Big Review: Wrath & Glory (Warhammer 40k RPG)

(This is the 2nd of 17 posts leading up to my 200th blog post for my “200 for 200” goal. It’s a long post instead of several short ones to conserve the number and buy myself some time for the goal!)

This review is going to be different from my previous reviews in several key ways: First, I happened to order the “All-In” Pre-Order package for the Wrath & Glory RPG from Ulysses Spiel, so I’ll be reviewing physical products alongside my review of substance. Second, I’ll be sharing some general, probably stream-of-consciousness thoughts about gaming in the 40K universe–some of which will be purely opinion and editorial with little to do with the review proper. Let’s dig in:

Roleplaying in 40k (Come for the War, Stay for the Stuff)

I grew up playing the Warhammer 40k miniatures game. Though I don’t currently play any minis games (having over the past few years played Warhmachine, Infinity and Malifaux) and I don’t really have the patience for 40k’s massive set-up time, I do constantly think about collecting the miniatures again for the joy of kitbashing and painting and finding some minis-rules sets that I liked better to run some narrative skirmish-level games with friends. Of course, there’s now new Necromunda (which I also played and loved in its first incarnation), Kill Team and Warhammer Quest: Blackstone (I spent many hours with the original, fantasy version of Warhammer Quest).

But, over the past ten-to-twelve years, my experience with 40k has been in reading some of the novels and running RPGs. I was so excited for a 40k RPG when Dark Heresy was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the deluxe, leather-bound version of the first edition rules.

This is all predicate to a discussion of my love/hate relationship with 40k. Perhaps there’s some deep-seated resentment of the cost of 40k gaming, but that is not where my angst really lies.

The long-used motto of the 40k universe is (say it with me, kids): “In the dark future of the 41st millenium, there is only war.” Let’s sidestep the fact that the source material has now carried the universe into the 42nd millenium.

My response to that motto has long been, “Come for the war, stay for the stuff.” A dark future of only war makes sense for a wargame, but not so much for a deep roleplaying setting. Without further, this constant, unquestioning conflict doesn’t have the depth I prefer for a roleplaying setting. Fortunately, even before the Dark Heresy RPG, there were some sources of that depth I sought.

I have read only a fraction of the available Warhammer 40k novels. I’ve mostly restricted myself to Sandy Mitchell (Caiphas Cain) and Dan Abnett (having read the Eisenhorn Trilogy, much of Gaunt’s Ghosts and the more recent Magos–which I’ll likely be finishing up today). Both Mitchell and Abnett do an excellent job of writing stories that stand strong on their own accord, even if they’d been written in a different setting, that also bring down some of the over-the-top “grimdark” of the 40k universe into a more relatable and–frankly–far less silly version of itself. They add the “stuff” to the 40k universe necessary to the setting to develop interesting stories for roleplaying.

I’ve started but not finished a number of other 40k books. Most of them, in my humble opinion, belong on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight; that is, the “do not read, ever!” shelf. They’re not well-written, have ridiculous plots, and mostly just string together action sequences with little in between to make me care. Abnett (whose non-40k fiction is also worth a read) and Mitchell seem to be the exceptions to the rule.

Since the release of Dark Heresy and its related 40k RPGs (though I never had much use for Only WarBlack Crusade or Deathwatch), much additional setting information conducive to running a satisfying RPG campaign has been produced, thankfully.

Even so, it strikes me that the 40k setting, as typically advertised and as displayed in the majority of the fiction written about it, can’t sustain a roleplaying setting as is. The setting is too over-the-top, too nihilistic for nihilism’s sake, too grimdark. Now, if you’ve read my blog posts or my fiction, you know that I have a preference for the gritty. Too far, though, and the gritty becomes like chewing sand–painful and to no purpose.

To run a successful roleplaying game, the tone of a 40k RPG needs to come down a few pegs. We need to see that the Imperium of Man is not simple a fascist totalitarian regime if you’re going to play characters who feel duty and loyalty to it (in my opinion, at least). You need to see that there is some happiness and good in the universe worth fighting for, or what’s the point? Roleplaying games, like the best fiction, are about creating meaning. If your game universe runs circles around you, skipping about and proclaiming that, “nothing matters, everything is the worst, and you’re all going to go insane and/or die in the next five minutes!” there’s going to be an issue.

Perhaps the upside, though, is that the 40k universe, in needing to be tweaked to work in the roleplaying milieu, invites us to do what we should be doing with all published settings we’re using to run a game: make it our own. Like Mitchell and Abnett, we need to inject some logic, some flickers of goodness and hope, and some depth of character into the setting. That invitation, perhaps buried under piles of lore (being a worldbuilder and writer, I hate the term “fluff”), has the potential to grant us great freedom in using the setting. The flipside of this, of course, is canon-mongers who will exclaim at the gaming table, “that’s not the way it is; on page 47 of Fulgrim it says…” Those players are heretics; I hereby denounce them to the Inquisition.

I’m not likely to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign, as the types of stories that setting tells are generally very limited in scope. But, at least once warp-twisted to our own designs, 40k has the potential to tell stories with the same themes as CoC when desired, while making way for many other types of stories as well.

Scaled back a few pegs from full-bore nihilism, the setting allows us to play games that are tough on characters (without being unfair to them) in line with the setting and theme. I’m a big fan of John Wick’s Play Dirty books; the Warhammer universes (both fantasy and 40k) have provided me with my best experiences in implementing those ideas (in my own way, of course). The rate of character deaths in my Warhammer games is exponentially higher than in other RPGs I run, and a proponderance of those deaths are inflicted on one player character by another. Fortunately–and this is partially because of the themes of the setting–those character deaths have always seemed to be aspects of good writing: meaningful and somehow simultaneously surprising and seemingly inevitable in retrospect. Because of that, the players have not had hard feelings about these events, instead having a sense of profound collective storytelling. For a GM, there’s not much better than players getting that feeling, however achieved.

In short–though it’s certainly too late for that, isn’t it?–the 40k universe provides a very problematic roleplaying setting if used as labeled on the box, but if that difficulty is instead viewed as an invitation to make the setting your own (and the RPG material and the Mitchell/Abnett fiction are the best guides for that), there’s a lot of fun that can be had in 40k.

[Aside: While originally intending to put the linked material in this post, I thought it would be kinder to those not interested to separate out a digression on Christianity and 40k into a separate post. I invite you to read if that’s something that piques your curiousity.]

Updates to Setting (Immediate and Meta)

Wrath & Glory debuts after Games Workshop has implemented some radical changes to the 40k universe. With the (re-)appearance of Roboute Guilliman, the partially successful summoning of the Aeldari god Ynnead (and the changing, undoubtedly for copyright purposes of “Eldar” to “Aeldari,” just as “Imperial Guard” was changed to “Astra Militarum), the breakout of the great Cicatrix Maleficarum dividing the Imperial of Man into the Imperium Sanctus (still within the sight of the Astronomicon) and the Imperium Nihilus (on the other side of the massive warpstorms composing the Cicatrix Maleficarum and thus outside the light of the Astronomicon), the 40k universe is now a drastically different place, with many systems partially or wholly cut off from the rest of the Imperium.

Wrath & Glory does a good job of using this new situation for fullest effect, referring to it as a reason a disparate group of heroes with vastly different backgrounds might be working together. This gives easy permission to roleplaying bands that include an Aeldari corsair and a Primaris Space Marine next to the human characters who may be commissars, Rogue Traders, Inquisitors and the like. In short, it allows a justification for a smorgasbord of characters that would have been difficult to rationalize in earlier incarnations of 40k roleplaying (especially segmented into different game lines: Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, Only War, etc., etc.).

The “default” setting for Wrath & Glory is the Gilead System, a collection of planets technically within the Imperium Sanctus but cut-off by surrounding warpstorms navigable only along a near-mythical path called the “Straits of Andraste” (now where have I heard that name before?). The Gilead System is designed to have a collection of the Imperial Planet types (Forgeworlds, Agri-Worlds, Shrine Worlds, Hive Words, Forbidden Worlds, etc.) so that each planet type is available without the characters needing access to a Warp-capable starship. Other than this, the Gilead System only has the barebones information given–a few names and factions that might serve as patrons or antagonists to the characters and some high-level story hooks.

This is both a boon and a bane, as it gives a GM great leeway in filling in details–but requires the GM to fill in details. If that’s not something you want to spend your time on, there’s nothing stopping you from setting your campaign before the Cicatrix Maleficarum and using the voluminous materials for the Scintilla area of the galaxy (or other published locations) from previous editions. For that matter, you could simply take that material and update it to the present in-universe time.

The Rules

I very much appreciate the new rules. If you’ve read some of my other writing about RPGs, you’ll know that I’m not so found of percentile systems and quite fond of dice pool systems. Wrath & Glory has moved 40k roleplying from the former to the latter, so from my initial approach I expected a positive reaction to the system. Not so much so that it was guaranteed, but I’ve found that the system is well-written. I’ll hit some of the high points.

Core Mechanics

The dice pool system uses attribute + skill, familiar to most roleplayers and six-sided dice, available everywhere. Certain things, like items, may add bonus dice, but most negative circumstances will adjust the difficulty level rather than the dice pool, allowing for faster logistics in making tests, as GM and player can calculate their respective parts simultaneously. A test must generate a number of icons equal to the difficulty level for the action to succeed. A result on a die of 4 or 5 generates a single icon, while a roll of 6 on a die generates 2 icons. In certain situations, icons in excess of the difficulty level can be “shifted” to achieve additional effects.

As a side note, the rules use the word “dice” for both the singular and the plural. This annoys me greatly. Other than this infelicity of language, the rules are clearly written and easy to understand.

Giving dice the potential to generate 2 icons allows for a much greater range and granularity of difficulty levels than might ordinarily be expected with a dice pool system. While I lack both the coding and mathematical skills to easily run statistics on this arrangement (my favored roll percentage calculator does not have the bandwith to make calculations this complex, apparently), the benefit should be relatively obvious.

Wrath & Glory (& Ruin & Campaign Cards)

Each test uses a single Wrath die (in the case of psyker powers, described below, multiple Wrath dice may be employed). A six on the Wrath die generates a point of Glory for the rolling character (which can be spent on bonus dice, damage and critical hit severity in combat, and seizing the initiative in combat). A roll of “1” on the Wrath die generates a complication to the scene at hand. These effects are independent of the success or failure of the test itself.

Characters also have Wrath points (hence, one supposes, “Wrath & Glory“). Wrath points are gained through good roleplaying, accomplishing objectives and through campaign cards. Wrath is used to re-roll failed dice, restore shock (non-fatal damage), improve Defiance tests (not dying when severely injured) and to make narrative declarations (I very much like this choice, both from a roleplaying design perspective and because it appropriately softens some of the grimdark of the 40k universe).

The GM also has a points pool called “Ruin,” allowing for similar boosts to NPCs.

As an additional side, the Wrath & Glory rules contain a full-page sidebar on failing forward. This, I think, reveals the modern gaming influences on the system design, but also indicates a conscious move away from the pure grimdark of the setting (and perhaps the earlier rulesets) just as the player ability to make “narrative declarations” does.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “campaign cards” a little ways back. A deck of the cards is available for purchase seperately from the rulebook. Each player is supposed to receive one campaign card at the beginnign of each session, which is lost if not used, but use is not required. When played, its effects are immediately resolved. Admittedly, I have not yet spent a lot of time with the campaign cards, but my sense is they are designed to give players a little more agency. Could you play without them? Absolutely, but I’m honestly not sure how much that would change the feel and play of the game. It may not be an extreme change.

Tracking Wrath, Glory, Ruin and Campaign cards (and other available cards) may seem to be a lot of fiddly-bits during play. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime or FFG’s Star Wars/WFRP3 games, you won’t have issues.

Combat

You’ll find many of the combat rules to be familiar territory if you’re a veteran roleplayer. I’m going to just pick out a few highlights.

First, the book explicitly states that there is no set time unit for a combat round, instead specifying that the narrative should inform the length of each round. This is relatively minor, but I think it provides some good insight into the design approach, and I like that.

Second, Initiative is handled quickly and efficiently. Under most circumstances, at the top of the combat round, the players decide which one of their characters will act first. After that character’s turn, a GM character acts, followed by another player character and back and forth until all actions are resolved. Ruin and Glory can be spent by a character to break the normal procedure and act next in a combat. Some circumstances (ambush) may also change this routine. Randomized initiative is offered as an option.

The rules include provisions for “mobs” to handle groups of less-talented foes. In my mind, this is an essential aspect of modern and effective game design.

There are rules to accommodate miniatures but they are not necessary. While I like minis games, I don’t like the drag on play efficiency that minis create in most RPGs.

Like many dice pool combat systems, the active character rolls against a static Defense number to determine whether an attack is successful.

Reloads are abstracted so that bullet-counting is unnecessary. That said, bonuses for “spending” reloads are available, giving players a reason to risk the dramatic position where they are out of ammo. Best of both worlds, in my mind.

Combat has enough variance in choices of actions for tactical complexity, has gritty critical hits, and all your favorite 40k weapons and armor.

Overall, combat appears to be a good compromise between narrative efficiency, gamist tactics, and “realistic” detail.

Psykers

I’m not going to spend much time on Psykers, but I want to point out one or two things. If you’ve played past 40k RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the psychic “disciplines”–biomancy, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokineses, divination, etc. “Minor” psychic powers available to any Psyker are also available, though some (like “Psyniscience”) seem like they should be innate abilities rather than require a player to choose them as specific powers–the number of which a character may have are relatively limited.

A character using a psyker power must choose the mode of its use, from most conservative to most reckless: Bound, Unbound, Transcendant. The more reckless forms of employment grant extra Wrath dice but also increase the chance of Perils of the Warp–this is exactly what psyker powers should do in my opinion. Further, once you move up the scale, you can’t move back down in the same scene. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle. Again, this matches the fiction and the feel of the setting.

“Magic” of any type in a roleplaying game is difficult from a design perspective. For a game to feel “balanced” you ideally want your “magical” characters to be somewhat limited in the types of effects that they can use and to have a very real cost to achieving those effects. Fortunately, the setting in 40k matches with this approach; in many fantastic settings the lore is difficult to fairly “balance” mechanically. The implementation here is about the best I’ve seen.

Character Creation

From the GM perspective, the core rulebook offers “Campaign Frameworks.” These are basically campaign hooks with recommendations for tier level, character types, theme and expected content.

Character creation itself is done by point-buy, though “standard arrays” are given for each Tier level to speed the process for those new to the setting or wanting to create a character quickly.

The Tier represents the campaign’s overall power level, both by determining the number of build points players have for their characters and which archetypes are available to them (Psykers require Tier 2, Inquisitors Tier 4, etc.).

Build points are used to purchase an Archetype, attributes, skills, special abilities, wargear, etc. The system is not so complex as Shadowrun, per se, but it does have enough depth to it that I would say you should expect an hour or two for character generation, perhaps more fore those unfamiliar with this or other RPGs.

On the other hand, the point-buy system allows for great flexibility in character creation, which I appreciate. Additionally, unlike previous 40k RPG incarnations, rules for playing Aeldari, Orks and Space Marines (regular and Primaris) are right there from the beginning.

Other Rules

Basic rules for vehicles and voidships are included in the Core Rulebook.

Overall

I’ll have to update this once I’ve been able to run a few sessions (be on the lookout for posts about the Dark Inheritence campaign I’m currently writing and hoping to run soon), but my readthrough leaves me impressed. Modern game design and a more narrative approach that lightens the grimdark just enough meets with a setting I’ve loved for a long time.

Physical Products

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I pre-ordered the “All-In” package when Ulysses Spiel US announced the opening of pre-orders. The above is the scope of what I received: the core rulebook, battle maps, pre-genned character booklets, the Dark Tides adventure book, the Blessings Unheralded adventure book, the soundtrack CD, acrylic tokens for characters and enemies, dice, a GM screen, themed poker chips for tracking points and six sets of cards (Campaign, Wargear, Psyker Powers, Perils of the Warp, Combat Complications Deck and Wrath Deck). The cards are of the quality I associate with CCGs, like Magic or Doomtown.

The books are bound as is typical for RPG books, with beautiful art and color. One difference enthusiasts will notice right away is that the art is distinctly lacking in “Blanchitsu.” I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially given that the game design dials back the grimdark a few clicks. But, the art does border on the cartoony.

Everything came in a large box of heavy cardstock:

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Overall, I’m very pleased with the construction quality of the materials. I’m actually tempted, despite my usual preference for digital books, to spend a good deal of time with the printed materials. That’s a pretty high praise for me.

Conclusion

If you like the 40k universe and want to game in it, I highly recommend the Wrath & Glory game. Again, I’ll update when I’ve had a chance to run and/or play it, but by all accounts I expect a satisfying experience.

 

 

Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

200 for 200

WordPress tells me that, in the roughly two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I’ve posted 182 posts (this will be 183). Considering my goal has been a minimum of one post a week (even though sometimes posts come in bursts following periods of silence rather than on a regular schedule), I’m pretty proud of that.

But I aspire to more, so I’m setting a goal for myself, one with which I very much need your help! Here it is: I want to have 200 followers through WordPress by the time I hit 200 posts. I currently have 137 WordPress followers, so that’s 63 new followers in the next 17 posts.

If you like what I do here and want to help me reach a wider audience (and perhaps be motivated to do even more), here’s what you can do: (1) invite your friends and followers to come take a look at the blog and follow if they like what they see; (2) repost your favorite posts from this blog on your blog; (3) “like” articles and posts that you, well, like; (4) comment on posts; (5) send me a message about what you like (or don’t) and what you’d like to see more of; (6) generally tell your friends.

Here’s what you can expect to see in some of those next 17 posts: at least two new theology posts I’m working on, one of which is called “Is God’s Will General or Specific?” and the other of which is titled “Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message;” a review of Wrath & Glory RPG; some preliminary notes on the Dark Inheritence 40K Campaign I’m currently writing; some more notes on the development of Avar Narn RPG; at least one Avar Narn short story.

That certainly doesn’t cover 17 posts, so I’m free to take some suggestions or requests.

All it takes is clicking a few buttons to help me reach more people; please take a little time to spread the word!

Loss

Monday morning, my grandmother passed away. I am thirty-five years old and this is the closest to home I’ve been hit by such a loss; in that regard, I am fortunate.

This is not to say that I have not previously lost people in my life about whom I cared deeply and who were profoundly influential on me: my stepfather’s mother, my wife’s grandmothers, a brilliant and inspiring professor. But, before this point, I have never lost someone such a direct and constant force in who I am.

She was both a lifelong student and educator (with all but a finished dissertation on her PhD, no less!), a person of deep and abiding faith, and a lover (and connoisseur) of art in all its forms. She and my grandfather have been one of the best examples of successful marriage I have ever encountered–at once like giddy school-children at the blossoming of new romance and yet with an implacable and well-settled love deposited by the accumulated sediment of years and decades.

We traded good books to read, fiction and non-fiction and talked about a wide variety of topics. To me, she was both the matriarch of the family and an exemplar of values, but also eminently approachable and a friend with whom I felt free to discuss nearly anything.

Not only was she a role model and great example to me, but also a great encourager, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog, in fact. It is strange, almost incomprehensible, that I will not see her face or hear her voice, enjoy her laughter again in this life. And yet, I will always, for those things are engraved on my heart and inscribed in my mind with what seems to be flawless detail.

So what do I feel now? Guilt, mostly, I suppose. Guilt that I am not distraught to the point that I can do nothing but mourn. Guilt that I have the wherewithal to sit and write this–perhaps not dispassionately, but more at peace than not. Guilt that the emotions I feel do not reach the level of what I think she deserves.

In my more logical mind I realize that that guilt–at least most of it–is not warranted. I am at peace about her passing. I am resolved in my belief that she has passed on to God’s presence and the existential joys that follow this life about which we who are left behind can only dream. I am convicted that she led a life full of meaning, well-lived and focused on what is most important. I am steadfast that her last moments on this Earth were filled with love, surrounded by her children and her husband (with whom she’d been since she was sixteen!). I will miss her, but I will see her again. Given all of this, a part of me asks why mourn at all?

And so I wrestle with this strange conflict of being content and yet feeling that I should be anything but content. Illogical, but natural all the same. In a sense, I am glad to have both, to–as Chesterton might put it, “keep this paradox and keep both ends furious.” There is a beautiful fullness, experiential and existential, to the combination of logic and emotion.

And, I suppose, I am happy to see my faith strong in the face of being tested by that must absurd and unsettling of human experiences–the existence of death. Try as we might, I’m not sure that we’re capable of understanding why we die, what purpose it serves. That is true for both the person of faith and the atheist, for regardless of the answers we try to find, the question is the very same: “why this and not something different?”

As I look back through what I have written, it strikes me just how much paradox I’ve related in these words, from the mundane (educator and student) to the more profound (I will not see her again in this life, and yet I will by memory). Perhaps that’s ultimately what death is to all of us–life’s greatest paradox.

Regardless, it’s cathartic to write these words, and to be explicit that my grandmother has been and will be a great influence on me, and by association, this blog.

 

 

Review: Fallout 76: A Good Start

It seems that I’ve started most of my recent reviews this way, but the Fallout universe has a special place in my heart. I came of age in the late 90’s, and isometric RPGs were my video game of choice (surprised?).

I spent countless hours playing and replaying Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout: Tactics (I even played Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, despite its many flaws). I lamented when the “Van Buren” project was cancelled and rejoiced when Bethesda announced Fallout 3. The nostalgia factor and fanboyness runs high with this title, so be warned.

And here we are now with a new offering in the Fallout universe, one that divurges greatly from that to which we’ve become accustomed. Multiplayer. Is it the Holy Grail of Fallout gaming, a despicable money-grab by Bethesda in recycling the core of Fallout 4, or something about which we should feel a little bit less extreme and a little more ambivalent?

Multiplayer is a strange thing for me. As an introvert, I’m far more inclined to adventure by my sullen self than to link up with some randos who do or say things that do not recommend themselves to further association. The anonymity of the internet, and multiplayer games, draws out the worst in people. I just don’t have time for that in my life.

On the other hand, playing video games with people I know and have built relationships with away from the glow of the LEDs is something I very much enjoy. In this hectic world, online gaming is sometimes how I best keep up with certain friends–we play and we converse while we play. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of those long telephone calls I used to have in high school, before texting made such obsolete for high-schoolers.

I love open world video games and the hours of exploration that come with them–truth be told, that’s probably my favorite aspect of video games altogether, though at any other moment in time I might say that it’s strong and meaningful narrative, a well-crafted story.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending hours walking through the West Virginia wasteland as a lone wanderer and as part of a team with my friends–even a complete four-person team. None of us have had the time to hit the “end-game” activities yet, and I’m not fully certain what they are at this point. Did I mention I lived in West Virginia? Only for about two years when I was in kindergarten and first grade, so my memories of that part of my life are fragmented and vague, but this perhaps adds another touchpoint for me.

Okay, background to review complete. Now on to what you really came here for:

The Good

Fallout 76 is like getting a whole ‘nother Fallout 4 worth of locations to explore. That alone piques my interest.

There are new enemies (Mole Miners, Radtoads, Gulpers, the Scorched, and more), new weapons (my favorite for its weirdness is the “death tambo,” a tamborine with the cymbals replaced with blades) and a greatly-expanded crafting system.

The use of SPECIAL and hot-swappable Perks is a lot of fun and allows for a lot of different character builds–both within one character and those that necessitate running multiple characters for different SPECIAL arrays. The theorycrafting of character builds fascinates me in Fallout 76, much moreso than any other MMO-style game I’ve played.

Fallout 76 is, by default, like “Survival Mode” in previous Fallout titles. Not only must you manage your health and radiation levels, but you must manage hunger and thirst, disease and mutations! Your gear deteriorates relatively quickly, so keeping things maintained and finding plans to build new equipment or CAMP (the mobile equivalent of a settlement) items gives the player a lot to do without even interfacing with the quests. These needs create emergent narrative, the kinds of stories that begin, “So no shit, there I was, knee-deep in spent brass and hand -grenade pins, having drunk my last purified water and then a Deathclaw shows up.” I love that, even if no one else wants to hear my stories–especially my wife.

The consequences of dying are scaled well–you lose the junk you’ve been carrying but not all of the other precious items you’ve spent so much time finding or building. If you’re fast enough (or there are no other players around), you can return to the site of your death (if you dare) and retrieve these parts. There’s a cost, sometimes fairly steep, but not one that makes you want to ragequit anytime you die. Good job on this balance, Bethesda, that’s not an easy thing.

Another well-thought out idea is that you can change the sex and appearance of your character at any time. A minor thing for some, but a great convenience for those who may want to change up their character’s visuals every so often.

The Bad

If you’re reading reviews of Fallout 76, you’ve likely come across the complaint that it “feels empty.” I think that that’s a misleading statement (there’s another Location to scavange over every crag and just a short ways down every road), but it’s true that Bethesda’s choice not to include human NPCs in the game is a massive let-down. The self-conscious weirdness of characters in Fallout is one of the main draws, and finding the corpses of these characters and listening to holotapes to give you their background just doesn’t match encountering and dealing with the characters in life.

Yes, this simplifies a number of things for the designers: there’s no need to craft dialogue trees, to manage faction reputation, to deal with conflicting narratives and closing off certain quests to certain players, etc. But it misses one of the best parts of Fallout.

At least Bethesda had the good sense to write the narrative around this concept–there is a reason everyone in West Virginia is dead. But the idea that this approach accentuates player importance by making every living human you encounter a PC just doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it deprives players of a sense of agency. There’s no one to really save, no cause or ideal to support, no settlement or character to get attached to (as much as is psychologically healthy for a fictional character, I suppose). There’s no choice between the Minutemen or the Brotherhood of Steel or the Enclave or the Institute. There’s no choice of dialogue options. There are choices in branching quest lines. There are no choices.

As with any online game, you also have to deal with the jerk gamers on occasion–and they are legion. I’ve gotten into several PVP situations and had about half of them also involve the other player sending me insulting messages over Xbox live and other assorted jackassery. That is, I suppose, unavoidable.

The Ugly

Bethesda stubbornly resists logical physics in a number of ways. No, I don’t mean the super-sciency stuff, I can suspend disbelief for that. But despite many games in this series, Bethesda still thinks the average rifle weighs about 20 pounds (unless the weight units are not pounds–I’m honestly not sure). This is somewhat mitigated by the starting carry weight without penalty being 150 lbs (and Perks that allow certain items to be reduced in weight by up to 90%), but the numbers in weights across the board still bother me. I’m trying to remember back to Skyrim about whether this applies to their concept of medieval weapons as well (a real two-handed sword should weigh between about 3 and 4 pounds–though the massive zweihander could weigh 8 or 9, that’s a very specialized weapon for a very particular purpose and was used in the fashion of a spear as much as a sword).

There are a number of bugs in the game, some leading to program crashes, others causing questlines not to advance, items to suddenly disappear or other minor but infuriating issues. I have not found a glitch that restarting the program (or just logging out and back in) hasn’t fixed.

Hope for the Future

Bethesda has indicated that they intend to support Fallout 76 for the long haul. What exactly that means is unclear, but I assume that it means something like Destiny 2–at least a few years of support with new DLC quarterly or so.

If that’s truly the case, Fallout 76 could have legs–provided that Bethesda has realized that it needs to add human NPCs and everything that comes with that (factions, etc.). If not, it’ll be fun while it lasts; maybe it will tide me over until Fallout 5.

Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.

RPG Design Journal #2: ANRPG’s Core Mechanic

For the first post in this series, click here.

Previously, I pontificated on my prefered particulars for an RPG ruleset for Avar Narn. If it’s been a short while since that first post, that’s not because I haven’t been working on the system–it’s because (as intimated in that first post) I spent a good deal of time working on a 3d6 core mechanic. Before returning to a dice pool mechanic.

What I’ve chosen is a d10 dice pool system, not unlike (in several ways, at least) the Storyteller system. Here are the particulars:

(1) A pool will typically be between 1 and 10 dice, with both Attributes and Skills rated between 1 and 5.
(2) The size of the dice pool may be modified up or down, but only by factors inherent to the acting character, such as injury. Dice pools may only exceed 10 when supernatural effects are in play.
(3) The “standard” target number for each die is 8, but this may be modified to 9 for disadvantageous circumstances or to 7 for advantageous ones. Each die meeting or exceeding the target number will count as a “hit.”
(4) Any die that rolls a 10 will count as two “hits.”
(5) The amount of “hits” needed to succeed at a task is called (for now, at least), the Threshold. Threshold is always between 1 and 8, with 1 being easy and 8 being near (but not) impossible. Anything that would be “very easy” isn’t worth rolling for and anything that would be “impossible” shouldn’t be rolled either–as common sense would dictate.

I’ve selected the above rules for the core mechanic in part because I like how the statistics work out. There’s enough granularity for a step up or down in dice to be a palpable change, for advantage/disadvantage to be important but not overwhelming, and steps within Threshold seem to have the right about of change to percentage success as well. It took the addition of rule (4) above to make the statistics work like I wanted to (I think–see previous comments on the importance of the feel of the statistics over the actual statistics). I must credit that idea to the fact that I’ve been reading the Wrath & Glory RPG recently (review on that in the near future).

We need to add a few additional interpretive aspects to the core mechanic to round out its effectiveness.

Particularly, an approach to “failing forward” and “success at cost” as well as a “margin of success” or “failure” in general.

Before any playtesting or development of subsytems, I’m thinking the following: If the roll generates a number of hits that is three or lower than the threshold, the roll is either outright failure or success at a major cost (depending upon consequences and narrative necessities). If the number of hits generated is only one or two lower than the Threshold, this should probably be a success at a minor cost. Remember this must be subject to what makes sense in the narrative. Sometimes it’s good to fail outright. Note also that this means that rolls with a Threshold between one and three are not going to fall into the “success at major cost” under these guidelines. I like to think of this as the “aim small, miss small” principle from The Patriot.

This can be flipped around for degrees of success as well. Reaching the Threshold exactly is success without any additional effect and extra hits can be viewed “success and a side benefit.”

Of course, some subsystems (like combat) will use the hard number of hits generated to determine degree of success or failure.

I’d like to come up with a good way to have the dice give some additional information aside from success or failure–like the “boons” and “banes” of the FFG Warhammer 3rd Edition dice. Using 1’s for negative effects seems a no-brainer, but with 10’s already counting as two hits, I’m not yet sure what I would do to balance for positive happenstance.

One thought I’m toying with is to have some of the dice differently colored (one in the first color, two in the second color and the rest in the “standard” color). This could allow the use of those three dice to be interpreted for particular other information in the roll if appropriate. The set up also allows us always to roll those three dice–if your dice pool is only one or two, you just look to the dice of the appropriate color for counting hits. Not sure if this extra complexity will be worth it, but it’s somethign I’m thinking on.

I’m also heavily leaning toward the idea of “dice bidding.” This mechanic allows the player to sacrifice dice from her pool to be counted as extra degrees of success if she meets the Threshold. It’s a classic risk versus reward mechanic, which I think fits thematically in the grit of Avar Narn.

I’ll be adding a resource to allow characters to purchase successes on rolls when they really need it, more on this to come.

With this core development in place, the next thing I’ll be doing is running an analysis on what kind of developed subsystems I think are necessary to give the game the right focus and feel.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Your Own Private WestWorld

I ride up to the crest of a hill, my trusty mare stamping at the earth as we come to a stop. Across the valley (modeled after Colorado, it seems), a stagecoach pulls into view, rolling down the deep ruts of a well-traveled road, unaware of the danger that awaits it.

I check my pocket watch. It’s right on time, like my informant at the train station promised. Through binoculars, I can see two men riding atop the wagon, one driver, one riding shotgun. A few riders flank the vehicle, rifles in hand.

Nothing too serious. With the right tool, I’ll make quick work of the guards and the driver. If my lock-breaker won’t do the trick, a well-placed stick of dynamite will open the strongbox that holds my reward. I just need my lever-action rifle to kick things off, the one I’ve customized with dark wood covered in dark leather, black metal accented with gold engraving.

Unfortunately, I have to open up a menu and scroll through more than a dozen longarms to get what I’m looking for. It’s a game, so maybe I could live with that, but I’m tacitly asked by to ignore the massive hammerspace my horse must have in the invisible quantum field that surrounds my saddle. Having to choose what to take with me when I leave camp would have been far more interesting.

That’s been my experience of the game in the (frankly embarrassing) amount of time I’ve spent on it. Things seem great until the game’s systems ruin the immersion with rigid, often-nonsensical responses.

On an HD TV and and Xbox One X, the game is stunningly beautiful–except for the people. Their expressions are just a bit much, their faces waxen and on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Not too beautiful, but still inhuman.

The physics of the game veers from the believable to the frustratingly sudden. I’ve lost a number of horses (typically after reaching the max level of bonding–and thus unlocks–with them) to having them suddenly run headlong into trains or wagons (after I’ve jumped onto said train or wagon). Likewise, in the midst of thrilling chases, I’ve been launched ragdoll-like, my horse crumpling beneath me on some unseen sharp edge of the terrain.

But it’s not the physics of the game that really destroys the immersive potential. It’s the asininity of subsystems of the game that infuriate. For a game about the last outlaws of the Old West, it makes little sense to include an “Honor” system that rewards not doing many of the game’s draws–robbery, theft, gunfights and bucking the law. What’s worse, the Honor system has nothing to do with getting caught by others. Even without witnesses, you lose Honor for looting a body or taking something that’s not yours. That’s not fun.

This is exacerbated by the fact that “restoring” or improving your Honor to a high level (where there are in-game perks) is tedious and uninteresting. Help people in radiant events while traveling, kindly greet all the people you come across, perform repetitive and dull chores (“move this from here to there” in camp). There’s nothing interesting about being a white-hat in the game except for mechanical benefits. Being a roleplayer first and foremost, I see that as exceptionally bad form in design.

The “law enforcement” system also makes little sense. There is one fun/interesting aspect: witnesses to crimes will try to run away and contact the sheriff or other members of “the Law.” You can chase them down and threaten them to keep them from tattling. Unfortunately, everything’s downhill from there. The witnesses don’t actually have to run to a specific point to summon the Law–once they make it far enough, they simply disappear to be replaced by lawdogs.

The excitement of this is further diminished by a number of other flaws: rob a store and an alert automatically goes up to the law when the robbery begins (unless you’re robbing a business’s secret side business). Wearing a mask only slightly delays identification of you as the perpetrator, even in a place where no one should know your name. Of course, if you can evade fast enough, you can leave the scene of the crime, hide out for a few minutes, and come back like nothing ever happened. Without changing your appearance.

Be identified while committing crimes and a bounty will be placed on your head–this bounty increases for each infraction, but killing an officer of the law only raises it by $20. According to the internet, the 2016 value of that amount is about $2,891.65.

If your bounty gets high enough, bounty hunters will start to seek you out–though they appear randomly and without cause for being able to track you down in the wilderness. Of course, you can avoid this by going to any Post Office and paying off your accumulated bounty. Apparently the Old West works off of the ancient Germanic weregild system rather than 19th century American justice.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the “iconic” outlaw activities of the Old West net very little income compared to bounty you’re likely to generate during the activity. For instance, robbing a train got me about $100 in goods and cash while generating a bounty of $380 for defending myself from the near-instantaneous onslaught of lawmen from their hiding places in the wilderness where they must have been waiting for just such an offense to occur.

Playing the game, I can’t help but compare it to WestWorld. The game seems more like an Old West themepark than any verisimilitudinous experience. Scripted actions, often clearly weighted toward “game balance” rather than any sense of authenticity serves as a constant reminder that the whole thing is a conceit, a game. NPCs are robotic and caught in activity loops, wooden and predictable. Actions have only short-term consequences before everything is reset to its “natural state.”

The story missions are mostly good and the characters within Dutch van der Linde’s gang have at least a modicum of depth–though most of the dialogue is canned and you have very little opportunity to control Arthur Morgan’s treatment of his companions (which, again, makes the Honor system seem arbitrary and ridiculous).

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being hailed as a massive success in open-world gaming, but I just can’t agree. The game doesn’t do anything that Witcher 3 didn’t do better–and more believably. And when a fantasy setting feels more real than a pseudohistorical one, its hard not to think that the creators have strayed pretty far from the goal.

Is the game fun? Yes, yes it is, but only as a game. Does it feel like the systems of Grand Theft Auto have been conveniently ported to the Old West without much scrutiny. Yep. If you’re looking for immersion that gives you an easy time imagining yourself in Arthur Morgan’s shoes, you’ll find ocassionally satisfying bits (particularly while hunting, where animal behaviors are linked to some real-world expectations–at least in terms of diurnal/nocturnal cycles) but you’re ultimately going to be disappointed. I don’t regret picking up the game (even in limited edition at full price) and I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it, but I just can’t help but feel that the game could have been much more.

I’ll probably keep playing it for the time being to kill time, but not without the feeling that I could be employing my time to higher and better purpose. If I manage to finish it before Fallout 76 drops, then I’ll finish it. If not, I doubt I ever will. Certainly not in the near future given the games set to release before the end of the year or in 2019.

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Cyrus and Trump

There is a disturbing trend among politically-conservative evangelicals to compare President Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great as a move to legitimize the support of Christians for Mr. Trump and his policies.

Here are links to a handful of articles on the subject:
Vox
The Guardian
The New York Times

I’ve written on some related topics, which you can find below:
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

But today, I want to focus directly on this idea that Trump is somehow a “chosen one” akin to Cyrus in the Old Testament. This idea is wrong-headed, theologically problematic on many fronts and, frankly, dangerous.

While I’m strongly tempted to start with argumentation about how the historical understanding of Cyrus and the Biblical writings of Isaiah don’t match up too well, so we ought to read the Bible’s commentary on Cyrus as making arguments and creating narrative about the Israelite people, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the right of returning Jews to land now occupied by the Samaritans, etc., etc. However, I’m going to bypass that argument, for two reasons. First, you can investigate that for yourselves and I don’t need to take lots of space to summarize here. Second, those who espouse this Cyrus/Trump connection dismiss the historical argument out of hand, coming as they do from a position of Biblical literalism. There are so many problems with that position, but for purposes of this argument, I’m going to avoid the historical argument in favor of logical and theological arguments as well as literary criticism.

Let’s begin with the ways in which Trump doesn’t seem to match the Biblical narrative of Cyrus very well.

First, God declares in Isaiah 45:13 that God will “raise up Cyrus in my righteouness: I will make all his ways straight.” So there’s an explicit declaration that God’s selection of Cyrus (again, if we take the text literally) necessarily comes with an instilled righteousness. But the evangelical comparison of Trump with Cyrus is founded on the idea that Trump, while not moral or pious, is still somehow being used for God’s purposes. But that argument puts us more in the realm of Tolkien’s Gollum than the Bible’s Cyrus. There are plenty of Biblical arguments that even the unrighteous can advance God’s plans for the world, but that’s not the argument made here in Isaiah.

Second, let’s look at Cyrus’ function in the Isaiah narrative. Cyrus does two main things: he releases the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and he decrees the rebuilding of the Temple (though that doesn’t actually happen until later). Unless you see the U.S. Embassy as somehow equivalent to the Temple that housed the holy of holies, I’m not sure where you could find a functional comparison here. Trump has not drastically changed the political landscape in Isreal (except for heightening tensions), so we have to look elsewhere for the divinely mandated accomplishments (on behalf of God’s particularly-favored people, because let’s be realistic, this argument blatantly favors the paritcular interests of the evangelicals who make it and not the good of all believers or the good of the world as a whole) of the current president if we’re to make the argument that, like Cyrus, God has personally elected Trump to accomplish God’s ends on the earth.

By my estimate, here are the accomplishments: the creation of environment more permissive to racists and the alt-right; a fear and rejection of innocent immigrants fleeing crisis; benefits to the wealthy and to large corporations at the expense of the little guy; threats of war; the disparagement and disengagement from our political allies; a lack of caring about suffering that happens to other people in other countries; rejection of truth in favor of making things up as one goes and insisting it’s the truth until people stop questioning it; decreased acceptance of people who are different; scapegoating already marginalized people as the cause of the perceived problems of the rich; a preference for political success in conflict rather than the support of democratic institutions and justice for all people.

To be fair, there is an argument that Trump is the reason that the economy is good right now. But it’s just that, an argument–and certainly not one that has much to do with righteousness. While the President often gets the credit or blame for the economy (mostly because that’s the only politician the average person can name), most economists agree that the President (no matter who it is or what party they belong to) has relatively little power when it comes to affecting the economy.

And now we come to the real issue: evangelicals believe that the government should enforce their form of morality, so action that curtails the rights of women to get abortions or be believed when they assert that they have been sexually assaulted, the rights of the LGBTQ community to exist, the rights of immigrants to have a fair go in this country matches with their view of what the country should be in order to follow their definition of Christian righteousness.

You can argue with my characterization of their goals if you’d like, but at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe that Trump will achieve the type of change they want for the country. You only have to look at Trump’s policies, statements and actions to see the truth in what I’ve written.

That creates a problem for the evangelicals. They want what Trump offers them, but they also don’t want Trump, because he is amoral, narcisstic, jingoistic, self-interested and generally problematic.

Enter the Cyrus argument. This allows the evangelicals to avoid the cognitive dissonance between seeing themselves as inherently righteous and moral actors while supporting someone who is so clearly not. “Trump may not be godly, but he’s doing what God put him here to do, so we should support him.” If you’re inclined to ask about the actual morality of the policies favored by the evangelicals in light of the Gospels, don’t bother; that ship sailed a long time ago.

What makes this dangerous–for the nation, as a temptation to Christian believers and as a detriment to the Christian witness to those who do not believe–is that it again resorts to Divine Command Theory to justify what humans believe to be God’s will as absolute and unassailable truth. The “Cyrus Prophecy” argument allows the evangelicals to unquestioningly cling to a very particular interpretation of Scripture, to use an “ends justify the means” approach to their faith, and to reject outright anyone who challenges the assertions that they’ve made. Psychologically very effective. Theologically, not so much.

As I argued in my post about the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, this allows Christians to ignore the effects of the route they take to pursue their so-called righteousness. Just as the Cyrus argument requires us to selectively ignore the claim of Isaiah that God’s selection of Cyrus made him righteous, resorting to Divine Command Theory to justify beliefs and actions requires us to ignore much of Christ’s message as to how we ought to comport ourselves as Christians seeking righteousness.

To be fair, I think that there is a very good analogy in the Old Testament for Trump, it’s just not Cyrus. It’s King Saul, appointed king by God when the Israelites begged God for a king and God said (paraphrasing): “Okay, I’m gonna give you what you’re asking for, but I don’t think it’s going to be what you think it’s going to be…” Because Trump certainly isn’t the president this country needs right now, but he might be the president we collectively deserve until we take a good look at ourselves and figure out what a “great” America actually looks like.