Blog: Incorporating Irritation


Especially dedicated listeners (or those that tuned in for Episode 50's live recording session) have been exposed to the longest-running inside joke in Saving the Game's history: Blarey the Podcast Train. I live about a block away from some railroad tracks, and when the freight trains come through, the engineers seem to take a perverse joy in laying on the horn just right, so the sound waves bouncing off the sides of the houses turn the entire street into a giant megaphone. There are certainly more annoying things in the world, but the blaring (blaring horn – Blarey – get it? Yeah, you really didn't need me to explain that, did you?) of that train horn in the middle of a podcast recording session certainly makes my top ten list of recurring irritations I wish I could be rid of.

But as long as I live on this street, Grant is going to have to edit around breaks in the conversation as we all pause to allow the train sounds on my audio track to fade into the background. The train has derailed conversations and gotten them back on track when we had to pause in the middle of a tangential discussion, it's spawned its own jingle (“Blarey, the podcast train – he's here to ruin your aud-i-O!” [thanks for that, Branden—Grant]) and has, as I mentioned earlier, become an inside joke among the hosts, to the point that, for all of its distracting qualities, it'll feel like the end of an era whenever I move and record an episode from someplace where the familiar rumble and deafening honk aren't going occur.

If you keep an eye open, it's possible to do similar things in-game. In Episode 55, Grant and I spent some time discussing our Shadowrun PCs and in particular, how my PC, Frost, developed an in-game desire to return to the punch clock world of honest (and stable) employment. We discussed how that developed out of a joke, but we barely touched on the fact that the (in-game) joke rose out of another PC's annoyance. The PC in question got into shadowrunning in order to avoid being part of the regular working world, and mine had the gall to drag him into that world, albeit for a short time.

Another PC of mine, a paladin with some psychological baggage, changed away from a hard, grim outlook when some other PCs pointed out to him just how ridiculous he seemed scowling and brooding all the time, and a third one managed to completely isolate himself from the rest of his adventuring party by being impatient and short-tempered with another PC who was obnoxious, but generally good-hearted.

It's not a complete measure of a person by any stretch of the imagination, but how people deal with things that are bothering them, both individually and in groups, says a lot about who they are and what their character is like. Some folks will take an irritation and co-opt it, making something fun (or at least bearable) out of it like the StG hosts have done with the train that comes through my neighborhood, wrapping layers of humor and shared experience around the problem until it's not really a problem any more. In this way, it's almost like the process of an oyster making a pearl. Others will allow the irritant to control their mood, like the last PC I mentioned. Others still will change because of it, and some, realizing that they are the irritant, will try to make themselves less abrasive. None of these approaches to irritating circumstances is the “right” one when you're creating characters, but it's worth keeping them (and any other responses you can think of; my list certainly isn't exhaustive) in the back of your mind for character development.

Who knows? Maybe that thing that's just a pain today will eventually turn into something with its own theme song tomorrow.

Blog: Bashing Against The Wall

Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." - Matthew 19:26

I have an odd relationship with difficulty. Sometimes it just frustrates me. I play most shooters and other action games as well as most story-based RPGs on “normal” or “easy.” I tend to get annoyed when I'm playing a digital card game and the random number generator seems to favor the computer's draws more often than not. But there are times when that falls away. I tend to thrive on a certain amount of pressure at work (even if most of it is internal), I love the feeling I get when I figure out a solution to a real-world problem, and I definitely like some more difficult gaming experiences.

I think the difference is that there is more than one kind of difficulty. One type represents being inadequate in some way I'm unable to overcome. This type of difficulty manifests in being shafted by a random number generator, being unable to twitch fast enough in a FPS or RTS to do anything but die, or even encountering an unexpected and unavoidable traffic jam on the way to work. I can't control the random number generator, as I age, my reflexes aren't going to get any faster, and there is no amount of good planning that will save me from the consequences of someone else, 20 minutes ahead of me, getting into an accident that snarls traffic in all directions.

The other type, however, comes from inexperience and invites growth. Some of my favorite gaming experiences have come from this type of difficulty. Way back in the late 1990s, Jagged Alliance 2 kept me on my toes and I moved a rag-tag squad of mercenaries around a map trying to liberate the oppressed country of Arulco. That game is really tough, but the toughness feels fair; enemies are subject to the same rules as you, and while they often have better numbers and equipment, they are seldom any match on a personal prowess level for your team. In addition, staying calm and using solid tactics will usually be enough to get you out of all but the thorniest jams. XCOM: Enemy Within plays out in a very similar manner, as do a number of other great turn-based strategy games I've played over the years.

Two more good examples are the entire roguelike and rogue-lite genre cluster and Lords of the Fallen, which I'm playing in preparation for taking a crack at a Dark Souls game. Like the aforementioned turn-based strategy games, they give you a consistent set of rules that everything in the world plays by, then puts you in a set of circumstances designed to test how well you can work within those rules. As you play, you can feel yourself getting better. When I first started playing Lords of the Fallen, a single rhogar marauder was more than a match for me. Now I can take on two at a time and usually come out victorious (if not unscathed).

Finally, there are deck-building card games, which I have very hit-or-miss luck with. I'm good enough at Magic: The Gathering for it to be fun in a casual context (and I love Commander/EDH) but I'll never darken the door of a tournament. I tend to get my clock cleaned in Race for the Galaxy and Dominion, but I love those games anyway, I can feel myself getting slowly better, and the success I experience in all three is more satisfying not only for the failure I've experienced, but for the knowing why.

There is a parallel, I think, between the struggle to get better at some game and getting better at being a person and a Christian. The Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of athletic competition often when he's talking about the Christian life, and I think he's onto something. Resisting my habitual sins and being more loving, more forgiving, and more learned in my faith isn't effortless. It's sometimes really hard, in fact. But I don't think we're supposed to look at the struggle as a futile one we can't make any progress in. Much like a more experienced player or a strategy guide, we have Jesus, and Paul, and countless other scriptural figures to show us at least some of what we need to do if we're going to overcome the obstacles in our path. And even with that help, we're never going to succeed 100% of the time. But much like with those pesky rhogar marauders, if we keep at it, we'll eventually find that things that used to seem insurmountable to us are now challenges we have a solid chance of overcoming.


Blog: Digging Shallow Holes

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."—Ecclesiastes 1:9

There's something appropriate to the fact that Solomon's words are about 3000 years old, and while he may not have given humanity enough credit in terms of technology, he certainly was right about our behavior. There are two places I think this is relevant, with radically-different levels of importance.

The first and more important is that, as I've heard a number of pastors say, there is nothing we can do that God hasn't seen before. Our shortcomings and sins are neither novel nor noteworthy, and neither is our cycle of struggle, failure, trying again, backsliding, progress, temporary success, and genuine forward progress. The story of the Bible is the story of humanity failing, screwing things up, pleading for forgiveness, getting it, doing better, and then sliding back into old habits and the cycle beginning anew. There is nothing we can do to shock God. There is no wrongdoing we can commit that will set us apart as one of the “special bad ones.” His forgiveness extends to all equally.

The second is that because of this pattern, human nature has been more-or-less constant for all of our history. We do good, we do evil. Cycles of freedom and oppression wax and wane, and one can find parallels with present events in history, sometimes very recent history. I'm sure everyone with an internet connection has seen some quote that, on the face of it, appears to be about current events that was actually from the 1960s. Or 1860s. Or 1360s. Humanity is nothing if not consistent, which is why, in my opinion, the stories we tell each other are so important.

It's also why they tend to be so similar.

There are archetypal stories out there (how many is the subject of much discussion and debate) but the names are familiar: the Hero's Journey, Boy Meets Girl, Monster in the House, and so forth. Each one comes with its own set of tropes and conventions. So many of us strive to come up with something original, when the truth is: we can't. There is at least one website devoted to cataloging tropes, and it is massive. In a way, that knowledge is freeing, if you let it be. Because there is still room to combine the elements in a new way, even if the elements themselves are familiar. And in so doing, we can create something more useful than something new: we can create something meaningful, and meaningful in such a way that it can be understood.

Meaningful doesn't always have to mean “deep” by the way; not every story we tell is going to contain some timeless, profound truth. However, if we let them, almost every story we tell, or that we let others tell us, will reveal some small tings about us. Telling stories together builds friendships, but it does so by showing others parts of us that we can't or won't show in other ways. Tabletop RPGs can do this better than most other means, if we let them. The collaborative nature of the experience means that the participants should be constantly playing off of each other – you can tell a lot about someone by the types of characters they create, and how those characters behave in-game. The experience teaches both us and our friends our own specific rhythms and patterns of thought while teaching us theirs in return. Oftentimes, all that's useful for is making the session more enjoyable, but in today's world of stress and disconnection, that's still a worthy goal. Every now and then, though, sometimes unintentionally, the experience will teach us something profound about ourselves, deeper than we expected, but you have to keep scratching the surface to get down there.

We often get into the good stuff, the deep stuff, the really useful and meaningful revelations not by digging a mine shaft straight down, but by digging a continuous series of shallow holes, one inside the other.

Blog: Resolutions

Every year, I and countless other people make New Year's Resolutions. And every year, most of us break most of them. The reasons vary, but most resolutions do not survive the year. That leads a lot of folks of a sensible but perhaps a little cynical bent to deride the practice as worthless or just a source of disappointment.

I disagree; I think the practice, even, perhaps especially, given the ephemeral nature of the resolutions is valuable.

For one thing, failed resolutions can be a convenient reminder that even the most sensible of us can't always predict how things will turn out. It can be a good hedge against Pride to realize that we didn't accomplish something we wanted to as long as we don't fall into the trap of self-loathing about it. That same reminder of our own finite and fallible nature, especially so closely placed to Christmas, can help drive home just what a wonderful thing it is that God loves us and chose to walk among us in human flesh, experiencing what we experience as we experience it.

I also think also there's tremendous value in sitting down once a year and really thinking about what you'd like to do with your life. Modern life is, almost by definition, busy and distracting. Even as an introvert, married to another introvert, with no children and a job that allows me excellent work-life balance, I find my attention constantly in demand for a thousand things, both petty and important, and even when I'm not busy, there's always Netflix and Steam. It's nice to have an annual ritual where we stop for a bit and contemplate what, exactly, we actually want to do with ourselves. (This same phenomenon, by the way, is why I also enjoy long car rides with my wife; driving removes a lot of the technological distractions and gives us time to talk.) There are some nice parallels between annual lists of things I'd like to make better about myself and the doctrine of Progressive Sanctification I believe in as a Methodist.

And finally, making some resolutions acknowledges the clean slate that a new year brings, but it also puts a few brushstrokes on the canvass so you're not staring into a void of endless, yet empty, possibilities. Or maybe that's just me.

So I'm doing what I always do at this time of year: I'm assembling a list of things that I'd like to do with my life and I'm going to try to accomplish some of them in the coming year.

With that in mind, I offer the following resolution-related suggestions:

- Pick stuff you WANT to do, not just stuff you HAVE to do or feel you SHOULD do. If you're anything like me (and face it, if you're reading a post about resolutions on the website of a Christian RPG podcast, you're probably more like me than either of us is comfortable with) you'll have more success and less guilt that way.

- Pick out a few things that you'd like to try, but never have. In my personal lists, this often takes the form of game systems, and I have a few in mind for this year.

- Pick stuff you'll want to “renew” if you don't get it done this year.

- Divide your list into categories. Here on Saving the Game, we've used the categories of Faith, Personal, and Gaming, but obviously those are driven more by the format of the podcast than anything else.

- Don't be afraid to let resolutions go if you realize you don't want them any more.

- Pick at least a few things that won't benefit just you if you pull them off.

- Have fun with it! Silly resolutions are fine, as are difficult ones.

- Share them! (Perhaps not all of them, but the ones you're comfortable sharing.)

- Check in on them periodically throughout the year. (Doing this is one of mine for this year.)

Happy New Year, and I hope to see you in the chat room on the 8th!

Blog: Community at a Distance

"And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

I've made no secret to anyone who knows me (or anyone who listens to the podcast) that I sit on the "introvert" side of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. It may come off as odd or even inaccurate to some, because my job is fairly asocial. I work in shipping and receiving, and for most of the year, I am a one-man department. Because of this, unlike a lot of introverts, I still have some social energy left in the evenings because my work doesn't drain it away, so friends often see a fairly lively, energetic side of me.

Or at least, they hear it. The blessing and the curse of the internet is that many of the people I consider my closest friends live in other states. I've never met some of them in person, though I've talked with them via VOIP services and game with some of them almost every week. I hope to meet them face-to-face at a convention one of these days.

And yet, that geographic separation doesn't make them any less my actual friends - in fact, I'd argue the opposite is true. Much like the more somber, slower pace of traditional services help put me in a better frame of mind for worship on Sunday morning, I often make friends better via the internet. I even met my wife that way. The slower pace of communications provided by forums and social media allows me to connect better with people, at least on a first-impression sort of basis. And it's typically less jarring and therefore easier to back out of a social media or forum conversation (or even end a VOIP call) than it is to leave a social gathering.

Some of the extroverts reading this are probably bristling now, ready with all kinds of admonitions that "internet socializing doesn't count." To which I can only say: which is more important to you - physical proximity, or mental and emotional engagement?

To shift gears slightly, this is one of the things that is also nice about gaming. It gives you another context so socialize in, with reasonably clear rules of engagement and something that all the participants are already invested in to talk about. Planning a job in Shadowrun or meticulously working your way through a dungeon crawl provides a greater level of conversational depth than simply talking about the weather, or at least it can. I'd argue it should.

By contrast, church can be an intimidating place, especially to the uninitiated. There are tons of rules, almost all of them unspoken, and the penalties for breaking them can be severe.  I think that sometimes we as Christians can get a little arbitrary of what we expect of people. Talking with other folks in the "geeky faith" community like my cohosts, Derek White, and Mike Perna DOES count as fellowship with other believers. If a new Christian is more comfortable fellowshipping with other believers at a slower pace online - that counts. If a long-time Christian is having problems with social anxiety or social fatigue and does the same thing - it still counts. To come back around to my earlier point, meeting together is being mentally present with each other, giving of your time and attention instead of merely displacing the air an arbitrary number of feet away from them.

Now, I'm not about to suggest that introverts and/or gamers of faith should never darken a church's door. There are a lot of things churches offer, particularly if you get involved. Opportunities to start "checking off some of the boxes" in the parable of the sheep and the goats are a big one. For example, I'd never have gotten involved with the local food pantry if not for some of the folks at my church, who opened that door for me. Another benefit is the ability to make connections with people who may not be as comfortable with technology. At 36, I'm about half the age of most of the folks who attend the traditional worship service I go to at my church. You're not likely to find most people in their seventies on Facebook unless you're one of their grandchildren (and even then you may not), but they often make fantastic mentors and role models. They have, after all, seen a lot of life in all those years. And there is something profoundly moving about being at a traditional candlelight Christmas service that no amount of high-definition video will ever replicate.

Still, I think there is a tremendous amount to be gained by taking advantage of the modern ability to engage folks we'd have never known existed in ages past. I've made real, lasting friendships, been challenged in my entrenched views, had some fantastic games, and grown in my faith - all without ever leaving my home.

Blog: Who Do You Play?

During our live episode, I asked Grant, mostly rhetorically, what kind of characters I play. My intention was to illustrate for the audience that I tend to play an archetype and then segue into noting that this is a fairly common practice. In so doing, I reminded myself of something I should have remembered, namely: "Don't ask Grant a question unless you're ready for an insightful answer."

Because Grant gave me an answer that I really didn't expect (though I probably should have): "You." And then he went on to enumerate his supporting evidence for that statement, which was more plentiful than I consciously realized.

Still, there's no denying that I put myself into my characters; up until recently, they almost all even shared my own eye and hair coloration (gray/brown). Player characters of mine are usually some member or former member of the "protector class" - military, espionage, or law enforcement. In a fantasy setting, they are typically tied to a god of protection, justice, or similar concepts. For reasons I mentioned in Episode 50, a lot of them had facial scars.

Something that few of you will know is that for years I was planning on a career in law enforcement. Learning what effects getting that wish would have on the rest of my life took the bloom off that rose, but I still have a deep appreciation for what Lt. Col Dave Grossman refers to as "sheepdogs" because I have a good idea what they sacrifice and put up with in order to fill those roles in society. Still, as much as I admire the sheepdogs in real life, that's only part of why I like playing them.

Protectors typically have access that more mundane folks do not. The character that probably represented the "peak" of the archetype described above was a superhero called Overwatch that I played in a Mutants & Masterminds game years ago. Despite having fewer points in his powers than any of the other PCs, he was (by unanimous agreement) the most effective character in the game. You'll notice I said "effective" and not "powerful" there. Let me explain.

Overwatch had been in the Chicago PD, and the US Air Force and at the start of the game was working for the DHS. He had the power of arrest and official credentials. Furthermore, he had investigational skills and the mindset of a law enforcer. That meant that he could walk into a bank or convenience store and get access to their security camera feeds just by asking and nobody was suspicious of his motives. He could patrol an area in an unmarked law enforcement vehicle, but if he needed traffic out of his way, it was as simple as flipping on the lights and siren. He could get dossiers on known bad guys. He knew how to look for what was out of place in a scene, and unlike most superheroes, if someone came after him, on or off duty, they were messing with a sworn officer of the law, not some random civilian. With all of that, his flight, low-level super-strength and potent spatial manipulation abilities were just icing on the cake.

Paladins in a lot of fantasy settings enjoy similar benefits, and even former members of these professions retain their skills. They also benefit from a solid potential mix of brains, brawn, and social abilities, making them useful in a wide variety of situations in play. Given all of that, is it any wonder I enjoy that archetype so much?

Still, if for no other reason than I think Grant is getting sick of "Peter Characters," I'll probably try to break out of that wheelhouse next time I make a new PC. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see how well I take to playing, for example, a wizard or a druid in a fantasy game, or perhaps a hacker or con man in a modern one.

At the very least, it'll give us something else to talk about on the podcast.

Blog: Close to the Edge

Something you all may or may not know: I listen to every episode of Saving the Game after it releases. As the only regular host who has never done audio editing, if I don't make a conscious effort to listen to the episodes after they're released, I never get to hear them. Usually, that experience is just a nice refresher of an interesting conversation I had with some friends that happened to be recorded, but every now and then, I get hit with something like this: toward the end of our episode with Ken Hite, Ken asked a question in the segment about horror and Christianity that I didn't actually answer. Fatigue took over and I wound up going on a rambling tangent, but the question was good enough that after listening to the final episode and facepalming for a few minutes, I decided that it still deserved an answer.

The question was: “Any times when you've been playing horror games and thinking 'oh, that was a little close to the edge for me'?”

My answer back on the 2nd when we recorded was a long rambling monologue about using Christian tropes in horror, which completely missed the point of the question and also kind of cut my co-hosts off from that conversational road by the time it was over. (Sorry guys; I was not at my best that evening.)

The real answer is “Yes,” but the specific games weren't ones which I had in mind at the time.  The first example was in my friend Kevin's Ravenloft game which I've referenced a number of times on the podcast. Why I didn't remember it at the time of the recording is beyond me; Ravenloft is a horror setting, Branden brought Ravenloft up earlier in the podcast, and the Ravenloft game was one of my favorites of all time.

The point of the Ravenloft game was that the player characters were Dark Lords of Ravenloft that were getting second chances and didn't remember; I was given Lord Soth to play (though I didn't realize it until much later; Kevin's GMing skills made that revelation alone a pretty unsettling turn of events). During one of the sessions where my PC finally came to grips with who and what he was, Kevin co-opted me to play him as the evil person he used to be, and he did some pretty dark and cruel things. Ultimately, the rest of the party broke him out of the cycle of replaying evil memories and he was a changed (if still flawed) person, but that was pretty unsettling.

The second incident was at Fear the Con 7, in a con game of Ragnarok: Fate of the Norns. The story had us, a bunch of Viking warriors, fighting against some “servants of the White God” - Crusaders with the serial numbers filed off. The game didn't hammer on present-day Christianity at all, and in fact portrayed the Crusader analogs as pretty nasty, awful people (which a lot of them were). But when the party tracked several of them down and slew them, I still felt weird about it.

And I think those incidents both point to the same thing: sometimes the stuff that makes you the most uncomfortable has the potential to teach you the most if you can take some time and think about it afterward. The Ravenloft game taught me that playing evil, monstrous player characters, even in the short-term, was going to hold the ugly parts of my own soul up in a way that I didn't like; while there is some value in coming to grips with one's own dark side, I wonder if, at some point, it's just “feeding the bad wolf.” The Ragnarok game made confront some lingering “nationalism” over Christianity, which is something I still wonder about the lines with. There are pretty clear directives in scripture, particularly in the writings of Paul, to love each other in the church, but what do you do when a believer you have no way of influencing publicly espouses things you feel are wrong, or even downright despicable? What are the rules of engagement with co-religionists who have “snapped” and gone off the deep end in one way or another? And how do I react when the roles are flipped and someone confronts me? I don't have those answers, and I wish I did. Sometimes when you get close to the line, you can see why, how, and what you need to do differently. And sometimes? It's as murky as the mists of Ravenloft.