Notes on an Easter Pageant

Your thunder and flash and spectacle
Envelops us, fills space
Music swells, lights flare
Your sermon
Wrapped in drama’s clothing
Becomes our world.

You seem so proud
So sincere in your fervor
That it breaks my heart to say it

But your god doesn’t speak to me.

Continue reading Notes on an Easter Pageant

First

Atlas Games posted a list of 31 “Reverb Gamers 2012” prompts for blogging. The idea is that for the month of January, roleplaying bloggers will take a prompt each day and write a short post. Me being me, the impetus to blog daily has proved elusive. But the first prompt really stirred some thoughts, so I’d like to tackle it, however  belatedly:

What was your first roleplaying experience? How did that introduction shape the gamer you’ve become?

When I was about 11 years old, I attended a small Christian school. I mean, like, small small: 9-12 students, across all grades. Though my dad was a pastor, it operated out of a different church in the area. It was little more than a home school co-op, run entirely by parents on a volunteer basis. It was a very close-knit community, but it also provided scant opportunities for varied social activity.

Continue reading First

The Protomen are my religion now.

No, really.

I saw The Protomen live for the first time at Lola’s Room last week. The Protomen are a band that sings dystopian agit-prop tributes to the classic video game Mega Man. Every album (there are two so far) is an Act in a dark, epic rock opera that grows more and more agonizingly tense as straights get more and more dire for a futuristic city under fascist robot domination, and for their would-be saviors. They played back-to-back shows, each one featuring a different Act.

I could only attend one, so I chose the second, which is the one that resonates more strongly with me, though both are amazing. Act I is about Doctor Light’s robot son Mega Man defying his creator’s will and standing up to Doctor Wily and his robot thugs, only to be disillusioned by the fickle public he fights for. Act II is a prequel, chronicling how Light and Wily created the robots together, how Wily seized control of them and of the entire city, and how Dr. Light’s first attempt at ending his rule met with disaster.

Continue reading The Protomen are my religion now.

Remembrance in the Thin Time

This month I participated in a holiday that commemorates the blessings one has received in life. No, not Thanksgiving. I’m talking about Samhain.

I had the privilege of attending a Samhain festival at Portland’s St. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church. I’ve long been fascinated with ancient Celtic culture, but never had the opportunity to attend a traditional (reconstructed) celebration before. It was wonderful, and full of surprises.

The first surprise was that an Episcopal church was drawing from a deep well of Celtic Spirituality.  I don’t know much about the Episcopalian tradition, but I had always assumed that as a branch of the Anglican church, their focus would be, well, English and not so much Irish. I had no idea where in Portland I could encounter Celtic Christianity, and now it had found me.

The second surprise was that the service, held in a church, was connected with deep roots that go beyond doctrine or dogma. The ceremony was rooted in two concepts: a circle where all are welcome and all are equal, and the empowerment of everyone present to tell their story.

That was it. No exclusion, no pressure toward religious belief, no attempt at “managing” input beyond invitation and facilitation. Everyone from 10-year-olds to the middle aged was able to don the storyteller’s cloak and tell both of legends dear to them and of their own experiences dearer still. I was blessed, and I’m not just mouthing a ritual word to say that.

The third surprise was an unexpected encounter with my own past.  The Rector, Kurt, explained that Samhain (“Sow-in” or “Sav-an”) is the “Thin Time,” the beginning of Winter where resources strain and life hangs by a thread–but also when the veil between flesh and spirit thins, allowing us greater closeness with those who have gone on, but are still in our hearts.  Like my Dad.

I didn’t attend the Circle expecting to encounter my father. I only knew that I had been invited. But as others shared their memories of departed loved ones, I realized that the window was open for a connection with him. I donned the cloak and told the tale of my father and me: of the heritage and roots he instilled, of the bitter differences we had, of the death that left us unresolved, and of the gifts of love that I carry even through the pain. And I felt his presence for the first time in years.

What happened here? First, I came open to having a meaningful experience, but with no particular expectations. Second, the hospitality of that Circle made a safe space where I could unburden my heart. And third, a context of ritual and tradition was provided that could draw me into a mindframe that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.

That’s how community looks. That’s how ritual looks. And that’s how telling stories together looks, whether at bardic circle, church service, or game table. And it’s beautiful.

Peace,

-Joel

Sometimes, nobody gets shot in the face.

PhotobucketRecently my brother, my wife, and a friend played Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, a fantasy Western game of God’s Watchdogs protecting a struggling religious community, at gunpoint, from corruption and injustice. My brother and I had been wanting to play it with each other for quite some time. It was a joy to play together!

DitV derives a lot of tension from the “how far would you go” question in exerting your will, applying constant pressure along those lines. “Would you wrestle down your brother to stop him from shooting that whore what defiled his boy? Would you draw a gun on him? Would you shoot him?” And similarly, “to save this town from disaster, would you shoot this person who’s causing trouble? Even if his reasons are sympathetic and heartbreaking? Even if his family depends on him?” and so on.

As a result, Dogs and games like it get sort of a rep, for being horrible bloodbaths where everyone’s shooting everyone in the face, where conflict ramps up, up UP to tragedy, and everyone Comes To A Bad End.

And sure, it can be. Sometimes you want it to be. But our game wasn’t like that. For one thing, there were no rebellious cults forming, no Sorcerous subversion, no attacks by demon-possessed maniacs–yet. There were just people, mired in an intractable mess. There was the old man who’d dug up some old silver coin on his land and insisted it was his, not the town’s. There was the desperate father who needed the bounty to trade for his diseased daughter’s medicine. The poor browbeaten Town Steward whose clout didn’t equal the old man’s, and was losing the respect of the townsfolk whose needs he couldn’t fulfill. And the proprietor of the local mercantile, convinced he could use the silver to make peace with the hostile tribal folk and trade for food to recover from a devastating crop blight.

All was poised on the brink of disaster. In fact, it’d already come to grief, as the father went to the old man’s estate to take the wealth by force and ended up accidentally shooting the patriarch’s only son. And in fact without intervention things would get far, far worse. But in fact the Dogs’ involvement (which can turn quite bloody itself given their power of Judge and Executioner!) served to defuse tensions, de-escalate conflict and allow reason and justice to prevail. Everyone tried to press the Dogs to take sides in their conflicts and grudges, but they kept their heads and worked out a solution for the good of the town, not individuals, while balancing the scales of justice. The temptation always loomed to bring violence to bear, but no one did. Everything stayed on the level of talking–and it was awesome.

The tension was palpable, and the resolution satisfying. Without a single shot fired. The tension arose from the question: Will it turn violent? Consider Azariah, the desperate father, trying to hold off my brother’s character at his doorstep, afraid for himself and his sick daughter. Brother Clarence pressed him until he gave in. They both stood poised to start shooting to get their way, but Azariah was unwilling to escalate to gunplay. He blinked first, and submitted his will to the Dogs.

This goes back to what I was talking about in Paying Your Dues. Sure, it could be fun if the Dogs rode in and encountered murder at every turn, desperate folks solving their problems at gunpoint, and malefactors refusing to relent. Fire and judgment! Hooray! But how much more satisfying to start simple and build, to solve one town’s problems handily only to see the issues complicated in the next, and further escalated in the next? To see the Dogs themselves evolve under increasing pressure? To see a strong soul with sure hand and shining eyes, then watch him strain ’till he’s like to break?

That agonizing question–will he break?–is what we want to answer. But the end is meaningless without the journey.

Peace,

-Joel