Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gods N' the Godly (Relations Between Gods and their Servants)

God (Or the Space Probe that Ran into God): Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket.
Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money!
God: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
-          “Godfellas”, Futurama

“If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better.”
-          Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

The couple of quotes above make for unlikely sources of gaming inspiration, but they exemplify some thoughts I’ve been having regarding deities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games. The conundrum I’ve been pondering is the presence of active gods in the world and how it affects player character agency. There are plenty of questions to answer regarding a god’s relationship to the world. Why would a god let his own clergy be infiltrated by imposters? Why does divination have a chance of failure? Why does a god say “I don’t know” at times with the commune spell? Why do supposedly benevolent gods allow evil to exist? Why do gods sponsor paladins (or even celestials) that fall from grace if they can predict the future?

The usual answer I’ve heard is that the gods are bound by a (formal or informal) Cold War-like pact between the forces of Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, to avoid mutually assured destruction through direct confrontation. If Good interferes too much in the life of mortals, Evil can step in to fill in the imbalance of power (and also with Law vs. Chaos). However, this doesn’t explain why the gods are fallible (see the divination and commune above, for example), and it also assumes a certain cosmological model that won’t fit some worlds.

My perspective of the gods in RPGs is that they aren’t omniscient or all-seeing nor are they all-powerful, at least regarding the finer points of the mortal world. Rather, the gods are far removed from mortals and their ways, only able to approximate a bird’s eye view but a faraway bird’s eye view. The vantage point of a god on the outer planes removes it from the down-to-earth perspective of mortals and the finer points of their lives. The greater the power of the god, the farther removed it is from the mortal perspectives. Demigods, god kings, and hero gods who exist on the mortal plane can directly interact with mortals. However, as the god becomes greater in power, he becomes further removed from mortality as his perspective is dispersed across a wider and wider area of the world (or even the multiverse). Thus, a god must use finesse in how he interacts with the mortal world. This is where the clerics and other divine servants come in.

Gilbert […] reached the highest ledge.
Louis Loeb, from Via Crucis : a romance of the second crusade, by Francis Marion Crawford, New York, 1889. (source)

Clerics, priests, paladins, and other divine servants do not merely spread the faith or serve the god’s interest. Rather, they also act as the god’s eyes and ears. Everything from prayers (in the most minor sense) to the creation of temples and (especially) divination spells can act as lightning rods for the god’s attention. They not only inform the cleric; they can draw the deity’s attention to a certain point of relevant interest. Thus, the god and the cleric have a symbiotic relationship in that they must work together to achieve the goals of both.

The above model of the cleric/deity partnership has an important practical element regarding player agency. The deity interacts with the world primarily through empowering her agents (i.e. PC worshipers and servants), thus putting the responsibility for establishing the connection to the players. It also enables a god to be true to his mythos yet flawed and fallible (thus needing his servants’ help to work his interests in the world).  Therefore, a cleric must depend as much upon herself as her deity. 

He held, while earth and sky whirled with him.
Louis Loeb, from Via Crucis : a romance of the second crusade, by Francis Marion Crawford, New York, 1889. (source)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Facts Behind Light and Darkness: Addendum to a Perspective of Dissent from Church Doctrine

NOTE: This is an addendum to my earlier treatise on the Churches of Light and Darkness, collecting the chronology of events I have gathered relating to the early history of Ancient Akenia (and therefore the Twin Churches). Being mindful of the folkloric historical traditions of Ancient Akenia, I have not assigned exact dates but rather have compiled a broad but accurate order of events. In addition, there is a quick-reference list at the end of this document.
-Ahonlo Limn Defray, Dissident Theologian of the Murean Seminary of Wisdom

Chronology of Ancient Akenia

The Creation of the World- At the behest of the Creator,  the Dwarves,  under instruction by the Unterkin, build the world into existence.

One of the earliest representations of a God King

Rise of the Iron King- The Iron King is the first mortal to commune with the Profound Darkness.

The Creation of the Twin Lands- The Iron King creates the twin continents. Eons later we would know them as Akenia and Calian

The Age of Gods and Kings- Humanity serves beneath, and worships, the God Kings, a race of once normal mortals now imbued with the power of gods.  Magical power is channeled through these God Kings, whom act as patrons to dole out as they please. Their servants petition them for power in return for service. Of their servants, the Jian-Sa are perhaps the most favored peoples of the God Kings. During this period, no great rift between churches of light and darkness existed as it does today.

The Age of Gods and Kings was an age of wonders.

The Sealing of the Dia-Mind- The God Kings seal away the Dia-Mind in Yeso Island.  

The Creation of the Iron Crown – The Iron Crown is forged by the Iron King. The Madokami (or the being we would know today as the Madokami) is a contemporary and philosophical rival (as a servant of the Invincible Bright) of the Iron King. She observes the Iron King’s rampant greed and arrogance in creating the Crown and strongly disapproves.

The Wars of Rebellion: The exact causes are unknown, but humanity rises up against the God Kings to gain its independence.  The God Kings and their servants remain united against humanity, except for two (apparently unconnected) traitors: Algarnan, the rogue deva, and the Madokami, the goddess of mercy. 

A soldier's costume of the time

The Creation of the Grandesh: Algarnan forges the Grandesh, the God-Killer Blade, on behalf of the separatist humans.

The Defeat of the God Kings: The Iron King is slain by the Grandesh Sword. Fearing the will be next, the surviving God Kings abandon Akenia for parts unknown. However, they leave Asmodal in charge of wreaking their vengeance

The Age of Light and Darkness begins: Research begins on light and darkness magic in the wake of the gods abandoning Akenia.

The Sealing of Asmodal- Using the Seal Items, four heroes seal Asmodal away in his tower.

The Church of Light is established: The Great Pyrus (creator of the Shield of Pyrus, one of the legendary weapons used to take down Asmodal) founds the Church of Light

The Great Schism: Kaius, Pyrus’ sister, disowns him and goes on to form the Church of Darkness.

A modern Akenian depiction of Pyrus and Kaius (source)

Figures/Terms Of Note

Algarnan- a deva (a celestial servant of the Bright) who threw in with the rebel humans. He forged the Grandesh Sword, the God-Killer Blade.
Asmodal, the Twilight Prince, half-demonic, half-celestial, master of both Light and Dark magic, servant to the God-Kings and their tool of vengeance against humanity
Iron King, The- Creator of the Iron Crown. Said to be the first (and greatest?) God King there ever was. Was slain by the Grandesh Sword.
Invincible Bright, the- fancy name for the Light side of magic.
Jian Sa – an indigenous people of Yeso Island
Madokami, the- Once a philosophical rival of the Iron King but still nonetheless closely involved with him. Broke away from the rest of the God Kings to support humanity in their rebellion. Sometimes thought not to be a Goddess of Hope but rather a “deva of hope”.
Kaius- Sister to Pyrus before she disowned him; rebelled against his Church of Light and founded the Church of Darkness
Profound Darkness, The – fancy name for the Dark side of magic
Pyrus- aka “The Great Pyrus”, forged the Shield of Pyrus and established the Church of Light

Monday, May 4, 2015

"Everybody's first game sucks!" (Effort and Experience vs. Ability and Talent of Players)

Setting the Scene: "Everybody's first game sucks."


The other day a good friend was giving some DMing advice as part of his "Answers to Questions" post. One tidbit that he said I found very interesting- "Everybody's first game sucks." I think that the implicit reasoning behind that statement could use some unpacking. The wisdom behind it can help us illuminate a greater perspective on the difference between talking about player effort and experience vs. player ability and talent.

In discussions of RPGs online, I often hear talk of categorizing a player is in terms of ability, intelligence, or type. On the other hand, it's also (implicitly) recognized that players might be quite fluid in their tastes and behaviors over time (hence the sandbox popular in today's circles). The former is implicitly a statement of the static nature of players (a statement of being), whereas the latter is implicitly a statement of the dynamic nature of players (a statement of behaving).

A Tale of Two Perspectives

How we view or even discuss the nature of the gamer (or the person in general) can leave repercussions for how we judge ourselves and how we judge others, especially in the face of adversity. In her book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol S. Dweck describes two perspectives on what builds success in something (p. 6-7). Following the fixed perspective reflects a belief that attributes a person's performance to his innate traits, talents, or characteristics. In other words, it's about what kind of person he is as a static state. On the other hand, the growth perspective reflects a perspective that attributes a person's performance to the effort she puts in and how she's choosing to develop and apply her skills as a process. In other words, it's about the dynamic choices made in the moment and growing skill over time.

Dweck argues that the fixed perspective can cause us problems because we must continually prove ourselves. Any personal failure represents something about the self that's relatively immutable and persistent. And to a person may often try to rationalize the failures away by blaming others or spurious external factors (p.36). With the fixed perspective, adversity is an impassable roadblock. On the other hand, the person might simply internalize the disappointment, giving up and avoiding adversity like the situation of failure in the future (p.). On the other hand, if we bring in the growth perspective, a failure reflects more of a temporary lapse of judgement or behavior, or perhaps needing to practice and develop more and then come back to the challenge later. With the growth perspective, adversity is not an impassable roadblock but rather a sign for further development. (p.33-34)

Back to the Game Table

Going back to RPG interactions, we initially began the conversations with the quote "Everybody's first game (DMing) sucks." Unpacking that, it's because DMing (or playing), like many active hobbies, reflects practice and learned effort more than natural talent. There's a lot of stumbling and fumbling around. However, if we embrace a growth perspective, then running crap game sessions or playing foolishly need not be downers because we can learn from them.

Beyond how we perceive ourselves and our behaviors, there is also a moral component here on how we perceive other people and their behaviors. If we can accept that a person's behavior reflects their state at a single moment in time, we can hold somebody accountable for their actions without needing to relate it to the totality of their character. On the other hand, if we observe a person's behavior and believe it reflects the totality of their character, then we run into a problem. We find that, despite any action they might try, it will always be viewed as some kind of subterfuge to gain a favor. If that jerk player is just a jerk player, any apparent act of good they demonstrate is a charade or at best an empty promise.

The take-home important DMing skill for me is being able to separate behavior in the short-term from the person in the long-term. One need not adopt one perspective or another (in fact, I wouldn't recommend it, but my misgivings are for a future post), but the knowledge of why "everybody's first game sucks" (and that people can still suck even when proficient at the game) can be so simplistic its profundity can easily be lost.

Some things to read and think about:

*Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. 
*Chenier, Kiel Answers to Questions Part 1 Dungeons and Donuts