This is the "old blog"

I keep tinkering with my website and playing around with different writing projects. This is a collection of old stuff. ANything I'm working on now will be elsewhere.


Back into CCGs

I use the StG blog to talk about religion and tabletop RPGs, but I've been wanting a place to write about getting back into Magic (which I've done recently) and I figure nobody will complain too much if I do so on my own website.

I'm going to start doing a semi-regular column where I look over the various sets from oldest to newest and pick out my favorite twenty cards for EDH/Commander (my favorite Magic format) from each. I can't promise these will always be the best cards in each set, but they should at least be interesting.


Gamers, Christianity, and Community

    The last few weeks have been an absolute conflagration of toxicity and bile in the electronic gaming sphere. Anita Sarkeesian's latest video on Feminist Frequency (which, despite being one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen, is well worth watching; the depictions of how women are mistreated casually in games turned my stomach badly enough that I had to take several breaks in a half-hour video) was apparently the last straw that broke the back of some particularly nasty and evil camels, and since then, the electronic gaming sphere has been shrieking at a deafening volume. Horrific death and rape threats have been made, and the noise doesn't seem to be dying down at all. It's making me question if my decision to play video games at all is a good one, despite some of the amazing stuff I've played in recent years.

    And then there's the tabletop gaming community.

    Despite being a fraction of the size of the video games industry, the tabletop gaming industry is very healthy and has been experiencing steady growth for years. Gen Con, the hobby's biggest convention, is growing so fast that the city of Indianapolis is having a hard time housing all of the gamers that come in every year. Part of the reason for that is that it has achieved gender parity, and a lot of folks in my generation are raising their children to be little gamers.

    It's ironic that the tabletop gaming community was the target for moral panic back in the 1980s and 1990s, because time and perspective have shown that tabletop gaming isn't merely harmless like flower gardening or stamp collecting. It's better than that. I'd argue that tabletop RPGs are a healthy, constructive, and beneficial thing to do with one's time.

    Now, it should be obvious that I'm not unbiased in that; I have a dog in this fight. But because of my involvement with Saving the Game, I've come into contact with a lot of people in the tabletop gaming industry or community that I'm genuinely proud to know. Even back in my own days as a loudmouth, self-righteous little teenage git, the Pyramid boards at Steve Jackson Games were a welcoming place for me to be, and when I was nasty and evil to people in the way that only young men can be, people called me on it. I still feel bad about some of the things I said there; the community was better than I was at the time.

    And therein lies the contrast: tabletop gamers, at least in my personal experience, truly want to be good, and take pains to be. The Bodhana Group is working on a manual to help use tabletop RPGs as a therapeutic tool. Derek "The Geekpreacher" White has made the geek-o-sphere into his mission field and is one of the most decent and loving Christian men I know. The guys over at Innroads Ministries have done something similar. And then there's the dedication of Sojourn, an anthology that came out of the Fear the Boot community:

This anthology is dedicated to:

Dan Repperger, who made Fear the Boot happen,

The hosts of the Fear the Boot podcast, who are as obsessed as the rest of us, and

The Booters, who laugh and cry with each other.

    There are some obvious parallels in that last line with Romans 12:15 (Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.) and I can't help but feel like the tabletop gaming community, at its best, closely resembles the Kingdom of God that Jesus describes in the Bible; people are largely blind to their differences and treat each other with justice and dignity. Kindness and compassion abound.
    Why? Why the huge difference between electronic gamers who can be so nasty that they keep people away from entire genres of game (MOBAs in particular are notorious for this) because the community is too toxic to newcomers and tabletop gamers who routinely set up events at gaming conventions expressly to get people into the hobby? What's the difference? And what, for that matter, can Christians learn from this divide?

    The first difference is that tabletop gaming is social and personal. The ideal and preferred setting for a tabletop gaming session is a group gathered around a table (typically in someone's dining room) with a bunch of the supplies necessary for the game to work. Around a table, you can see the other participants. You get the full effect of communicating with them. You see facial expressions and body language. You see how they arrive and what they bring with them. At the beginning of a session, you will likely spend some time just catching up on each other's lives. If you haven't done so for a while, the gaming part of the session will probably take a backseat to socializing, and most gaming groups will just resign themselves to this inevitability if it has been too long since the members saw each other. This is universal enough that it's somewhere between a proverb and a running gag on every RPG podcast I've ever listened to.

    By contrast, electronic gaming is anonymous. You may hear the other people over headsets, but you don't ever see them, and you will rarely encounter the same person twice. This leads to the same sort of behavior that one can see in service industry environments like restaurants and retail, with the additional layer of being unable to see the person. And of course, the interactions that happen online tend to be among individuals sitting alone in rooms with a headset on. The combination of no audience, knowledge that this is a one-time encounter, and lack of a face leads to a kind of artificial solipsism. The person on the other end of the headset isn't “real” any more, so it's fine to cut loose with a stream of toxic invective if they annoy you.

    The second difference is that while both are participatory, tabletop gaming is both collaborative and creative. Sitting around a table with friends telling a story or even working out the details of a tactical battle in a game like D&D or Battletech is a vastly different experience than lining up shots in an FPS or doing build orders in an RTS. Once again, it humanizes the other parties you're playing with. It also asks you to do some creative work in the name of making the experience better for everyone, not just yourself. This further reinforces the sense of community at the table.

    By contrast, in a video game, almost all of the creative work (with a few notable exceptions like Minecraft) has been done already by the developers. This isn't an inherently bad thing; I've had some genuinely enjoyable experiences with a number of video games, but they have rarely inspired me to be creative, and never with other people.

    Additionally, video games (especially ones that get toxic) tend to move fast, which engages things like adrenaline. This is part of what makes them exciting and enjoyable, but it also by definition means that interactions in the digital space will tend to be more impulsive and unfiltered than the ones at a table, which tend to be both more deliberate and more likely to be peppered with tangential comments and humor.

    There are more factors, I'm sure, but these three alone form a sharp enough contrast to make the differences evident. Now, with all of that said, let me disclaim a few things:

1. I'm an introvert. There is nothing wrong with solitary pursuits or filtered social interaction. I'd probably literally go nuts without some of both in my life. Books, single-player video games and “go at your own pace” social interaction like forums and Facebook all help me, personally, stay sane. There is great value in solitude.
2. I don't want to give the impression that video games are without merit. I've greatly enjoyed all kinds of games from the old King's Quest games and the Jagged Alliance series of days gone by up to Gone Home, FTL and Spec Ops: The Line in recent years.
3. I know that there are communities based around digital gaming that are fantastic and inclusive. The Gamers with Jobs community in particular enjoys a sterling reputation in this regard, and I'd be remiss if I didn't give some props to the team at Gamechurch who have made digital gamers their mission field.
4. I know tabletop gaming isn't completely pure; I've met a few antisocial and/or creepy tabletop gamers personally, so I know they exist.

    Still, in the realm of generalities, it's hard not to see the patterns that emerge. So what does this mean for us as geeks? And what does it mean for geeks like myself that are also people of faith?

    Well, to start, I think it's time to stop beating on tabletop gamers and their hobby, once and for all. Yes, there is some dark, awful stuff out there in tabletop media, but every medium can be corrupted. Movie cameras have recorded snuff films. The printed page has Mein Kampf. There is nothing singularly objectionable about tabletop RPGs, and the benefits outweigh the downsides. Gary Gygax, the creator of D&D, was a practicing Christian. It's not a tool of the devil or a Satanic plot. I have personally spoken to a Sunday school teacher who has used the brilliant story game The Trouble With Rose as a teaching aid in her Sunday school class. I have sat at gaming tables with people who were radically different from me, and we were friends and equals.

    However, there is still some room to grow. While ideological tolerance and gender parity have been achieved, we tabletop gamers are still a pasty bunch. If it weren't for our collective penchant for black t-shirts, the lot of us would blend into a snowstorm just a little too well.  It would behoove us to make a concerted effort to bring people of other ethnic groups into the hobby, and that goes double for encouraging the ones that want to go into the industry that supports the hobby. Tolerance is good, but we're going to need a continued infusion of new blood to keep the hobby vibrant. We have a lot of white Christians and atheists of both sexes in the industry, but those perspectives only get us so far.

    If we're part of the substantial overlap between tabletop and digital games, it also stands to reason that we can enjoy a few moments of smugness about being “the good ones,” but only as motivation to do something about the problems that women and minorities face in digital gaming. When people pile on incredibly courageous folks like Anita Sarkeesian, add your voice to the chorus of outrage when she's harassed in brutal and terrifying ways for pointing out some of the awful stuff out there. Poke your head out of the comfortable confines of the tabletop community now and again.

    If you're a digital gamer: come try the tabletop side of things. We'd love to have you! Let's get that overlap as close to 100% as possible. And also try to be a check on the toxic elements of gaming culture. For that matter, continue to build healthy and positive electronic gaming communities (like the aforementioned Gamers With Jobs and Gamechurch communities) so that people who want to enjoy the good things digital gaming can offer like intense stories, healthy competition, and the kind of deep, strategic conversations only games like Dark Souls or roguelikes can provide have somewhere to go where they can feel safe. You won't get rid of the trolls by building friendly, inclusive communities, but you'll achieve an effect like a bunch of walled cities that welcome anyone willing to obey the benevolent laws, and you can leave the barbarians howling in the wastleands outside to their own devices. Eventually, they'll either grow up and join one of the cities, or they won't but they'll be functionally invisible, because you're inside with all of your friends.

    Finally, if you're a Christian – take some lessons from the kindness and inclusivism of the tabletop gaming community. One of the things that tabletop gamers do extraordinarily well that many churches don't is creating a low barrier to entry. In tabletop gaming, generally speaking, if you want in, you're in. As long as you treat others with respect and don't hurt them, you can stay in. If you're a little funny-looking, or a little loud, or even if you're a little unkempt or smell a little weird, the community as a whole will probably accept you first and work on you gradually over time. If that sounds familiar, it should. That's the model for how the church is supposed to operate. (Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.) The church has gotten very good at reaching out to scary people (up to and including convicted murderers in prison) but still bristles at the inclusion of geeks. That's not okay, especially since a bunch of us are already “inside” and operating undercover. Places like GenCon and PAX are a huge mission field. Don't leave it fallow.


Stealing a World, Part II: XCOM and GURPS Black Ops

   As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I've been working on a GURPS setting that's kind of a mishmash of a bunch of other established things. The way I see it, when you're working with pre-existing IP for tabletop RPG settings, you have three basic choices.

  1. You can use the setting as "canon" dictates. That means using everything in the books exactly as-is. This is a very popular option, and some people will advocate, very convincingly, for it. If you've got a good memory and know the setting really well, it takes a lot of upfront work off the GM's back and allows them to focus on their story. It doesn't work for me, however. I worry about the problem of a player knowing the setting better than me, I feel like I can't add stuff I want in there to make my plots work better and so forth.
  2. You can do an "alternate history" version of the setting. With this option, the setting is still recognizeable, but one or more things the gaming group wants changed are different. Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot is a big advocate of this style, and I have an easier time seeing how this could work than I do with option 1. This still saves a GM a tremendous amount of work. They have a whole ready-made set of tropes, characters, locations, and so forth available to them, along with an already-established aesthetic, but have the freedom to take it in completely new directions and aren't beholden to the stories in any of the source material. However, I still run into some of the same issues as I do with option 1.
  3. You can swipe elements you like out of the setting and bolt them together into something new. As you have probably guessed, this is my preferred way of doing things. It allows the greatest level of creative freedom, but it also leaves the GM with the greatest amount of work to do. It also, and this is a huge advantage in my mind, allows the GM to pull elements from as many sources as he or she wishes. The thing is, though - I like doing that kind of work. Worldbuilding is fun for me, so this option is pretty much all upside and no downside for me personally.

   As you can probably tell from the list above, I opted for number 3 on that list, and as I've been working, I've been taking full advantage of the ability to pull from multiple sources. The first two I looked at were XCOM: Enemy Within, and GURPS Black Ops.

   The initial bit of IP I decided to pull from was Firaxis's XCOM: Enemy Within (that is to say XCOM: Enemy Unknown with all of the available DLC added in). There's a lot to like in the series; it's one of my favorite strategy games of all time, and I have logged, as of this writing, about 175 hours in it through its various incarnations. That said, so have many, if not most of my potential players. Still, there are a number of concepts I wanted to keep for the ongoing game.

  1. A multi-species, but coordinated opposing force: One of the things I really like about the XCOM series is that (on the first playthrough, anyway), just when you think you've seen everything the aliens can throw at you, they throw something new. A game that starts out shooting at relatively harmless (but still nasty) sectoids eventually ramps up to the point where you're facing huge armored robots and powerful psionic alien overlords. That diversity was definitely something I wanted to keep.
  2. An organization that's secret, but that can still operate somewhat in the open due to the general chaos of the world: In XCOM: Enemy Within, the XCOM initiative is a multinational force much like Rainbow from the Clancyverse. It is funded by black ops funds from member nations and watched by a shadowy council. However, they still swoop in to help "mundane" military and security units on occasion.
  3. A sense of progression on both sides of the fight: Though this may seem obvious in an RPG context, I particularly like the way it's handled in XCOM, as human researchers and engineers stufy captured alien technology and build new equipment from it, and the aliens send nastier and nastier units in larger and larger numbers.
  4. Mission elements: I like the idea of intercepting alien craft, taking part in various types of ground missions (bombs, terror missions, etc.) as part of the normal course of things, and so forth.
  5. Capturing enemy resources for research: In XCOM you capture live and deal alien units, infantry weapons, alloys, computers, entire spacecraft, and so forth to be pored over, interrogated and/or dissected by your science team. There is also a strong implication that the actual collection of all of that material is handled by someone other than the tactical squad that secures the area. I want to preserve that in the game.

   The second bit of IP I decided to stip-mine for inspiration was the GURPS Black Ops setting. This wasn't a huge leap; in fact, the two settings are a natural fit for each other. GURPS Black Ops is essentially a monster-hunting action movie setting. Back in 1997 when it was released, a lot of the tropes it referenced hadn't been done quite as slickly in movie form, but that didn't make the setting any less interesting for it. It introduced the shadowy Company, an extra-national, self-funded organization dedicated to both fighting and hiding the threat posed by aliens and crytids from the world at large. It also has a lot of elements I wanted to swipe, but because it's been 17 years since the book was released, some of the near-future science fiction in it has been overtaken by modern technology. For example, the Cistron computers used by the Technology department actually aren't quite as cool as modern smart phones are. Still, there's a LOT I wanted to keep.

  1. The Company itself: I like the idea of The Company as the employer of the player charcters. In particular, I like some of the history, the way that they largely self-fund, their recruiting process, and so forth. There are a couple of aspects that I like so much, in fact, that they warrant their own bullet points:
    1. The department structure: The Company is broken up into five departments: Combat, Intelligence, Science, Security, and Technology. They all have their own roles within the larger organization and they all compliment each other. At the same time, there are interdepartmental rivalries and even some mild feuding. The whole system is brilliant, and there's no way I'm giving it up in the final setting.
    2. The academy: The training for The Company is done at a hellish training facility that makes BUD/S look like a walk in the park. At BUD/S, the initial phase of training is designed to make people who aren't cut out to be SEALS quit. At The Academy, there is no quitting, and failure can mean you die. If you try to escape, you definitely die. If the training breaks you to the point where you're no longer useful as a field operative, you wind up as support personnael for The Company, but you're still never sent back to your normal life. The training is so intense and brutal that  half the people that go in don't live to see graduation. 
    3. Awesome secret facilities: Even though I'm scrapping or modifying the specifics (The Combat department's HQ is an aircraft carrier in my version of the setting instead of a dockside warehouse, for example) the ideas behind them are definitely going to see use.
  2. Hyper-competent PCs: As implied above, anyone who makes it out of The Academy alive is quite formidable. The official starting point total in GURPS 3e for Black Ops PCs was 700 points. However, in 4e (which I'll be using) 1200 is more appropriate. The reason for the sharp increase in point totals is due to several facors, but two of the biggest ones are the way attributes are priced in 4e and the removal of the half-point level of skill expertise in 4e. Another major consideration is the new way that psionics are priced in 4e.
  3. Argus: The council of 12 shadowy leaders (not all necessarily government types) is a very cool idea and is going to be gone into in further depth later in this series, but this is the source of the original idea.

And then there's an overlapping area between the two that I'd like to acknowledge - a subset of traits common to both IPs that I'd like to retain.

  1. A gray, amoral tone: In XCOM, it's heavily implied that they employ torture on captured aliens and hinted at that they employ it on captured humans. In Black Ops, the company kills its own for stepping out of line, murders or brainwashes people who learn The Secret, and so forth. However, both organizations definitely have humanity as a whole's best interests at heart - they are charged with preserving life and civilization on Earth no matter what it takes.
  2. Near-future sci-fi elements in the modern world: XCOM gets a little more over-the-top about this than Black Ops does, but both include bleeding-edge gear that the rest of the world doesn't get access to as a major trope.
  3. Horror elements: Both the aliens in XCOM and the various enemies in Black Ops are nasty and scary, and in neither setting is at all reluctant to massacre innocent people en masse. And while most of the specific enemies from both sources are being scrapped, there's plenty of room to keep that overall tone.

   So at this point, the PCs, a bunch of morally-gray super-agents, work for a shadowy agency beholden to no single nation, and use near-future gear to take down horrific, escalating alien threats while researching their enemy to get better at fighting them. This is still just scratching the surface, however. I have a lot of additional source material to steal from. But I'll get into that next time.





Stealing a World, Part I: Groundwork

Good artists copy, great artists steal. - Attributed to Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Davenport Adams, Lionel Trilling, Igor Stravinsky, and William Faulkner

   There's a certain irony to a quote about stealing being attributed to so many people that it's hard to figure out who actually came up with it in the first place. But regardless of who coined the term originally, it's actually pretty good advice in a lot of creative endeavors. However, the one I'd like to focus on for this post (and an indeterminate number that will follow it) is worldbuilding for tabletop RPGs.

   I've wanted to run a GURPS game for some time, but have never gotten around to it. I tried once back in the third-edition days, but it fell pretty flat. I could spend some time deconstructing that (and perhaps someday I will) but that's really neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that while I've written (small bits) for GURPS, talked about it, recommended it to other people, and played in several games (in vastly different settings) with it, I've never actually run a game in it, and I'd like to remedy that some day soon.

   GURPS does several things especially well. First and foremost, it is incredibly versatile.

(If you do run that kitchen sink game, let us know. It's part of why we made GURPS in the first place.) - Warehouse 23 from the description of the GURPS Bundle

   The system can handle science fiction, fantasy, horror, any technology level from stone age to Star Trek (and beyond), superheroes, a wide variety of magic systems, and so forth. There are supplements available that cover the grittiest realism and the cinematic other end of that spectrum, various historical eras, and so forth.

   Second, it's very detailed, so if you have a specific idea in mind, you can usually simulate it pretty well with GURPS.

   Third, GURPS books are almost universally of excellent quality. SJG has exceedingly high standards for writing and research, and their books reflect this. Original settings are interesting and evocative (but not prescriptive), historical settings are so well-researched and accurate that you can use the GURPS book about a particular era as a jumping-off point for more serious academic research (no, that isn't hyperbole!) and genre books cover their respective genres with an admirable degree of thoroughness.

   Finally, but certainly not least important, is that the company that makes it, Steve Jackson Games, is a very ethical and consumer-friendly entity. They treat their customers well, pay their contractors on time, and maintain a friendly convention presence. Buying and using their products makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

   None of that, however, translates into anything other than warm fuzzies and intellectual curiosity, and none of it has anything to do with creativity or creatively stealing, but it gives you a general sense of the warm stew of positive thoughts and feelings about GURPS that simmers away at the back of my gamer's consciousness.

   That simmer was brought to a boil a few months back when I was playing the newly-released XCOM: Enemy Within. It occurred to me that it would actually be very cool to run a tabletop game centered around a similar theme (an elite force repelling an alien invasion) and that it would be almost trivially easy to model the lethality, exotic technology, and diverse OpFor with GURPS rules. The various aliens and class abilities would be fairly trivial to build using GURPS.

   However, I didn't want to play straight-up XCOM in tabletop form. The setting was already well-known and thoroughly unveiled of all secrets to anyone who had played through the game, and I dislike trying to run games in someone else's setting, no matter how cool it is. I am perfectly willing to poach ideas from a myriad of places, though, and thus the trip down the stealing rabbit hole began.

   Come back next post for details on how.