Pastorful: The Karl Shadley Method

I had an idea for a series of posts I’m calling “pastorful”, which lay out some things I’ve learned in the last 10 years of being a pastor. I’m not sure this is actually of any value, but maybe I have helpful ideas to add, not only to pastors but to similar folks – nonprofit directors and so on. So here we go…

As an intern in my last two years of Seminary, my mentor and the pastor of the church where I served was named Karl Shadley. I learned a lot from him, and I think I did a decent job as intern, making the usual number of dumb mistakes in a gracious, forgiving multicultural and multi-lingual context.

One way that Karl and I were (and likely still are) opposites is the degree to which we experience anxiety. I experience it a lot – Karl not nearly so much. Being a “non-anxious presence” for me is often a professional performance, like being polite and gracious to a rude customer in retail, but for Karl I think it came more naturally. He was often entertained by how upset I got about things before they happened, or after, or during.

Without going into detail, there is one situation that stuck with me at the church. The Session, or governing board, felt that something needed to happen, and they believed that it was Karl’s job to make it happen. Karl disagreed. So what he did, for months (I remember maybe six), was just sit calmly in Session meetings while people expressed their anxiety and frustration. Most people would have caved and just done the thing – but not Karl.

Here was the theory – if people truly cared about what they wanted to happen, they would come together and find a way to make it happen themselves. In the meantime, if Karl took it up, it would just become another thing he had to do that he didn’t want to and that he didn’t see as part of his job as pastor. Over time, it’s likely that bitterness might creep in, and having someone grudgingly do the work would lead to the work not being done as well as it could.

Finally, people came together and did whatever it is they were demanding themselves. I remember Karl’s calm smile. The Session moved on to the next issues.

I took this to heart, and have tried to build myself up to where I can reflect this kind of patience. I’ve definitely been tested, but in situations where I am being pushed to do something to alleviate other people’s anxiety, which I don’t think is part of my job as pastor, I remember this story and try to be patient.

What I took away from this experience, and have seen reinforced since then many times, is this idea that it doesn’t do anyone favors to take on their anxiety and do their work for them. If members of the community truly want something to happen, they’ll find a way – but sometimes they are just anxious and want to relieve that anxiety by seeing something happen, but they don’t want it enough to put any effort into it.

And it’s OK if people don’t get what they’re not willing to work for.

D&D 5E: Treasure Alternative and More

Torchbearer Style, but Forgiving

I like the way treasure is handled in Torchbearer – represented by dice that are rolled to buy things in town – but I find it to be too punishing for my own style. It’s readily possible. to risk life and limb to drag treasure out of a dungeon, go to town, and fail the roll to purchase a candle. It feeds into the grinding style of Torchbearer, but is a thing that I’ve seen put players off the system overall. (I mean, hell, you can be a peasant and fail to buy a candle. Why go into dungeons?)

Going along with my house rule of no cash, treasure could be represented by dice rather than a set bonus. Using the dice as a bonus retains some of the unpredictability of Torchbearer treasure while still guaranteeing a minimum of +1 per die. As with the previous no-cash house rule, if you fail the roll you roll with disadvantage going forward, representing the fact that you’re tapped out and have called in all the favors and goodwill that is forthcoming for a while.

  • Some silver: d4. Lots of silver would be multiple d4s.
  • Some gold: d6, and lots of gold would be multiple d6s.
  • Gems or art objects: d8 each
  • Magical treasure: d10s, assuming it’s incidental magic that you don’t want to keep
  • Legendary treasure: d12s, so a mundane legendary object might be a d12, but a legendary magic item could be 3d12.

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t have more than 3 dice of any type as the maximum for treasure of that type. So, a big chest of silver would be 3d4.

One Roll, Not Two, for Damage

As it stands, D&D requires every weapon attack to be resolved by two different rolls – one roll to see whether you hit, a binary yes/no, and a second roll to see how well you hit, a sliding scale represented by rolling the damage dice. In order to simplify this sytem to have only one roll, the usual method supported by 5E is to use the average default dice-roll for damage (the Monster Manual lists default damage for monster attacks for this reason).

Another option is to avoid the to-hit roll entirely. Iefit hen this version of a one-roll rule for D&D, you only make the damage roll. The big benefit here is that classes that rely on weapon attacks never feel like they are ineffective. If you are a fighter, you always do some damage. If you roll a 1 on your weapon die, you don’t do much, and if you roll the maximum value, you do a lot. The problem with relying on attack rolls is that sometimes you wait ten or twenty minutes for your turn to come back around only to roll, miss, and do nothing that round. That’s just…not fun.

The only necessary consideration would be to change Armor Class to represent damage reduction. I’d propose AC -10 /2 being that formula, so an AC of 18 would be a damage reduction of 4 from all damage take. Dexterity would no longer modify armor in this case, but that is not a devastating loss. It’s another way of abstracting out combat, not less reasonable than the rules as written, just different.

Automatic Downtime Investment

In ancient times, each class in D&D had some kind of extra benefit earned at 10th level, like a fortress for a fighter or a tower for a magic-user.

One of the odd things common to D&D campaigns is that the characters spend a short amount of time in-world leveling from 1st to higher levels. There are plenty of adventure paths and campaigns published by Paizo or WotC that span a few weeks or months, during which a wizard would go from magic missile to wall of force; from being threatened by a single arrow to shrugging off a dragon’s breath weapon (at least once)

A possibility here is to adopt a detailed downtime system that the characters can participate in. You can come up with your own or find one on DriveThruRPG or improvise one. Another possibility is to assume that downtime is banked into a class’s particular project, and bring back the level rewards in some form as a way to justify what is in effect hand-waving the passage of time during game.

I find that when I try to hand-wave the passage of time in a D&D campaign, players sometimes get protective of their time because they feel like they are missing out on opportunities. Can I roll to research? Can I perform at taverns for money? Can I go pickpocketing around town? Can I find a fight club? And so on. This house rule would both resurrect the old school practice of class rewards and allow me to hand-wave time as a DM.

Some example class rewards (You’ll have to come up with your own):

  • Artificer: a large golem that can serve as an assistant and defend your workshop
  • Barbarian: a group of fellow barbarians from your clan or tribe who can serve as a war-band
  • Bard: you are able to open your own venue
  • Cleric: founding a temple or shrine, of course
  • Druid: you purchase a huge tract of land, at the center of which you have nurtured a druid grove
  • Fighter: you purchase a fortress or small keep
  • Monk: you found your own monastery, complete with disciples or acolytes to train
  • Paladin: similar to a cleric, you found a temple or shrine
  • Ranger: maybe you purchase a huge tract of land so that it can remain wild and untouched
  • Sorcerer: could simply be similar to a wizard’s tower
  • Warlock: depending on your warlock patron, this could vary wildly, but should further your patron’s agenda
  • Wizard: you build a wizard’s tower

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

Image result for wish aladdin

Updated and re-released for your reading pleasure!

Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

Possible house rule: total the words in the wish, and that number becomes a percentage chance of failure for the wish. So if you say “Make me a prince!” Then there is a 4% chance of failure, but if you write out a mini contract rife with legalese then it could easily become a coin-toss.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Another Solution

After I posted this, I came up with another interesting idea for wish-fulfillment. In this version, you make your wish, and then genie is bound to do whatever they can to fulfill that wish, using their own abilities. So if a dao gives you your wish, and you wish for a million gold pieces, then that dao has to do all it can to get you a million gold pieces. They don’t have the power to just wave their hand and fulfill the wish, but they will interpret it according to their alignment and their capabilities. Probably, in this case, disguise themselves, break into a vault, and abscond with their gold pieces.

The way that a genie fulfills your wish will vary from genie to genie. A marid, being chaotic neutral, will be quite different from the dao mentioned above, who is neutral evil.

This situation could be handled as if the genie was under the effect of a powerful geas.  They would have 30 days to accomplish your wish by any means they could, or to work toward it as far as they can by the end of the time limit. As an added bit of interest, and the end of the time-limit, the charm effect ends and the genie might have a chip on their shoulder.

Personally, I like this idea, and want to try it for my world of Alaam.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments. 

Not A Christian: Paula White

I’m tired of the idea that I can’t point out when people who claim to be Christian are wrong about themselves. So this is a new series: Not A Christian, in which I will briefly lay out the reasons that certain public figures are not Christians. Not in any meaningful sense; not in any way similar to Jesus; not noticeably animated by the Holy Spirit.

Paula White Is Not A Christian

Paula White is a televangelist and proponent of “prosperity theology“, a theological system in which grifters convince people to give them money because Jesus. Even other evangelicals at times understand this to be an heretical theology, and she has been denounced by Southern Baptists and seminary professors in that vein.

Her support for Donald Trump alone would put her in the “not a Christian” category, as I have never seen a more anti-Christ public figure in my lifetime. She is his “Special Advisor” to the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, and eagerly lends religious credence to his despicable administration.

She came to my attention when she claimed, in the context of discussion of immigration and migration, that when Jesus and his parents fled persecution to Egypt it was legitimate only because they didn’t break any laws – and that people fleeing across our own border by contrast deserve concentration camps and family separation. If the Holy Family had broken a law, according to White, Jesus would not have been our Messiah, the idea being that laws have anything whatsoever to do with the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah. People in the Bible cross borders and break laws all the time, both legitimate and illegitimate, and in contrast to White, scripture persistently calls for dignity and welcome for migrant people. It would also likely be a waste of time to try to explain to White that America’s first immigration laws were passed 100 years after the country was founded, and were (and remain) explicitly racist.

There are apparently also situations where she has lied about herself, claimed to have a Doctorate and so on, but that is really just par for the course in the case of this kind of charlatan.

But, because of her prosperity theology grift, her vapid and boot-licking support of the Anti-Christ Donald Trump, and her total misrepresentation of the status of migrants now and in scripture (which is a really big deal in the Bible it turns out)…

Paula White is not a Christian. Not in any meaningful sense; not in any way similar to Jesus; not noticeably animated by the Holy Spirit.

Fantasy Trope: War against Evil, or War is Evil

The Trope: War Against Evil

A common fantasy trope is a great war of good versus evil, and we cheer the forces of good onward to victory over the forces of evil. In essence, war is neutral, non-moral, and the moral conflict is between those who fight for good and those who fight for evil. There are many versions of this trope, including the few powerful heroes against the armies of evil – very common in D&D and similar games, which is to say, about 95% of TRPGs played in hours.

Tolkien: War Is Evil

How do we know that Sauron is evil? It isn’t because he lives in a huge dark tower, actually. That is a means to an end. Same with the orcs – they are an expression of Sauron’s intent, not the culmination of it.

The reason we know that Sauron is evil is that he brings war. He is one of two things – quietly building strength in preparation for war, or waging war against any neighbors who won’t submit to his will. That is why he is evil.

Sauron becomes a caricature of himself, twisted and writhing with hatred, looming in his dark tower surrounded by sulfurous fumes and browbeaten slave-troops, because he is ceaselessly bringing war.

Sauron is Ronald Reagan. Sauron is George W Bush. Sauron is American foreign policy since the Second World War. Sauron is drone strikes. Sauron is the War on Terror. Sauron is the police. Sauron is the War on Drugs. Sauron is ICE.

When characters in Tolkien’s works are good and end up fighting evil, they are like Faramir – they do not love battle, but only what they fight to protect. And this is what we tell ourselves as Americans, but this is definitely not what our behavior shows. Minas Tirith guarded their eastern border for a couple thousand years without invading eastward at all. Left to their own devices, they would have stayed that way indefinitely, it seems. The Shire never expands. Nor do the towns of Breeland, nor the elves of Lothlorien. Fifty years pass and Erebor, Dale and Lake Town don’t send colonists east and south to conquer new lands.

Tolkien has a lot of issues, but the default setting of ‘good’ for him is peaceful stasis. War comes when Sauron, the expansionist, comes marching to someone’s door.

Is this a distinction without a difference? Maybe. But for me this makes a big difference – the presumption of war, versus the acknowledgement that war is always evil, and that perpetually bringing war to others is what makes one evil in the first place.