Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Sometimes you have to just turn masculinity up to 11, and when you do, you create Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I’d go ahead and say that there can be no reasonable measure of masculinity, no masculinity scale, that doesn’t at least include The Rock, and I imagine he’d be at or near the top of any of them. But what about his masculinity is positive, in light of the other men we’ve looked at?

I’m pretty sure there is no photo in which Dwayne Johnson does not look masculine, so here is a photo of Dwayne Johnson from his Wikipedia page:

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He looks a little bit tired, and I can’t blame him. One thing about The Rock that you pretty much can’t question is that he works his ass off. If you follow him on social media, you will find that he is up at like 4:30am every morning to go work out like a maniac, despite not going to bed until around midnight a lot of the time. It’s hard to hate a guy for succeeding when he keeps a schedule like that, day in and day out.

There is even a Rock Clock app he’s developed that helps you set goals, and you can sync the app to The Rock’s own alarm clock and try to get up when he does. Good luck with that, by the way. Project Rock is what he’s calling his foray into being a motivational professional, and while I find these kinds of things to be irreducibly hokey, it seems like Johnson is excited about helping people achieve their goals, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For a superstar, he seems to be very engaged with his fanbase. It’s one of the reasons he has nearly 100 million followers on Instagram. He set the Guiness World Record for selfies at the opening of San Andreas, taking over 100 in just 3 minutes with his fans. He also founded the Dwayne Johnson Rock Foundation, a charity working with terminally ill children, and made the largest-ever donation from an alumnus to the University of Miami athletics department. He was granted a noble title by the Samoan government for his, and his family’s, contributions to that country.

For showing how epic victory can come from epic dedication and hard work (and freak genes as a third-generation professional wrestler), for remaining connected to fans even when he is a multi-millionaire movie star, and for wanting to use what he’s achieved to inspire others, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Save Against Fear

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This weekend, starting Friday, I will be attending Save Against Fear, the gaming convention and fundraiser hosted each year by The Bodhana Group. TL;DR: The Bodhana Group uses tabletop games in therapy. They are awesome. 

I’m going to be running two RPG sessions myself: Arcade Showdown on Friday at 12:30pm and then The Long Night on Saturday on 4:30pm. I will also be moderating the Game Designers Interactive Panel at 2:30pm on Saturday, which should be fun.

Sunday is my day to actually get some playing in, and I’m signed up for Fifth World – The Monster and then ending things off with Retrostar run by Jack Berkenstock Jr. himself.

If you are not going to be at Save Against Fear this year, you have made a terrible mistake. But it’s not too late! You can still register, or get your badge at the door. There are still slots in the games I’m running and, I believe, in the games I’ll be playing, as well as lots of other games. We’ll have our first celebrity guest, Martin Klebba, and you will meet a lot of great people who are not only huge gaming nerds but are also huge gaming nerds who are using their games to make people’s lives better.

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RPG Mechanic Round-Up #1

I have a notes app on my phone, and a Google Document as well, that are full of little snippets of ideas for game mechanics. Some of those could be applicable in many different systems, while others have grown into games of their own or full-blown hacks.

Some of them are worth sharing, I think, and so periodically I’m going to put up a post here explaining some of these mechanics and how you might want to use them in your own games. Or maybe they’ll be a springboard for your own ideas, which I hope you’ll share in the comments!

Magical Healing and Scars

In a recent podcast interview, John Adamus, editor extraordinaire and author of the recently-Kickstarted Noir World, eloquently echoed a thought I’d had for a long time – that in most fantasy games, magical healing removes an interesting roleplaying opportunity. Adamus’ point was that violence should matter – that the consequences of violence should matter – especially in a noir game.

In a ‘traditional’ fantasy game I think this is still true, though in a lesser sense. The idea here is simple – for magical healing to leave a scar. That is, the healing is magically fast, but does not erase every mark as if the wound never happened. The body heals up, good as new as far as the rules are concerned, but the scar is still there. Now, I wouldn’t propose every single instance of damage leading to a noticeable scar – that would make every D&D character a scar-riddled monstrosity by level 3 or so. Rather, I think that serious injuries could be handled this way. Critical hits that the character receives from opponents, for example, or any injury that drops her below 0 hit points. I like the idea of scars as a lasting reminder – something of the character’s story written on their skin. And you can get cool scar-comparing scenes between heroes, like it’s Lethal Weapon or something.

Community Leveling, Or the Actual Hero’s Journey

As far as Joseph Campbell is concerned, why does the Hero undertake the Journey? Almost everyone forgets this question, I think, especially when discussing RPGs. But at the end of that big Hero’s Journey cycle is the return of the hero to her community, bearing the ‘elixir’, or the essence of what she has learned and how she has grown in her journey. The purpose is to return to where you began with everything you need to make things right. It’s why, for instance, the Scouring of the Shire has to happen at the end of the epic Lord of the Rings story.

What we get in most fantasy games are truncated, hobbled hero’s journeys because it is almost always only the heroes who benefit. I mean, in theory you are saving the world by defeating the Big Bad, but normally you’ve absorbed millions of gold pieces worth of treasure and magic items and made hardly a ripple in the world around you. You have leveled, but on one around you has.

I take this idea from The Fifth World, among other places, but I propose the idea of letting communities level up along with the characters who originate there. There is something of this in AD&D, where high-level characters end up automatically building things like towers and churches, presumably in or near their home town or home base. These things concretely change the local world, rather than saving the cosmos but leaving the local world untouched.

I would like to see this carried even further – that part of the treasure that characters would receive, they receive in the form of their improving community. This can form something of a virtuous circle, as your adventures and rescues mean that your little hamlet becomes a thriving town with even more resources and adventure seeds available for you.

Any decent GM or DM can of course make this happen, but the trick is making this part of the game’s rules, or part of the hack you create.

Random Scatter With A D8

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I don’t know whether this mechanic already exists in games – it probably does, as I think about it, but it’s a good one. This is for cases when, for example, you throw a grenade and it bounces around a bit, or miss your shot and want to know where it went wide, etc. Basically, you roll a d8 once and possible twice. For the first roll, you assign north, or forward across the table from the point of view of the GM, as 1, and then go around clockwise to the other eight cardinal and intermediate directions, around to where ‘northwest’ is 8 and then due north is back to 1. If you want, you can roll another die to randomize how far the attack scattered from the center, with 1 being near the bulls-eye and say 6 for a d6 is at the edge of the range you’ve determined. Say, for example, you can roll d8 for the direction and d6 for inches, so with a roll of just two dice and a glance, you can determine direction and distance of a miss.

With a little Googling, I found that scatter dice also exist – so you can buy d8s with the cardinal and intermediate directions on each of the eight sides. But this is nice because you can determine scatter in a moment using the d8 you already have in front of you. It’s something I do at the table all the time.

More Mechanics Coming…

I have about a dozen more of these little notes to expand upon in the future, so keep an eye out of this kind of thing interests you. And feel free to comment with cool mechanics you use, or have come up with, that could work in lots of different games.

Large-Sized Characters In 5E D&D

As it stands, making any large-sized playable race in D&D 5E is more of a problem than is likely to be worthwhile. According to the DMG, a large-size playable race would deal double weapon damage at level 1, and with the way hit dice work in the MM, it could be argued that their class hit dice would be upgraded by one die type, meaning a large-sized fighter for example would have d12 hit dice instead of d10 due to size.

These huge advantages would be balanced out a bit by the fact that a large PC would have to squeeze in a lot of common situations – traveling through Dwarven tunnels or visiting the ubiquitous pseudo-Medieval taverns. I’d assume, though, that the DM would just have to adjust for that, reducing the number of five-foot-wide corridors and so on in a given adventure, or else the player playing the large PC would just be left out. Somewhat balanced, but definitely no fun, leaving a situation where the PC would have all the advantages and probably few, or none, of the constraints of being large.

The effects of the Enlarge/Reduce spell in the PHB suggest another interpretation, a bit less advantageous than what the DMG and MM imply. An enlarged creature deals +1d4 damage with their enlarged weapon and have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves and that’s pretty much it. Presumably, the DM just improvises the effects of being enlarged where it would be a detriment rather than an advantage, and obviously a savvy caster would not enlarge an ally in the middle of a cramped room or hallway designed for medium-sized species.

I don’t think either approach to a large-sized playable race is particularly good, whether taking our cue from the DMG and MM, or from the PHB. That being said, I like the idea of a large-sized playable race a lot. I think it adds something to a setting and to the options available to players, and there should be a way to balance things out. In 3.X this balance came in part with a penalty to Armor Class and stealth checks, and I think that makes sense conceptually.

So here is what I think a large-sized race or species in D&D 5E should include: +1d4 damage from large-sized weapons, advantage on Strength saves and Strength checks, disadvantage on Dexterity saves and Dexterity checks, +1 hit points per level, and a cost of living multiplied by four (including meals, water skins, clothing, equipment, etc.).

An Example: Dark Sun’s Half Giant

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength and Constitution score both increase by 2.

Age. Half-giants live about twice as long as humans, becoming adults around the age of 25 and often living to 170 (for the few who die of old age).

Alignment. Half-giants adopt their alignment from the people they spend the most time with, or fear or respect most. This means that their alignment will be more subject to change than others, though one axis till tend to remain consistent. So they might be consistently Good, but sometimes Chaotic and sometimes Lawful, or consistently Chaotic, but sometimes Good and sometimes Evil.

Powerful Build. Half-giants have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves.  They also have disadvantage on Dexterity checks and Dexterity saves. In addition, their build grants them +1 hit points per level.

Size. Half-giants are Large sized creatures. They occupy a 10′ by 10′ square, and have a 5′ reach. They also deal +1d4 damage with all weapons, in addition to the listed damage.

Speed. Half-giants have a base speed of 35 feet.

Upkeep. The cost of living and all equipment for a half-giant costs four times the usual amount.

Friend, Honest, Pastor – Pick Two

I’ve been in a few interesting conversations on FB lately about what it is like to be a pastor, or a parishioner, and whether genuine friendship is something that a pastor can offer a parishioner. Generally speaking, it seemed like parishioners felt like pastors could be their friends, for the most part, but most pastors pointed out issues with this perception and practice.

There are boundary issues, honesty issues, and safety issues for the pastor in her position at the church which do not exist between the pastor and her friends. There are issues of power and politics, of employment and theology and core values at stake. A pastoral relationship is a particular kind of relationship, it isn’t a stand-in for every kind of relationship. That way lies boundary violations galore.

I came up with a pithy way to represent the problem: with regard to your pastor, your pastor can be your friend, your pastor can be honest, and your pastor can function as your pastor – you can pick any two of those three.

Honest Friend = Not Pastor

Your honest friend cannot be your pastor. If someone is honestly talking to you about the deep things that friends talk about, they cannot also be your pastor. They can’t be your pastor if you know about their criminal record, or their affair, or how much they want to strangle some of their parishioners, or how sometimes they lie from the pulpit because that’s easier than telling the truth and making enemies or being unemployed.

Pastor Friend = Not Honest

Your pastor friend cannot be honest with you, for the reasons listed above. She cannot tell you all about her life; cannot tell you some truths, especially about herself and her own life, but possibly about you and your life as well. I’m NOT saying that pastors who have friends in their congregations are lying – what I am saying is that they will always have truths they cannot tell you that they could, in theory, tell a friend in their life who is not part of their congregation or community.

Honest Pastor = Not Friend

Your honest pastor cannot be your true friend, any more than your therapist or your lawyer can be your true friend. An honest pastor will have to tell you things you may not want to hear, and should be maintaining good, healthy emotional boundaries with you at all times. An honest pastor is also a professional, among other things, and it gets too confusing to have to alternate between wearing the ‘pastor hat’ and then wearing the ‘friend hat.’ One of those hats is going to stick – either the pastor part, or the friend part, will suffer.

Not All Three

This is my understanding and practice as it is right now, at least. I even have friends among my parishioners, but as their pastor, there is always going to be an appropriate distance there. Being a pastor is messy, and the lines between different kinds of relationships can blur, but for me at least there is a definite limit beyond which I am not going to go with a parishioner, if I want them to remain a parishioner.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Demetrius Johnson

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Above is a manly picture of Demetrius Jonson, the first and so far only Flyweight Champion of the UFC. At only 5’3”, he fights at 125 pounds, but I can say with confidence that for 99.99% of the people reading this, “Mighty Mouse” would knock you unconscious, or choke you unconscious, without breaking a sweat.

In fact, that number may very well be 100%. Demetrius Johnson is near the top, if not at the top, of most lists of greatest fighters, pound-for-pound (meaning comparing all weight classes) of all time. (He is at the top of the official UFC rankings and also Sherdog’s #1 in the world) He is a master of multiple martial arts, and a master of combining those martial arts with blinding speed and near-perfect technique. Here’s a highlight reel that gives you an idea:

So, what kind of person would you expect to be a fighting machine? Some kind of alpha-male dude-bro maybe. Someone with a chip on his shoulder and a criminal record who lives a life of excess and thrill-seeking behavior.

In stark contrast, here is what Demetrius Johnson does when he’s between training camps or in recovery:

Yup, that’s a Twitch stream. This master of world-class ass-kicking is a gaming nerd. He’s also seemingly quite a family man, with his wife, Destiny, and two small children. He had a tough upbringing, born premature and raised in an abusive household, but he has also worked hard to overcome that beginning, and has seemingly reached the pinnacle of his chosen endeavor. Which, again, is fighting other men in a cage.

For comparison, I think of Jon Jones, the current Light Heavyweight Champion of the UFC and another incredibly talented martial artist. He’s up there next to Johnson on the pound-for-pound lists. But in contrast to Johnson, Jones has had multiple issues with illegal drugs, banned performance-enhancing substances, a hit-and-run accident, and a lot of behavior that has hurt himself and those around him. Meanwhile, Johnson hangs out with his family and plays video games and is a clean fighter who lives a clean life.

For his toughness (he has fought with multiple broken limbs over the course of his career), devotion to his family, enjoyment of hobbies that are not usually associated with a fighter’s life, as well as avoiding the many moral pitfalls that come with fame in an ultra-masculine environment, Demetrius Johnson is this week’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Difficulty Settings in TRPGs

It’s a common thing for video games to have variable difficulty settings. Usually it’s some kind of slider you can move from easy to hard, or maybe hardcore, or insanity mode. There might be a setting that includes permadeath, or removes the ability to save your progress.

Very similar things exist in a lot of RPGs, whether they are noticeable or not. It occurred to me clearly when I was explaining Mage: the Ascension to players who had not played it before. They asked about Avatar – an optional background in the system. In MtA it represents the ability to absorb Quintessence, magical energy that makes doing magic easier, and also provides hints as to how a character can advance. The Avatar Background is, in effect, a difficulty slider for Mage the Ascension.

I thought about Vampire the Masquerade’s Generation Background, which functions in a similar way. More points allocated to Generation give a vampire character more blood to spend, the capacity to spend more blood at a time, and even limited immunity to one of the vampiric Disciplines, Dominate. As with Avatar, more points in Generation is like setting Vampire the Masquerade to easy mode. Without points in Generation, and especially taking a Flaw like Thin-Blooded, is like playing Vampire on hard mode.

Many other classic games have difficulty settings built in. D&D 3.X fixed a lot of the flaws with AD&D 2nd Edition – one of which was to un-break thieves and make them rogues. Rogues remained a more challenging choice, however, needing to focus on skillful play in a lot of cases. Tactical play to make use of the sneak attack ability and planning ahead to make effective use of character abilities.

Previous editions of D&D did this the wrong way, I think. Both editions of AD&D punished thieves by making them terrible at being thieves, and punished metahuman players by adding arbitrary level caps (I’ve read the arguments in favor of level caps and they’re just not convincing).

Why is this the wrong way? Because it is the wrong design choice to simply make some choices poor ones. Every player in a Vampire game can take points in Generation, but not every player in a D&D game can normally play a cleric. Having a difficulty setting and having some choices simply be less fun are two very different things.

In a game about advancement, it is a poor design choice to put limits on some player-characters’ opportunities for advancement and not others. Really, this is true in any game that features advancement at all. Level caps, or experience point caps or whatever, are a terrible way to add difficulty to a game. A game shouldn’t be challenging because it is more fun for the other players than it is for you.

Difficulty Settings in Your Games

Many video games have difficulty settings. These are easier to include in single-player games, and are probably not the right choice for competitive games. But tabletop roleplaying games are different, obviously. Each person at the table can be playing a slightly different game. We know this is true in terms of preferences – some might be playing a tactical combat game, and another might be playing a storytelling game, and another might be playing a skill-based puzzle game.

Further, the actual game they are playing might be slightly different. This is already the case with Mage players whose characters have high Avatar ratings, or Vampire characters who have lots of dots in Generation.

There needs to be some cost to setting the difficulty to “easy.” In Vampire and Mage, that cost is that Background dots are placed in Generation or Avatar rather than something else; some other advantage that is still an advantage. It’s important for the players at the table to know that the difficulty settings exist and that they are an option.

So look at your game, or your game design (assuming it isn’t a World of Darkness game, or another game that has a difficulty setting built in). See where parts of the system can be flexed one way or another. If you have classes, are some classes clearly easier to play than others? If you have races or species, do some have killer special abilities or advantages?

There are three things I’ve noticed that can affect the difficulty of a game: damage resistance, immunities, and extra actions. You can look for these three things, and others, keeping the following in mind.

Damage resistance is powerful, especially in a game where it is rare. It is a big advantage in GURPS, and in 3.X D&D, and is rare for that reason. Damage resistance is like multiplying a character’s health by the number of times they are struck in combat. It’s like sparring with pads, and exists for the same reasons pads do.

Immunities are even more powerful than damage resistance. Immunity provides not only protection but also new story opportunities. A fire-immune character can walk into a burning building, or cover themselves in fire and hug people to death. It is a point of leverage that almost no one else will have. (Example from above – lots of dots in Generation makes a vampire immune to Dominate, most of the time)

Extra actions, as has been pointed out many times, are game-breaking in a game with an action economy. Speaking of Vampire, Celerity is a nightmare. The haste spell in D&D, and similar spells, have to be nerfed, or carefully managed, because they easily double the effectiveness of anyone it is cast upon. In Mage, it’s the Time sphere. But one thing for having extra actions, it is a way of playing on easy mode. The downside is that players interact with the game through their characters’ actions, and giving one player more actions than the others is just like doing the same in a game of chess – it might very well cross the line into unfair.

Why Choose Easy Mode? Hard Mode?

Difficulty modes exist in TRPGs for the same reasons they exist in video games. A player might want a more story-centered experience, or might be a new player who isn’t confident with the game.

Players who want more of a challenge, or who want to demonstrate their skill in play, can set the difficulty to hard for their character. A character overcoming difficulties and limitations usually makes for a more exciting and interesting story than those who are played out on easy mode – and it gives players something to aim for when they play the game a second time, or a third.

Building in a difficulty setting can increase the replay value of your game, same as video games. That’s part of the fun, and it is one of the values of such a system, to be compared to other values, such as game balance. But I definitely see value in having ways for a player, in character creation, to signal what sort of game they want to play – easy, or hard.