Alienating Atonement and the Theater of Hell

Sinner, This Is Your Life

This is an image I have heard innumerable times: You have died. You are greeted by an angel, and told that you will be shown your life. You are seated in a movie theater, and are shown your entire life, from birth – every good and bad thing you ever did. Every secret thing, including every secret thought. Maybe the other people in your life are there too, in the movie theater, watching.

The idea is that you will be horrified, and humiliated, and embarrassed. You will feel intense shame and guilt for all you have ever done. You will understand how awful you truly are, in that moment – how unworthy and utterly in need of salvation you are, miserable worm.

Then you are judged based on what the movie showed. If you died without Jesus in your life, you are sentenced to Hell, and in this imaginary situation, it is well-deserved. You nod your head, tearful, understanding God’s transcendent justice in sentencing you to an eternity of torment.

Theologian, Here Is My Finger

The above is a horrifying view of the atonement. It is an expression of one of the worst threads of Christian theology – the idea that shaming and guilt-tripping, teaching people how awful and irredeemable they are, is the best way to bring them to God. As an inheritor of the Reformation, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I realize that this criticism is squarely pointed at my own tradition, such as it is. Luther and Calvin and many who came after went to great lengths to describe what miserable worms we all are.

The basic message is that the at-one-ment with God is achieved because God pinches His Divine Nose and grudgingly accepts your miserable soul, solely because he was first able to contrive a situation where his own self could be tortured to death on a cross as compensation for the whole affair.

What if God Isn’t a Vindictive Jerk?

When I think about being in the audience in this humiliating theater, watching someone singled out and shamed by a bullying God, I feel deep sympathy. What a horrible situation to be in. Anyone who has ever been mocked, or bullied, or singled out for abuse, or humiliated can surely empathize with this situation.

I was recently listening to a sermon that described just this scene, the one referenced in the pages from a Chick tract above. I felt not only sympathy for the person afflicted by this view of God, but anger at the God who would do this. This would be despicable behavior from a human being – from God it is categorically irredemptive.

Imagine, rather than the terror of being truly known by God and others that haunts some of us (maybe many of us?), there was a similar scene. You are loving invited to a theater where your life is shown on the screen – in all of it’s mess and beauty, loss and triumph. It is the great story told by your time in the world, with all the laughs and cheers and tears and even regret. And through it all, there is the loving presence of those who love you, of a God who loves you, who see you for who you are and love all of you. What you went through life fearing, and protecting yourself from, happens, and it is a time of joy and radical acceptance. You are where you are meant to be, and you are who you were meant to be all along.

One might even go so far as to call that atonement.

Daredevil and Punisher; Sensitivity and Strength

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I recently responded to the disappointment of Iron Fist by watching Daredevil season 1 again. And, having finished season 1, Netflix helpfully offered up season 2 as my next choice, and choose I did. Watching these two seasons of Daredevil, featuring the Punisher in the second season, got me thinking about superheroes, the supernatural, and game design, and a whole lot of things. Here’s a start.

Sensitivity Versus Strength

Normally, in the United States, sensitivity and strength are seen as oppositional aspects of a person. If someone is overly sensitive, we are concerned that they are vulnerable to the harshness of the world, and would expect them to be weak, to be a “snowflake”, to require trigger warnings on a regular basis. Right now, in fact, I would say that a sensitive person is subject to more ridicule than I’ve seen in a long time. Our society has no idea what to do with sensitive people, in fact – it’s either bitter mockery or ironclad defensiveness, it seems.

On the other hand, I think we assume that a strong person is insensitive. They are tough, thick-skinned. They  have a hard exterior. We respect toughness, the ability to take punishment and continue. “Even so, she persisted.” The capacity to grit one’s teeth and persist despite pain and privation and opposition.

It is like there is a sliding scale, with Sensitive on one end and Strong on the other, and everyone is somewhere between the two. More of one is less of the other. And there are plenty of examples we might think of, of sensitive people who do not seem to be very resilient, and strong people who are callous and unfeeling, or at least seem that way.

Daredevil

Daredevil is a really interesting superhero, for me at least, because his strength comes explicitly from his sensitivity. He is formidable because he is sensitive. He is blind, but his other perceptions are so acute that he has superhuman perceptions of the world around him. He can echo-locate, and he’s a lie-detector, and he can perceive what is in the next room without opening the door. He has superhuman agility and balance – all of this because of his sensitivity. He’s like Zatoichi, or a blindfolded Zen archer – yes, a fictional trope, but also an interesting take on strength in a genre where it is normal for bullets to bounce off the hero.

In the Daredevil show on Netflix, they make a lot of his moral sensitivity, especially in contrast to the Punisher. He has his interactions with his priest, Father Lantom – who as an aside is one of the few good portrayals of clergy in media – and these interactions show another side of his sensitivity, and another way in which that sensitivity gives him strength. There his interactions with Claire Temple, who continually nurses him back from death’s door after a particularly bad beating, and more than one episode is spent while he is limping and stitched together, frustrated by the limits of his body and its vulnerability.

Punisher

The Punisher is obviously a superb foil for Daredevil. For him, Daredevil is a “half measure” – a guy who can’t get the job done, who can’t do the ‘necessary’ thing and kill the criminals he opposes. In contrast to Daredevil, if the Punisher has any supernatural ability, it is his ability to take damage. He spends the entire show with his face and body brutalized, but is never slowed very much by his injuries. He is a personification of hardness and strength, an implacable killing machine.

Of course, the core of Frank Castle’s story, what makes him the Punisher, is pain and loss. This is, again, part of the tough guy trope – he is driven to become an unfeeling killing machine because, underneath it all, he feels so deeply. But not in a way that causes him to reflect much on his actions, like Daredevil does, nor in a way that makes him something other than a killing machine.

Interlude: Yes, I Know

Yes, both of these are supremacist power fantasies. Daredevil is the power fantasy that even if I lose something of myself, even if I am hurt, it will only make me stronger. I can turn my hurt, my vulnerability, into yet more strength, and use that strength to punch criminals in the face all night long. Punisher is the power fantasy of empowering victimization. I am hurt deeply once, and that one hurt justifies every hurt I inflict on the world around me. His is the logic of every war, every retaliation, of Trump’s MAGA uprising, and the particular male fantasy that if you pushed me too far, or hurt my family, I’d become a killing machine too. All of that true, but that’s not where I’m going here.

To Be Formidable

What if sensitivity is strength? What if the are the same thing? Not in a Daredevil since, where his senses are so sensitive and acute except when he is pummeling his foes into submission, and not in the Punisher way, where his deep hurt at the loss of his family is what fuels his bottomless murderous rage. But in an everyday way, the way that a child can demonstrate better than a superhero.

It doesn’t require any strength, any resilience, to be insensitive. You’re not tough, you’re just numb. Maybe you numb yourself with substances or other behaviors, or maybe you’re just a little numb by nature. If the world hurts you less, toughing it out is no great feat. Maybe you get used to numbing yourself, or maybe you get used to coasting through trouble. Life just requires less of you.

Just as it requires less of me to live a white-hetero-male-privileged life. I might be hurt by the world, but overall, the world hurts me less than others with less privilege. (Imagine how quickly a Black Daredevil or Punisher would be caught or murdered by police) It certainly is not easy, but it is in a sense on “Easy Mode” as John Scalzi calls it. My baseline life requires less strength.

What requires strength is to live in the world and remain sensitive. It requires so much strength, in fact, that humans flock to addiction and various kinds of anesthesia to avoid doing just that. We want stories of tough, impervious heroes; of victorious, immortal gods. We trade liberty for security, offering it up before we are even asked, and thanking our leaders for the privilege of losing who we might have been. Build the wall! Take my data, please!

The truly formidable person is the one whose strength and sensitivity flow together. She who feels more, sees more, and knows more must also endure more. And the more we feel, the more we see, the more we know and care, the more we must endure. The stronger we must be, and the more formidable we become. But even if that is not the kind of strength that many of us seek out, nor the kind of strength that makes it into our stories very often, it is just that kind of strength that we need right now.

Four Cool Things Iron Fist Failed to Be

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A Wu Tang, Kung-Fu Hip-Hop Mashup

I was kind of excited when the show opened with a hip-hop track and the promise of some forthcoming kung-fu. There is a lot of overlap between hip-hop and kung-fun, at least in my own opinion, and nothing represents this to me more clearly than the Wu Tang Clan, but you also have Afro Samurai and the fight scenes in Boondocks among many other examples. I’m not an expert here, but the connection is there, and Iron Fist did precisely nothing with it.

Occasionally Danny Rand would do his awkward faux-Tai-Chi meditation before a fight, and he’d play some cool music, but it had no connection to the rest of the story at all, except that when his plane went down he had an iPod. They could have gone somewhere with this connection, in the story itself. It could have been an interesting mashup in style following on Luke Cage’s heels. But, no.

A Vehicle for a Breakout Asian Star

What was Mike Colter doing before Jessica Jones and Luke Cage? I don’t know either. But we know now, because Luke Cage was awesome. If I saw Mike Colter on the street, I’d half expect to see him in a bullet-hole hoodie. On my Facebook and Twitter feed, black nerds were going wild about Luke Cage. All nerds were going pretty wild, to be honest.

Iron Fist could have been that kind of breakout moment for an Asian actor and martial artist. I mean, he’s a similarly obscure superhero – it isn’t like there is a huge existing fan-base for Iron Fist. They could even have met folks half-way with someone like Lewis Tan, who read for Danny Rand while they were casting.

I can’t believe that Hollywood isn’t bursting at the seams with handsome, charismatic Asian actors who would love to be cast as something other than Triad Thug #6. Come on.

But no.

The Anti-Batman Billionaire Story

We already have Batman Begins, where a white billionaire goes to Asia to learn supernatural, or at least superhuman, martial arts. We have Doctor Strange, the millionaire white guy who goes to Asia to learn magic from a white woman who is the leader of a mystic Asian sect. Danny Rand could have been interesting as a commentary on these stories. He’s part of a trope – OK. That gives you the chance to comment on the trope in an intelligent way. But, no.

A Humorous Meditation On Its Own Failure

More and more as the series progresses, we have the refrain that Danny Rand is a terrible Iron Fist. I think the show could have made more of this. There’s every indication that he went off half-cocked, barely having earned the power of the Iron Fist before he inexplicably flees his calling and responsibility to…I guess get into fist-fights with corporate security guards and whitesplain Asian culture to people.

But it would have been more interesting if they had leaned into this idea that he is not a very good Iron Fist. He earned this cosmic power, just barely, and then ran away. He’s petulant and obtuse and socially awkward. He grew up in a mystical monastery and is totally unequipped to deal with adulthood and the modern world. He tries to solve everything with martial arts, and it never works. This could have been funny, and endearingly awkward. Think of a stereotypical homeschooled kid with supernatural kung-fu powers. One does not have to be very smart to make that funny.

But, again, no.

Just…no.

Mage Core: Mage the Ascension in Fate Core

chantry

I’ve seen plenty of discussion of how someone might adapt Mage the Ascension to Fate Core’s rules, but I didn’t find someone who had actually laid out how to handle the hack. I like the idea, and I wanted to present something that’s immediately usable. So, what follows is my own hack, which I think you could just take and run with if you wanted to.

First, changes to the baseline metaphysics. I’ve narrowed Mage down to seven spheres rather than nine. I dropped Entropy because I have always thought that it probably just reduced down to Time, and didn’t think that both were necessary. For a Fate Core adaptation of Mage, I decided to drop Prime, because the Quintessence/Paradox economy is doing to work differently in a Fate game than it does in Ascension. The Fate point economy mimics the Quintessence economy somewhat, and I decided to make Paradox into a stress/consequence track alongside the mental and physical tracks.

Aspects

A high concept Aspect, a trouble/Paradox Aspect, an Avatar Aspect, a Tradition/paradigm Aspect, and a mundane Aspect.

Starting with a high concept, of course, I like the idea that the trouble Aspect could be rooted in Paradox if that makes sense. If I was running Mage Core I would recommend that to players. Then there is the Avatar Aspect, which I think should be a source of plenty of compels during the course of a game as the Avatar pushes the Mage to grow and change. A Tradition or paradigm Aspect also makes sense as a way to further define the character. Last is the mundane Aspect, as I like the idea, especially early on, of reality-bending Mages trying to hold down jobs and raise families.

Custom Skill List

Awareness (includes Empathy and Notice)

Contacts (includes Rapport)

Drive

Expression (includes artistic Crafts)

Fight

Investigate

Lore

Manipulate (includes Deceive and Provoke)

Resources

Shoot

Stealth

Streetwise (includes Burglary)

Tech (includes technical Crafts)

Will

In Mage Core, the top of the Skill pyramid is +4. I noted what I changed, in terms of combining or splitting up Fate Core default Skills to help with finding Stunts.

Spheres as Extras

OK, so, here we go. As mentioned above, I’ve narrowed Mage down to seven Spheres: Correspondence, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Spirit and Time. Time absorbs Entropy and Prime fades away because it isn’t as necessary in Mage Core, as it is mostly a meta-Sphere in Mage itself.

I’m taking from Ryan Macklin, and setting difficulties for Sphere use at intervals of 2, for the same reasons he lists in his own post about “Mage the Coreing.”

Here’s what I have so far: each Sphere is an Extra, rated from +1 to +5. Basically the same scale as in the books. But the difficulty for various magical effects varies from +0 to +8. This is to help adapt to how Fate points change the math, and also to force situations where mages succeed but take Paradox. For effects that require two Spheres, base the difficulty on the highest Sphere and then increase it by 1 for each additional Sphere. A character begins with 6 Extras to spend on Spheres, just like the initial 6 dots in Ascension. Following are example effects for each level of each Sphere:

Correspondence

Use of a Sphere at a distance requires Correspondence

+0 Perfect spatial perceptions

+2 Clairvoyance/clairaudience into nearby space, create a ward, pull a small object through space

+4 Create a pocket of space, scry/search through space, teleport, quick/slow travel

+6 Create doors/portals between locations, colocate two places, create space from nothing, destroy space

+8 Perfect co-location, step outside of space, create a permanent portal

Forces

Forces effects deal +1 damage

+0 Sense energy

+2 Increase or decrease present forces

+4 Transform or destroy a force

+6 Change properties of force (so electricity grows and consumes like fire, fire is attracted to metal, light is smothering like pressure, etc.), create force from nothing

+8 Create new types of force, so you can make plasma that passes through all matter, drop a room to absolute zero, eliminate friction temporarily, cause fission or fusion reactions, make atomic bonds fall apart, or change Earth’s magnetic field.  Affect exotic types of forces, e.g. dark matter and dark energy, plasma, gravity

Life

+1 damage to living things

+0 Perceive living things, sense health

+2 Treat a mild physical consequence, speed or slow recovery, Skill bonus, clear physical stress, affect simple life like plants

+4 Treat a moderate physical consequence, increase physical stress boxes for a scene, deal damage to living things, augment a Skill for a scene

+6 Treat a severe physical consequence, transfer properties from one form of life to another, create life from nothing, shapeshift between plant and animal forms

+8 Complete transformation, imbue life with unique properties, transform into a mythological creature

Matter

+1 damage of objects

+0 Perceive matter, including composition, chemistry, etc.

+2 Change shape of matter, make it malleable

+4 Alter density, destroy matter, alter properties within constraints of the material

+6 A blade can be light as air, or a metal can be almost indestructible, or a shirt can be bullet-proof, create matter from nothing

+8 You can now give objects and substances unreasonable properties, allowing them to pass through walls, or have edges only a molecule wide, batteries that recharge themselves, or a body of liquid metal that can change forms and hunt down John Connor

Mind

+1 emotional stress when dealing damage

+0 Detect minds, read emotions

+2 Command, read surface thoughts, increase or decrease emotions

+4 Enter dreams, see Dreaming, read thoughts, destroy thoughts, change memories, bonus Skill for a scene, alter perceptions in target and create illusions

+6 Project into the Astral Plane, possession, create an illusion over an area, create a personality trait from nothing (with Prime), create a basic intelligence 

+8 Sever mind from body, open a portal to the Astral, create an illusory world and plunge someone into it, recreate personality (rewrite Aspects)

Spirit

+0 Spirit sense (Umbra, Dreaming, Shadowlands)

+2 Reach across the Gauntlet, affect spirits

+4 Step across the Gauntlet, strengthen or weaken the Gauntlet, bind a Wraith, heal/rend spirit-stuff, let a spirit manifest

+6 Open a portal in the Gauntlet, bring a spirit across into the material world, awaken the spirit of an object, open a portal from one spirit world to another, shapechange in the spirit world

+8 Awaken the spirit of a place, co-locate the spirit world and material world

Time

+0 See fate and probability, perfect time-sense

+2 Increase/decrease probability, augury – see into the past or the future

+4 Create/destroy probability, slow/speed time for one target, reach into an immediate past/future

+6 Determine fate, create a pocket of time, grant extra actions, hang an if-then effect, travel into a future or a past

+8 Change a timeline permanently, rewind or fast forward time for an area, create a portal in time, go outside of time

Paradox

Rather than impose Paradox for particular magical effects, I think it makes sense in Fate Core that Paradox is a way to succeed with a cost when using magic. You throw more hubris into the effect, draw on your resonance, try to force it, basically, and you still succeed but at the cost of Paradox.

In Mage Core, Paradox is a stress track, and also has it’s own dedicated consequence track, apart from the mental and physical. Paradox is its own thing in Mage, and Paradox consequences result in things like Quiet.

The Paradox track would start with two stress boxes, of course, and there isn’t currently an obvious choice of Skill to add additional boxes. That doesn’t seem like something a Skill should do, really. Maybe higher Sphere levels could add boxes – three boxes for a +3, four for a +4 and five for a +5 in your highest Sphere perhaps.

Rotes

I have a special rule that I’ve used with Fate Core in the past that I want to adapt to Mage Core. When a character makes use of a rote, and describes it, then the player can set aside one Fate die and set it to “+”. This is similar to a +1 to the roll, but also means that there will be less volatility in the result, which will now range from -2 to +4 instead of -4 to +4. This will, just as in Ascension, encourage players to come up with plenty of cool rotes and procedures for their characters. At least that’s the goal.

Traditions and Other Setting Stuff

I backed the 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage the Ascension, and it is superb. The work they did updating the setting and game assumptions for a 21st Century audience is good. The problem is, when I sit down and want to run a Mage game, especially with people who are not already used to OWoD, it’s daunting. WoD games made a lot of sense in college and after, when we all had way more time, no matter how busy we thought we were, to do things like soak damage and memorize magical effects and so on. I just find that I need a game that is faster and more loose, and I think that the fluidity and flexibility of Fate Core lends itself very well to Mage the Ascension.

What did I miss? Anything you want to add? 

Advancement Systems In RPG Design

 

Image result for leveling meme

I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine who is designing a tabletop RPG about what kind of advancement system to use for his game. It got me thinking about the pros and cons of all of the various methods games use for character advancement, mostly in tabletop but also drawing from video games. I thought I would lay out the various options as I saw them and discuss each in turn, both as a way to organize my thoughts a bit further and also to show the wide variety of methods there are out there.

How you use an advancement system for your game is a core question both for game designers and also for those running games. Many advancement systems leave a lot of flexibility based on play style – one D&D game for example might have characters leveling every four or five sessions of play, and another might have them leveling every session. One is a story of slow development where there have to be a lot of rewards that aren’t experience points while the other is a roller-coaster ride to power that won’t leave as much time for character development, since everyone will always be learning and trying out their new abilities. Designers should let GMs know where they think the “sweet spot” is for their game, as this can be a very helpful guide. Trial-and-error also works, but can lead to a lot more frustration among players.

Experience and Leveling (D&D)

Of course, the granddaddy system, the default in most people’s minds, is leveling. You accumulate experiences points doing whatever it is that the game wants to reward, and when you hit a particular break-point you have a sudden increase in your character’s abilities. This is true of many RPGs whether on console or tabletop, and was the method introduced by D&D and many of the very first tabletop RPGs forty years ago.

The important thing here is that the game gives experience points for what you want players and characters to be doing most often. In fact, if you want to know what a game is about, look to what it rewards – and if your game rewards something that you don’t want your game to be about, change your experience system. (This is true for all of the advancement methods I’ll discuss, and also true for any reward system or cycle you have in your game, period.) Reward the behavior you want. Don’t give experience points for killing monsters in your supposed political intrigue game.

You also want to have your level progression lean toward incremental and not be too jarring. Unless it is an intentional aspect of your game, a character shouldn’t be twice as capable after achieving a single level. Not only is it ‘unrealistic’, it is jarring to the fiction. Suddenly, things that were dire threats to you last session are a breeze now because you crossed an arbitrary threshold. Thing through how often you think characters should level – multiple times per session? Every two or three sessions? Every month of play? Etc. And tune your game accordingly.

Incremental Leveling (D&D 4E, D&D Online)

Kind of a subset to the above is something I really liked about Dungeon & Dragons Online, and how it used leveling to make the experience of play more similar to other MMOs (where there tend to be 100 or so levels, each only slightly different from the others). I’ve written about it here in the past, but in brief, DDO took each level in D&D and broke it into 10 mini-levels that were incremental points between. So, for example, instead of being 10% more likely to hit an enemy, you would be 1% more likely at each increment. Instead of 10 hit points, you would get 1. Ten of those increments would add up to a full level that one might recognize from the tabletop version of D&D.

D&D 4th Edition did something similar by making the three tiers of play explicit. First the Heroic tier, from level 1 to 10, then the Paragon tier from 11 to 20, and then the Epic tier from 21 to 30. At each tier different abilities became available, and it was intentional that there be a bigger difference between 10 and 11 than between 9 and 10 for example.

Advancement through Failure (Powered by the Apocalypse games)

When thinking of earning experience or character points or whatever it is that makes a character advance, we often think of achievement. Starting with Apocalypse World, there have been a series of games that root advancement in failure. Generally speaking, in games based on AW, you mark experience or gain experience when you fail in a roll. This is in part so that you can ‘fail forward’, so to speak, and I’ve also found it to be an encouraging aspect of these systems for people who feel like they don’t roll well. It’s also fun to crap out on an important roll, knowing it’ll hurt, but sit back and say, “You know, I learned something today…”

This is really just an example of another type of behavior  you want to reward – specifically, the behavior of taking risks in-game and using abilities you aren’t very good at. However many abilities a game might have, a given character will usually only use maybe a half dozen of them regularly. Characters tend to be specialists in RPGs, and players tend to want their characters to succeed, meaning players will want to only try things their characters are good at. This is doubly true if they only get experience points, or only move toward advancement, when they succeed. Actively rewarding failure is a good way to encourage players to have their characters try new, dangerous, and often entertaining things.

Edit: It was pointed out, correctly, that it is specifically Dungeon World that grants xp for failure, not Apocalypse World.

Ongoing Point-Buy (GURPS, WoD)

Leaving aside “leveling” altogether, there is the system where experience points are points that one can spend to improve specific abilities. This system is easier to customize, and can be less jarring. When a character levels, they often increase a number of different abilities and capacities, but with a point-buy or character point advancement system, the player can choose to improve some abilities and not others.

Often the choice for the player is whether to spend advancement points frequently on minor new abilities, or to save up the advancement points to buy more powerful abilities. In all World of Darkness games, as well as in GURPS, players are presented with this decision at the end of each session. Some players will want to advance a little bit each session, while others will save up for big abilities. Many will alternate between the two based on how they want their characters to develop.

For these and similar systems, the question for game designers becomes one of pricing. Pricing decisions can be a function of demand, how popular an ability is likely to be, as well as impact on the story. Check out what I wrote about frequency and payoff a while back, and think about how low-frequency and/or low-payoff abilities should be cheaper, in a point-buy system, than high-frequency and/or high-payoff abilities.

Advancement as Currency (Shadowrun, sometimes GURPS)

Often a subset of the point-buy system is when the points you use for advancement can also be used as in-game currency. This adds a layer of decision-making for the player, since they can either have the immediate payoff of spending a point in-game, or the quick payoff of spending the point on some small incremental advancement, or the delayed gratification of saving up for a powerful ability.

Shadowrun is the best example of this I could think of with its karma system, where you can spend karma in-game for benefits, but karma is also what you spend on new abilities for your character. GURPS has a version of this, where you can spend character points earned in play (or even left over from character creation) to do something in-game like have a suddenly wind-fall of cash. The big challenge here is human psychology. It is easy to, without thinking about it, use up a lot of your potential for advancement in-game, making up for unlucky rolls or ensuring your character shines in particular scenes. Players who don’t like to trust to luck will also tend to make more use of things like karma than others. This can lead to a discrepancy in advancement over time. Not necessarily a flaw, just something to consider.

Advancement by Use (Torchbearer, Call of Cthulhu, Skyrim)

Some games do away with experience points or character points granted for victories in the story or for certain player behaviors and simply link advancement to skill-use. The two biggest examples of this I could think of from tabletop games are Call of Cthulhu (the percentile versions) and the various games based on Burning Wheel, the most recent of which is Torchbearer. These systems take a bit more tracking than the ones above, but you don’t have to worry as much about pricing abilities or tuning the leveling system.

A system that links advancement to ability use seems to work better for less high-fantasy or high-powered games, at least where tabletop RPGs are concerned. And even in Skyrim, your Shouts are earned by completing the main storyline’s quests, or by exploring dungeons, rather than advancing based on use. In fact, that is probably a limitation on a system like this for a tabletop game – it would add a lot of complexity to do any kind of calculation – i.e., to make some abilities harder to raise than others based on use. I can also see limitations here – what to do about fantasy tropes like wizard spells, or psychic abilities, which are usually much more powerful than other abilities? Should your Cooking ability advance the same way that Fireball does? Maybe, but I can see a problem there.

Another challenge here is going to be ability-spamming. Players are going to be trying to use every conceivable ability as much as possible during a session if ability use is what is rewarded. This can have a similar effect to rewarding failure, mentioned above – it will make players branch out more in what they want their characters to try. It can also get repetitive, as in each session every character takes a moment to make a Photography roll, and then an Academics roll, and then a Gambling roll, or whatever. (I’ve definitely seen this come up in Call of Cthulhu.) A designer can find ways around this spamming issue, like limiting the total number of abilities that are counted in a given session, but it can definitely be a problem. On the other hand, this system does model reality pretty well (you get better at what you practice) and does reward a much more broad list of activities than leveling systems tend to.

Milestones (Fate Core, Parsec)

I’m sure other systems do this, but the example I came up with was Fate Core for a system that rewards characters based on reaching particular points in the story. (I mention Parsec because that game, which I designed, includes a system where players define obstacles and characters advance when those obstacles are faced in-game). A lot of video games do this with the main storyline or main quest-line – do whatever you want, take however much time you want, but you won’t advance until you get to a particular part of the story. This is, of course, significantly easier for a video game where the story is laid out ahead of time by the designers and writers.

But most games have an over-arching storyline of some sort. The DM or GM has come to the table with some kind of plan, much as players love to deviate. And a system like this could be an alternative to railroading, or designing every adventure as a box canyon. You can have more of a sandbox situation, but one that only rewards certain story milestones. Carrot rather than stick, so to speak, or honey rather than vinegar.

A story milestone system can be the way that each of the above systems are handled. The milestone could grant you a level, or character points, or a milestone could even be when the players have used a certain number of abilities in-game. In Fate Core, it functions a bit like leveling, as a milestone is a time you can improve your character as well as move abilities around or change them rather than improving them mechanically. Which brings us to…

Adjustment rather than Advancement (Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files)

In some RPGs, you don’t advance in any way that is marked on your character sheet. The story advances, and your character can change over time, but they don’t get better, or gain new abilities. Whether characters advance or not is a matter of taste, and will determine the kinds of games you play. Some games that include advancement can be played without, especially in the short term, and most games played as a one-shot will not include advancement.

Do you have more, or better, examples? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments or on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Common

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
 – Jay Z, Moment of Clarity

It was rightly pointed out to me on Facebook that this series would have to address hip-hop. I don’t think there’s a doubt that it is the musical genre that is most concerned with demonstrations of masculinity, and there has always been plenty of hip-hop that…ain’t feminist. Even positive hip-hop can include problematic lyrics. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I have been a fan for longer than my adult life. It wasn’t hard to think of someone I’d like to take a closer look at in terms of positive masculinity: Common.

In seeking a manly image of Common, I had way too many to choose from, but so many shots were from photo-shoots or from a public, red-carpet event. I wanted something that at least seemed candid, so here you go:

Related image

There he is looking vaguely annoyed that someone was taking a picture of him.

I was excited to find that Spotify had Common’s albums all the way back to Can I Borrow A Dollar, from 1992, so I had a listen. I was 12 when this came out, so I hadn’t heard it before. But the funk-backed, clever lyrics are immediately recognizable. (Interestingly, only 5 of the 13 tracks are marked as Explicit.) He name-drops the villain of Super Mario Bros., so the nerdiness is there too. “Heidi Ho” is pretty awful, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. I think at this stage, Common was still “underground” – he hadn’t made it big, at any rate. His next album, 1994’s Resurrection, includes the first Common song I remember hearing: “I Used To Love H.E.R.” A long way from “Heidi Ho” already. His first big album, as I understand it, was One Day It’ll All Make Sense. And here we clearly have a rapper coming into his full powers. A little less fast-talking for its own sake, smarter lyrics, and deeper funk beats. 20 years old, and it holds up in my opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t a Common music retrospective. I’m under-qualified, though the “research” would be fun. Rather, this is profiles in positive masculinity. Now, Common has been involved in his share of stupid nonsense. He had a beef with Ice Cube in the 90s and more recently with Drake, though shots exchanged never went beyond diss tracks. But for me, Common stands out in general as a positive voice in hip-hop. I don’t think he went down either easy path in the genre: becoming primarily a safe rapper who avoids controversial topics, or a hard rapper who turns machismo up to 11. He seems to be someone who tries to contribute to the world through his music, who is aware of his potential to be a role-model, while still remaining relevant in a music genre that for some people is (wrongly) synonymous with misogyny.

He speaks out about racism, injustice and inequality, avoids most of the pit-falls of his genre, and at the same time has remained a significant figure in music for 20 years. He’s brains-over-brawn, though not without brawn, and I think a person could listen to his music and learn something. If he was harder, or softer, he would probably be more successful, but in listening through a few tracks each of his last 25 years of albums, he’s remained true to himself to an amazing degree. Intelligent, socially conscious, and plenty of funk.

Outside of his music and acting, he has also been an activist for some time. He has worked on behalf of PETA, of HIV/AIDS awareness and testing, and founded the Common Ground Foundation to help youth in poverty, among other things. 10 years ago he pledged not to use anti-gay lyrics anymore, which is progressive for hip-hop (and frankly for 2007, though things were turning).

It’s hard to remain relevant in pop music for 20 years. Who else from 20 years ago is still rapping and hitting the Billboard 100 in 2015? Even harder than remaining relevant for 20 years is remaining positive for that long. Using one’s art to try and make the world a better place. In a genre that is, let’s be honest, known for exhibiting many aspects of toxic masculinity, Common has shown both excellence and character, and he is today’s profile in positive masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Jimmy Carter

Similar to my profile of Justin Trudeau, this is not about who James Earl Carter Jr. was as President of the United States. I’m more interested in someone who can maintain their integrity, even having risen to the highest position in the most powerful nation on Earth. (Or at least one of the two most powerful, since we’re talking about the 70s.) Before we go on, though, we need a manly picture of former President Carter:

Image result for jimmy carter building a house

The way that we structure power in most societies rewards toxicity – aggression, deception, tribalism and so on. Politics is, and always has been, rife with controversy and corruption because there are a lot of harmful behaviors that are rewarded. Normally, political leaders are judged on a different moral scale when compared to the rest of us. We expect a certain background radiation of scandal and abuse of power. When we find hypocrisy, we think “Well, of course, this person is a politician.” What this means is that it is all that much more difficult, I think, to be a genuinely decent person who rises to power in a modern society. You are competing with people who will have advantages over you. It’s like being in a boxing match where everyone else can hit below the belt. If you become a champion under those circumstances, that is noteworthy on its own.

But what happens after you’ve risen to power? In Jimmy Carter’s case, what happened was that he returned to his peanut farm in Georgia. He wrote books and taught at Emory University. Most interesting to me, though, is that he has spent the last few decades working with Habitat for Humanity, working with his hands to build houses for the poor, and serving as a face for Habitat in the world.

I find it a compelling story, that someone like an ex-President, with so much potential power and influence, would choose to work with his hands. It is easy to see this as a mistake, as a waste of time. Couldn’t someone else build those houses? Why not do something like fundraising, which excites so many other politicians? Or be a highly-paid speaker? Cultivate wealthy friends and establish a philanthropic fund of some sort? Instead, he picked up a hammer and saw.

I like that Jimmy Carter has remained connected to simple things, despite having one of the most complex jobs on Earth for four years. Whatever one might think of his presidency, his life after the presidency says a lot about who he is. Justin Trudeau seems to be a highly effective liberal politician – more effective than Carter was, at least so far, and one who often remains true to his stated values. Nick Offerman is an incredible craftsman who builds genuinely beautiful things in his workshop, and a reflective person who has things to say about life and how to live it. Jimmy Carter just builds basic low-income houses. But of the three, Jimmy Carter is the one that inspires me the most. To rise to power, and then be cast down publicly, and then devote one’s life to helping others says a lot about who Carter is.

Of course it matters how someone uses power, but it also matters how someone reacts to the loss of power. His decisive loss to Reagan ended his political career. So what did he do? Among other things, he picked up a hammer and got to work, on behalf of the most vulnerable people around him. That says a lot. If nothing else, Jimmy Carter is a 92 year old man who builds houses for the poor with his own hands. At that age, I’d be proud to be half that manly. Heck, I’d be proud to be half that manly now.