Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons in a Nutshell

Dungeons and Dragons has gone through various editions over the years, but if someone were inviting you to play, there are common elements among all the editions.

I would say the four basic characteristics of dungeons & dragons are as follows:
1. Dice rolls and math
2. The fantasy world
3. Your player character (abbreviated PC)
4. The dungeon master (DM)

Part one, dice rolls and math. One of the peculiar things about D&D is the fancy dice! Maybe you’ve seen them in other board games, but D&D typically uses more than your usual 6-sided dice, which in D&D are called d6 (it’s a die, with 6 sides, numbered 1 through 6). The other ones are d4 (four-sided, 1 through 4), d8, d10, d12, and d20. Same thing, they’re all numbered. There are some other wacky dice out there, but these are standard for any D&D game. So if you need to roll 3 six-sided dice and add them together, it’s notated 3d6. Some die rolls have a modifier, like 1d8+3, which would be one die roll of a “d8”, then add 3 to whatever is rolled. It’s a little bit of math!

Part two, the fantasy world. Like Tolkien or many others who have written about fantasy worlds of humans, elves, dwarves, and even more fantastic creatures, these are the worlds that D&D typically takes place in. Typically it’s a medieval setting with swords, armor, magic, monsters and treasure.

Part three, your player character (PC). Each player plays the role of one talented hero for the course of the D&D game. Each PC, depending on which version of D&D you are playing, may be a human or one of many other fantasy races, such as Elves, Dwarves, or Halflings (Hobbits), or maybe even something more fantastic like a Dragonborn (humanoid, with dragon lineage) or a Tiefling (humanoid of demonic lineage). Each PC also has a class, which can determine what sort of powers that character has. Some of the bread-and-butter classes of D&D throughout history have been:

FIGHTER, a hardy martial warrior who can dish out damage, and take it too
THIEF, or rogue, a fleet-footed sneak who is an expert at all kinds of underhanded tricks
MAGIC-USER, or wizard, can cast magic for all kinds of situations, though they are usually weak in a toe-to-toe fight
CLERIC, a magical healer that can help keep the party alive and also ward off undead foes
So, to play as your character you will have to think like this character thinks. Grog the fighter half-orc might have the tendency to rush into battle against all odds. Prince Vinatar the cleric will shake his head in disapproval, then charge in after him to heal. You don’t have to do the “best” possible move in every case. It’s not a true strategy game in that sense. You just play how the character would play. Brash? Cautious? Sneaky? You decide, and experience the narrative as it unfolds.
So, is it possible to be a Dwarven thief? Yes! A Dragonborn cleric? Possible! The great thing about D&D is you can pretty much play any combination of race and class that you can imagine. You can even come up with your own ideas if the Dungeon Master allows it. Speaking of…

Part four, the Dungeon Master, the DM. A group of 3-5 PCs and 1 DM is enough to play D&D. You can play with more or less, but this is a generally acceptable number. The DM is part referee, part storyteller, and is probably the most knowledgeable D&D player at your table. She has read up on the rules and is comfortable with them, plans the adventures that your party will attempt, and controls all the other characters that the party meets. Everyone that the party meets is called a non-player character, NPC for short. NPCs might be townsfolk that the party meets, or monsters that they have to fight. The scope and style of the game is entirely up to the DM. The game may be a swashbuckling romp through treasure-filled crypts, explorations into mystical realms, or intricately woven political intrigue. There are plenty of manuals for the DM to find monsters for the PCs to fight, including their stats and special powers.

Now, you might be wondering, “The DM controls the monsters and referees the rules? How would I ever win?” The short answer is: D&D is a cooperative game in that there are no winners or losers when things are done right. The DM is there to show everyone a good time by making the adventure a proper difficulty and also refereeing the rules fairly. D&D can be played as a “one-shot” game night where players bring their PCs and the DM runs an adventure that lasts one evening. More commonly, though, players will become attached to their characters and want to play again and again. So the DM can create a series of adventures called a campaign where the same PCs get together to play another night and pick up where they left off. As the PC gain experience in battle and through role playing, the characters can "level up" to unlock more powers, spells, or increase their attributes.

So, from a long-time fan of D&D, that’s D&D in a nutshell, 1000 words or less.

Danny B-)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Matthew 5 as a Guiding Light

My new routine, when I can remember, is to read a chapter of the bible each morning with my coffee.

Monday: Matthew 5
Tuesday: Matthew 6
Wednesday: Matthew 7
Thursday: Romans 8
Friday: Romans 12
Saturday: Isaiah 43

Sunday is when I have normally gone to church twice or more, so I figure I'm covered there. Today as I read the beatitudes, I am reminded that the the ten commandments are one thing, to avoid terrible sins. The beatitudes are another thing, a vision of consolation as well as a vision of virtue, above and beyond 'obeying the commandments'.

As I read them today, notice that there will always be someone you know who is poor in spirit. There will be someone who mourns. And on and on. As I think about these different people, I think of them, I text them, I pray for them. I think of a friend who just lost his grandfather and I say a prayer for his family. I think of my friend in the neighborhood who I really want to connect with because he is one who "hungers and thirsts for righteousness" so I text him to set up some time together. I think of someone who is clean of heart, and ask to get them coffee and listen to their story. I think about opportunities when I could show mercy this week. That's a lot of work to get done in just the first 10 verses of Matthew chapter 5.

Then, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world? To make a change that lasts and to make a statement that is heard/seen? I felt compelled to share this blog as a morning testimony to the power of prayer.

Danny B-)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Nerds from the 90's

Whether you're a geek or a nerd, I think there's common ground. I had a bit of a revelation today: for those of us nerds in elementary school in the 90's, our "role models" on TV were characters like Steve Urkel and Screech Powers. Both were meek, hopeless romantics, frightfully misunderstood, and the careless butt of any offhanded joke. I think our only redemption was the saying that went around, "be nice to nerds; someday you will probably be working for one." Still, that didn't defuse the tension for a young nerd trying to fit in. Thankfully, we live in a world now where nerds and geeks can roam free, where "everybody's got their geeky side" or "everybody's unique in some way". It is sad to see though how so many young athletes bear the burden of this particular pendulum swing. For some reason, people associate athletic prowess with low intelligence, and the stereotype hurts. Even more, people assume "the high school quarterback" is already popular enough; he can stand to be the brunt of the joke. Sadly, I think the misunderstood athlete is the new Screech or Urkel, and as the nerds (or geeks, as the case may be) who have risen to relative comfort, as Catholics we have a solemn obligation to look out for those who are on the margins. Sorry for the manifesto. If you've read this far, do leave a comment.
Danny B-)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Star Wars Symoblism pt.1 X-Wing

So I was having this thought, that a new Rogue One trailer is so powerful. There are many aesthetics in Star Wars, each with deep philosophical meaning for the children of today (and children at heart). I have plenty to say about the X-wing fighter so I'll start there.

The first thing that came to mind when watching the second Rogue One trailer is that my heart practically skipped a beat at the sight of an X-wing s-foil, meticulously placed on a fringe of a sprawling scene. I thought, "What is the meaning of this? How can an inanimate, fictional object have such a grip on my heart?" I suppose the tale of the X-wing has a couple important chapters. One, that an X-wing piloted by Luke Skywalker destroyed the first Death Star. Second, Luke also took an X-wing both times when he went to Dagobah to seek Yoda. Discounting the many, probably non-canonical at this point, X-wing tales that have been told since 1977, these two are really the magnum opus. (I mean, it's hard not to mention Poe Dameron's X-Wing in The Force Awakens, especially the one sweeping shot where Finn is watching Poe from the ground as he goes combo-combo-combo-combo-combo on some infantry and other ships. But I think the legend was formed by Luke Skywalker long ago and Poe had taken up the mantle, in a way.)

First of all, some details about the X-wing. It has room for only one pilot but has one slot for an astromech droid. So, if Star Wars were the old west, the X-wing is the cowboy's horse and the astromech is his conscience. Notice we can never understand what Artoo is saying to Luke, but Luke knows. He is listening to a voice that is like his conscience. Do you ever hear Imperials talk to their astromech droids? No.

The X-wing is hyperspace capable and has deflector shield, which is true of all rebellion starfighters. I would say, it's because the rebellion values human dignity and free will. Having hyperspace capability means that no fighter gets left behind in battle, and people are free to go where they will. They are all able to escape, or even leave, at any time. They fight with the rebellion not because they feel trapped by it, but they choose to fight freely, even when given the freedom to leave. Thus, when the hyperdrive breaks numerous times on the Millenium Falcon it is truly a dramatic point of emphasis; the free will of the person is at stake. Shields on starfighters must be a luxury, because Imperial TIE fighters don't have them. They are simply cockpits and dual laser cannons attached to solar panel wings. There are no frills on a TIE fighter, and no hyperdrive. If you're hit, you're toast in a TIE, and if you get left behind in battle, there is no hyperdrive. You are truly floating dead in space. That's the tyranny of the empire made manifest in its choice of technology, where each person is dehumanized to the point of being expendable and dependant on its master.

Even X-wings have this peculiar trait where they "lock s-foils in attack position". I read somewhere that the quad blasters would overheat if they were too close together, so must be separated by "attack position". Anyone with a basic understanding of physics in space knows that there is no need to have an aerodynamic ship in space. There is no air. Maybe it has something to do with aerodynamics in atmosphere, but ultimately it doesn't matter. They all seem to have anti-gravity lifts anyway. The point is that the rebel alliance is not out for blood. They don't live to fight. They live to be free, and only enter "attack positions" when it's warranted. We are not made to fight, we are made for something better, a message that often gets lost in movies today. So many movies glorify the warrior but then turn the warrior into a tragic hero when there's no more battle to fight. But in Star Wars there is a vision of peace and hope, if we only win the fight.

So the philosophy of the Rebel alliance comes to light if you analyze their "flagship" (certainly the most recognizable, and ironically it would be fitting to call the X-wing the flagship of the rebel alliance). The Rebels are all about each person being free in life, but always consulting a co-pilot or astromech for sage wisdom. Each life is valued and people are not warriors forever. They are warriors only by circumstance, just for a moment, with a destiny for something even better than the battles won.

Danny B-)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Youth Ministry: The Work of the Parish

The best environment for youth ministry to thrive is one that is whole-parish focused. That's not to say that everybody needs to meet at the same time (whole parish catechesis is possible but difficult), but that any ministry of the parish can interface with the youth ministry in some appropriate fashion.

In the best of scenarios, it starts at the top with the pastor and staff. Not that they always have to make great sacrifices to give special treatment to the youth minister or the events, but realize that youth ministry is a special case. We have events at the parish when no one else is around. Sometimes we are the earliest ones there, sometimes we are the last ones to leave. Sometimes we are cleaning up, sometimes we are making a mess (and intend to clean up). The church has survived as long as it has because it has inflexible people who will not budge. That's good when you're looking for stability! The thing is, there are new humans coming into the world, coming into puberty, entering the workforce, graduating high school. They go to our parishes and they have a particular perspective - a new perspective. Youth are an important visionary, energetic, wildly devoted and courageous group in the parish if they are allowed to flourish. Did I mention inspiring? So, any pastor that can conclude that the contributions of the youth, however varied, however idealistic, however unrealistic, are an important voice, will find the youth at home in the parish.

Obviously this is not super structured, and I am intentionally not going back and formatting - just getting some ideas down.

But the places where the pastor, staff, and key players in the parish realize the gifts and the opportunities posed by youth ministry are the places where you can really see the difference. And, you might not expect, every ministry benefits - children, youth of course, young adults, young families, empty-nesters, and retirees. Every group benefits from the contributions from and the ability to contribute to youth ministry.

I do like to think of youth ministry as a training program. Just like at any job where you have to learn the basics of the organization, the church is somewhat similar except that you don't pay any of the youth! Put bluntly, they have no motivation to stick around except for peripheral reasons (my friends are there, dealing with my parents if I don't go is more trouble, etc). Some do realize that faith is the more important thing and give it the proper respect, but everyone at some point seems to get to a place where life gets in the way. The ministry is not their livelihood, it seems. STILL, I would hope that the parish would consider the youth ministry as seriously as it should - training the next priests, sacristans, ushers, Knights of Columbus, and youth ministers. Not only that, but you have to convince them that it's worth sticking around for the outcomes!

Also like a typical research & development lab, laying the groundwork for new technologies doesn't always pay off. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes things blow up. I've worked with plenty of youth who have gone off in different directions. Some have gone into the seminary, others have left the church. It's mind-boggling to have to consider all the outcomes everywhere in between. If I think about it too hard I could despair, wondering and calculating if I made ENOUGH of an impact to justify my efforts.

But I think that's the first step - getting the parish to buy in all together to this wild adventure that is youth ministry. It doesn't always pay off. People may leave. But the great benefits from taking a chance on the youth - giving them a voice and a place - are invaluable for a vibrant parish life.

Danny B-)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Meta Writing Fantasy

Talking with a friend about world-building and story-building for Dungeons & Dragons, I found myself explaining a theory of storytelling that I have had in my head but have not had the chance to explain to many people. I think of it as storytelling from the middle.

I think a great example is the Harry Potter series. You begin the narrative with Harry Potter living with the Dursleys receiving his invitation to Hogwarts. But as the story unfolds, you realize that Harry is discovering a lot more about his past, even as he confronts challenges in the present. So the story is being told in two directions: the narrative moving forward as Harry goes through school, and also the narrative moving backward from that first scene. We discover about Harry's parents, Lily's sacrifice, their time at Hogwarts, their friends and foes, Voldemort and Tom Riddle, and Snape. So many secrets had to be kept until the proper time, for Harry and also for the reader.

I think this is the style that Star Wars had trouble doing correctly with the prequels. You don't just tell the story chronologically, you help the audience learn the past with the present. Obi-Wan gives the lightsaber to Luke, and begins to tell the story of Anakin and Darth Vader - but not all. Vader himself adds to the tale with his iconic line "I am your father" and lastly we get the revelations in Return of the Jedi that Leia is Luke's sister and Vader has the heart to overthrow the Emperor. But then to just go have three prequel movies to tell a story that we already know - it's just blunt force trauma.

Time travel movies make this kind of storytelling even easier, because as the character explores the past (or future) he learns the beginnings of the story along with the audience. As Marty McFly seeks to improve his own average life, he is thrust into the past to understand his own family history. As he saves the day in the past he is also learning about his past (along with the audience) and re-writing his future.

All this is to say that, when it comes to D&D (or other) story crafting, I think the best way is to work with the horizons and always have another layer ready. For example, say your adventurers are in a town where they all meet. Well, each hometown of each character might have its own story, and each of them might be intertwined politically with the others. Perhaps there are racial or geographic tensions. To a newcomer, they might not know about the past, but to explain something that's already happened helps the characters know how to act in the present and into the future. When the characters are getting familiar with how the world is, maybe a group of higher level characters rolls into town and begins talking about how the war is raging in the Underdark or wherever. The whole "this person was deceiving you the whole time" trick can be used but I would only use it in the right situation, and only in a case where I knew from the start that it was happening. Different planes can have their own tensions, conflicts between gods and primal powers, demon and devil schemes, just always having another layer ready to go and build the story from the middle, so that the characters are learning about things that have already happened as they encounter the present.

Danny B-)


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Erikson's Crises in the School Age Years

In doing some reading in education, I came across a passage about the crises that affect students during the school years, according to Erik Erikson. I won't detail the theory - look it up.

The three crises that affect students during the school age years are:
1. Accomplishment versus inferiority
2. Identity versus role confusion
3. Intimacy versus isolation

And it hit me that our society is short-cutting kids. We are short-changing them. We want them to "accomplish" the goals of these crises without a crisis. We want everyone to get along and never struggle. But that's not what Erikson was about. By doing the minimum to help a student "feel accomplishment" and move on to the next crisis, I would say that it is just repressing the real crisis.

The stereotypical "everyone gets a medal" approach is a perfect example of how we shortcut the first crisis. Students need to not just "feel accomplishment" or receive praise from adults "because it's needed", but they need to actually create something, they need to actually impress others. If not, it will hang like a shadow over them, this inferiority that has not been overcome.

With the recent emergence of the divisive debate on restrooms, transgendered people, and what types of people use which restrooms, it occurs to me that there is still a lot of confusion about the non-conforming gender folks. I don't even have it all sorted out in my own mind. And the "statistics" that say that we are talking about either "0.3% or 16%" of the population being a part of this non-conforming gender category, it's really tough to say how much this affects people. I mean, even 1 in 300 people (0.3%) seems like a lot of non-conforming people to accomodate. 1 in 6 (16%) seems unbelievably high but that's the other extreme statistic I read. But this is the heart of the crisis of identity and role confusion. We can't even tell people, "you're a boy" to help them sort out their identity crisis. Apparently it's a continuum or depends on how a person identifies. We're just wanting people to identify as some identity so as to "pass" this crisis. "Oh, you were born with this part but you identify as something else? Okay." I fear it is a band aid on a deeper crisis, where a person looks at herself and can't find her identity. Deep down, you are male or female, or a small percentage of the population that is non-conforming.

Intimacy versus isolation. This one's easy. Porn has become so readily available that it seems impossible that anyone reaching the age of puberty has avoided the temptation. Porn creates the illusion of intimacy, while actually galvanizing one's isolation.

Danny B-)