(Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult

With kids in the house again, I’m reminded of how precious little time I often have for some of my favorite pursuits–reading, writing and games of all types. The change in lifestyle has brought about for me a new opportunity (or perhaps mandate is a better word) to consider my priorities (for both life and leisure) and develop some strategies to meet those priorities.

My Xbox One X developed an issue about six weeks ago–the HDMI out port has blown, meaning I can run the system if I stream it through my computer (which is a poor substitute) or otherwise not at all. It’s currently sitting in parts on my study table, waiting for me to receive the new HDMI port, finish desoldering the old port, and hopefully complete the repair without having damaged anything else on the motherboard. I’ve learned a lot about soldering in this effort, which is cool (I like learning and improving skills, not matter how tangential to everyday life), but I’m not yet sure of the cost. Given my past history with DIY electronics repairs, I may well have completely botched the whole thing.

Regardless, the break from my Xbox (between its state of disrepair and the kiddos taking up most of my time) has been an unexpected but welcome change. Even if I fix the Xbox (and I hope I do!), I’m looking forward to devoting more of my free time to analog gaming for a while–roleplaying games and (one of my first loves) miniatures games.

Writing is still the priority, and though the children have drastically slowed the rate of progress on my pending novel, I am still finding small bits of time where (for lack of distractions and sufficient energy and focus) I’m able to push things along ever so incrementally. My goal is still to have the first draft of the novel finished by the end of the year; the goal remains a seemingly reasonable one.

That brings me to my leisure activities. While I love writing and feel compelled to do it, it’s not always a leisurely thing. Sometimes I hit that magic “flow” state and the rhythm of it becomes intoxicating, sometimes I write that magically-worded sentence that causes me to glow with pride, sometimes I discover something new about my narrative that gives me an indescribable joy of creating something with a hint of life in it. Most of the time though, writing is work, and hard work at that. In some ways, then, it’s like running for me. While I sometimes enjoy running, I usually don’t. I do enjoy having run. I like writing a lot more, but it is often a difficult thing.

So, my writing remains a priority along with work, family and other obligations. But I need to look elsewhere for those times to recharge my creative batteries and replenish my energy while bleeding off some stress.

But, as all adults, and especially those with young children, time for other things is rare indeed. Gone are the days when I could call up a few friends on short notice for an all-weekend or all-night roleplaying session. Gone are the days when I got home from school at 3:00, finished homework in an hour, and had all the rest of the day to play videogames and paint miniatures.

Multiply that problem by however many other adults you have in your gaming group, and getting everyone together for a game at one time seems Herculean.

There’s no panacea to this ailment of course; it’s just a fact of life. But I have thought of some things (none of which are shocking or new, but I’ll tell you how I’m using them) to make my leisure goals a little more attainable. These ideas are specifically focused on “pen and paper” roleplaying games.

(1) Online Gaming

I don’t mean for video games, as I’m focusing on “analog” games here. About a year ago, I ran an online game for some Methodist pastor friends of mine (which arose out of the Israel trip, believe it or not). It lasted for a few months and played relatively smoothly. There are a lot of virtual tabletop programs out there, and we used (for a time) Roll20. It’s an excellent program, with many great features, but I’m of a mind just to use Skype or a different video-conference platform to run games.

A few reasons for this: First, as I’ll state below, I think running games of a more narrative style makes a lot more sense for the time-strapped gamer. Second, it became an extra time-burden for me to try to learn the systems that make Roll20 run smoothly in addition to all the other gaming-planning I had to do for the game. The KISS principle seems to work for my adult-oriented gaming schedule. No, that phrase isn’t the right one. You know what I mean.

I’m looking simply to recreate the feel of sitting at the table together as simply and authentically as possible. I think a lot of “set pieces” and battlemaps and miniatures focus a roleplaying game on the wrong things (as I prefer to play, not objectively–there’s no “one true way” to play an RPG, and that’s one of the wonderful things about them), so I don’t really need most of the features that Roll20 has to offer. If I can email or fileshare handouts easily enough, and if I really need to visually display something I can manipulate in realtime, I can set up an extra device to put a camera specifically on that.\

The online venue doesn’t fully substitute for all sitting down at the same table, but it does make things much easier in terms of scheduling everyone or being able to game with friends across large geographic distances.

(2) Pick a Ruleset

We all know that there’s a learning curve with any new roleplaying game, and even a “relearning” curve when returning to games that you haven’t played in a while. The fewer rulesets you can manage in your gaming group, the more you cut down on this learning curve and keep it easy to jump into a game with little preparation.

There are some rulesets that lend themselves to (relatively easy) adaptation across settings and genres–those of you who read regularly (or as regularly as I write!) know that I’m a big proponent of Fate and Cortex Plus/Prime.

But the Fifth Edition D&D rules are being constantly tweaked to be used in different genres and settings, so if that’s your bag (or GURPS or anything else for that matter), no reason not to use one of those.

The point is to find efficiency in consistency. The fewer rulesets to jump between, the faster character generation is and the faster gameplay goes.  That said, specific rulesets built for certain games are often better at evoking the mood for that setting (The One Ring comes to mind), so there’s a balancing act to consider here.

(3) Run Narrative-Focused Games

Quite simply, narrative-focused games run more intuitively (in my opinion) and keep the action focused on the story over the mechanics. I have a strong personal bias in this direction, admittedly, and if I want to focus on detailed tactical combat, I’ll play a video game or a miniatures game.

Games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime, the Powered by the Apocalypse games and the Forged in the Dark games have enough “crunch” to structure gameplay and create consequences for failure and success based on more than mere GM fiat, and I think they’re easier to run spontaneously (certainly at least the Apocalypse games were designed with that in mind).

What I don’t want to do is spend lots of time balancing “encounters,” looking up charts and carefully choosing enemies from lists with large stat blocks. That can be a fun exercise, but it’s not were I want to spend my personal gaming budget.

(4) Personal Setting Books, OneNote and “Emergent Gameplay”

This one is part well-trod ground and part personal eccentricity. For me, though I don’t think this is a necessary consequence, this goes hand-in-hand with running more narratively-focused games.

I’m not by most definitions an “old school” gamer. I cut my teeth on West End Star Wars, Shadowrun Second Edition and Vampire: The Masquerade (and its sister games). But I’ve always like the idea of the sandbox game and the hexcrawl.

My tack here is to adapt the mechanically-focused idea of the “old school” hexcrawl to a narrative focus. By that, I mean the creation of a narrative sandbox rather than a “physical” one. Instead of filling in hexes on a map and developing random generators for what players might find in that hex, I’m working on building the practical setting to run a game in–collections of NPCs and their relationships, important location descriptions, events and conflicts underway.

Right now I’m working on building a setting for Houston in the Shadowrun universe. I can do this a little bit at a time–do a quick write-up for an NPC who could be a contact here, fill out organizational charts of the important criminal organizations and local megacorp executives, etc. Since I can do one thing at a time, or even jot some notes down to return to and flesh out later, I can fit this kind of work easily into small opportunities to write. The more I develop, the more links between characters, events and locations that naturally develop, bringing the world alive.

This allows for emergent gameplay. You can drop the characters into the setting and you have all of the elements you need to organically respond to the actions they take and the direction they lead the narrative.

This makes the work persistent, as I can do this for each of the settings I know I’m likely to want to run in the future. I can start a Shadowrun game with what I’ve got in my “setting database,” add to it both as a result of play and in my free moments away from the table, and whether that game fizzles and dies, I’ve got the background material ready to go to run a fresh game immediately or later without going back to square one with a campaign idea. Efficiency is key here.

A setting can sit for a very long time and, when the urge to run that setting returns, it’s ready for you at a moment’s notice. You can even have your gaming group build characters in advance for various settings and you can play “pick up” games with very little prep-time. This takes a lot of the GM stress out of gaming and helps me be excited to run games and to enjoy them to the fullest when I do.

As an added bonus, this kind of writing seems lower risk to me than writing for Avar Narn, so when I’m feeling “stuck” in my “more serious” writing or just needing to get my creative juices flowing, I’ve got ready prompts to turn to where the work I do will be useful elsewhere.

You can also use these setting portfolios like gaming scrapbooks–see a character idea or an interesting location that would work for one of your settings (whether in an official book for the game or as a riff off of something you experience in the quotidian)–and you can create an entry for it, import text or inspirational pictures, etc.

This system can easily translate to a setting bible for your own fictional universes as well.

I prefer OneNote for this kind of work. It’s inexpensive, it’s relatively intuitive, and it has a lot of hypertextuality which allows me to link my work easily and access it effectively at the gaming table. I can save my OneNote notebooks to the cloud and have them both securely backed-up and easily accessible over multiple devices.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a few of my thoughts on managing to keep playing RPGs as a busy adult.

As I mentioned, I’m also trying to get back into miniatures games (and Frostgrave in particular; I’ll have to post on this separately). Strategies for this are more difficult–I try to do some modeling of both terrain and miniatures when the kiddos are sleeping and I’m not yet to the point of being ready to play games!

Mushin no shin

Mushin no shin. It translates literally to “mind without mind, ” but this fails to capture the nuance of it. Mushin, for short, might best be described as a state of being dispassionate, freeing oneself from all mental and emotional attachment so that one may respond rather than react.

Mushin has a happy home in Zen and other meditative practices, which makes perfect sense. I first encountered it in my martial studies, where it comprises part of Bushido, the way of the warrior. There, mushin is a state of detachedness from ego that allows one to act without fear, to focus on the technique of combat rather than the result. “He who seeks to save his own life” and all. Or, as Mad Max would have it, “Fear is the mindkiller.”

During my days as a concealed handgun instructor, I advocated for mushin, for a number of reasons. First, as the samurai well knew, it is an effective combat mindset for those who achieve it. Second, in civilian uses of deadly force in self-defense, strict adherence to the law is a necessity. Many infractions of the law occur out of a fear response–the civilian produces his weapon before he is justified in doing so, or she fires it without sufficient objective indication (what the law in Texas would call “reasonableness”) of imminent harm to authorize the application of deadly force.

At the time, though, mushin interested me at least as much for its applicability at conflict de-escalation as during the escalation of hostilities. Most of the conflict de-escalation techniques I have been taught, or have personally taught, require stepping back from one’s ego to manage the situation logically and persuasively instead of as a matter of preserving sense of identity and saving face. Now, I am even more interested in that aspect of mushin.

Especially as a parent. Much of the discipline of children is done from a place of anger or frustration. This is understandable–children can be both anger-inducing and frustrating. But being understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. I’m not casting aspersions; I’m just as guilty, and I’ve tried to be introspective, realistic and candid in my own failings and unnecessary power struggles in that regard.

I’ve harped on TBRI before, and this seems an opportunity to do so again. Without calling it that, TBRI incorporates the same principle as mushin into its approach to parenting–if you can’t center yourself and can’t remove your own emotions from the situation, you can’t effectively parent. You are reacting, not responding. And, yes, sometimes parenting feels like the attack-parry-riposte of the duel.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that I have a strong sense of self and identity–and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I work on the assumption that the uniqueness of my personality (what we might call the “writer’s voice” if we want to be formal about it) is interesting enough to keep my audience coming back.

But I also know that I’m at my best as a parent when I put all of that aside. When I focus on my child’s needs, both in the short-term meeting of needs and in the long-term development of character, I develop parenting strategies that do more than momentarily relieve my own frustrations–I build trust and relationship just as I am redirecting, correcting, of flat-out dodging certain behaviors. That’s love, both practically- and theologically-speaking.

It’s a strange thing to think that love sometimes happens best when given from a place of detachment and dispassion, but the strangeness of that comes from a society that tells us that love is a feeling, a fleeting emotion whose high we must chase continually. While we can’t–and shouldn’t–deny the emotional aspects of our relationships, we cannot roll them into intent and behavior and pretend that the mess that results is one monolithic thing. Sometimes love is a choice, and we are called to pursue it even when we don’t feel like it. When we choose to be loving to another when it doesn’t come easy is when that love is most powerful, when it is self-sacrificial.

But there’s a trap here as well, and we shouldn’t get it twisted–we humans have emotional needs that must be fulfilled by our relationships for them to be healthy, positive, and functional. For those persons with whom we intend to travel large swathes of our lives, we ought to like them as well as love them. We ought to feel that emotional pull as well as the conscious desire to seek their good first.

But, as I’ve said, children are often infuriating, even as we also feel loving emotions toward them. But to raise them up in the world, our parenting must be about them and their needs, not about our personal weaknesses or psychological quirks and desires.

We must become like samurai, dispassionate and able to see the situation for what it really is, to–as objectively as is humanly possible–look down the skeins of time for the far-reaching consequences of our own behavior. We must be unattached to emotional needs and distant from fear of particular results so that we may employ the techniques we know to be beneficial, healthy and effective.

Because, while parenting may sometimes be a fight, it’s not one comprised of strikes and parries, of throws and joint locks. It’s not even a fight between us and our children (though we often feel that it is). We have met the enemy, and it is us.

TBRI

I spent last Friday and Saturday attending a simulcast of the “Empowered to Connect” conference put on by the Karyn Purvis Institute of Childhood Development at TCU. The simulcast at our home church was put on by Cultivating Families, a non-profit that is dear to my heart. I hope that you’ll check them out and consider donating.

Dr. Purvis was the creator of a parenting approach called “Trust-based Relational Intervention,” commonly known as “TBRI.” TBRI relies on an understanding of childhood brain development, particularly for those children with capital-T Trauma in their backgrounds, to inform a parenting style that is focused on developing and maintaining attachment between parent and child, helping the child literally rewire the physical changes in the brain related to past trauma so that they can get out of “survival mode” and begin to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, and teach/enforce positive strategies for all manner of social interactions.

There are a few things I particularly like about TBRI. First, it is very much in line with my idea of parenting through calling a child to increased empathy and understanding of the consequences of actions for others rather than shame- and guilt-based judgment and punishment (see my post called “Toward a Positive Morality.”) Second, which likely makes sense given my first point, TBRI matches closely with what I believe to be good Christian theology–it focuses on building relationships and solving problems rather than punishment and guilt. Third, there is a strong emphasis for caregivers to “do the work” to understand the things that drive them crazy or make them respond emotionally rather than thoughtfully; to sort out our own baggage. Without doing so, we fall victim to the same behaviors we’re trying to help the kiddos work through and beyond. K and I have had several conversations over the weekend of “Oh! That’s probably why I always get angry when X happens, or why I always do X when Y. Now that I’ve named it, we can try to work on it.” Most of the people who’ve been through TBRI training (DePelchin, our foster licensing agency, uses it thoroughly in their own training) report similar experiences.

There’s an example of that process that’s been on the blog for quite some time, in fact. One that arose out of my own reflection about my behavior with our first foster kids (see the post called “Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!” An amusing anecdote–some anonymous and benevolent person left an industrial-size box of Goldfish in K’s office with mine and our daughter’s names on it after that article was published. I remain grateful and always smile when I think of that!

While it may have been designed for children from hard places and their caregivers, TBRI just makes good sense. It advocates a system for relationships that extends grace to others and encourages introspection to improve one’s own relationships as well as providing proven techniques for conflict de-escalation and for building trust while negotiating interpersonal needs. K and I have tried to implement the techniques with each other, and I think it’s improved out relationship. At the very least, it’s helped us demonstrate to each other our mutual desire to grow closer and to work on the issues that arise between us in a positive, grace-filled and loving way.

I like to joke that I also use TBRI techniques with some of my legal clients, but it’s also true. The techniques I’ve learnt through TBRI training have helped me to help clients understand their motivations, more effectively evaluate their options regarding any particular matter and look to solutions rather than the tit-for-tat that is often common in our interpersonal conflict, legal or not.

TBRI is not a light switch that, once flipped on, completely changes everything. It takes practice to implement, continual self-evaluation and creative problem-solving, and the ability to ask for grace, forgiveness, and a “re-do” when you make your own mistakes. But every time I attend some training on TBRI, I ask myself what it would look like if everyone used it, and I think to myself that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just a little bit closer to Earth if we did.

Since we’re on the topic of raising children, fostering and adopting (or at least in that section of the blog), it seems that an update is in order. K and I have reopened for a placement and have been waiting since late February for the call that will change everything again. At any moment, we could be returning to parenthood again and this section of the blog will become much more lively. I can’t wait.

What We’ve Learned So Far

Here, in all its brief glory, is what I have learned about children in nearly two weeks of having them.

  1. They cry when they’re: too cold, too hot, hungry, full, getting in the car, getting out of the car, doing things they don’t like, doing things they do like, following instructions, disobeying instructions, waking up, going to bed, too wet, too dry, walking, being carried, riding in the stroller, going to the playground, leaving the playground, starting dinner, finishing dinner, taking a bath, drying off and for no discernible reason at all.
  2. They refuse to be reasonable. They don’t understand what’s good for them or what’s bad for them, nor do they seem to much care. They say “yes” when they mean “no” and vice versa. This is especially difficult for me, as I pride myself on being a reasonable and open-minded human being, most of my social skills are predicated on the other people involved being reasonable, and I generally avoid people who refuse to be reasonable to the extent I can.
  3. They are bad for your health. When food is one of your few remaining pleasures, you give up on all this “eating healthy” stuff. Give me sugar and chocolate; it’s all I have left. Exercising becomes part of your daily routine yes (toddler lifts, baby carry, etc.), but children do not understand that you do a set of reps and then you stop. Worse, when you have two at once, they conspire. When one has started to scream and you’re attempting to diagnose the issue, the other begins to see if s/he can scream louder–the surprise, competition and screaming are all great fun, I’m sure. When this happens often enough, all you want to do is bang your head against the wall until the throbbing pain coursing through your brain drowns everything else out and nothing matters. This is not good for you.
  4. They neither understand nor care that adults have needs and desires. There is only service.
  5. Small children have neither a sense of time nor much in the way of memory. If something caused them great displeasure yesterday, they’re going to try it again today just to see. They never seem to need something until they need it RIGHT NOW!
  6. They suck up all of your time. When you’re not tending to them, you’re wondering about the next time they’re going to need something. When they’re sleeping, you’re dreading the time that they’ll wake up.
  7. Somehow, despite all of this, they’re somehow worth it…