I talked a little bit in the previous entry about Fate, a roleplaying game system. A few days ago I ran a short intro game for my sister, who works as a director of youth ministry. Since I started planning that, the idea of roleplaying games as a religious education course has been on my mind a lot. You could do this with just about any system, but I’m going to stick with Fate for now both because it’s my personal favorite and because I think it has the most to offer in this context while requiring the least investment from curious participants. Important for an experimental program!
One thing I love about the UU churches I’ve seen is the openness to a variety of classes and groups. Sure, there are things like book studies (including Bible studies), meditation, and basic theology. But it’s also common to see courses and workgroups on things like poetry or other writing, yoga, and social justice. And even in the theology class I took, for example, it was much more focused on looking at a variety of perspectives at a shallow level with the primary focus on how the participants feel about each topic. UUs are big on personal experience and self-expression. Gaming fits into that format nicely. Done well, it can be a combination of writing, exploring social and ethical issues, getting experience with speech and performance, and practicing social skills.
Again, as mentioned in the previous entry, there are two “flavors” of Fate: Fate Core (full version) or Fate Accelerated (shortened and simplified form). I prefer accelerated (hereafter called FAE) because it has all the benefits of Core but in a format that’s simpler, cheaper, and faster. The paperback book costs $5 per copy. I mostly have youth groups in mind at the moment, though it could work for any age and I could see it working particularly well for a group of young kids and their parents. But sticking with the youth example for the moment – when I was a teenager, my church youth groups had anywhere from 5 to 20 kids, depending on the activity.
Even assuming a big group like that with everyone showing up, that’s $25 for enough books that only 4 have to share at a time. And considering all my gaming groups have shared one book between 4-8 players, that’s definitely enough. I think the ideal group size is 3-6 players not including the one running it, so that works nicely and if they met on different days or times you could even have multiple groups with just a single copy. (And since it’s a system of rules and mechanics rather than a particular story, they can be reused for as many different groups, styles, or whatever as you want.)
When you look at a character sheet for most RPG systems, you’ll see a lot of numbers. Not so much with FAE. There are numbers, but not many of them at all and even the ones that are there are described first and most importantly in descriptive words instead. There are 6 skills (called “Approaches”) in FAE. So instead of a couple dozen skills to assign points, you have ways of going about challenges. Say your character has to get past someone who won’t let you pass. You could try to outsmart them if you’re Clever, intimidate them if you’re Forceful, or just run around them if you’re Quick. And then you do roll dice and there are some numbers involved, but it’s a very quick and simple process in comparison and doesn’t ever feel detached from the story.
Another reason I like this system so much is how well it’s set up for non-violent play. This game I ran was the first time I’ve had a game where there was almost no combat. There was one situation where an NPC (non-player character, supporting characters played by the person running the game to help advance the plot) was directed by a player’s character to help intervene in a fight. It was over in one turn with no serious damage to any of the characters. Most of the game revolved around social challenges and exploration. Granted it wasn’t great exploration, but I only had a few hours to plan and I’m still relatively new at this. And even the parts that fell flat were still over quickly and much more interesting than round after round of rolling dice to see who hit who the hardest and if anyone has fallen down yet.
Character creation in Fate is a great way to think about what’s important to you, what sort of story you want to tell, and how you want to relate to other people. The first steps in this process are coming up with 5 Aspects, simple phrases that define your character and can be invoked later to give you a boost (or an obstacle) in challenges. You start with a single core concept that describes your character’s primary motivation or status, and then another phrase for a situation that leads them into trouble or makes things harder for them. The remaining three can be done in a variety of ways and FAE leaves it wide open, but in Core they form the basis for giving your character a back story that includes the other characters.
Say you have 3 players in a game. The first of those three Aspects can relate to a particularly trying or transformative situation each character faced in the past. The player thinks up the story (maybe they stood up to a bully, or proved themselves in some sort of academic challenge) and comes up with an Aspect phrase that tells what they learned about themselves through that. For example, the character who stood up to a bully might have an aspect like “Defender Of The Oppressed.”
Then they repeat the process, but this time teaming up with each of the other two players in turn (or any two players if you have a larger group) telling a story about how they met or a situation like this that they faced together. Now your players each have three past experiences for their characters that they wrote themselves and therefore have an investment, and these experiences tie them together both as players and characters. They have a reason to help each other, a sort of moral/philosophical image of their characters, and a strong foundation for moving forward. It’s genius.
So you can see how this system is set up to give you a deep understanding of your character as if you were an actor playing them, rather than simply knowing their strengths and weaknesses to succeed in a game. The rest of the process follows in that goal, allowing you to add a few more phrases (this time called Stunts) that give you a boost to more specific situations (like talking your way out of trouble or being skilled at parkour). If your character does take damage during the game, you don’t just have lower health or a -2 to dice rolls, you come up with temporary Aspects describing what happened (such as “Broken Arm” or “Under Mind Control”) so these disadvantages keep you rooted in the narrative.
So how do you get started? I think that probably depends on the church or group. But I’d say to start maybe come up with some vague outlines for example stories, put out a sign-up sheet or poll or something to see who thinks they even might be interested, run a sample game or two. Then depending on how many people show an interest, decide whether this will be one group or several and how to divide it up if it’s the latter. Age? Type of story? Goals? The way you might divide up the groups obviously depends on who shows interest and what they want to get out of it.
Ideally, I imagine having one or two regular gaming groups each with their own unique focus and genre meeting once or twice a month. Players could come and go, I’d try to keep it open enough that you can show up when you feel like it and jump in with a character you’ve already played or make a new one quickly. The stories for those would be kept all-ages-appropriate so anyone could jump in.
Eventually I would like to try shorter campaigns for family game nights, maybe something that could be played in very short sessions for children’s classes similar to a puppet show in VBS but one where the kids are involved in telling the stories. If smaller groups of people become interested in more specific stories with more stable membership, that would be great to see. But I think my focus is on these more open options. I’ll try to think up some specific examples of stories and focuses for a future post.