The DMs Guide to Session Planning

DMs, do your players always take the path of most resistance?  Or are they content to sit in the local tavern for four solid hours, roleplaying and digging up so much information that you never could have prepared for it?  Or maybe they simply murder hobo through every NPC you carefully crafted.  Here’s my point:

Campaigns never go according to plan, if you plan.

As DMs who are trying to juggle family, jobs, other responsibilities, and gaming, it can get frustrating.  I mean, is there any point in planning at all?

I believe there is a point to planning within limits.  And it all starts with having the right attitude.  You need to make a plan in order to break it.  You heard me right.  Plan with the expectation and intention of breaking that plan.

The path your campaign takes will never be straightforward and simple.  It will be twisted and complicated with lots of course correction.  So here’s how you can plan for that  without losing your sanity:

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CtD Podcast, Episode 3: The Gygaxian Tone

Subscribe to the CtD podcast on iTunes!

For our third episode, we commemorate the birthday of the late Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master par excellence!  In an effort to remember him well, we explore a number of quotes that I’ve chosen that accentuate his personality and role in relation to the roleplayers.

A few links to sites referenced in the show:

And without further adieu, the podcast:

Video:

Audio:

Religious Intolerance of RPGs

Welcome to Experience Points, my weekly response to one of your questions about anything!  Life, relationships, faith, or gaming…really anything is game!  If you’d like to send in a question, feel free to email me.  Here’s this week’s question:

Have you experienced intolerance from religious people about your gaming hobby?

This is an excellent question—and one that I dealt with in more philosophical terms here for the Mad Adventurers Society.  But for our purposes today, I’ll just tell you the story.

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Consider the Source

Three years ago, I was sitting on my front porch, typing away at my laptop.  After all, sermons don’t write themselves!  As I was working, my phone buzzed—a text from an old friend.  Apparently, he’d seen me posting on social media about playing Dungeons & Dragons…and he was concerned.  He had lots of questions about witchcraft, magic, and the power of demonic beings.  What was frustrating is that it didn’t matter how I responded.  I had no leg to stand on, as far as he was concerned.  This new hobby was dangerous, opposed to the Bible, and hazardous to my faith.

Does that count as intolerance?  Compared to many of your stories, I’m sure it seems more like a minor inconvenience.  But really, let’s think more about this brief interaction.  What motivated my friend in contacting me?  His real intent was love, even though it was communicated in a way that didn’t necessarily feel that way.  He wanted to protect and guard me, which is a noble desire, regardless of how it felt and regardless of whether he was right!

As you think back on your own experience of intolerance, it can help to consider the source.  Why did that person say anything about your hobby?  What motivated their actions?  Perhaps their desires really were well-meaning.  It’s a question worth considering.

Consider the Worldview

I can only speak from my own experience as a Protestant who grew up in the Southern United States.  But I’ve found that often there are other things underlying intolerance of the gaming hobby—specifically, tabletop RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons.  It’s not only personal intentions that motivate action, a person’s worldview also motivates their actions.  The ever-insightful Rob Almond once pointed out that the people who oppose Dungeons & Dragons on religious grounds are often the same people who oppose rock and roll on religious grounds.

And, yes, those folks are still out there too.

And yes…they do still refer to it as “rock and roll.”

There are lots of words that people use to describe them: fundamentalists, legalists, literalists.  The labels at this point are inconsequential.  I inhabited that religious realm for much of my life and, I would imagine, some people might still apply some of those labels to me.  That’s OK.  Again, the labels are inconsequential at this point.  I believe there are three philosophical/religious errors that these groups make—and these errors lead them to their attitudes about tabletop RPGs.

Now why am I going to point out what I believe to be flaws in their worldview?  First, it’s to help you—the gamer—to understand them better.  It’s easier to forgive someone, when you can understand them.  It’s easier to let go of past frustration, when you understand what brought it about.  Second, I point out these flaws not so that you can attempt to change people’s minds on this matter.  As I mentioned over on the Mad Adventurers Society, you’re not likely to change people’s minds if they already have a worldview that is bent against tabletop RPGs.  Don’t sweat that.  This discussion is purely to help you sort through the intolerance that you’ve experienced—or that you might experience in the future.  So here we go:

Error #1:

If an activity seems associated with something wrong, then the activity must be inherently wrong.

If you believe that demons are (a) real and (b) evil, it might seem that playing a game that involves demonic characters is also real and evil.  If you believe that killing is objectively wrong, it might seem that pretending to kill (even for good intentions) is likewise wrong.  And yet, I don’t find too many Christians hassling me for listening to Johnny Cash. 

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After all, Johnny was a Christian!  Sure, he had some rough times early on, but he cleaned up, found Jesus, and got on the straight and narrow.  And then, he kept singing about killing and drinking and fighting and cussing.  Say what?!  That’s right!  You see, Johnny was a storyteller.  And his stories teach you something about life—about manhood—about loss—about struggle.  And there’s something redemptive in that.  There’s something cathartic in those stories.

Tabletop roleplaying games can work the same way.  In fact, I think they should.  I like to walk away from a campaign appreciating life and looking at it in a different way.  I like to be thinking about justice and brokenness and redemption.  I like to participate in a story in which I learn about courage, fallenness, and honor.  Here’s the bottom line: telling a story doesn’t make you guilty of the wrongdoing that happens in the story.  At least, no more than Johnny Cash was a killer and a scumbag.

Error #2:

Behavior modification is the intended ends of all religion.

I can’t speak to all religions, but I can speak to my own religion.  The God of the Bible is not primarily concerned with changing people’s behavior.  Now, that may come as a surprise to you, because it seems like many professing Christians have started thinking that.  And how do they implement that belief?  They try to change your behavior!  In this case, your gaming.  In other cases, any manner of behavior they find reprehensible or dangerous.  After all, if your game has demons and killing, you must be doing wrong, right?  And if God wants to change your behavior—and God is loving—then it must be loving to try to change your behavior, right?

I think you see how this train of thought works.  I won’t go into a full-blown sermon here, but here’s the salient point: changing people’s behavior doesn’t change people’s hearts.  In fact, it works the other way around.  Behavior change is a consequence—a result—not a starting point.  And yet, many religious people have got this all turned around.

And here’s the real kicker: God is not in the self-help business.  He’s not looking to rehaul your behavior.  He’s looking to rehaul your priorities—your mind—your direction.  That’s a totally different thing.  Sure, it effects behavior, but that behavior change is not the goal.

Error #3:

Garbage in = Garbage out.

We’ve all seen Back to the Future 2, wherein Doc Brown uses organic waste to power his time machine.  There’s an important lesson to be learned there: one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.  What you may be able to handle in good conscience, I may not be able to handle.  This can apply to matters like alcohol, for example.  If someone grew up with alcoholic parents, they may not tolerate any drinking in their home.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for you to drink.

The same applies to roleplaying games.  Someone may perceive your hobby as “garbage.”  They may expect it to result in “garbage” results.  And, as a result, they want to intervene and help you.  So let me be the guy to ask the question!  We all have our predispositions and histories.  Maybe what’s OK for one person isn’t OK for another?  I understand there are moral absolutes and that sort of thing, but last time I checked, no religion says anything explicitly about roleplaying games (I’m open to correction here).

“Garbage in” may typically result in “garbage out.”  But how can we judge what garbage is objectively?  It’s a question worth considering.

Understanding Yields Understanding

As you consider your own experience of intolerance as a gamer—especially from religious loved ones—I hope you’ll consider these three errors that may have been motivating their actions and words.  As you do, I hope you’ll find that their intentions—though perhaps misguided—were really seeking your best interest.  As you understand them, I hope you’ll grow in a sense of understanding.  That you’ll be able to forgive and to move on.  After all, it’s not your job to change their hearts or their behavior.  We’ll leave that up to more capable hands.

How have you experience intolerance from religious folks?  Do you find these errors to have been motivating factors?  How did you respond?  Sound off in the comments!

(Photo Credits: Vicki & Chuck Rogers and Philip Kromer)

As We Shape Stories, the Stories Shape Us.

Welcome to Experience Points, my weekly response to one of your questions about anything!  Life, relationships, faith, or gaming…really anything is game!  If you’d like to send in a question, feel free to email me.  Here’s this week’s question:

Why in the world are you, a Pastor, playing tabletop games?

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For the record, I know the person who sent in this question and he/she means it in the absolute nicest way!  It is odd to stumble upon a cleric of any tradition in your FLGS, let alone one born and raised in the Bible belt and now serving in a conservative, Protestant institution.  It raises the question: what’s your angle, preacher-man?

Stating the obvious: tabletop gaming is fun!

I was born in 1983, two years before the US release of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  When my dad brought one home when I was four years old, things changed in our home!  I became a console gamer.  Really, quite frankly I was a Nintendo gamer…and still am.  Except for the Gamecube and the Wii U, all the systems are currently hooked up to my gaming TV.  But early on, I developed a gaming sensibility that continued.

My first brush with tabletop gaming was in junior high with the WEG Star Wars RPG.  A friend lent me the book and after school I and my brothers sat down to try it out.  When one brother’s PC decapitated the other’s with a lightsaber in the first five minutes, my mom made us take the book back.  And then tabletop games disappeared from my life.

…until 2011, that is.  I was actually a month away from moving to Louisiana, when the then-NBC sitcom Community had an episode about Dungeons & Dragons.  I was immediately intrigued.  I actually downloaded the basic 4th Edition rules from the WotC site, but moving soon took precedence and it slipped between the cracks.  But only for a few months.

After moving to Louisiana and taking a new position at a small suburban church, I became acquainted with a college student who was doing some volunteering for us.  As we got to know each other, we learned that we had a shared love of many things: the Beatles, comic books, and video games.  But then he mentioned Dungeons & Dragons

I knew all the horror stories from the eighties.  I knew the sermon illustrations.  I knew the Scriptures against witchcraft and the like.  But when he invited me to join his gaming group, I took the Players Handbook home, read it in a week, and joined up.  And guess what?  It was fun.  It was a heckuva lot of fun.  As an extrovert who loves games and epic stories, I realized this could become a really great outlet for creativity, relaxation, and good old-fashioned fun.

The less-than obvious: tabletop gaming is good.

You don’t hear too many people talking about things being objectively “good” these days.  But here’s what I found to be good about tabletop gaming.

First (which I’ve talked about at length elsewhere), there’s something sacred about tabletops.  How many life-changing moments happen at tables?  How many important conversations happen there?  How many relationships are strengthened or challenged there?  How many children are shaped slowly and daily by what happens there?  In the Christian faith, one of our most important practices happens on a tabletop!  Any time I find myself at a table with other people, I know that there is great potential for good.  There is opportunity for relationships—for encouragement—for mutual care—for self-expression—for community.  And these things are all objectively good.

Communities have much more potential for good than the individual does.  That’s not to say individuals can’t accomplish good things.  But unified communities bring about exponential change.  Unified homes, seeking good things, are objectively good.  Unified workplaces, seeking good things, are objectively good.  Unified friends, seeking good things, are objectively good.  And unified gaming groups, seeking good things, are objectively good.

Even if that means something seemingly trivial like “telling good stories.”  Telling good stories enriches lives and homes.  Humanity itself came of age while telling stories around meals.  Before we ever wrote them down, we recited them and participated in them.  As communities shaped the stories, the stories shaped us.  It’s a sacred practice, happening at a sacred place.  And I believe this to be good.

The draw for a Pastor

As a Pastor, I am a storyteller and a story-shaper.  I tell stories that I believe will shape and transform the lives of the hearers.  The stories that I tell occupationally are stories of faith, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  I believe them to be true.  But that does not mean that other stories cannot also be life-changing and redemptive.

As such, tabletop gaming (more specifically tabletop RPGs) is more than a simple interest to me.  I believe it to be a means of transformation.  Friendships happen there.  Ideas are challenged and shaped in the process.  People are transformed through these stories.  As we shape them, they shape us.  And I believe that to be good.

How have the stories at your tabletop shaped you?  How has it strengthened and catalyzed your friendships and your worldview?  Sound off in the comments!

(Photo credit: Mary)