as I'm sure you can imagine, I start my long night by popping in some earbuds and listening podcasts. It keeps my mind active and distracts me from the physical stress and exhaustion the job entails. I thought I'd share with you who I've been listening to. Each of these guys run great shows and deserve a ton of recognition. 

I will begin in alphabetical order.

Dungeon Master's Block

'Welcome to the Dungeon Master's Block, the place where we focus 
on the dungeon master, the most important person in the game.'

  The hosts of this fine podcast, Chris and Mitch, go in depth about tips and tricks to add to your arsenal of tools as a game master. I've gotten so much insight from these guys for my games and although I think the soundclips they chose as themes for the segments of their show are pretty cheesy, they have a great format; I love hearing the tales of their latest game sessions during 'Storytime' and the guests they've had on are phenomenal. My favorite episode by far has been 'Under the Sea' with special guest Rich Howard, in which they talk about aquatic campaigns and adventures which I highly recommend you check out. 

GameChurch

'A videogame podcast from a different perspective, with open 
and honest conversations about games, life, and belief.'

  Wow, what can I say about these guys. Richard Clarke and Drew Dixon never fail to blow me out of the water (and force me out of my comfort zone). GameChurch is a podcast in which our fine hosts have a pleasant and very real and down-to-earth conversation with a multitude of game developers openly, honestly, and without vitriol or judgement. As a warning, GameChurch is kind of a tough listen. Their discussion of religion, worldview, and spirituality provide a wide range of viewpoints from their guests and for those who are not accustomed to that it can be stressful. Despite that, please give them a listen. Although they're topics do not relate directly to gaming, they take an in-depth look into the people in the gaming hobby, which I would argue is far more important than the game itself.

Game Store Prophets

'The show where geeks get together to talk about God, and 
God-followers get together to talk about games.'

  Starring Luke Nevaro and Mike Perna, Game Store Prophets is what I call a 'variety' podcast about games, God, and day-to-day life. These guys are fun to listen to and just brighten up my day when I listen to them. They're huge dorks and I love them for it.

Saving the Game


'A Christian podcast about tabletop roleplaying games, collaborative 
storytelling in RPGs, and other interesting topics.'

  With hosts Grant Woodward and Peter Martin, Saving the Game looks at tabletop gaming from the perspective of a Christian and how to apply our faith to our games and using gaming in our faith. Personally, Grant, Peter, and Branden (a previous host of the show) have been huge influences in my life as a gamer and in motivating my desire to blog, game, and improve my faith.

Shark Bone Podcast

'A feeding frenzy of RPG ideas.'

  With the most interesting structure for a podcast I have ever seen, Shark Bone podcast creates interesting ideas for storytelling and tabletop gaming through the creation of a world with multiple districts, each featuring a single genre. Each episode focuses on one of the specific districts and creates something new to put into that district that can be applied to creative fiction or tabletop roleplaying. Definitely something that you must hear for yourself.
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Well, I hope at least one of these shows piques your interests. They're all great shows, hosted by great people! And just to be clear, I'm not being sponsored by anybody. I just love these guys and I want to see them do well. Anyways, have a great week my friends. I'll be here next Wednesday, albeit hopefully at an earlier time. 


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kalgar, World in the Roil



Creating Like A Creator

Art by Chris Scholten
   So I've been playing tabletop games for a number of years now. The majority of my experience has been in the fantasy genre. I began playing Dungeons and Dragons in high school and started by delving directly into the role of the Gamemaster (partly due to the fact that no one else wanted to). So I created a story for my friends and a world for their characters to live in. There was no planning involved, no preparation. We didn't have a Dungeon Master's Guide nor a Monster Manual. The four of us read the Player's Handbook, they rolled up characters, and I sat there thinking behind a screen of I-Spy books I had pulled from our bookshelf.
   As I'm sure you can imagine, when our game began it did not go very smoothly. Half of our session was spent consulting the Player's Handbook for rules which we later learned were to be found in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Most of the rules of the game were improvised. Any given creature they encountered was secretly just a 1st level fighter from the PHB dressed like a bugbear or a goblin, as I had not stats to create a monster with.

   Despite a clear lack of readiness and a ramshackled conglomeration of rules we'd made up on the fly, our first game was amazing. We stayed up through the night and played until the sun crept through the living room window (which, I admit, was incredibly strenuous as a first-time gamemaster), and had more fun than some of us had ever had before. We had created a living, breathing, somewhat ridiculous world newly enriched with stories of aspiring storm druids, treasonous blood magic, and doppelganger highwaymen.
   As the years progressed, I built layer upon layer onto this world that I had created. Kalgar, I decided to name it. The setting took its form as years of playing in this world shaped and molded Kalgar into what it is today. It became a sandbox to build upon and each campaign of players left a legacy to be discovered and explored by the next group. So, I had it on my heart to share this setting that my friends and I have created.

Kalgar


   The world of Kalgar is a vast one, home to countless beings. Many races have thrived and developed, since even before the longest spanning annals of written history. Many nations have developed throughout the world, some expanding and absorbing other nations, some oblivious to the existence of the borders outside their own. Great boundaries separate many of the great nations of Kalgar; mountains as tall as the sky gate regions off from the world beyond them and vast oceans separate lands with innumerable leagues of treacherous waters.

World in the Roil 


   In the early age, a great travesty altered the fundamental structure of Kalgar's existence. In Balthir, a kingdom on the continent of Caparice, a powerful cult of sorcerers known as the Animæus sought to expand the reaches of magic across Kalgar. The Animæus learned to augment their already potent abilities by tapping into the raw magical energies held within the planets leylines (great streams of raw energy that permeated the planet, bringing magic and energy to its inhabitants). The cult learned to combine powerful spells, break down arcane energy into it's base form, even imbue life with potent raw magic from the leylines. Led by a very powerful sorcerer, referred to by the cult only as the Essence, the Animæus opened a portal between the Material Realm, the Elemental Chaos, and the Astral Sea, using their combined bodies as conduits to siphon the energy from these planes into Kalgar's leylines. The magic surged through the planet causing violent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and city-sinking tsunamis.

   The world was thrown into chaos, and when the volatile magic reached the nexus of the world, where all the planet's leylines intercede, a great calamity erupted at the heart of Kalgar, tearing a hole into the Elemental Chaos. The world tore itself to pieces as boiling oceans, pillars of lava, and towering glaciers poured into the material world. Millions died during this tremendous event as the planet slowly repaired itself. In time, it reached an equilibrium. The rift into the elemental plane collapsed in on itself and the portal to the Astral Sea closed. The leylines adapted to the surging energy and created balance. 

   By shifting the Kalgar's celestial bodies in and out of the Astral Sea, the natural forces of the planet could prevent another surge of magical energy, using up the excess magic in the leylines with each shift. To the inhabitants of the world, this process had no effect on their lives, save for a churning surge of color and light that flooded the planet's skies with each shift in and out of the astral plane. This aurora-like effect came to be known as the Roil, named for the swirling, fantastic energies that now surround Kalgar's atmosphere as it shifts.

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   As you can see, players can have a dramatic effect on the campaign world. Before my players got their hands on some powerful magic and got tricked into joining a cult, Kalgar was as normal as any other campaign setting. When you let your players shape the world as they play, great things can happen that enrich your setting more than you would have imagined.

   What do you think about the World in the Roil? Are you big on the high-fantasy heroics (if you are, feel free to steal borrow Kalgar or elements of it at your leisure) or do you prefer the gritty, down-to-earth campaigns? What unique elements have you come up with for a campaign setting? Comment, e-mail, hit me up on your preferred social media website and let me know!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Morality & Magic (Part II: In Vain; From the Desk of M. Joseph Young)

Image by Gonzalo Ordóñez Arias
 Last time in Morality & Magic, I discussed the use of magic in fiction and my perspectives on it as a Christian. During my study, I concluded that the chief concern in regards to the concept of magic is it's source. Is this power drawn from God or from something opposed to him? Now, this can be analyzed clearly in the real world by studying the Bible and consulting with the Holy Spirit to assess whether something truly extraordinary is in line with God's Word.

 In fiction we must look at this concept through an additional lens, and that blurs the answer much more thoroughly. In our real-world struggle between the spiritual world, what are the implications of playing a character who affiliates themselves with a fictional deity? Is this idolatry in the eyes of the Lord, or is it simply storytelling whose spiritual weight is dismissable?

 Well, as a point of addressing this dilemma, I'd like to introduce you to an article written by the venerable reverend M. Joseph Young, author of Faith & Gaming and a model of inspiration for me personally. He wrote an article entitled 'In Vain' which has provided me amazing insight on the subject and I really cannot laud this man enough. I'd like to share this article with you as anything I can say, he has expressed so eloquently in this excerpt;
In Vain
M. Joseph Young
November 2001
 Is it appropriate for characters in a fictional world to call upon any deity? It is not a simple question.  At every turn God has commanded magic, that we have no regard for other gods; it is top of the list in the Ten Commandments, the concept behind many of the prohibitions (from sorcery to cutting the corners of your beard), and the reason why Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign nations.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  But at the same time, you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  We are caught between the proverbial two horns.  When we are creating fictional characters in fictional worlds, who do they worship?  On whom do they call?  Do we allow them to call on gods whose names and perhaps whose powers and expectations are different from the Creator?  Or do we risk offending God by using His identity in our tales, possibly misrepresenting Him in the process (after all, we have trouble knowing how He will answer our real prayers--how can we know what He will do in response to fictional petitions)?  On whom should our characters call? 
  At this point we might consider it fair to reconsider whether we should be telling fictional stories at all.  After all, there are enough true stories in the world which glorify God that we could never tell them all.  Should we go back to our consideration in Settings and again ask whether we should be imagining things that are not?  But we have covered that ground, we have come to this point.  It is time to ask ourselves the bounds of our portrayals of the supernatural realm:  do we bring the Real God into our games and stories, or do we invent and borrow imaginary gods to play parts on the supernatural stage? 
  Perhaps it will help to bring the question, and the possible answers, into focus if we attempt to list the possibilities. 
  We could include God in our games as He represents Himself in scripture.  This is not easy; for one thing, He represents Himself in different ways at different times for different reasons, and He does not always choose to tell us the reasons.  He ordered Israel to destroy entire cities with all their populations including the children and the livestock, but God has called us to peace.  He is not willing that one should perish, yet Himself destroyed the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness.  To say that there is a danger we might misrepresent God in our stories or games is to understate the case.  It is certain that at some point we will misrepresent Him, for we are fallible.  
Does doing so dishonor Him?  The Masorites who preserved the text of the Old Testament among the Jews for centuries were so afraid about misusing the Name of God, the four-letter Tetragrammaton, that they mis-marked the vowel points so as to indicate the word adonai, "Lord", should be spoken instead (leading to the completely unfounded use of Jehovah by early English translations); and some Jews today will write the letters G-D from the same reverence for the forgotten Name.  Should we so avoid making a mistake about God that we avoid using His identity in our games and stories? 
  Or perhaps we should include Him, but change His name.  C. S. Lewis did this, calling God Maleldil in his space trilogy and using Aslan for Jesus in Narnia (where in one volume the Great Lion directs the children that they must come to know Him by the name by which He is known in their world, but doesn't say what that would be).  Can we escape any affront to God by putting the thin veil of another name over Him, permitting us the comfort of being able to blame our mistakes on the fact that it isn't really Him we are portraying, yet at the same time avoiding any charge of idolatry in that it in some sense is Him?  I knew a young Baptist girl who sometimes prayed to Jesus by the name Aslan; to her, the Lion of the story was the same Person as her own Savior--it was as Morning Star or Lion of Judah, another title for His Person.  To Lewis, it was not possible to imagine a world in which God was not God if God was God in any world; thus the Gods of his worlds were thinly-veiled copies of our God.  Yet they were imperfect copies, something that could be excused since they were distinct from God by virtue of their names.  Can we have it both ways? 
  Or do we remove it another step?  J. R. R. Tolkien created Elbereth, the Creator God of Middle Earth.  He perhaps was not so powerful as God, and the people of Middle Earth did not rely on his power to deliver them, but on their own.  But he sent the wizards, much as angels, to help them, and he was worshipped by the elves, and those men who knew.  It was a world with one god, perhaps not The God, but not different from Him in character.  Yet by moving the identity of Elbereth away from God, Tolkien was able to make him weaker, less involved, and so move his story forward without having to consider what God would do at any point.  (After all, should not God have intervened against the evil of Sauron, who has all the marks of a fallen angel attempting to enslave mankind?)  Does creating an ethical monotheism that is clearly not that of the Bible provide us with sufficient distance that our god can be less than perfect?  Or does devising an intentionally different single good god even in fiction offend the True God? 
  We could go a step beyond this.  We could imagine a world in which there are many gods, or gods that are very different from God who are yet gods in some real sense.  Whether we get these from ancient mythologies or modern fiction, or invent them ourselves, they are less like God and more like characters, perhaps like angelic and demonic beings vying for control in the lives of men.  It is much easier to portray the spiritual battle that surrounds us if we can for the moment ignore the fact that the Good side has with it the One Who can win the battle with a word, Who can unmake all that He has made if He so chooses.  A world in which good and evil powers are more evenly matched may have philosophical problems (How do you definegood if some of the gods are against it?  Is it a matter of our own personal preference, or is it something greater than the gods?); but it permits the struggle between good and evil to be more poignant, more vital, and perhaps at least a little bit uncertain (if good cannot lose, what need is there to defend it?).  And we are completely free of any concern that we have misused the identity of God, as He is no longer suggested by our backstory.  We have admitted that our gods are imperfect, limited, fallible.  We are now completely free of any fear that we might misrepresent God, as He is not an issue.  Yet we are also most dangerously close to the idolatry which so offends Him.  Is this an answer, or a worse problem? 
  Given the difficulty involved in representing God in a game or story, perhaps it would be better to exclude Him entirely--to have no God, no gods, no spirit powers at all, in our imagined worlds.  Yet this would seem to be most offensive of all.  How can there be a world without God, if God is God?  To suggest this is to suggest that it would be better to teach that God doesn't exist than to risk making the slightest error about Him.  Yet every preacher runs the risk every week of misrepresenting God; and every teacher lives with the possibility that he might be wrong about God, and is encouraging others to believe a mistake.  I could not justify any world that encouraged people to doubt the existence of God, or to ignore Him and pretend He didn't matter.  Some answer must be chosen, and it should not be one that denies all spiritual reality entirely. 
  There is no easy answer to this problem.  You can't even escape it by refusing to play games or read stories, as each of us will have his own image of Who God is and will share that with others, with all its flaws.  We are going to misrepresent God; we just want to keep that misrepresentation to a minimum. 
  My own solution, expressed in the pages of Multiverser, is to suggest One Supreme God, and a multitude of created supernatural beings who could be called gods, some of whom work on His behalf as they are able, some of whom work against Him, none of whom are perfect or omniscient or omnipotent or any of the other things only G-D can be.  Then as I tell my stories and run my games, the characters interact with the admittedly imperfect angelic and demonic gods, and I rarely have to represent what The God would do.  But this is an imperfect solution; it misrepresents the natures of angels and devils to some degree, and in so misconstruing creation misconstrues the Creator.  Other solutions succeed in avoiding this pitfall, but fall into another.  If there is a perfect solution, I have not found either it or anyone who thinks they know it. 
 But I am convinced that it is better to misrepresent God in our games and stories than to exlclude Him. Understanding that we will never present Him perfectly, we should allow ourselves to represent Him imperfectly to whatever degree we are comfortable, and trust that He will use our imperfections for His greater glory.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Toes In the Water: FATE Core


So I've been hearing a lot of talk about the FATE system, as I'm sure many of you have already. There's been many discussions in Reddit about it, and many of the podcasts I listen to have given it lauds as a very unique and fun system. Happyjacks RPG Podcast and Saving the Game have talked many times about the system and piqued my interests in it as a sort of free-form, narrative driven system. The Critical Hit podcast over at Major Spoilers has even started an Actual Play of FATE Core, where they've devised their own superhero game set in Florida of all places.

I took a look at the system online to get a general idea of how it worked and found myself interested enough to purchase the rulebook. After fooling around with it for a few weeks, I thought I'd let you all know how it went!

So to give you a general idea of the game, Fate is system-agnostic. That is to say, it is not specifically tailored to fit any sort of genre. You could use Fate to play a game that's a fantasy, a sci fi, a noir, or anything else. It plays pretty loosely and seems to use the rules as a supplement to developing a game instead of basing a game around the rules of the system. Because of this, it's pretty easy to plug any setting into the system. My friends have I have been looking for a system to play Mass Effect, Borderlands, and JSRF themed games in, and usually resort to either overhauling a system to make it compatible, or using a lot of improvisation and handwaving. Overall, I'm loving the play, but I'm still getting used to the flow of the system. I'm not used to such a free-flowing, really rules-light style of play.

Right now, my fiance and I are playing a game based in the world of Hunter x Hunter (an anime), and were able to jump into the game pretty smoothly without having to modify mechanics, adjust or create rules, or re-flavor the system.

You can check out the rules online here, and I definitely recommend listening to the Fate game they're doing over at Critical Hit. They've entitled it 'Modern City', and give an amazing example of communicating and building settings and characters together.

What have you guys been playing lately? Have you discovered a new RPG that you're loving? Spread the love and let me know! One of my favorite parts of RPG's is learning cool new systems.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Creating Like A Creator: Pantheons

Creating Like A Creator

Art by Chris Scholten

Pantheons

Even before I'd become familiar with role-playing games and GMing, I'd been enthralled with building my own worlds. Drawing maps and inventing cultures has always been a lot of fun for me, and was a tremendously fun exercise to help me practice fleshing out my fiction. Today for Creating Like A Creator, we're going to examine the different ways in which you can use deities in your world to not only create a more ripe and flavorful world, but add tangible tools to use to stimulate your players imaginations and minds. Now, I'd like illustrate the point that this is not a comment on the spiritual weight of including deities in your game.

Generally, with most roleplaying game systems that have deities as a defined mechanical element  simply include deities for flavor and to add mechanical diversity to the magic rules, character creation rules, etc. This is all well and good, but I feel that there are more interesting ways to harness this concept.

Since 1st edition's Deities & Demigods, there had always been deities that governed various domains and had a portfolio of various aspects of the world under their control but what purpose did this serve? The concept of including deities in the game has become so ubiquitous that clerics and paladins merely fill out the forms to join their Deity's clubhouse. Matching alignment? Check. Hate the undead? Check. Congratulations, you're now a cleric of Pelor! Theoretically, deities operate differently and carry different levels of power, but a cleric of the deity of justice will mechanically function the same as a cleric of the deity of necromancy.

I'm not opposed to this clubhouse style of dealing with deities, mind  you. I just want to see something more, something different that my players aren't accustomed to. So I'd like to share with you the different ideas I've tried and more importantly, I want to hear your ideas. As it stands, I have two examples I'd like to share with you. Perhaps I'll detail more in the future, but as it stands, 60 hour work schedule puts a distinct limit on my writing.

Arbiters

This is my favorite idea that I've been toying with. Presently, I am devising a world which is not watched over by a pantheon of deities. Rather, it is governed by a council of Arbiters. These Arbiters are powerful personas that maintain balance in the world. While they do not hold the near-omnipotence of traditional fantasy-pantheon deities, they are more akin to manifestations of the natural laws of the world.

This concept was inspired by the Judges of the Old Testament, blended with a hint of inspiration from the Daedra of The Elder Scrolls, the gods of the Bastion video game for flavor, and the Judges of the Final Fantasy Tactics/Final Fantasy XII series (who, in turn, were inspired from the Judges of the Old Testament anyways). I wanted to create a supernatural power structure that was not uniform with the traditional struggle of good versus evil. Instead, the rules that have been set in place at the creation of the world are manifested and maintained in the form of these Arbiters.

When a lich tries to spread undeath to all life, or a tyrant seeks world domination, Arbiters arise to uphold the balance. They enter the physical world through human vessels who become transformed into the Arbiter that holds them (Think of the Smiths from the Matrix, only not so malevolent). Arbiters, while not omnipotent, are vastly powerful and, given the manner in which they enter the world, can be nearly anywhere at any given time.

Many mortal creatures give homage or even worship various Arbiters, but by and large their tributes are met with silence. Arbiters do not seek worship, only the preservation of the world they steward. There are, however, those that swear fealty to the Arbiters, dedicating their lives to the values and laws the Arbiters govern. Those who swear fealty are given in return the responsibility to uphold these values. Some are said to have even served the Arbiters directly for a time, fighting in battle, preventing catastrophes, or responding to disasters. There are many orders that have been formed around a common fealty to one ore more Arbiters; Paladins, Clerics, Monks, many sects from many cultures devote themselves to these ideals, independently of each other.

Primarchs

Primarchs are a concept I devised in an effort to run a traditional Dungeons and Dragons game for some of my friends who weren't comfortable with having a cadre of fictional deities that their character might worship. The idea came to me when talking to my pastor about the characteristics of God; the three chief qualities that determine God's vastness are omnipotence (having all power), omniscience (having all knowledge), and omnipresence (being everywhere at once). At this point I had read the Deities & Demigods handbook for D&D and according to their stats, the deities were none of these things.

This gave me an interesting idea. Perhaps the deities detailed in the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide indeed were not deities. Rather, they were powerful beings mandated by an entity that was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. So, like archangels at the service of God, I decided that Moradin, Bahamut, Obad-Hai, and the others were in fact Primarchs (a portmanteau of 'prime' and 'archangel'. I'm clever right? :P ) that served the Overdeity. 

Making the pantheon more allegorical and 'C.S. Lewisian' (Sorry J.R.R. Tolkien), made the world more approachable to my friends who were more sensitive about the subject of fictional deities. Plus, it allowed me to include the traditional pantheon for my other players who wanted a regular game of Dungeons & Dragons.

That's all for this week, my friends. Please, tell me about your games! What sort of supernatural power structure does your world contain? Does it contain any at all? I want details ladies and gentlemen. And please, feel free to use any ideas here on Casting Lots for your campaign. That's why I'm doing it after all.

Remember friends, heroes innovate, but GMs duplicate!


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Morality & Magic (Part I: What is Magic?)

Art by Jeremiah Morelli
If magic isn't the most tentative subject in tabletop role-playing games, then it certainly encroaches as second best. There are many, particularly among us Christians, that regard the concept of magic as a fictional element to be somewhere between unpleasant and blasphemous.

Whether it be Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time, or even Christian-inspired works such as Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, a lot of us find the idea of magic daunting. Certainly a valid concern; the Bible specifically condemns magic several times and there have been decades of generally subversive connotation associated with the topic in our culture here in the United States. As both a Christian and a fan of fictitious fantasy, I have put a large degree of thought into the subject over the course of my life. So, with the advent of the Casting Lots blog I decided to delve into the research of magic as a concept; as it relates to culture, scripture, and the games we play.

Now, while I have tried to be thorough in my research of the topic, I do not want to turn this article into a thirty page technical essay (though having said this, know that this article will still be a long one). Instead, I thought it best to break down the subject over multiple articles. So while I will discuss in varying lengths how different forms of magic translate in the Bible from English to Hebrew and Greek, the moral and ethical implications of its use in fiction, and the effects of using it in the game, this is (and I imagine will continue to be) a topic of immeasurable complexity and discussion. So whilst you read this article, keep in mind that different people can have different opinions without being wrong.

Definition & Context
Now to consider the implications in the use of magic in fiction, it is imperative that we first take a step back and look at what magic is; what it means in our culture and in the Bible. Magic is a word that encompasses a very wide scope. Here in the real world, the word magic most commonly used to describe a concept, event, or atmosphere which is extraordinary or cannot be conventionally explained. Consider Harry Houdini, David Blaine, Penn & Teller; while they hold no supernatural power, they use misdirection, props, and legerdemain to make the impossible seem possible.

This, however, is not the kind of magic we have come to deliberate over. What I refer to instead, is the manipulation or affiliation with supernatural elements.Typically, in this context we think of wizards and sorcerers manipulating some arcane energy to create balls of fire or conjure up illusions. This idea of wizardry and magic, which I shall call 'Merlinistic' magic, manipulates fundamental forces of their fictional world, rather than calling upon outside entities as a priest, or a druid, or a witch might.

Were we to draw parallels from this Merlinistic magic to our real world, it would be more appropriate and more accurate to compare it to science. These wizards harness the natural laws and forces of creation through the manipulation of their properties. Of course, there is no source of arcane energy here in the material universe, but much like a wizard in the fantasy world draws arcane power through a magic wand, Nikola Tesla might harness the power of lightning through a wound coil (And yes, my comparison of Nikola Tesla to a wizard was quite deliberate).

Now, the magic we see in the Bible refers instead to the calling upon of external forces for perceived power. Whether it be Joshua, petitioning God to suspend the sun and moon in their place, that they might continue to fight in the daylight, or the priests of Egypt calling upon their gods in a display of power. To draw parallels into fantasy, we see this presented not in wizardry, but in the form of priests, clerics, and paladins; these characters who act as a medium or conduit for supernatural forces or spirits. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to this as 'Mediumistic' magic.

Merlinistic vs. Mediumistic
These two ideas of magic appear in fiction in a variety of different ways. Most commonly, the differences are illustrated as arcane (Merlinistic) and divine (Mediumistic) magic. In the Bible, both Old Testament and New, the strictures regarding magic are imposed against seers, augurs, and diviners, which is to say, Mediumistic magic. God's followers were commanded not to seek council with these prognosticators, as this act in its very nature was offensive to God; to seek out power and council from a spirit other than God, even through a medium. Naturally, there is no mention of this 'Merlinistic' magic in the Bible, as it does not exist in our world.

The moral question does not lie within the act, but in the source. God himself has performed 'Mediumistic' magic, providing us with prophets and miracles throughout the Bible and beyond. To barter power with a spirit other than Him would be a betrayal of His trust and a hurtful thing to do to one's relationship with Him. On the other hand, one could not affront God with the use of 'Merlinistic' magic, as it does not exist and therefor cannot be harnessed. Even so, should 'Merlinistic' magic exist, it would have no greater moral bearing than lightning or gravity. It would exist as part of the creation God breathed into existence.