Finding Purpose in the Sandbox

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Thy Fates open their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them”

~Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

My heroes are struggling to know what to do.

In the D&D world I’ve created, they are caught up in a giant tug of war. The former government of wizards is fighting the current government of warriors. Demons seem to be aiding the conflict in an effort to create more chaos. In the middle of it all, there are these adventurers, and they don’t know whose side they’re on. They’ve been recruited by both sides. They’ve made friendships and enemies on both sides. They’re not strong enough to overthrow everyone and start their own government, nor can they take on the evil demon orchestrating it all. They can’t even find seem to find the big bad.

It’s a Dungeon Master’s worst nightmare. When I start a game session, I truly have no idea which direction the team is going to go. Talk about making it difficult to prepare!

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night there’s a line, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I assumed that the PCs in my game were born great. I didn’t worry about building them up, I figured that the nature of the game, the fantastic powers they would wield, and the epic tasks they would be able to pursue would take care of that.

Instead I focused on creating a world that feels alive and active. I’ve tried to create a world where the paths untaken turn into consequences down the road. I’ve tried to create a complex sandbox of a world where grey areas are abundant and where the black and white binary thinking of good and evil is complicated. I tried to create a great world for the great PCs to live in. To a large degree, I’ve succeeded.

And my poor adventurers don’t know what to do.

They lack purpose and direction.

Which has gotten me thinking about a very basic question, “How do we find purpose? What gives us direction?” As a pastor and as a dungeon master, part of my task is in helping people to find purpose, meaning, and direction. This is as true for my players and their characters as it is for my parishioners and their lives.

In my game, I could take the opposite approach. I could put my players’ characters on a track and railroad them into purpose with a non-optional direction. I could thrust greatness upon them. “You’re going to save the world whether you want to or not!” Yet, you don’t have to scratch that approach too deeply to find out how shallow and unsatisfying it truly is. There needs to be more.

So, without the railroad, where does one look for purpose and direction? How do you get the PCs to achieve greatness?

As a pastor, one of the places I look most often is Baptism.

The waters of baptism uncover all sorts of things. Those waters uncover our limits, our mistakes, our failings, our sins, our mortality. Those waters uncover a truth deeper than our sins – our identity as a beloved child of God. Those waters uncover a calling on our life, a purpose for which we were created. Namely that is, in my church’s liturgy, “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

In some ways, baptism comes with a greatness that is thrust upon you. The purpose of baptism is poured out upon you. You are immersed in that purpose. We find that purpose originating outside of us as the Word of God comes to us from beyond the boundaries of ourselves. It’s a purpose that we experience as coming from another direction too, from inside. Baptism uncovers the depths of who we are and who we were created to be.

Baptism uncovers the origins of purpose. They are both inside and outside ourselves

*******

When you become a pastor, one of the stories that you get used to telling is your “Call Story”. It’s the story of how you decided that you wanted to be a pastor. While each person’s story is somewhat different, they almost always contain the same two elements: the ‘inward call’ and the ‘outward call’.

The inward call is the part of the story where people consider their own dreams, desires, abilities, and enjoyments. It comes when you think or pray about who you are as a person and then ask the question, “And what does this person, who is me, want to do?”

My sandboxy Dungeons & Dragons has been pretty good at figuring out the inward call part. As my players created their characters, I asked about backstories. I pushed them to do some character work. They rolled their abilities. They know what they are good at, what they are bad at, and what they like or don’t like to do.

But like I said at the beginning, they still lack purpose and direction. My poor adventurers know who they are, they know that they are great, but they still don’t know what to do.

The inward call, by itself, is not enough. If someone shows up at seminary, thinking they will make a great pastor, but those around them have never affirmed that, then chances are that person will in fact not make a great pastor. Thinking you are great and being great are two very different things.

In the same way, the outward call by itself would also not be enough. Just because others think you are good at something, or even if you are actually good at something, doesn’t mean that you find enjoyment or fulfillment in doing it. I can thrust greatness upon my players, but without their participation in achieving that greatness it rings hollow. That’s why in the process of going through seminary, people are always being asked about both the inward call and the outward call.

And that, I realize, is where my little D&D campaign is falling short. While my heroes know who they are and what they can do, they have received very little affirmation from the NPCs in the game. They’ve been asked to do this or that: guard this caravan, investigate this stranger, free these prisoners. However, I’m realizing that these have been haphazard, and that in creating a complex world I’ve created a world where those primary voices of affirmation are lacking. My heroes have few close friends that they trust completely. They don’t know who to trust. And since they don’t know whose words to trust, they have been robbed of the one source of that outward calling.

To achieve greatness, the heroes need trusted affirmation. As a Dungeon Master, I need to make sure that there are NPCs that they can trust that can do the affirming. And while, as the DM, I can’t decide who the PCs are going to trust and who they are not going to trust, I can decide who to make trustworthy.

In our lives as people, we need to be inwardly asking and outwardly listening if we are going to flourish and experience the fullness of life. There are two questions. The question of inward call is, “Who do I say that I am?” The question of outward call is,  “What do those whom I trust tell me about myself, and what do they ask of me?”

Hopefully with a bit more of the outward call, my heroes will find their purpose, and finally they will find some purpose in the sandbox.

Life & Death on the Tabletop

Although I have been Dungeon Mastering just as much as ever,

But because there has been a big change-up in my pastoring, and lately I’ve been doing more than ever,

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from this little corner of the web, the DUNGEON MASTER PASTOR.

But I’ve been thinking lately… about life and death.

In Dungeons & Dragons, life and death is dealt with almost haphazardly. The game is built off of dealing death to horrible monsters and evil humanoids. To advance in the game, characters must learn to kill. The deaths of others bring life and flourishing (in the form of experience points) to the PC. And every now and then, a player character will fail in their death dealing and be dealt death themselves.

As a pastor, I often deal with death. It comprises a much larger part of my job than I realized when I first dreamed of going into the ministry. I am often called to be with people in the final days and even the final moments of their lives. Then I am called again to help their families begin to grieve and try to understand what this death means in their lives.

Sometimes a death, depending on its circumstances, will highlight a particular aspect of a person’s life. Sometimes it will reveal some significance that had been previously hidden. Sometimes a death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes a death is the culmination of a long and drawn out process. Death can be unjust. Death can be welcomed. Death is always grieved, no matter the individual.

In my church, we’ve had a wave of funerals recently that I’m still in the middle of. (There are few things that can tire a pastor out as much as back to back to back to back funerals.)

In my D&D game, we’ve just had our second major PC death. The first character death came in the depths of the Taboo Temple on the Isle of Dread, where an elderly & overweight monk met his demise in the kopru mud pits. The second came as the brave and upright fighter challenged the son of a demon lord and lost, surrounded by an inescapable gauntlet of the  demon’s followers. (DM Disclaimer: It was his idea to pick a fight in those circumstances, not mine.)

As I think about life and death, I find there’s a lot in common between the deaths of my players’ characters and the deaths of my parishioners. They each highlighted something special about the characters, they added a layer of meaning that was more difficult to discern before.

My task as a preacher is to speak a word of meaning and purpose into the foggy loss of grief. It is to speak the resurrection, when the cross is presently felt.

My task as a dungeon master is much the same. When one of my players’ characters dies, that death should ring with significance. I figure that there’s enough unearned suffering in the real world that in the fantasy world I build as a Dungeon Master I want death to mean something. Maybe that significance is to highlight the bravery of the fighter as they face down the demon unafraid of the consequences. Or maybe that significance is that the bumbling and ill-fortuned character finally bumbles too far into ill-fortune.

As a DM, this means that sometimes I don’t let the dice stand as I roll them. I will blunt the edge of a more meaningless demise in favor of a better one later on. Maybe that means an NPC ally rushes in at those final moments and stabilizes a dying character. Maybe it means that the monster suddenly has a few fewer hit points when I realize that the heroes won’t last another round.

As a DM, making death meaningful for the PCs also means that I need to strive to make the other deaths in the game meaningful. When the PCs lay waste to a maurading band of lizard folk, those deaths should mean something (both for the rescued villagers and also for the larger colony of lizard folk that band hailed from). The death of a major villain should reverberate throughout the ranks of that villain’s followers, and perhaps inspire the villain’s apprentice or rival to avenge that death. A monster’s death might reveal a hidden fact about the life of that creature that the characters discover as they are looting the body. All this is just another way to say that the actions of the PCs should affect and reverberate in the fictional world, perhaps especially so when that action is dealing death.

Making death on the tabletop into a meaningful experience is as much a part of the Dungeon Master’s task as making death in real life meaningful is a part of the task of a pastor. Death is an opportunity to tell another part of the story, whether that’s the story of a player character or the story of a person’s life and God’s love and the kingdom of heaven.

The alternative, often realized, is devolving into a raging bunch of murderhobos.