Idle Thoughts on Role-Playing

I’m embarking on a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a number of people who go to the same Kung Fu school as I do. I’m the Dungeon Master, which means I’m the one who sets the stage for the players and who referees the game if necessary. Since four of the five players are beginners, I’ll also be helping them understand the rules, and orienting them a bit in terms of their odds of succeeding or failing.

(Spoiler alert: even though it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, beginning level characters should not try to slay a dragon. They will fail. However, I have a policy with brand new players: I promise that their characters won’t die in the first three sessions. If they really do try to slay a dragon, the dragon may just beat them up, take all their stuff, and leave them naked outside the nearest town. Or more likely, the dragon will singe them a bit, then say, “Okay, if you don’t want to die, you have to agree to run an errand for me…”)

As I said last week, I love planning campaigns. I love dreaming up new worlds full of wild and wonderful things. Also, since this campaign will only be the six of us sitting around a kitchen table, I love stealing stuff from my favorite books, comics, movies, TV, etc.

In my real writing, I can’t steal egregiously…but at the kitchen table, I can. So in the past, I’ve stolen from Doctor Who, Michael Moorcock, Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, and many many many more sources. For me, creating a campaign is a form of fanfic: as over-the-top as I can make it.

But one of the best things about role-playing is that the game isn’t just what I steal and what I invent on my own. It’s a joint creation of everyone at the table, all of them smart and devious. Players always invent their own goals and backstories—stuff that goes beyond what I could dream up on my own. We work together, developing the story from all that material. This means that a role-playing campaign emerges unpredictably from interactions between everyone present. Like good improv theatre, nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.

Role-playing is also an excuse to get together with friends. Perhaps that’s the most important feature. Of course, we could just get together and talk…but we probably wouldn’t, and certainly not week after week. Playing the game is fun, but it’s also a pretext to socialize and surprise ourselves in the process.

The next session for this group is Friday night. I may or may not report what happens; I’ll have to talk to the others about it. But if you’ve ever thought you might be interested in role-playing, I strongly encourage it. And perhaps I’ll talk more about role-playing games in the near future.

[Disclaimer: For a lot of you reading this, role-playing games are probably old hat…but given that some readers haven’t played RPGs before, I’ll write these posts assuming no prior knowledge.]

[Dragon picture by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Self & Character Sheets

I said I was going to write about meditation, but some tweets I saw on Twitter have aimed me in a different direction: the concept of no-self. Since this is a tricky thing to get your head around, let me come at it from an angle I understand better than Buddhist philosophy: role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons, you portray a character who’s represented by a list of numbers and descriptors. One of the numbers represents how strong your character is; another how healthy or wounded you are; and so on. You also have a list of skills you’re good at, a list of what you’re carrying, perhaps a list of spells you know, etc. All this information can be written down on a few pages which are jointly called your character sheets.

Other role-playing systems also use character sheets. Different games have different information on their sheets, depending on what’s important in the game—a game about superheroes needs different information than, say, a game where you play a pirate or a spy—but all RPGs distill a character down to a page or two of attributes.

Games have to work this way because games need rules, and the number of rules needs to be small enough that people can actually remember them. Inevitably, then, games simplify life, and character sheets are severe simplifications: you can’t really sum up a complete person in a few pages.

More generally, every representation of a person is a simplification. For example, a 400-page novel is just a long character sheet. With subtext, a novel can suggests depths that aren’t explicitly on the page, but it’s still small in comparison to actual life.

Even a very long novel is short compared to a lifetime. I just took a look at audiobooks of War and Peace, and they run between 60 and 70 hours. That’s a lot of reading, but it’s still less than three days. A good novel makes you feel as if you know the characters exceedingly well, but you don’t actually “live” with them very long at all.

Now back to “no-self”. My personal take on this is that your idea of who you really are is just a character sheet. It’s a simplification that misses so much, it blinds you to reality. It’s always off-base. The truth is that we’re constantly changing; right now we may be angry but thirty seconds later, we’re wondering what we’ll have for supper, and then if there’s anything funny on Twitter, and so on.

This isn’t just a symptom of modern distractibility—the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago. The human condition is that we change from second to second. Even scientifically valid personality profiles like the Big Five are only another type of character sheet. They may be useful in some contexts (just as character sheets are useful when you’re playing a game), but they aren’t the unchanging truth of who we are.

So what is the truth? How do we get at it? The answer isn’t finding the “right” character sheet that will encapsulate our “self” correctly. The answer (according to the Buddha) is to give up trying to find an encapsulated self at all. Just pay attention to your body and mind in this moment…and in the next moment…and in the next. Avoid trying to make a character sheet of who you “really” are overall. Just know what’s happening in the moment.

And that takes us back to meditation…which I really will try to talk about next time.

{Image of Stormbringer character sheet in German from Ingo Willms, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D from Wikimedia Commons}

Sharing: July 8, 2018

More links to stuff I like:

Comics: Marvel Unlimited
For $69 (U.S.) a year, Marvel Unlimited gives you all-you-can-read access to thousands of Marvel comics including much of their back list: all the way back to Fantastic Four #1 and even some earlier comics (from before they called themselves Marvel). When I first subscribed in 2013, I went back ten years and started reading everything Marvel had published beginning in 2003. I’m now on October 2014.

I should note that Marvel Unlimited doesn’t include comics from the most recent six months, so if you want the newest comics, you’ll have to buy those on your own. Or else, just wait six months and they’ll show up for free. (Well, for $69 a year, but that’s almost free, right?)

Role-Playing Game: Geist, the Sin-Eaters (Second Edition)
This is another Onyx Path game, set in the world of the Chronicles of Darkness. In this one, you play someone who dies but comes back to life by making a deal with a powerful archetypal ghost. This may sound grim, but the game actually evokes an atmosphere like Mardi-Gras or the Mexican Day of the Dead: hey, since you’ve already died, nothing worse can happen. So why not live life like a party? On the other hand, you gain fabulous supernatural powers based on the kind of things ghosts do in ghost stories.

Right now the game’s second edition is going through a Kickstarter, so it’s a good time to sign up and get goodies relatively cheap.

Podcast: Revolutions
This is another history podcast, dedicated to revolutions (duh). It’s now in its eight season, where it’s dealing with the revolution that killed the Second French Empire in 1870. Previous seasons have dealt with the English revolution (Oliver Cromwell et al), the American revolution, the French revolution (i.e. the biggie), the Haitian slave revolt, and more. The host, Mike Duncan, does a great job of making history accessible, even when the action gets messy (and of course, during revolutions, things can get very messy indeed).

RPG Setting: Divergent Hogwarts

I run role-playing games for various groups, and I thought it might be of interest if I shared some of the settings that I’ve “invented” (which often means “egregiously stolen”).

So let’s start with one I came up with for a group that included several teenagers. I knew they were interested in YA books, particularly the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth and the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. So I invented a setting which combined the two in a way that I hoped would appeal to them.

As is only right for a YA-based campaign, the background is post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of magic in our modern world. (I was thinking of something like the Conjunction of Spheres from the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it doesn’t really matter.) Things went to hell in a handbasket, thanks to the abrupt appearance of magical creatures and uncontrolled sorcerous outbursts.

Numerous enclaves and cultures arose out of civilization’s ashes. One such enclave was established by people who were fans of Divergent and Harry Potter. They created a school to train troubleshooters who could help other communities deal with problems. As you might expect from the school’s two inspirations, “Divergent Hogwarts” taught both magic and other useful skills as in the Divergent books.

Many role-playing games describe characters using an “X-axis” and a “Y-axis”. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the X-axis is race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and the Y-axis is class/profession (wizard, fighter, rogue, etc.). Each axis choice gives you a set of abilities. By mixing and matching (elf wizard, human rogue, dwarf fighter, etc.), you get a wide variety of character possibilities that can be further developed in other ways.

In Divergent Hogwarts, the X-axis was Divergent faction (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite) and the Y-axis was Hogwarts house (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin). Players would choose their character’s faction and house; each choice conveyed certain skills and attributes, giving the character a useful operating base.

For the game system, I chose Mage, the Awakening (Second Edition) from Onyx Path Publishing. Mage is well-suited for both magic and ass-kicking (as well as investigation and social life, which the teens were interested in too). Mage subdivides magical powers into ten arcana: Death, Fate, Forces, Life, and so on. Every mage has two primary arcana that they’re most adept with. In Divergent Hogwarts, one of your primary arcana was determined by your faction while the other was determined by your house. For example, a Dauntless Gryffindor would be good at Forces and Spirit, while an Erudite Slytherin would be good at Mind and Death.

With five factions and four houses, they almost covered the ten arcana. I decided that nobody would be good at “Prime” (which is essentially magic dealing with magic itself). Everyone would have to struggle with that.

The lovely thing about this set-up is that the teens didn’t have to read the rule book much to get started. They were, after all, just beginning students at the school. They’d know what types of magic they were good at (thanks to a version of the Sorting Hat which helped them determine their faction and house), but beyond that, they’d pick up the niceties as they went along.

Whenever they wanted to cast a spell, I just asked them what they wanted to do and what kind of magic mumbo-jumbo they’d do to improve their chances of success. Of course, shouting magic words and waving “wands” are basic (although lots of objects could be used in place of wands…guns and knives, for example). But the players soon started using other familiar tricks from fantasy books. For example, if they were trying to find someone who was missing, they knew it would be useful to get an article of the missing person’s clothing or perhaps some hairs off their comb. The players had a lot of fun figuring out cool ways to improve their chances of successfully casting spells.

Early adventures were restricted to the Divergent Hogwarts enclave…and I admit I stole some scenarios straight from the books. When the group got more comfortable with the game system and with working together, they started being sent on outside missions: helping other enclaves with various types of problems.

All in all, it was a really fun setting. We spent about a year there, until they discovered a big secret which propelled them into something completely different. But I offer this up as inspiration for anyone who wants to game with YA readers and is looking for something they’ll connect with.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

Sharing: June 11, 2018

Cool things for the day:

Book Bundle: British Mysteries Ultimate Collection
I picked up this bundle over the weekend, and I’m thrilled. On Amazon Canada (see the link above), it was only 73 cents. For that tiny price, you get a huge number of Kindle books, including all the Sherlock Holmes books plus more from Conan Doyle, all the Wilkie Collins books, all the A.J. Raffles books, all the Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, a ton from Edgar Wallace, and much more. I’m sure all the books are just taken from Project Gutenberg, but the convenience of downloading them with a single click is well worth 73 cents.
Comic Book Series: Lumberjanes
Lumberjanes is a lovely comic series for kids and those who’ve never grown up. Let’s say the series is for people age 7 to infinity. It’s about a diverse group of hardcore lady-types (i.e. girls, not all straight, not all cis) at a wilderness camp that’s enjoying an endless summer full of weirdness. I faithfully buy and read the collections when they come out, then pass them on to the daughters of some friends.
Role-Playing System: Mage the Awakening, Second Edition
I’m a big fan of games from The Onyx Path, who hold a license to create games that follow on from the old White Wolf games. I’d recommend pretty much any of their games, and will probably do so in the months to come. However, I’ve played Mage most recently, so I’ll lead with that. By default, the game is set in today’s world where you play (duh) a mage…which can mean any type of magic-using character you can imagine. The game system is very flexible; while it has long lists of predefined spells, you aren’t restricted to them. Since one of the groups I play with has several players who aren’t into reading rule books, I said, “Just tell me what you want to do. We’ll see if you’re powerful enough to do it.” For those who’ve only played games like Dungeons & Dragons, Mage can be an eye-opener.