Monday, June 29, 2009

Hope as a Neglected Category

Kant presents three questions that should direct the inquiry of reason:

1) What can I know?
2) What ought I to do?
3) What may I hope?

I find that Evangelical theology has beat the first one to death. Despite the fact that there are still lots of diverse understandings of God, life and humanity. We tend to focus on the knowing as the prime mode of becoming. It is knowing the right thing (such as your sinfulness and need for Jesus) that matters. If you get it right then you can rest assured.

The second question has really animated what we call our liberal sisters and brothers. I really dislike the liberal/conservative dichotomy, especially when it is used to paint everything we distrust as evil. But there definitely are streams of Christian thoughts that are all about action, doing. The moral imperatives of the faith are the substance for these folks. And while they tend to do great things, they are in just as much danger of missing the boat as those who focus exclusively on the first question.

See it is not what you know or even what you do that matters. But it is about why you do what you do. The third question takes us into the realm of why. But the funny thing is that this third question is not taken up a lot. And when it is taken up it is perverted into otherworldly categories that are more about our comfort than about hope (which is a main theme of The Future of Hope edited by Volf and Katerberg). Taking up this question is the main theme of Hope Theology.

I find that the third question guides the other two. If our hope is based on a way of knowing and being in this world, then we have a context. Dogma, in that context, matters. If there is no hope implicated in dogma then it matters not what you believe. But belief and hope are dialectic with each other - hope keeps us from endless genealogies, that is theology with no practical impact on anything. And hope is also dialectic on how we live, move and have our beings in this world. Hope prevents us from simple charity meant to assuage our consciences. It calls us to action that brings justice, life and freedom to this world. It believes that this world is the object of God's love and that we participate in God's redemptive thrust in history.

Hope is an important category. What may I hope? It is a good question.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fresh and Re:Fresh

OK it is finally out! At least there is a website for the book. Published by Allelon Publishing, whose website has been not working for ages now. I should have a book in my hands soon, they have been printed. But I really hope that it ends up on indigo and amazon so folks can actually get a copy in their hands too. These stories are important. I don't think this is an earth shattering theological book (in fact I'd say it isn't) but it does give a good Canadian sense of what is happening at the edges of our traditional church communities. For me this is my first published chapter in a book, really it is an essay and Freedom Vineyard is the focus. I look at how we are wrestling with the term missional in our context. Would love to hear comments from any of you who read it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thomas Berry

This month started with the very sad news that Thomas Berry had passed. He went peacefully surrounded by family. His impact on me, and many others, is hard to measure. I find Berry incredibly challenging and actually often wonder how he'd approach the issues and challenges that I run into. The earlier material I've read and watched was filled with a sense of optimism - but the realist that his later material conveyed confirmed the gravity of our future on this planet. Thursday, June 26th there will be a remembrance ceremony at Saint Paul University. I am hoping to put together a bit of a tribute in the form of a slide show depicting the wonderful story of our universe. Berry helped so many of us see that it is the arrogance of our species that has led to the toxification of our planet. In telling the universe story we see that no matter how significant, our species is but the briefest of blips in this story. As Moltmann said in "Progress and Abyss", this planet can easily go on without us, but we are utterly dependent on this planet for our survival. May Berry's life continue to foster a humble attitude towards the Earth and a sense of wonder in this amazing universe!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

4E Gameplay

We had our first session of the Dungeon Crawl scenario. It was quite fun. Whole new group of players too! 4E plays quite differently than previous versions. Of course role playing is the same, I had a lively bunch so that was quite entertaining (especially Malcolm's acrobatic shenanigans!) Despite the lack of experience with 4E (and in one case with the tabletop RPG) we navigated things quite well. The odd incredulous eyebrow was raised, which is often entertaining. Here are a few of the notable differences, good and bad:

Powers Are Really Different
I love power cards, that is a great innovation. We've used something like that in 3.5 and it means my frustrations with characters not knowing their spells (I even ended up making a spellbook for one player!) are potentially over. Only one player chose not to use the cards and it slowed down their gameplay considerably. But the other thing about powers is that this is a completely different way of doing things. Powers interact (marking) and allow some pretty cool maneuvers. Powers also gives the players a nice way to make their characters unique, so big thumbs up. The only reservation I have is that now every character plays the same - they all have powers. This makes wizards more useful, although with a low BAB they are still quite useless in combat once their auto-damage spells (flaming sphere is quite nice in this edition) are used up.

Movement and Freaking Squares

Ok so I'm still not sold on diagonals counting the same as straight movements, I'll live. But now all the effects are squares?

Wizard "Watch me cast a fire cube!"
Fighter "A what?"
Wizard "A firecube, you know to avoid pesky pixelation."
Fighter "Pixie-whation?"
Rogue "My mother was killed by damn pixies!"
Frustrated Wizard "No! Pixelation. It is when..."
Party is eaten by monsters annoyed by their debate.

Squares? Really?

New Math

Remember THAC0? What a great innovation. Then D20 made things even more simple by making all the math move in the same direction! Yay! In every version it takes a while to get used to the math. Last night we discovered the addition of variables. Now weapons do damage based on interesting algebra: 2(W)+STR+WIS = ???? It is actually quite elegant when you get your head around it. But there are a lot of fun little numbers to calculate - best to do these before hand. Passive checks (nice!), Surge values (Surges are actually quite interesting. We had some fun with those in the first encounters!), attack bonus', etc. What I would say is that this is quite doable, once you have your head around the crunch of the system you are golden. Now what was W again?

Got Rid of Skill Creep

The last one I'll look at is a big Kudo. They got rid of skill creep. By combining skills into categories (and killed the ability to max these out) skill become a lot more playable. DCs are simplified as well, based on the tier you are playing at you have a baseline DC value that you can fudge around. As a DM it is nice to have a baseline.

I had a lot of fun DMing the new version. I think it is quite playable. I ditched a few things - milestones? meh. I'd rather award things like that in a more arbitrary fashion. The scenario we are running does have a boss on each level so that warrants an Action Point. I'll have to give milestones some more thought later. BTW for the DMs out there, nothing beats a creepy tapestry to cause the players to waste an hour in an empty room.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

D&D 4E Initial Thoughts

Ok, so colour me skeptical. Part of my problem was that I had spent so much money already on 3.5E and you know that game works. We've house ruled it just the way we like it and so why would I want another version of the game? Well a couple of factors led to my purchase. First, there is no denying that the game is, at least in some ways, simplified. So when we hatched the idea of running a game for kids 4E seemed like an option worth looking at. Second, I did a bit of work for Wizards of the Coast and they paid me enough to pick up the new set (plus an extra book). I like to support the company that produces such a fine game so in went my Chapters order.

The books have mostly sat on my shelf since then. My local barista, Ric, has been after me to run a game for him and his boys. He plays 4E, being a young'un, and has this silly notion that writing the odd piece for Wizards gives me some DMing cred. I would say that I do have some DMing cred, but only because I've got quite a few years DMing under my belt. So I pitched the idea of running a 4E version of Richard Dufault's thoroughly enjoyable Dungeon Crawl. In that game I played a Warpriest named Marvin. It is a pure dungeon crawl, so the DM is free to level the dungeon appropriately.

Well, one of the biggest hassles for a DM is all the preparation she/he has to make before running the game. I know back in my own youth filled days Advanced D&D had rules for random dungeon generation - 4E brings some of that back but I find it isn't that good for spontaneous sessions as the original. But I'm not sure I'd find those random sessions fun anymore - I sometimes use randomly generated dungeons in my 3.5 game, but with heavy modifications. (My players like to tease me about the infintely thin walls!) But here is where 4E really delights me - it is very easy to put together.

The hurdles first, there are a few. I use DM Genie for 3.5 to create stat blocks, it is amazing. There are tools for this in 4E, but you have to pay a subscription for them and they are online. I am sure DM Genie will have something, if it hasn't already. But until then it is not easy to customize monster stat blocks. How the designers compensate for this is to have lots of examples in the Monster Manuals. For now that is a great option, but it means buying more books - something I'd rather spend money on than a subscription! The other hurdle is that everything in the rule books seems to lean towards highly leveled encounters that favour the players reliance on combat to solve problems - an experienced DM can easily recognize and reject this ideology. Part of the fun of D&D is creating a role playing environment where all different types of gamers can have their moment to shine - not just the combat tacticians.

So the boon is that putting together adventure materials is so easy. It took me no time to understand what was required for an encounter to function. Monster stat blocks are actually quite impressive, and so is the emphasis on tactics for each particular foe. I made up a MS Word template for the stat blocks, believe me I tried to find something useful online - if you know of anything that isn't subscription based please let me know. And then I banged out a quick and dirty process. Create a random encounter chart - I actually didn't like the way they do this, encounter decks are something I liked for a while, but not flexible enough on the fly. So I created 12 variable (in numbers of critters) encounters that are ordered based on XP ranges.

Second step is to create the treasure parcels. I was skeptical of this, but it is really an improvement. Treasure is tied to a particular level and not a specific monster. This way I can spread it out or even pile it up with just the level boss! As treasure is placed in rooms, with encounters, it simply gets scratched off the list. Nice.

Third step is to map out and populate the dungeon. I stuck to the 8-12 room range, the theory is that 10 rooms should be a level. That's a good ballpark for what I am doing in the dungeon crawl - each level ends with a boss (usually a dragon). Populating the rooms is then quite simple. I write a bit of flavour text about the level in general (halls, doors, etc.) then I list the rooms. I've named each one, but that is just for my own amusement - Layover at the Roxbury is one of my rooms - and each one has a bit of readable flavour text. Then I list the Features of the room, including Perception and Thievery DCs needed as well as gp values for items that the party might take the time to remove. The next step is to list the monsters present (if any) and then the treasure (if any). Voila you have a dungeon!

After I have a list of all the possible monsters, both random and pre-planned, I then create a second file that is the stat blocks. Keeping these handy for fights is my main concern. A level works out to two pages of text, a map and 3-5 pages of stat blocks. Now that I have a bunch of blocks done it is pretty easy to put that part together. I just wish I had better action symbols! Anyone got a font out there? I found a nice font for re-charge dice.

The next step is to see how this plays. I am thinking Saturday night at my place. I want to limit it to six players, there might still be space if you are interested in a bi-weekly dungeon crawl - 4E style! I'll let you know how it goes.