…and thanks for all the star-spawn!

So, when I started writing this blog, I was writing this, writing some books, and working 3/4-time in retail. I’m now working 1/2 time in retail, but also going to school for my MA in Writing and Rhetoric full-time. Something has to give, and I’m afraid it’s this.

The blog will close down for the foreseeable future – at least through the end of the year, while I work on academics and writing that pays. Thanks for coming on this weird little journey with me.


Get to Church

Religion takes many forms in Tabletop RPGs, but the most common form in the fantasy line that has passed down through D&D and Pathfinder is the pantheon of gods, each god with its own set of particular concerns. More famous and powerful churches might oversee large concepts, like Justice, whereas some smaller churches may be practically obscure – the Forgotten Realms had a deity who went from being the god of death, murder, and tyranny to the god of fatalism.

This degree of diversity requires us to take a second look at how PCs and society at large would interact with religion. Much of the text written on where religious and secular societies meet seems to act as though the churches would occupy much of the same role in the game world as the Catholic Church did in our own medieval period. This is problematic on several levels – churches with specific portfolios of concerns will have their influence constrained, unless they can show at least a tangential relation to those concerns. Additionally, the prevalence of churches with competing philosophies makes the stamping out of heresy a less likely proposition. Of course, a great many inquisitions and heretic-burnings were, in fact, driven by the secular government, which used money or intimidation to get a holy imprimatur on their work. That’s definitely a story.

So, what ought we to bear in mind when speaking about the church. Four general constraints come to mind.

1) Gods are (probably) real. There is a discussion thread on the Paizo forums about the difference between atheist and dystheist practices, and that’s helpful here, because atheists have a somewhat harder uphill argumentative climb to make in a world where worshippers of gods are granted magical powers, to say nothing of places like Faerun, where the gods occasionally drop in for a visit. You can make the argument (as the Golarion nation of Rahadoum does) that the Gods are unworthy of our worship, but arguing against their existence is probably unsound.

2) Gods have specific concerns, humans do not. In a polytheistic society, the average layperson will probably pray to any of half a dozen gods daily, depending on their concerns. Your profession may drive you towards one particular church at least once a week, but even the most devout laity is unlikely to pray to the god of love and beauty for a good harvest.

3) Churches are unlikely to dominate secular life without secular support. This one is more true in our own world than many church critics might want to admit (Philip II’s debts to the Templars had a lot more to do with their being declared heretics than anything the Pope thought), but it should be obvious in a fantasy game world. Since so many faiths have an opposing church, most churches would probably focus more on promoting their own ideals than on trying to purge the unbelievers, since the unbelievers have gods of their own to back them up. Speaking of which…

4) Antagonizing the faithful has consequences. I’d post a link here to a “Here’s how we tormented the paladin in our party” thread, but I can hardly decide which one to choose. Aside from the out-of-game concerns over making another player’s game experience miserable, which violates Wheaton’s Law, there’s a perfectly sound reason not to do so in-game – see constraint #1. Pathfinder’s really excellent series of articles on the gods almost always includes signs and omens of the god’s pleasure or displeasure. PCs who antagonize the faithful should start seeing signs that their spiritual patron pays attention to these sorts of things and doesn’t approve. Yes, that includes when they’re fighting evil clerics. Reminding PCs that these are servants of higher powers, and not simply different flavors of spellcaster, can help make the institutions that are a part of the world feel more real and more consequential.

It’s worth a GM’s time to consider the relationship of various faiths to the setting of their own games, as that influence will help shape the society the PCs interact with. Whether there’s a state religion, or a generally ecumenical acceptance of some or all faiths, religion is a part of the fabric of these societies, and the person who doesn’t pray to anyone is usually something of an odd bird. Adding attitudes and consequence to your game world will make your players’ experience a little bit more High-Definition.

The Story So Far

A character’s skills appear as a series of numbers or perhaps an amalgamation of dots on a character sheet. They are also, however, the markers of that character’s upbringing and education. Developing the “how” and “why” of a character’s skills can write the majority of that character’s history, as well as go a long way towards establishing the parameters of their worldview.

Martial or violence-oriented characters usually have in their primary hand a physical manifestation of their training: their weapon of choice. Is it “an extension of themselves” as we’ve heard in so many stories, or is it a tool? Why that weapon in particular? Was it the one you could afford? Was it the one you trained with? Potentially more interesting than the death-dealing implement is the reason you resolved to learn death-dealing at all. In a harsh, medieval world, it might be a matter of survival, but those worlds come few and far between in RPGs. When Kings have armies or Mayors have police forces, why did you decided to learn how to do harm to your fellow human beings? Where did you learn and what else did they teach you about the whys and wherefores of violence? Training in violence was a noble’s prerogative throughout most of the medieval period, with the rise of professional mercenaries demanded by Renaissance men, who wished to devote themselves more to study (and/or profit) than to slaughter.

But where did one devote oneself to study, and to the study of what? Scholarly characters are probably more personably relatable to the average RPG player, because we recognize the signs of one of our own – the curiosity and the wish to understand. In the western world, we have a fairly communal idea of what constitutes a proper education, but those conceptions can be upended by questions of money or questions of time period. When there is no university, to say nothing of basic schooling, who taught your character to read and write? Rhetoric is part of a classical model of basic education called the trivium, where it was joined by logic and grammar, of all things. What were the basics of your education and how did it lead into the deeper studies of your specialty? Why does your specialty now demand that you go wandering into harm’s way (at least in most games)? Historically, educational institutes have been far more focused on religion, with more general education as the province of private tutors or specifically established schools. The concept of your character learning to write can begin to inform your PC’s mindset when you conceive of what he or she was taught to write.

Related to the scholarly character is the magician. While some magical systems make the art integral to a character’s being, most presume some sort of training and education. Were you the classic wizard of old, with a single master passing on the esoteric lore? Does the world of your game include large institutions of magic that produce new spellcasters by the score? Institutions will tend to have (and instill) different values in their students than will the itinerant master, to say nothing of the young sorcerer who pursues their art by plumbing books with little or no living supervision. A great many magic systems in RPGs bear little or no resemblance to the Western esoteric traditions of the real world, so your experience may hew closer to that found in fiction, but perhaps you’re playing (or wish to draw from) the history of strangeness of our own world, whether that’s John Dee’s Heptarchia or the spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky.

Drafting your character’s history need not be a creative writing exercise that makes you tired and your GM nervous about whether you’re interested in a collaborative story. Just looking at your character sheet and deciding where all those numbers and dots came from can set you on the road to a richer role-playing experience without a single “I was born in Eastasia…” sentence scribbled.

Ethos Building

When identifying roles in a party of roleplayers, one that inevitably rises is the “Face,” the character who does the talking for the party. The identified leader of the party is often decided by player, rather than the character. The truth is that being a leader in any given situation is a question of the ability to have a plan, envision its execution, and then deploy the plan, using the resources at hand. As a result, every character has the potential for some spotlight time as a leader, if they can identify their own power base and leverage it to establish their ethos to the other characters, as well as any NPCs that may be part of the plan.

Aristotle lists three different kinds of rhetorical argument. The pertinent one today is called ethos. Ethos was an argument about character – specifically, the elements of a speaker’s character that made them credible on the topic at hand. For the classic rhetoricians, it had to do with the quality of your reasoning skills, but a broader interpretation could look at the different bases of power that anyone can draw off of. A full range of the bases of power can be found at Wikipedia, but there are four that PCs can look to. I have shortened, folded, and spindled these concepts for ease of use in a gaming setting.

Personal Power – Referred to in the text as “personal reward power,” this is the sort of power we normally associate with the “face” PC. Personal power has to do with being able to offer people personal approval and them acting on that offer – in this case because you’re just so darned charming. High levels of personal charisma and training in social skills have taught you how to get people to crave your good opinion. Perhaps people follow you because speak convincingly of tremendous human achievement (“Ask what you can do for your country”), or maybe because they believe that you will appreciate their efforts, wherever you may be headed.

Position Power – this is normally called “legitimate position power,” but for our purposes legitimacy can be a little ambiguous. Position power is power derived from, well, your position – nobility, military rank, or a leadership posting in a guild, legitimate or otherwise. Position power gives you access to resources and personnel. Even if you don’t have a silver tongue, if you can call on horses for your party, or your battle brothers to bolster you in an hour of need, you have solutions to problems, which is the first step in being a leader.

Expert Power – There is power in being the gal who knows how things work. Oftentimes, the PCs who invested all of their skills in knowing what it is the party is looking at simply serve as exposition machines for the GM. But a quick glance at how high-intelligence characters can be portrayed – Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes – show something important: within that massive filing index of facts often lies the answer to the problem the party is facing. In gaming terms, this requires a little more cooperation between the player and the GM to enable a knowledgeable character to use their knowledge, rather than play a game of telephone from the GM to the other players.

Referent Power – It is not always necessary to be the leader of a group in order to make use of its resources. This power base is more likely to appear in games where the PCs spend most or all of their time in a single primary location – the allies you collect, by means of fellowship in a group or simply by building a circle of people you know – are, in fact, a resource, though it can seem callous to say so. We don’t generally think of our friends that way; however, we also don’t have to deal with life-threatening challenges as regularly as the average PC. If you’ve been keeping notes, as I advised, just having in your notebook the two or three NPCs that can help the party navigate the problem makes you a problem-solver, and a problem-solver is a potential leader.

Now, not everyone wants a leadership position, though most of us want to be heard from time to time. Learning to leverage your power intelligently is what builds your ethos – it makes you credible and increases the likelihood the party will listen to you the next time you have a crazy plan that just might work. A strong personal ethos means that you don’t have to be in charge all of the time, but when you open your mouth to speak, everyone’s going to listen.

The Best Offense

This weekend, I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. There were the usual assortment of jugglers, actors, turkey legs, and musical groups who swing between renaissance music and Irish folk. One of the acts, a comedy show, made a joke about Bill Cosby that elicited a few laughs and a lot of groans. Afterward, there was more than one comment about complaints coming in for management. That got me thinking about the ways in which we transgress boundaries, and how and when we can do so in a Tabletop Role-Playing Game. I mentioned previously the challenge of making sure that transgression meets with consequences, so today let’s consider how we might bring some of those consequences about.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about breaking the rules of the game – that’s a whole different set of circumstances on the why and how. Here, I’m talking about the perceived social mores of the society in which your game is set. Sometimes, the rules are quite clear – In Golarion’s Taldor, it is against the law for a non-noble to grow a beard. Sometimes, they’re more subtle – Public Blasphemy in the Forgotten Realms’ Waterdeep is punishable by a fine (an odd rule since some churches pretty explicitly blaspheme against other faiths as part of their canon). Aside from law, most countries in TRPGs, even as in the real world, have a boatload of “unwritten rules” that set the standards of decorum and appropriate behavior. In 7th Sea’s Vodacce, looking a woman that is not your wife in the eyes could get you a duel in the street from her family. Most of the time, these rules are only incidental to the story our characters are taking part in, but they are definitely a part of the world they live in, so some consideration of how our characters thinks about those rules, and which, if any, they would resist.

Transgressing can be comprised of nothing more than simple disobedience of custom, or transgressing the boundaries of what’s considered appropriate behavior. It could also rise to the level of civil disobedience, so the free speech loving blasphemer in Waterdeep would keep the 10 gp fine on him at all times. It could even rise all the way to outright lawbreaking, with no consideration for a justice system the PC considers to be supporting an unjust law.

I am, by political inclination, a transgression-loving free speech near-absolutist, but there are two considerations when moving our conceptions of personal expression against a stifling rule to a game table: First, we remember that this is a game and that our transgressions are not the story. Don’t let your need for personal expression overrun the story that everyone is trying to tell together. Second, remember that everyone together is telling this story. Collaborative storytelling must acknowledge and respect the creative vision of every collaborator. Show due consideration to the sensitivities of your fellow players – offending officious authorities in Kelesh should never be an excuse to deliberately offend your friends; a little of Wheaton’s Law goes a long way here.

TRPG settings can appear more stagnant as societies than their historical equivalents, and a lot of that probably has to do with the way in which laws and mores are presented. Unless the story hinges on a burgeoning revolution, most GMCs* are presented as law-abiding and inoffensive. As you consider both your own circle of friends, as well as the people you consider to be entertaining and/or speaking truth, I imagine you’ll use a few fingers counting off those who push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Injecting a little of that into your games, like spice for the food, will make your stories richer, more immersive, and perhaps even a bit more personally meaningful.

A Clash of Words

Often seen as a sign of madness, talking to yourself is one of those things that human beings do, but rarely admit to. We crack wise about it being a sign we’re going cuckoo or it being a sign we’re too stuck up –that we’re the only people who will listen to us. But let me, with the help of some really old rhetoricians, give you a reason why it might prove beneficial to yourself and your character to occasionally get into it with the voices in your head.

The principle is called Dissoi Logoi and it belongs to a group of rhetoricians who ended up calling themselves the Sophists. The Sophists believed that absolute truth wasn’t something we mere humans were capable of achieving, but that didn’t relieve us of the burden of thinking and coming up with the best ideas we could whenever there was a problem to be solved. Dissoi Logoi, or “contrasting words,” encouraged the would-be thinker to argue the position from the point of view of his opponent. Some Sophists even insisted that their students work to make whichever argument appeared the weaker to seem the stronger. This served two purposes: first, it made you empathize with your opponent, which hopefully reduced the general tendency to be a jerk (see: Plato). Second, if you fully understand your opponent’s position, and you still think he’s wrong, picking apart the arguments you just spent so much time ruminating on should be a snap.

So what does this have to do with you and some quality time engaged in self-argument? PCs surprise us sometimes. Sometimes we make decisions in game that, were we portraying ourselves, we would not have made. Sometimes we make decisions that, in retrospect, don’t represent our best selves. Turning on those decisions and arguing them out, from all sides, does the same rhetorical favor for us that it did for the students of the Sophists. More importantly, we begin to see where our PCs may truly differ from us, or if they don’t, which can lead us to discover things about what we believe.

Building just a ghost of the ethical superstructure that most living humans have (however slapdash) makes our characters consistent, and that strengthens the characterization. If your table is up for it, don’t be shy about challenging the worldviews of your fellow characters. Any idea worth having is worth defending, and exploring the ideas of people and professions, especially as their presented to us in the average game book, may lead to revelations about ourselves, about the game writers, and about the worlds they inhabit – maybe even a few moments of insight about the world we inhabit.

Game Writing (No, not that kind – the other kind)

Whenever I start a new game as a player, I pick up a new notebook. I really adore Moleskine for a lot of reasons, but in large part because I can pick an evocative design that helps me put another pin into who my character is. When I played through Shattered Star, I used a variation on this one that I received as a gift. Going back through it, I can see my wizard’s progression from 4th level (I came in late) to 17th, and the myriad adventures we had, as well as the loot we gathered – as a devout Abadarian, I took charge of tracking treasure.

As part of the TRPG experience, writing can feel like a bit of a chore. It happens in addition to your other responsibilities at the game table, and sometimes outside of game time. The notebook becomes one more thing to keep track of. If you spend a lot of time taking notes in your work or at school, it can make the gaming experience feel more like work, which is not what we’re after. However, if the fantastic notebooks I linked to above are not enough inducement (and if they are not, I don’t know if we can be friends), let me give you a few reasons to scribe some of your experiences in game.

1) Institutional Memory – someone at the table really ought to be taking notes, because eventually this is going to happen:

Player: “We go back to that guy.”

GM: “Which guy?”

Other Player: “The guy…the guy who knew the thing.”

GM: (Searching his notes and eyeing his players like the shifty characters they are) “Not really sure what you are talking about.”

If you make notes of, at a minimum, the places you go and the people you meet there (those you have left alive, at any rate), these conversations don’t happen. It is one of the limitations of the TRPG format that we can have encounters with people whom we would clearly remember if we had actually encountered them, and lose all knowledge of that person over the course of the week or two between games.

The non-roleplaying part of institutional memory has to do with a subject that may rub a few folks, especially my fellow GMs the wrong way – extensive notes might reveal the cheat codes. TRPGs are not famous for them, but there are several adventures that have the one NPC, the key location, or the mega-important thingamajig, that can make a lot of the game much easier. If you learn that the temple of amber waves of grain has a sheaf of wheat that can scatter incorporeal undead to the wind, then spend six months fighting the knights of purple mountains before having to face the hall of the ghosts of TV-seasons past, you will likely forget about that sheaf of wheat…unless you wrote it down. Sometimes games do this deliberately, sometimes not so much, but what the designers and their nefarious GM agents put out there is for your use, so long as you remember where you left it.

2) Pattern recognition – This one is like the cheat code, only a little deeper. Game writers, be they professional or poor unpaid souls, have their go-to challenges. Additionally, sometimes game writers play with themes that are never made explicit to the players (often due to some piece of lore about the dungeon/nation/evil theme park that the PCs simply don’t have access to). Making notes about what you encounter and under what circumstances can then have a two-fold benefit. For the story hunter, it reveals a bit of the plot that was never directly spoken of. For the game player, it can give a hint as to what to expect and how to prepare. Anything that can prove of benefit to both the role-player and the game-player is double plus good.

3) Help your GM out – I expounded last week on the virtues of supporting your GM in your mutual quest for fun. Making notes on where you went, whom you met, and what you did is a huge boon to a GM who’s trying to track monster hit points, XP, and other shenanigans. Obviously, the GM should also be tracking where you are in the story, but having a second set of notes on what has transpired makes that job immeasurably easier.

Bear in mind that no one ever needs to read these notes but you, so feel free to write what you want in a way that you can understand. It doesn’t need to be a constant activity – writing will probably come to a stop during combat – and you should always pace yourself to keep it from feeling like a chore. Scribing your character’s adventures, even in shorthand little notes, adds one more artifact to your game experience, and will hopefully enhance your fun.