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Author Topic: Red Prophet, Black Prophet - tying game sessions to the real world  (Read 17055 times)
Clinton R. Nixon
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« on: January 10, 2006, 06:33:10 PM »

Serious warning: Seriously, if you're easily upset or offended about modern-day events, especially those involving Islamic jihad and September 11, this isn't the thread for you.

I've been running my new game, The Face of Angels, a lot recently, testing out the rules. If you're not up on the game, it's a story-telling game where all characters begin on their graduation night from high school and gain supernatural powers. There's a slight hint of divinity implied. It's highly structured, and you play through certain acts where you are limited as to what you can do and what you must do.

In the latest series, I'm playing with two guys, Remi and Jason. Their characters are:

- Graham Williams III, a WASP footballer with a Jewish arch-enemy
- Raed Jamil, a Chaldean (Arabic Christian)

Graham's a King (a leader) while Raed's an Ace (a freak and loner.)

After a brief prologue of Ultimate Foreshadowing (that is, the two protagonists fought in a parking lot), the two were struck by lightning and they got powers. What were these powers? They both chose to have the ability to turn into a eight-foot-tall version of the Prophet Mohammed. Which is insane, and sets the game to be all about this. Graham turns into the Red Prophet and Raed turns into the Black Prophet.

I am not going to recount all the events in the game so far, as fun as they might be. Suffice it to say Remi and Jason are highly inventive guys who can find a lot of wicked humor in the interactions of middle-manager white conservative Christians and Islam. I want to talk about Act 2 and what happened there. Getting there real quick:

The prologue was set in 1989 in Groton, Connecticut.

Act 1 was set in 1999 in Groton. Raed was in town from Chicago, where he'd moved. He was there for a software conference and his sister still lived in Groton. He witnessed Graham's first transformation (at a software conference! pure fucking comedy gold, I say!) into Mohammed and we took off from there. The act climaxed with the two of them playing Action Prophet all over a group of terrorists. Strangely, Tomar Avraham, a Jewish kid who Graham fought with in high school, is one of the terrorists, as he's the leader of a radical group called Jews for a Free Palestine.

Act 2 is set - you guessed it - in 2001. We start in spring and the pair of Prophets have established a mosque in New York City and have been converting old Spanish Harlem into Little Mecca. Raed is getting ready to get married to the princess of Oman, which is home to a really interesting version of Islam. There's some initial conflict with Nation of Islam dudes, but the real conflict is now between the two Prophets. Graham doesn't want Raed to get married and they throw down and Graham ends up being exiled. He moves to Jersey and starts training terrorists after being approached by an Afghani investor.

The act climaxes on September 11. Not only is Graham involved in training, but his best friend, and high school linebacker, and convert, is the 20th hijacker, slamming a plane with Raed's sister on it into the Pentagon. Raed and Graham fight at the WTC as Raed tries to empty a tower of people. Graham ends up dragging him through the ruins and Raed's left to be arrested and blamed. The CIA comes for Graham later, planning to use him as a tool in the upcoming global war on Islam and they get spanked by the now discredited Raed, who turns over his organization to Graham and moves to Oman.

Oh, and the act ends with Graham forcing the mayor of New York to apologize on national television to the world for his role in the continued U.S. subjugation of the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. Within two months, he converts and Graham ends up taking over NYC, turning it into a Muslim enclave. We fully expect Act 3 to quickly establish the northeast US as a new Muslim state.

What we're really talking about
We're talking about using high-octane, very touchy subjects as fodder for RPGs, and whether that's even morally acceptable. We obviously decided yes, but all of us were somewhat uncomfortable. Jason, who for Pete's sake wrote a game about roaches in your nasal cavity that cause you to commit anal rape (well, that happened in our game), said he felt sick before we actually did the Ground Zero scene.

This isn't a "here's what I've found" post. I'm not sure what I've found. This is more a "provoke a discussion" post. Has this bothered you, knowing people are playing this? Are we being disrespectful to the victims of that day? Is our glorification and simultaneous skewering of liberal givens just too over the top?

Jason and Remi, I really want to hear what you've got to say.
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Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games
Ben Lehman
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« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2006, 07:58:32 PM »

Hey, Clinton --

Sounds cool.  What liberal preconceptions did you see yourself skewering?

How was the main characters' relationships to religion changed over the course of the game?  Do they see themselves as above other Muslims?  Do they see themselves as slaves to God, or are they more using the fact that they have this incarnation to manipulate the faith?  Or some other thing?

yrs--
--Ben
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Callan S.
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« Reply #2 on: January 10, 2006, 08:17:50 PM »

Hi,

Have you done much exploration of why it makes you feel uncomfortable and it's a touchy subject? Those feelings are coming up as you play through various issues. But has it become the thing to stop and examine, rather than to just go on to playing through further issues?
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Philosopher Gamer
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Clinton R. Nixon
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« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2006, 03:48:29 AM »

Hey, Clinton --

Sounds cool.  What liberal preconceptions did you see yourself skewering?

The scene where the mayor was forced, by violence, to go on television and apologize for the American subjugation of the people of Earth was pretty mean. I mean - it's a pretty taken-for-granted thing among us left-wing moon-bats that we are hated because we're big economic jerks, and at least my secret wish is that we had a politician with backbone enough to stand up and say, "Hey, we're a problem. Let's fix it." Having that politician appear, forced at the hands of people shown to be not-good was pretty satirical, I think.

Quote
How was the main characters' relationships to religion changed over the course of the game?  Do they see themselves as above other Muslims?  Do they see themselves as slaves to God, or are they more using the fact that they have this incarnation to manipulate the faith?  Or some other thing?

The Black Prophet (Raed) seems to me to be a humble Muslim. While we never established that either of them actually converted in their hearts - which is interesting, and needs to be addressed - they both act as if they are Muslim. The Red Prophet tends to waver more - I think he's seeing himself as the divine will of God, which is dangerous.
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Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2006, 04:44:56 AM »

Have you done much exploration of why it makes you feel uncomfortable and it's a touchy subject? Those feelings are coming up as you play through various issues. But has it become the thing to stop and examine, rather than to just go on to playing through further issues?

Jason here.  We did, at one point, have a full stop and make sure we were all cool with what was about to happen.  There was also a fortuitous tea break where we all got a chance to decompress just before the hijackings went down.  All three of us were very receptive to the notion of pushing our own boundaries and seeing where things might lead, and we all articulated our varying levels of discomfort and astonishment at where the game was going.  So we didn't really process per se, I think we were all clear on what was making us uncomfortable. 
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #5 on: January 11, 2006, 04:51:30 AM »

How was the main characters' relationships to religion changed over the course of the game?  Do they see themselves as above other Muslims?  Do they see themselves as slaves to God, or are they more using the fact that they have this incarnation to manipulate the faith?  Or some other thing?

My character, Raed Jamil, has the spade trump - power.  Remi's trump is clubs - violence.  Both of these guys converted to Islam in act one.  I see an obvious difference between the two character's styles, and you could almost equate it with pre- and post-hejira Mohammed.  We knew right away that the central conflict in the game would be all about us, so to some extent we're definitely manipulating the faith toward strengthening our relative positions.  As act three begins, Raed's stopped manifesting as the Black Prophet completely (transformed by his supertrump) and Remi's dude has just gone bananas with fire and sword. 

--Jason
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2006, 05:06:04 AM »

This isn't a "here's what I've found" post. I'm not sure what I've found. This is more a "provoke a discussion" post. Has this bothered you, knowing people are playing this? Are we being disrespectful to the victims of that day? Is our glorification and simultaneous skewering of liberal givens just too over the top?

I definitely had a knot in my stomach when we played this.  Interestingly, although we had the obligatory lines and veils discussion and mutually agreed that anything was fair game, we veiled everything related to the actual attacks.  It just happened that way.   Initially we had settled on a conflict aboard flight 77 as it zeroed in on the Pentagon, which I was sort of dreading.  In the end we decided it was not necessary, and that we were OK with losing the NPCs we'd placed aboard that plane.  Which in itself is interesting, because they were key NPCs - my sister, for one.   We realized after the fact that sacrificing those NPCs without a conflict was a mistake that weakened the game a little.  At the time I justified the decision by stating that I wanted my character to have a personal stake in the ensuing global conflict, but in retrospect I'm not sure that's true.

The whole session, a heady mix of trivializing a massive terrorist attack and debasing a major world religion, was a tiny bit transgressive.  It was unlike anything I've ever done at a game table and I really enjoyed it.   
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Remi Treuer
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« Reply #7 on: January 11, 2006, 05:31:38 AM »

This isn't a "here's what I've found" post. I'm not sure what I've found. This is more a "provoke a discussion" post. Has this bothered you, knowing people are playing this? Are we being disrespectful to the victims of that day? Is our glorification and simultaneous skewering of liberal givens just too over the top?
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Clinton R. Nixon
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« Reply #8 on: January 11, 2006, 05:45:11 AM »

The whole session, a heady mix of trivializing a massive terrorist attack and debasing a major world religion, was a tiny bit transgressive.  It was unlike anything I've ever done at a game table and I really enjoyed it.   

Something really cool here - I didn't see us as either trivializing the attack or debasing Islam.

I did see us as showing how the attack had personal repercussions for our characters, and yeah, we totally gave the TV version of it, but it wasn't like we were all "I fly my black horse into the skies to prevent the plane!" Instead, we made it inevitable and personal. Same with Islam: we definitely played up the "when Muslims go bad" angle, but that's a cool angle! Most of my life has been spent exploring "when Christians go bad," so I'm definitely interested in the destructive parts of religion.

I'm not arguing, by the way, Jason. I think it's cool we saw this different ways. I'm just sharing with everything that this is neat - we can have a high-power session like this, and everyone can get something different from it.
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Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games
Clinton R. Nixon
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« Reply #9 on: January 11, 2006, 05:50:02 AM »

Have you done much exploration of why it makes you feel uncomfortable and it's a touchy subject? Those feelings are coming up as you play through various issues. But has it become the thing to stop and examine, rather than to just go on to playing through further issues?

Jason nailed the answer to this on a group-dynamics level. I'd imagine everyone went home and thought further about this.

For me personally, it's the religious angle. I'm fascinated with religion, and have a deep-seated faith myself. Showing religion from multiple angles has been the best and yet most uncomfortable part of this. We've showed the positive transformative angle: both Graham, and an NPC, Brian Dahoud, have had their lives changed, their confidence increased, and their morality sharpened by Islam. Brian was a petty thief and a possible rapist before he learned the true path of his life. That's awesome that he turned it around.

Graham got his self-confidence, but ended up helping plan one of the world's worst tragedies. And he thought he was right to do so, just as the attackers did that day! That's fascinating and terrifying.
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Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #10 on: January 11, 2006, 05:57:50 AM »

Something really cool here - I didn't see us as either trivializing the attack or debasing Islam.
No, no, we're in agreement, that was sarcasm.  People who did not heed your warning could easily see it that way, though, and depending on the angle, with some justification.  It'd be easy to be offended by our play, which is so interesting to me.   
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Remi Treuer
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« Reply #11 on: January 11, 2006, 06:11:07 AM »

This isn't a "here's what I've found" post. I'm not sure what I've found. This is more a "provoke a discussion" post. Has this bothered you, knowing people are playing this? Are we being disrespectful to the victims of that day? Is our glorification and simultaneous skewering of liberal givens just too over the top?

Hi, this is Remi.

During the fortuitous tea break before play got heavy, you and I discussed how 9/11 had ceased to become immediate. How it had been a dull memory, but how, because of the game, we now felt the pain of the event is an immediate way. Meeting that head-on is important, scary stuff. Yes, there's an element of fantasy involved, but the 9/11 attacks are far enough in the past that I feel it's a good time to poke it with a sharp stick, to bring those feelings to the front. I had pushed the visceral terror to the back of my mind, and when it came forward, it drove me in the game. I absolutely do not believe feeling pain for a horrible event can be disrespectful.

Is it over the top? Absolutely. It needs to be. I don't think I could play a fireman going into the towers, I need a veil, otherwise the vein is just too close to the surface. Now, to do this I'm playing my character at arm's length, which accounts for his somewhat unformed state.

How was the main characters' relationships to religion changed over the course of the game?  Do they see themselves as above other Muslims?  Do they see themselves as slaves to God, or are they more using the fact that they have this incarnation to manipulate the faith?  Or some other thing?

I was unprepared in the first game to deal with the Christian/Muslim duality (being neither, and knowing little of Islam). It took me two sessions to get to a point where I decided. Clinton's right in saying Grey thinks he's the Hand of God, or, specifically, that both he and Raed are angels, bound to the will of God. He believes he is serving the faith, although I'm definitely hoping this will be challenged during the next two sessions. This doesn't feel forced, because, through an evil act, Grey's beliefs were justified. That will color the character, and my play, for the rest of the game.
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TheTris
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« Reply #12 on: January 11, 2006, 06:25:06 AM »

I'd say as long as you gave fair warning that's what you were playing, it's fine.

It would be harsh to sit someone into such a directly emotional media relating to something they weren't comfortable with.  Just as it's harsh to force someone to watch a film about gladiators in Rome if they find that part of history distressing, or to read a book about trench warfare if they really don't want to.

Personally 9/11 is less distressing than WW2.  But I'm not morally averse to telling a story about anything.  It's a story.  If things are trivial enough that you can belittle them by storytelling, they aren't worth keeping important.

Importantly I think that only you can know if you trivialise something in a roleplaying game you run.  If playing the game made you discount the importance of what happened on that day to our understanding of the world both before and after, or care less for the familys and friends of victims, then yes, it was probably a bad thing.
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #13 on: January 11, 2006, 06:43:22 AM »

I did see us as showing how the attack had personal repercussions for our characters, and yeah, we totally gave the TV version of it, but it wasn't like we were all "I fly my black horse into the skies to prevent the plane!" Instead, we made it inevitable and personal.
This is also noteworthy, I think, relative to this sort of play - we had a very explicit negotiation/discussion about what was absolutely going to happen and what could be changed.  In the end we agreed that the September 11 attacks had to be at least partially successful - one tower must fall.  In play the result was identical to real life, which is also telling.  None of this had the slightest bit to do with game mechanics. 
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Russell Collins
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« Reply #14 on: January 11, 2006, 07:40:59 AM »

I've always seen my roleplaying as an attempt at catharsis. A way to imagine how I would confront terrible things, or a metaphoric way to explore my feelings about things that are happening. My players sometimes share that yearning, and sometimes want complete escapism, so I try to mix it up a bit.

These days I'm running a Mage game for an old friend. He is viewing the game as totally escapist, being a way to balance out the powerlessness in his life. He's recently learned that his father will die of cancer within the next year. After he suggested we play he went on to talk about how he wished he had more sick days from work to spend with his father since time is running out. That conversation has been the secret inspiration for the game, with an atagonist in the last year of his life trying to do all the things he ever wanted to accomplish before dying (and with magic users, that's dangerous for everyone else.) I haven't told Chris about this yet. And I'm not sure I will.

I want to work these things out for us, the whole "what would you do if you knew your life was ending" spiel, but in a more delicate way than say, the new movie starring Queen Latifah. These questions are in the game, but not on the surface because it's definitely too close for Chris' comfort. Definitely bad for the social contract, but I can't turn away from these issues myself.

So, that gets to my question. Does veiling the experience by seeing the events through a character's eyes make it easier? Is that trivialising the concept? Or is it just evil of me to be doing this at all?
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My homeworld was incinerated by orbital bombardment and all I got was this lousy parasite.

Russell Collins
Composer, sound designer, gamer, dumpling enthusiast.
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