The God of Abortion

Last night I arrived late to the evening session of the Jean Wells memorial and everyone was worn out from having run games for kids all day. So instead of playing Silver Princess as planned, I ran the draft of the first level of Dwimmermount I was carrying around to measure its map dimensions against the Brooklyn Strategist’s Sultan table as part of planning the backer rewards for the mega-dungeon’s Kickstarter.

I’d visited Dwimmermount before as a player in James’ PbP but was otherwise approaching the text pretty much cold, leaving the world beyond the basic elements I knew (a dungeon entrance, a nearby fortress town) to be filled in through play in the way I first learned how to do by reading Grognardia and using it as a guide to engage with OD&D.

The players, who I’ll call Adam and Ben, rolled up their guys using 3d6 in order, with much groaning at the resultant suckitude. They chose to start at third level, I said they could then roll up two first level henchmen. Adam and Ben hit on the happy inspiration of making the henchmen all the same class as their higher-level PC, so that their roleplaying of this trio was united by each character being a different perspective on the same archetype. This was important because they chose two very provocative classes – cleric raising the issue “what is the nature of religion?”, and elf posing the question “no one has ever seen a member of your species, what can we learn from these examples?”

Because we were short for time, and because playing with ACKS mechanics like the breakdown of living expenses and expected income by level has taught me a good sense for purchasing power, I treated the roll of 3d6 for starting gold as a wealth score. And based on half-understood stuff I heard Chip Delany say about how sword and sorcery is based on the moment when currency overthrows feudalism, I decided that this starting wealth came in 10 gp, 1 lb coins that awed all who saw them.

I told the players “you’re in the Fortress of Muntsburg, there really isn’t a market but you can try to use this gold to get the soldiers here to part with any equipment you want.” We did a one move per PC stocking procedure at a level of granularity where a strong success on hiring thieves meant that we later assumed they had equipped every member of the expedition with all kinds of mountaineering equipment so of course you had ropes and grapples and spikes and hammers.

Adam asked “can I get a staff for my cleric?” I was like well, you’re a third level character, you can get any kind of mundane equipment. They do have two special kinds of staff, one that has a torch holder-mace fixture where you can hit people and still carry a light, the other being a slot where you can put in vials of holy water or oil to shatter on contact.

Adam’s priest wanted both of these, but his roll against Wealth (3d6, how much did you make it under?) was in the Apocalypse World hard-bargain range so I said “They have some of those but the guy who owned them last died in a way that was unhallowed, they won’t bury him in the graveyard and his staffs might be haunted.” Adam didn’t want them that bad.

Next Adam’s acolyte wanted holy water, so I had that roll against Wisdom because the local church cared more about piety. He failed badly, so I said “You can make one vial using your own supplies” – he still had the gold his Wealth score represented, I wasn’t going to say no altogether – “but you can’t use the temple’s fount due to a doctrinal disagreement. What issue caused the falling out between you and the church in Muntberg?”

“We’re pro-abortion,” Adam said tentatively. Building steam: “We believe in the God of Abortion.”

Wow, what am I going to do with that? I figure the church in the fortress is Lawful but we moved fast through char-gen so I haven’t asked about the PC’s alignment and where does this issue fall anyway? Dropping into gruff roleplaying voice to do a local church elder: “We believe that rape is the lawful right of conquest. It is proper for us to sire children on those we defeat, so that the seed of the righteous will spread and our forces will grow. It is a sin for subjugated women to take the lives of our progeny.”

We all reflect on this for a second and then I move on to the rest of the equipping; we’re all eager to get to the dungeon, no one seems to want to get distracted by tangling with these rape apologist priests in town. Later we hear some other epithets for the deity the PC clerics worship – he’s also the God of Peace, and of Healing the Hacked-Up Upon – but when the hireling thieves want to convert after seeing Adam’s clerics perform miracles of healing, it’s the God of Abortion they are invited to serve. And when Ben’s elves are wanting their wounds to be noticed and healed, they mention that their pantheon also includes a God of Reproductive Rights.

Thoughts here:

  1. As spontaneous material created in play, this was totally awesome. Adam said later “You put me on the spot, I didn’t know anything about my god! So I just decided that they believed in something I really do believe in.” It worked amazingly well that he’d chosen an issue orthagonal to law/neutrality/chaos, but equally capable of dividing people into camps of pro-choice/neutral/pro-life, and I can’t wait to play to find out more about this.
  2. I believe this material could only work in inverse proportion to the degree it appears in the text. If Dwimmermount had anything more than the lightest dusting of stuff we might use as improvisational seeds for exploring the God of Abortion – the whole pulp D&D heritage of half-orcs and maidens bound to altars and references to Macbeth – I will stub my toe against the question “what does James Maliszewski think about abortion?” and that moment is going to be a trainwreck for however long it lasts.

Writing stuff into the adventure is the wrong tool to use to explore controversial issues in roleplaying games, because it creates an intrusion of authorial presence when the author isn’t there to talk to.

I’ve been friends with Adam and Ben for years, we’re all New Yorkers, the shared cultural currents mean that we can hook a live wriggling fish like abortion and be pretty sure we won’t be pulled off course. Exploring this issue by watching it come up in play teaches me things about the players and the world we’re creating together. The process of play is creating strands that lead from the negotiated understanding among the players, which has lots of background to draw on, to the story we’re discovering through our characters. Controversies that pull on these threads just create useful tension for this process, which is interpersonal first and intertextual second.

Even if I’d been running this session for strangers, as long as we were at the table together I would have asked “what’s the doctrinal disagreement?” and I would have been comfortable negotiating “abortion” as the answer. I’m a reasonable adult, decades of roleplaying and years of therapy have taught me plenty about how to make sure the good time I’m looking to have in a game isn’t derailed. I’m confident that whatever comes up in play can be dealt with on a social level so that we can keep creating the lens that lets us experience the other world of the game together.

But I have absolutely no confidence that I could talk about abortion with someone who isn’t physically present. I avoid any kind of forum where controversial issues get talked about, and I curate my Facebook and G+ streams to focus on interests where I know I have common ground. I don’t know what James believes about abortion, and if he was using Grognardia to talk about that I’d filter my reading of his posts to try to keep it that way.

I believe the bandwith of Internet communication is just too narrow to make a conversation about abortion worthwhile. The exchanges that get past my filter look to me like hostility or choir-preaching at worst, talking-past at best. Given that the communication between author and audience is even more limited than the Internet, I don’t expect that putting material about abortion into the written text of an adventure would yield any better results.

Within the intellectual and aesthetic domains where Grognardia proves good Internet communication can take place, I am interested in learning James’ opinion whether or not it agrees with my own. I do think he and I agree that analyzing an author’s personal views is not a fruitful approach to finding the gold in a written text. Putting any kind of material into the text of an adventure that makes me think about the author’s stance on an issue thus seems to me to make it less artistically successful, not more.

originally posted at story-games, where it echoes a related conversation about orc babies in Keep on the Borderlands 


17 Responses to “The God of Abortion”

  1. February 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    I don’t really see the parallel to the orc-baby thing. Abortion is a real-world issue and an authors POV on it could easily be deduced from the text in most cases depending on whether it was cast as good or bad.

    The orc-babies’ connection to real-world babies (and to _which_ real-world babies), if indeed any at all, is a matter of MASSIVE MASSIVE MASSIVE debate. So I don’t see it as, in any clear way, a case of inserting the authors’ POV into the text. It is much more like rorschaching the group’s POV than anything else.

  2. February 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    I think rorschaching might be a sweet spot on a continuum between pure randomness without any intent (of all this stuff, one thing might provoke a response) and an authorial POV that could intrude just by making so sure you confront an issue that you can tell they have a bug up their ass about it even if their viewpoint is unstated. A good adventure puts things that are potentially meaningful to players out there but doesn’t insist you deal with only that. We agree that KotB has lots to do that isn’t about babies. I just think that meaning in the game has to come from meaning in real life. To the extent that orc babies are interesting, it’s because we care about some real babies. Which real babies is, I agree, a satisfyingly open question, but to say that there might not be any at all seems unlikely. “What is the doctrinal dispute” was pretty pure Rorschach, and in the absence of any other direction the player reached for something he cared about in real life.

  3. February 28, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Man, I gotta take lessons on linkbaiting titles.

  4. February 28, 2012 at 12:31 am

    I think you pretty much know that for many younger groups (and the module has been played by many younger groups) the orc babies are a barely-noticed nonissue.

    That’s why it’s a rorschach: it emerges as an issue only if you want it to.

  5. February 28, 2012 at 12:40 am

    More substantively:

    I’m torn on this authorial intent thing. Let’s imagine it’s 1982 or something, and you plunked down $3 for Keep on the Borderlands or Isle of Dread and you say, “2d6 orcs lair here, they attack immediately, 5d6 silver coins?! What did I just pay for?” If the richness of the adventure module form consists of your local Dungeon Master customizing a barebones prompt, it makes me question the commercial value of the prompt.

    On the other hand, all the other stuff that gussies up Keep on the Borderland into something genuinely enjoyable could be provided in the text, but then the designer is encroaching on the local Dungeon Master’s performance space.

    I would love to write up my notes from the January 2012 Recess–I think it’s a really solid BX introductory adventure with dragons and wizards an’ everything–but presenting it as it exists in my mind is a pain in the neck to write down on paper while also limiting to the DM. Yet just presenting it as a squiggle of lines and some notes like, “7 Bandits, will try to lure PC’s into a trap” isn’t very satisfying either…

    Of course, this is just the simple matter of explaining non-controversial stuff, rather than trying to incorporate charged real-world issues.

  6. February 28, 2012 at 1:47 am

    @Zak, I’m not so much approaching orc babies head on as circling around and sounding out some related stuff. I feel like we agree that:
    – overt authorial intent is a bummer; Raggi can write great adventures but I will never know whether Green Devil Face #1 is one of them because I am so distracted by whatever he’s trying to say allegorically.
    – railroading sucks whether it’s to a desired end or just to an open-ended confrontation with an issue.

    I’m interested here in how issues arise even if you don’t set out to introduce them, but the technique that brought it up for me – “tell me what happened” – is fundamentally more story-gamey than a direct provocation, “something is happening, what do you make of it?” like you’d get from stuff written into a module as content rather than procedure, so it can’t be directly relevant to KotB.

    @James, I think modules can be tools for learning (or unlearning) procedures as well as repositories of content or vehicles of authorial intent. In the example you give, “orcs attack immediately” could mean “forget about the reaction roll procedure, that isn’t the real way to play” or “in this room there are unusually berserk orcs, wonder why?” or “orcs should be slaughtered like anyone designated as sub-human”. For me a really bare-bones prompt was a useful way to unlearn the habits instilled by 3.5 wall of text adventures where everything was prechewed. My guess is that it’s this aspect of learning that’s most controversial – “is this text teaching bad habits to newbies” is more meaty because it finesses the fact that an experienced DM’s performance-fu will surf over all manner of wonkiness – but also hardest to talk about because “OMG what about the children” covers so many sins and also because the only people who can really address this are twenty-year veterans of teaching RPGs to kids and seeing how they turn out like Becky Thomas, or maybe the grandparents you see on the OD&D boards who have run games for multiple generations.

  7. February 28, 2012 at 2:26 am

    Related to what James is saying, and stuff I’ve seen Tavis do: Are modules something meant to be pored over and rehearsed beforehand with your kid brother and stuffed animals in a circle around the table, or is the module meant to be something that’s read as you are playing?

    Must there be a perception of ‘money’s worth’ or an attempt at presenting ‘relevant stuff easily/first’.

    As a kid in the 80s, I was of the latter, while my DMing best friend would read the module on the can beforehand, or, lacking that, flip through TV guide for ideas. When I read old modules, I usually print them out and run a highlighter over them so I can know what I can blurt out without thinking.

    Tavis was presenting the Dark Abbot of Kos as a possible adventure hook in a recent whitebox, but I had the impression this was the first he had seen of the module. This was kind of cool to me. I think Tavis likes having these challenges during the play session.

  8. February 28, 2012 at 2:29 am

    oops. I meant I was of the former in my comment.

  9. February 28, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Carl’s group had access to a ton of modules (his dad owned a game store), including Judges’ Guild stuff that was just an ad in Dragon to me, and played many of them over and over. He described the process of going through an adventure as a player, mapping it out and everything, and then running it as the DM. It seems to me that this is really the only way to learn how to read this kind of sheet music. For me, not having this training means no amount of study really gives me an idea how a module will play out or what is interesting about it, so my improv chops are of necessity and I use written adventures kind of like a Tarzan jazzman might find inspiration by playing his interpretation of the shapes the black marks make on the page.

  10. 10 Anne
    February 28, 2012 at 2:48 am

    I have a question about your instincts as a referee. What led you to ask the player to decide the nature of the doctrinal dispute? Is that the kind of thing you usually do? Or was there something you saw in that moment that made it a good time to ask?

    And if I wanted to try asking questions like that more often, questions that let the players make decisions about the game world, what advice would you have for doing it? What do you look for, in terms of opportunities to put the decisions in their hands?

  11. February 28, 2012 at 3:18 am

    It was in a context like what we call carousing in New York Red Box, which is what Apocalypse World seems to me to do all the time. Each character has a chance to take an action, and we resolve that action at a pretty zoomed-out level. I normally reach for this when we’re in the kind of scene you’d do in a movie montage, except that we can always zoom back in and resolve things at the usual level of detail if it seems necessary.

    So one elf was like “I want to hire thieves” and rolled really well on his charisma, so I fast-forwarded: “cool you have 2d20 thieves – there are 27 of these guys entranced by your gold, how many will you allow to accompany you?” Here what happens is that the player gets everything they want, and I try to scare them with the consequences – do they really want to be that outnumbered by thieves?

    Another elf was like “I use detect alignment to sort out these candidates” so I rolled 3d20, the first for who was lawful, the second for who was neutral, the last for who was chaotic. Here I figured his spell just worked, no need to scare the players, we’re just establishing knowable facts.

    Another elf was like “I take the neutrals out into a field and give them sticks and watch them fight, then see who is competent.” I had him roll Intelligence. If he’d succeeded entirely, I would have just told him the facts but maybe made the best one a potential rival; you have what you want, now what?

    If he’d partially succeeded, I might have given him a hard choice: the leader of the thieves wants to stick-fight with you. Do you accept the deal and maybe win their admiration or resentment, or not risk it but be thought a coward?

    If he’d totally failed, instead of just saying “you suck” I’d have taken the opportunity to learn more about the character; failure is a defining moment. So: “Even though you are a bad-ass hero, somehow the thieves abandon you. What did you do wrong?”

    I look for opportunities to do this when I need help explaining a result – failure is a good case where we know the outcome but not why – and when the answer can stay on the character sheet. “What is the nature of the doctrinal dispute” is a little dangerous because our assumption is that I make the players tell me about their characters and they make me tell them about the world. “What did you do wrong” is safer because it’s just about you.

    Note that this is *not* making decisions about the game world per se; I invented the NPC side of the doctrinal dispute in response to the player telling me that his characters believed in abortion, and having to think about how I would make sense of the idea that this had rubbed my NPCs the wrong way. The discipline as a referee is to take the things the players tell you about their PCs seriously and extrapolate the consequences to the world, but not always straightforwardly. “OK, the henchmen heard the elves say they hatch from eggs. Now I know that rumor will spread throughout town. How might my NPCs find out whether that’s true?”

    In a straight D&D game, you might try asking questions on a natural 1 or when the character kills an enemy. That happens about at the right frequency, and it gives the player the chance to provide color when the outcome is known so again it’s not telling about the world. Alex, ACKS lead designer, doesn’t like this – he likes to narrate combat to make sense of everything in a round, which is thrown off by people’s crazy fumble or killshot descriptions – so another way to do it would be to use failed or successful saving throws as an opportunity for narration. One I used last night was “You somehow find a way to dodge the avalanche. What about you made that possible?” Flashbacks are also good: “You failed your save vs. ice ray. What was the last time your character was really cold?”

    Playing storygames can be good training in this kind of thing; I find Dungeon World more sympatico than Apocalypse World even though AW was first, so that’s a good recommendation, and InSpectres taught me a lot about how to not say no to player input but also still screw them by making what the player says true about their character but retaining control of the game world. However, I advocate engaging with this indie filth only long enough to steal their tricks and bring them back to D&D.

  12. 12 Anne
    February 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    “Note that this is *not* making decisions about the game world per se; I invented the NPC side of the doctrinal dispute in response…”

    Oh, you’re right. You could have made the NPC side of the dispute more sympathetic, less sympathetic, or even just purely technical (“induced miscarriages and infanticide are permissible, but abortion is not.”)

    I appreciate the advice. The whole set-up you described sounded like good action, and I guess we’d all like more good action in our games.

  13. 13 Josh W
    February 28, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    About this interpreting modules thing, Scott, (if you’ve still got a notification thing on these comments)

    what kind of things did you highlight in old modules?

  14. 14 Greengoat
    February 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Hmm, I probably will never get to link to this in any more appropriate circumstance, so here goes:

    Also: I imagine all chaotic OSR fighting-men wear corpse-paint.

  15. February 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    What was I just saying about your D&D-relevant metal mastery? Our priest and his acolytes seemed to thrash a lot less; perhaps they are heretics from the horn-throwing mainstream of their sect.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2012

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