“He Was Mostly Dadequate”

When we found out my wife was pregnant, I experienced fear like I had never experienced before. This is speaking as someone who has always been wracked by anxiety and has multiple phobias (darkness, heights, water where I can’t see the bottom). This was something different. This was whole-body fear, day in and day out. It was near-suicidal fear, to be honest. One time I had a very strong impulse, and vivid fantasy that actually made me pull over, of just turning the wheel and driving into oncoming traffic. It would end the fear, and my wife and daughter-to-be would get the PCUSA death benefit from the Board of Pensions, which I was pretty sure would be significantly better than having me for a dad. It felt very much like a win-win, but I had the presence of mind to pull to the right instead of the left and stop the car and just sob on the shoulder while cars and semis roared by.

It didn’t help that my wife had a lot of complications with this pregnancy, including trips to the ER and weekly stress tests and all sorts of things. The time is largely a blank from all of the fear crawling through me, but I can’t imagine I was much help. I tried.

When my daughter was born, my first words to her were something very much like, “Hello Poppy. I’m really sorry, but I’m your dad.” My thoughts about her life were all about what I could do to mitigate the damage I was inevitably going to inflict on her. How could I bring her into the world and have her grow up a healthy and well-adjusted human despite me?

(This whole time, there was a part of me in the background saying “Hey some of this is probably your mental illness distorting your perceptions of yourself and the situation” but it was a faint voice easily drowned out by the roar of panic.)

This constant fear didn’t go away when she was born. I think it was just subsumed under exhaustion through three months of colic, and the anxiety and depression of my first ministry job falling apart, and failing to find a new ministry job, and realizing that I was not only going to be the father of a baby but I was going to be the homeless father of a homeless baby. We moved in with our wonderful friends, setting up in their basement. My wife found a job as a preschool teacher, and so I ended up being a stay-at-home dad.

I think this was a life-long low point – one of three or maybe four I can think of. I had failed in the ways that I had to measure myself – as a pastor, as a provider, as a husband, etc., and now I was going to fail as a parent as well. Every single day, all day, the relentless drumbeat of my failure, and this helpless baby the victim. The competent extraordinary parent was going to work, and now the baby was stuck with me.

And my thoughts got way worse than that.

So here’s what happened – I survived. My daughter survived. Every day that ended with her intact, I took as a win. People often laughed when I said that, but I meant it very earnestly and literally. I had to set some kind of standard, and that standard was “the baby did not suffer lasting harm today.” That was it. Everything else was negotiable. Either one of us, or both, could spend the day screaming and crying, but if she didn’t suffer lasting harm, I had to chalk that up as a win.

The interesting thing here is what all of this came together to mean. Wracked by fear, I could easily have avoided most parenting by being a pastor. It’s a job that takes all of the time you give it and more. Years could have gone by that way – I am sure of it. I am actually sure I would have done just that, feeling like it was the only way to survive emotionally. My child could have been essentially a stranger – I’d be the emotionally distant provider that is the bedrock of so many father issues and tragic character arcs.

But this was rendered impossible by my double failure, as a new pastor and also as someone seeking a job as a pastor to replace the one I was failing at. I had to lose what I had worked for years to earn, and had spent two and a half years trying to build and then salvage, and then fail to find something else in time before the money ran out. Then I had to be literally stuck in a house with the original source of this paralyzing fear that had filled me for the past 18 months of my life. There had to be no way out, because if there was, I would have found it.

As a result, I eventually became something approximating a father. Not a good father by any means, but in time I would coin a term for what I was shooting for: “Dadequate.” I was not going to be a great dad, and I was not going to be a good dad, but the line I drew was at being an adequate dad. An advanced version of “the baby did not suffer lasting harm today.” Dadequate.

Is this helpful, fellow shitty dads? You know who you are. Long past the point where you’re supposed to have slipped into a dad-groove, you still feel like an awkward idiot who is barely jumping from island to island floating in a sea of hot lava. You held your newborn in your arms, and far from the rush of warmth and certainty that family members told you you’d feel, you just kept screaming “This is going to end so badly” over and over in your head. I don’t mean good dads with imposter syndrome or false humility – I’m talking to the crappy dads here. Not fishing for compliments, but acknowledging that this is not my strength. It is not my wheel-house. And a lot of things about me make it more difficult – some my fault, and some not.

Maybe it’s helpful to read about someone setting the bar that low and coming to terms with that being the bar. Should I set the bar higher? Of course I should! But my starting point is a shitty dad, so dadequate is actually a serious challenge. It’s like weighing 500lbs and being uncoordinated, and deciding you’re going to be an adequate gymnast – a non-trivial problem to solve. Or like being functionally illiterate, and deciding you are going to be a published novelist. Not a New York Times bestselling author, just published. Somewhere. Again, no small feat, considering your starting-point.

And you know what? The world is full of some seriously messed-up dads. And so I’m working hard not to be one of them. Of course the world is also full of great dads, but I’m not in their category, any more than I am a potential semi-pro ball player or millionaire. That is literally another league, and I am OK with that. If someday I die and my tombstone says “He was mostly dadequate”, I’d be proud of that. That will have been a job well done.

Dadequate.

The Importance of Boredom

Video games are my drugs. (Sleep deprivation is my alcohol, but that’s another story for another time)

What I mean when I say that video games are my drugs is in reference to one of the negative things that drugs do. Addiction is a complicated topic, but I’m not talking about addiction here. I’m talking about how drugs make you comfortable with boredom. What else could make you feel great about sitting around doing nothing important for hours on end?

I say this as having most often been the sober person in a room of people drinking or doing drugs. It’s incredibly boring. All those deep-seeming thoughts you have while on pot? They’re not deep. They’re stupid. Sorry.

But what happens is you become comfortable with what would normally be boring, and boredom is important. Boredom is discomfort with doing nothing. It is a basic motivation to go and do something with your time in this world. Otherwise, most of us wouln’t go do the interesting things we end up doing. We wouldn’t try, if not trying was comfortable.

Video games function this way for me. I have a recent example: I uninstalled Civilization V from my laptop about a week ago, and since then I’ve written a couple thousand words in a setting and campaign guide I’m working on for 5E D&D. I did this because I play a LOT of Civ V, but when I made myself stop, I was suddenly productive because when I sit there and feel some boredom, I do a little work on something I enjoy. Next thing I know, I’m a thousand words in and feeling a bit better about myself.

It’s something to think about, if you are creative, or trying to be productive – what in your life makes you OK with being bored? If you can remove that thing from your life, what more might you be able to accomplish?

Min-Maxing and Power Gaming are Good

Image result for min-maxing

When I talked about metagaming last time, I mentioned that it was in a category with min-maxing and power gaming, in that it is very common in games, and frequently discussed, and might be a good or bad thing in a particular game. Now, I think that examples of how min-maxing and power gaming can be bad are likely to leap to the minds of most gamers who read this, so I won’t spend much time talking about that. What I do want to discuss are a few ways in which I see min-maxing and power gaming as good, and then see what you think.

Niche Protection/Time to Shine

Niche protection is, again, a thing, and not just in ‘gamist’ games, or games with classes and levels and task-resolution dice rolls. A rogue wants to be good at rogue-ing, and the story game character with the conflicted family relationship might want to have the most conflicted family relationship. Certainly more conflicted than the other characters, just as the rogue doesn’t want to be outshone by the druid or even the bard.

There are also times in a game when you want your character to shine. We don’t generally play games to portray characters who ceaselessly fail and are embarrassed – there’s enough of that in life. Except in the case of a game that is played for humor, and even then, we want to be hilariously bad, not just vaguely sad and unsatisfying. So, it is good to min-max and power game so that your character can shine, doing what you imagined your character doing when you created her.

System Leverage

As a player, especially in games with a strong GM/player divide, your main interaction with the system is through your character. That’s where all of your levers and buttons are to get what you want out of the system. If you are playing a fighter, and you want to fight and win, then a big lever for you will be your Strength score, for example. So you could certainly create a fighter with a below-average Strength for solid story reasons, but you are going to lose that lever in the system. You are going to be a fighter who fights and loses. When fights are presented as an exciting part of the story, you will have less influence on that story because you are bad at fighting.

In games without the strong player/GM divide, this principle is still in play. There are still particular ways you are expected to interact with the system and pull it in the direction you want it to go.

Story Leverage

Story leverage is maybe the most interesting reason I personally have for min-maxing and power gaming. I do this regularly with games I know well and GMs or player groups that I don’t know well – I create a really effective character. I make those levers in the system and the story as strong as I can. Then I am able to pull things in a direction I think is more fun or interesting. With a great GM and fun players, this just makes a good game better, but with a weaker GM and less fun players, it can salvage a game session.

I can think of one game in particular with a newer GM. I could see some things that he was doing that were likely to be frustrating, and I wasn’t sure where the story was going. But I had created a character, being really familiar with the rules, who was kind of unstoppable at what he did well. So when a roadblock was put up that seemed arbitrary, I could just smash it through my character and get on with something more fun. I’m even willing ride the rails in a game with a strong narrative thread, and sometimes through my character I would make the choice that seemed most likely to get the game back on the rails because that seemed most interesting. Then, since my character was so effective at influencing the story through the system, I could set things up for the other characters to shine as well.

Was this topping from the bottom? Yeah, kinda. It was also more fun than it would have been if I didn’t min-max and power game.

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Review: Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron (5E)

Yes, this is a hot take, but what else is the Internet for?

I am currently 21 sessions into a 5E Eberron campaign that I have been running, using the 3.5 materials (which I already own) and what’s been released as Unearthed Arcana for Eberron from Wizards. Today I saw in my Twitter feed that the promised setting announcement from WotC was not just one setting but two – one for adapting Magic the Gathering’s setting to 5E, and the other being the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron for 5E. I know next to nothing about Magic the Gathering’s setting, so I have nothing to say about that one, but Eberron has been my favorite D&D setting since it was released 16 years ago, and I have things to say about the Wayfinder’s Guide. Here we go.

The New

Partly, it just feels good to see something new come out for Eberron. I got excited, and bought the PDF without really thinking about it because I knew it would bother me until I got it and saw what was in there.

The rules for the four unique Eberron races have been updated and, in my opinion, improved. The warforged are expanded and clarified, and they have made them more flexible as well, with subtypes (one that was a Prestige Class in 3.5E) and the ability to reconfigure your defenses as well. Lots of cool fiddly bits for warforged. The shifters have also been expanded and improved, more similar to how they were in 3.5E, with each kind of shifter functioning as a subrace that is activated during shifting. Changelings and Kalashtar similar gain some new abilities that make sense, all compared to their Unearthed Arcana examples.

Dragonmarks are significantly different form what appeared in Unearthed Arcana, brought much more in line with other Feats in 5E, rather than looking like the innate casting that creatures like drow get which improves as you level. They add some bonus dice to proficiency rolls, and in some cases are much simplified but a little head-scratchy (I’m looking at you, new House Jorasco). Right now we are using the old UA version of dragonmarks, and I think it is working well for the most part. I would say that the rules they have for Aberrant Dragonmarks need a lot of work, but are clearly being left as a blank spot for other designers.

The Old

The setting material remains the same – there is no jump in time as there might have been, and no changes in the setting that I could see (from the snippets that are in this PDF). The themes and ideas of Eberron, the advice for applying them, etc. are all there as they have been since 2002. Contrary to what Keith Baker said, there is plenty of information that is rehashed in this Guide, but that’s to be expected.

I also recognized almost all of the art in the PDF, and I imagine the art I didn’t recognize was just from supplements I don’t have, or art that I’ve seen and forgotten. Again, this is only to be expected from a PDF release on the DM’s Guild. At least we got a new-looking piece of art for the cover, and it’s pretty cool.

The Good

I like the new versions of the four Eberron races – all four of them feel flexible, powerful, and cool. I could see some DMs and players thinking they might not be precisely balanced with the core rulebook races, and that’s probably a fair criticism in some cases.

I also like the new tables that have been sprinkled throughout the Guide, ranging from random street-level events for different layers of Sharn to a table with ideas of why your dwarf left the Mror Holds in the first place, or a table of different debts that drive you to adventure in the first place, plus many more. Even if you hate random tables (weirdo) they still function as lists of cool ideas to pick from and add to your Eberron campaign.

The Meh

The setting material doesn’t provide that much beyond a reminder for folks who already know about Eberron. You’ll still need to do a lot of improvising, or go buy other resources for the setting, which was the case before this Guide was released.

I’m fine with the new version of the Dragonmarks, but I also liked the previous Unearthed Arcana versions of them as well. I like how the UA versions mirrored innate spellcasting when we see it in a given race, like the drow. I like how the new versions tie the Dragonmarks into particular proficiencies that make sense, and also how they fit in comparison to the other Feats in the PHB. If anything, most of them are significantly better – and I know a design challenge for Eberron has always been making the Dragonmarks exciting enough that players will want to choose them for their characters (Keith Baker said as much on his podcast).

So the Dragonmarks aren’t meh because they are lacking – they’re fine, I think, as written. The problem is, they were also cool before as innate spellcasting. The Aberrant marks, on the other hand, are just straight meh. Someone has to come along and fix those – which I bet is WotC’s intent.

The Not-So-Good

For the PDF at release, the table of contents is incomplete. It doesn’t mention Kalashtar between Changelings and Shifters, and is missing a few other major headings. I imagine they will fix this after it’s release and perhaps put out an updated PDF, but these are bigger mistakes than just spelling errors, you know? And whether your major headings are reflected in the PDF bookmarks is pretty straightforward to check.

In his blog post, Keith Baker mentioned that the intent with this release was not to rehash material from 3E or 4E Eberron, as those books are still available through the DMs Guild as PDFs, but of course there is plenty of rehashing. The text ends up kind of failing on two fronts – it isn’t all new material for 5E, not by a long shot honestly. On the other hand, it hints at a lot of things that it doesn’t spell out, which kind of highlights the need for the other setting materials to make sense of it.

Just one example, as my PCs are headed to the Lhazaar Principaliesin the near future: the page on the Principalities mentions a half-dozen NPC groups in passing, but gives almost no information on them. This means that I also have to go back and read the pages on the Principalities in my Eberron Campaign Guide, and also have in mind that some of these might be from one of the many other sourcebooks that were released, some of which I have and some not. This comes off as just…unsatisfactory. What’s here would make a good handout for the players on the Principalities, but that wouldn’t have been hard to do on my own with a few minutes of cutting and pasting from a previously published PDF.

Overall

I love Eberron and still think it is the best setting D&D has ever produced. It beat out 11 thousand other submitted settings for a reason. I bought the PDF and don’t necessarily regret it, but on the other hand, if you are like me and running Eberron using the previous materials and Unearthed Arcana materials and a little bit of adaptation, you can continue to do that without buying this Guide to Eberron. If you would like another version of all of the Dragonmark Feats, as well as updated rules for the four unique Eberron races, and some advice on the magical economy as well as a few examples of magic items to add into your game, then this Guide is probably worthwhile.

If you don’t already have other 3E and/or 4E Eberron material, this Guide won’t be enough, especially in the category of the setting. Each section on a part of the setting is a glance at most, with the exception fo Sharn, which is fleshed out a bit more. Again, this Guide is a starting point, especially if you are setting your campaign in Sharn to start, but you will still have to do a lot of work on your own, or shell out the money for the previously released setting materials.

Ultimately, it’s $20 for Unearthed Arcana materials – that will be worth it to some of us, and not worth it to others. You can definitely run Eberron in 5E without this Guide if you already have plenty of Eberron materials and a little time to adapt them to 5E – that’s as true now as it was before this Guide came out.

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Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Terry Crews

Terry Crews just got more points at character creation than the rest of us.

A few weeks ago, Terry Crews, bodybuilder and actor, testified before Congress in support of a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors. He did this as a victim of sexual assault. Here, it makes some sense to add a manly picture of Terry Crews – and there are no pictures of Terry Cews that are not manly. Let’s go crazy, though:

Image result for terry crews

Terry Crews is funny, charismatic, seemingly kind and affable, and also 6’3” of raw, certified Grade-A beef. He’s action-figure muscular; a “force of nature” indeed. You do not pull his man card, his man card pulls you. He is not the person you think of when you think of “victim of sexual assault”, even if you specify that you are talking about a male victim of sexual assault. He is who you think of when someone says, “Hey what if He-Man was recast as black?”

So, one lesson: anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. Assume nothing. Which was, of course, part of Crews’ point in testifying before Congress. Most people who see that testimony have to take a moment and think, “Oh.” Maybe even really think.

One of the few valid-seeming claims of the Men’s Rights movement is that sexual assault of men is generally ignored, even when we are trying as a society to understand and od right by female victims of sexual assault. If we have a problem with women not reporting sexual assault, we have a much larger problem with men not doing so. The same is true with domestic violence – male victims of domestic violence are genereally not taken seriously, even though there are almost certainly millions of such victims.

Toxic masculinity hurts everyone, including men, because it is toxc masculinity that says to men that seuxal assault is just “boys being boys”, or a joke, or something you should get over, or something you should be ashamed to tell anyone about. Terry Crews could pull my arms off, but he describes being humiliated into silence about what happened to him.  He is a popular, recognizeable public figure – imagine what it is like for someone who is not enormously strong and enormously famous, for the millions of victims we never hear from. What keeps them silent? For the most part, I would say it is toxic masculinity.

What can we contrast with that toxicity? The ongoing constructive work of defining and nurturing positive masculinity. In this case, we have Terry Crews using his position of influence for the greater good in two ways. First, he is speaking to Congress on behalf of the millions who will never have a moment in front of a Senate or House committee. Second, he is demonstrating to other men that speaking out is the right thing. In amongst the thoughts men might have, that they don’t want to be seen as weak, or a bitch, or a victim, there is also this kind of ray of light – we would all like to be like Terry Crews.

Be like Terry Crews. Encourage your friends to be like Terry Crews. Support men who are like Terry Crews.

 

Metagaming Is Good

The question is whether you are metagaming for more fun and drama, or metagaming for an advantage over the other PCs nor NPCs.

Metagaming is a perennial topic of discussion among tabletop RPG players and has been, I imagine, from the beginning. What I mean by metagaming is thinking about what to do in a gaming session from your point of view as a player, with the knowledge you have as a player, rather than from solely from the point of view of your character, with the knowledge that your character presumably has.

I hear more people speaking against metagaming than for it. It is in a similar category to min-maxing or power gaming – behaviors that are common but generally frowned upon. In all of those three cases and more, however, I think these behaviors can be a good thing in game. In the case of metagaming, I think it is unavoidable. Given that it is unavoidable, I will give some instances where I think it is good for the game, and then talk about some examples of when it is anything but.

Good Kinds of Metagaming

Thinking about the other players

“That’s what my character would do” is a statement that I have heard many times as justification for something that made the game less fun. Here’s the thing – don’t prioritize the thoughts and feelings of your imaginary person over the thoughts and feelings of the real people at the table with you. Period. We don’t play RPGs because we are stuck for ideas of what characters might do – you can always justify your character doing something interesting.

Thinking about the moment

We’ve all been playing out an encounter or a scene, and have thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a particular thing happened right now? Sometimes it is up to us to make that interesting thing happen. Even if it might feel “out of character” for your own character, people do surprising things all the time. Maybe this is a sudden turning point in your character’s life – she dramatically chooses just this moment to show something she hasn’t shown before. Seize the moment, and make the cool thing happen.

Thinking about the story

No matter what kind of story you think RPGs produce, whether Picaresque, or Story Now, or Story Later, or improv comedy, RPGs allow us to create stories together. And sometimes, it is best to prioritize the story in a given moment. Do we need to move on from this scene?

What Makes Metagaming Bad?

Doing it for your advantage as a player

Using your knowledge of the game, or the setting, apart from what your character would know so that you personally can have an advantage over the other players is just being a dick. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this, but laying out this distinction might be helpful if you need to call someone out for their behavior.

Doing it for your character’s advantage over the other characters

Metagaming to give your character an advantage over the other characters is also clearly also a dick move. There are always opportunities for your character to shine if you know more about the setting or the system than the other players, but all of these are better opportunities to make the other characters shine.

Doing it to shut down another player

Niche protection is a thing. Every character hopefully has at least one special thing that they are best at. The street samurai fights in the street. The bard charms and improvises. The hotshot pilot hotshots and pilots. It’s possible, but crappy, shut another character down where they would normally be strong. You understand the stealth mechanics better, so you out-sneak the rogue. You know the setting’s politics better, so you out-maneuver the courtier. A negative metagamer can shut down other characters, rather than letting them have their opportunity in the spotlight.

Bonus round: your stories

What’s the worst example of negative metagaming that you’ve seen? Or the best example of positive metagaming?

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Philly Starbucks Guys

A lot of the articles about Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson haven’t used their names, so I didn’t feel like putting them in the title, but I imagine many of you reading this know who I am talking about. Back in April, two black men entered a Starbucks in Philadelphia (near where I live) and asked to use the bathroom. They were told that the bathroom was only for paying customers, so they sat down to wait for a friend to join them. Then the manager called the police and asked that they be arrested for trespassing. They were later released when Starbucks did not press charges.

This story hit a nerve, in large part because it is another example of how just existing while black brings suspicion from white people and unwanted contact with the police.

The response from Starbucks was pretty decent, but that isn’t the focus of this reflection. What I found really interesting was how the two men responded to the incident and what followed. There was some media attention, and they both behaved with a lot of dignity. Ultimately, there was a settlement agreement with the city of Philadelphia. The two men took $1 for themselves, and had the city donate $200,000 to set up a foundation to help high school kids who want to become entrepeneurs.

This is what positive masculinity looks like. Two young men are profiled and then unjustly harrassed and arrested by the police. This is hardly the first time they’ve experienced racism They have a chance to profit from the situation, but instead they make a statement, and take the opportunity to make life better for kids they’ll never meet. Starbucks has a chance to do better, and hopefully will. Philadelphia has a chance to do better, and hopefully will. And high school kids have a chance to learn to become entrepeneurs, and hopefully will.