The 12 (or 24) Things that Freud Got Right

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian psychologist. Freud theorized that mental illness could have psychological as well as physiological causes. He believed that the mind contains conscious and unconscious levels. bad memories are repressed and stored uncoBut who’s counting?

On Facebook, David Livingstone Smith offers a list of 12 things that Freud got right:

1. The mind can fruitfully be modeled as a connectionist system.
2. The back-propagation of error (Paul Werbos explicitly derived this algorithm from Freud’s 1895 “Project for a scientific psychology”).
3. Mental processes are physical processes.
4. Introspection does not provide access to the causal structure of mind.
5. Causal-role functionalism is a good way to understand how the brain instantiates mental states.
6. All human beings are “polymorphously perverse”
7. All mental processes are unconscious in themselves.
8. Religion is a response to human helplessness.
9. Speculative metaphysics is a “disease of thought”.
10. Illusions can be either true or false.
11. We are not acquainted with our own cognitive processes.
12. Free association is the best way to learn about oneself.

David is mirroring a Huffpost Science article from last year, which ran its own list of dozen plusses for Freud. They should give us pause before dismissing Freud too lightly. I always say that if Freud had been alive in the ’90s, he would have been an impressive figure. He was scientifically driven in his day, but didn’t have the right interdisciplinary tools (genetics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc., and the result was a lot of pseudo-science. But there are still nuggets to salvage. We may not like to hear that we’re strongly motivated by sex and other “dark impulses” — especially given the outlandish way Freud explained the matter — but the proof of the general truth isn’t hard to see. And how many of us are open to the idea that free association (David’s last point) is the best way we can learn about ourselves, or even that introspection (his fourth) is so overrated? Food for thought.


Retrospective: Faerie Tale

Raymond Feist is known for his Riftwar saga, which I never cared for, but at some point he took a break from Pug and wrote Faerie Tale (1988). It’s a horror novel which allowed him, in his own words, to “stretch myself as a writer, as the serial fantasy genre didn’t allow me to address aspects of contemporary humanity — sexuality, fear, the day to day considerations of relationships”. In the post Game of Thrones world, that’s a silly dichotomy, but it does remind us how hard it was to think outside the box in the ’80s, when fantasy, much like the D&D game, was being increasingly sanitized and not allowed to breathe a hint of adult realism.

I first read Faerie Tale in ’92 when I was in the Peace Corps. It was one of many beat-up paperbacks sent to me in a care package, and on my mountain in Lesotho I read almost anything. It turned out quite a surprise — one of my favorite novels which still holds up today. I reread it this month to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. If it isn’t the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. I’m not easily unnerved, but in his experimental stretch Feist gave me more scares than Stephen King at his best.

The plot is simple: a family moves into an old farm house in New York State, with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns — but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day — and contorted creatures of demonic fury (see the book cover above). The strongest of these beings have the power to incite terror and lust in a person, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. That’s how they “feast” on humanity, in envy of the mortal form they can only artificially assume.

Gabbie’s scene in the barn is the first example of such an attack. It’s a vivid depiction of every adolescent girl’s nightmare, being in thrall to a rapist’s sexuality. Her attacker is a “boy” who looks about fifteen years old, but who we are given to understand is Puck:

“The youth moved in front of her and she saw that his eyes were electric, a blue like flashing lightning. His boyish features were masked by a shadow of ages, both childlike and ancient. He was beautiful and terrifying to gaze upon. Her mind shrieked and yet she could make no sound; and from deep within, a desire was building. Her own body became a thing unto itself, alive with awareness. Her nipples were hardened to a painful state and her stomach and groin were awash in damp heat. A distant voice deep within screamed in horror, pleading with her to flee.

“Through a crimson haze of her own pounding blood, she could see the youth moving to position himself over her. A face of cruel beauty regarded her, which lowered to meet hers. His hot breath was as sweet as mulled cider, his thrusting tongue hinting at peppercorn sharpness. His kiss seared her lips; his touch shocked her skin, and pleasure mounted to levels of intensity beyond her capacity to endure. The burning wet heat between her legs became electric, and as she climbed new heights of desire, the gratification of that desire remained just beyond her reach. Seeking unobtainable release, Gabbie crossed the boundary between passion and torment. Desire fled as, in that instant, pleasure turned to pain.

“Terror engulfed her. Within her own mind she screamed, but her lips only moaned in pleasure, as her body remained a thing apart from her. She screamed again in her mind, but her body only made hoarse sounds of sexual satisfaction. The youth attacked her with animal fury, his teeth and nails leaving fire upon her white skin, each nip and scratch eliciting a yelp of pleasure. Deep within herself, Gabbie shrank away in fear, a spectator to her own body, so mindless in its grotesque lust that even this pain became a delight. Silently, inwardly, she wept in mortal terror.”

I’ve compacted the narrative. Puck’s assault on Gabbie actually goes on for pages, with her lust and terror building, opposing and reinforcing each other in a much more graduating crescendo. It’s a phenomenal scene that Feist apparently sweat over and revised several times.

That scene pales, however, to the one much later on, when Sean and Patrick are molested in their beds. The Faeries go after children too, and the nastiest of them all, The Fool, appears in their room late at night, pummeling Sean with lusts his eight-year old body can’t interpret:

“Sean lay frozen, barely able to breathe. Someone stood in the corner. Hidden in the darkness of the farthest corner, he was motionless, but his outline could be faintly seen. Sean felt him there. Cold terror clutched at the boy’s chest. He fought to will breath into his lungs, so he could shout, but sound lay beyond his ability. He could not move. The dark man stepped forward, closing the distance to the bedside, as if to get a better look at the boys. Sean wished nothing more than to scream for Mommy and Daddy, but no sounds came forth. He scuttled to the head of the bed, trying to get as far from the glowing black figure as he could. His small feet scraped against the sheets and covers. Tears ran down his face as his eyes were locked, staring at the invader.

“Then the dark man leaned close, until his face was scant inches from Sean’s. In his eyes Sean saw lightning dance, as electric-blue orbs sought to burn his soul. A beauty so pure it was terrifying greeted Sean in that instant, something alien, beyond the ability of the human mind to accept. And in that instant Sean wanted nothing more than to give up all will and go with the man, and in that rush of unexpected longing came a desire so concrete Sean’s body rocked. For that desire was something he was not ready for, but now it struck Sean with a wanton heat, a hunger so intensely sexual that his body could not interpret his desires. Sean found his child’s penis stiffening unexpectedly, while his body shuddered and his skin prickled with chill bumps. His heart pounded in his chest and he could endure no more. His bowels contracted, and his tiny erection vanished as his bladder emptied. And in that instant of adult longings shocking his child’s body, of beautiful passions twisted to black lust, Sean screamed.”

Again I’ve compacted a much-longer narrative that includes other nasty elements, not least the kidnapping of Patrick, who is supplanted with a demonic doppelganger to confuse the family. The entire scene is probably the scariest terrorizing of a child I’ve read in a work of fiction, and yes, I’m including The Shining‘s Danny Torrence.

The novel also explores the idea of forgetfulness: the cultural forgetfulness of people who treat myths lightly throughout history, and individual forgetfulness inflicted by way of enchantment. One of the reasons the Hastings family stays in the house for six whole months is that the Faeries are able to make them forget (or barely remember) the strange occurrences and attacks. Thus Gabbie doesn’t manifest any rape-victim symptoms (anger, depression, anxiety) unless her memory is triggered in some way. The boys are the exception. Unlike their sister and parents and visiting neighbors, Sean and Patrick can remember everything, the Fool’s attack being the worst, but also the incidents before, like the monkey-like demon (on the book cover) which almost tears Patrick to shreds under a stone bridge. That the kids can’t confide in the grown-ups revs up the horror factor considerably. Feist also seems to be saying something about the nature of children, for whom everything is magical and are thus receptive, and most vulnerable, to the supernatural.

The final act takes place in the actual Faerie lands, which Sean enters on a suicide mission to rescue Patrick. The description of this dark wonderland is of the highest order, and the showdown a ripper. Thanks to this book, I think of St. Patrick’s Day as a second Halloween. Leprechauns and changelings have all the potentials of ghosts and vampires, and if Faerie Tale doesn’t convince you of that, you’ve probably grown up too much.

The Wicked Tenants: Martyr Prophecy or Critique of Violence?

Paran15_400_466Something to ponder for Good Friday.

In the three synoptic gospels, the parable of the Wicked Tenants is an allegory of judgment against the Jerusalem leadership:

“A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed; and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mk 12:1-11; cf. Mt 21:33-43/Lk 20:9-18)

The man who planted the vineyard is God; the vineyard is Israel; the tenants are Jerusalem authorities; the servants are God’s prophets, some rejected and others killed by those authorities; and the son is the final prophet Jesus, who is also killed and then (as the “stone”) resurrected. Matthew and Luke follow Mark in this scheme.

In the gospel of Thomas, the parable is a gnostic (or quasi-gnostic) allegory about the failure to grasp knowledge or wisdom:

“There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, ‘Perhaps he did not recognize them.’ He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they will show respect to my son.’ Because the tenants knew that it was he who was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.” (Thom 65)

The master (God) sends servants who are rejected, and he laments that the tenants do not “recognize” or “know” the servants, especially the son. Thomas knew the synoptic gospels, and in this parable he conflated the versions of Matthew and Luke while giving it an entirely new meaning that squared with his quasi-gnostic agenda.

The question is what the parable meant from Jesus, assuming it originated with him.

The parable as a martyr prophecy (Meier)

John Meier thinks Jesus spoke the parable much as it stands in the synoptics, but without the end consolations in verses 9-11. It was indeed an allegory recapitulating the cycle of rejection and martyrdom of Israel’s prophets. This was the story of Israel’s life — told in Jer 7:24-28, II Chron 36:13-21, Neh 9:26-37, and other places. After the execution of his mentor John the Baptist, Jesus mulled over his own fate and placed himself in this dark cycle. He would soon face off the Judean authorities. They would kill him and dishonor his corpse. The consolations came later in the Christian movement, first in the punishment of those leaders (verse 9), then in Jesus’ vindication by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs (verses 10-11, which refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible,” says Meier, “that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it made perfect sense. He was saying he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with the Jerusalem elite. He knew the connection between a prophetic career and danger zones like Jerusalem where prophets were often rejected and/or killed. As an Elijah-like prophet he accepted his destiny of martyrdom.

The parable as a critique of violence (Herzog, Kloppenborg)

William Herzog believes there was originally no allegory. Jesus was codifying a spiral of violence by describing a local peasant revolt on a great estate. (He takes Mk 12:1-9a as the original story.) Rebellions like this were small and seldom made the news of historical record, but seem to have been typical of the brushfires that kept breaking out in the harsh economic landscapes of Galilee and Judea. Violence erupted when peasants were threatened with loss of subsistence, and in Herzog’s view, the parable exposes the futility of such peasant revolts. Vigilantism is the point of the parable’s critique. The thrill of revolt is satisfying but always short lived. As the story’s narrative gains momentum, Jesus stops it dead in its tracks with the question, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” The answer is obvious. He will crush the revolt. Revolts never led to revolutions in the ancient world. Vigilantism simply called forth worse forms of oppression. With his closing question in v 9a, Jesus points to the futility of peasant rebellions.

John Kloppenborg also dispenses with allegory. Jesus critiqued vigilantism (as Herzog claims), but also the elitist coercion that ignites it. (He takes Thom 65 as the original story.) The papyrological evidence on Palestinian viticulture depicts clear patterns of rich absentee landlords who pursue wealth and bully others with status displays. In cases where tenants ignored the owner’s deputies, the typical strategy was to send agents of increasing social status, as portrayed in the parable. In the story they are all rejected and/or killed, but the twist is that there is not a hint of the landowner using any violence to take the vineyard back (in Thomas’ version). He does nothing, according to Kloppenborg, and is thus honorable. This concurs with Jesus’ view of honor found everywhere else in the gospels: that one should not retaliate with violence or vindictiveness (Mt 5:39-40/Lk 6:29; Mt 5:49/Lk 6:30; Mt 5:44/Lk 6:27; the Parable of the Great Supper, in which the host is grievously insulted but simply responds by inviting outcasts and low-lives to his banquet; the Unmerciful Servant, in which the king refrains from violence and writes off an immense debt, while the forgiven slave refuses to do the same, which is the point of the parable’s critique; and so forth).

Which is it?

I’m divided in mind, frankly. Either interpretation is plausible. As an apocalyptic, Jesus more than likely had a martyr’s complex, and as a social prophet, he had acute concerns about violence. When it comes to the parables, I doubt we can pin him to a single genre. One person’s allegory is another’s allergy, but that’s our problem. Jesus could use allegory and metaphor like anyone. But he also told literal stories that were later made into allegories, and it’s not always easy to figure out which is which.

On this Good Friday, I’m prepared to entertain both. The prophet who thought he was about to be crushed with no hope of vindication. And the same prophet who opposed vigilante-violence — indeed any retaliative violence — and precisely for that reason resigned himself to the worst violence known in his world.



Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Kloppenborg, John: The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine, Mohr/Siebeck, 2006.

Meier, John: A Marginal Jew, Vol 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, Yale University, 2016.


The Longest Footnote: Meier’s critique of Rohrbaugh (The Talents)

John Meier’s Marginal Jew series must surely set a record for long footnotes, and one of the longest by far is his critique of Richard Rohrbaugh’s interpretation of The Talents. It’s over 1500 words, basically an essay in itself. I’ve reproduced the footnote below (in blue), breaking it into paragraphs for easier reading, and interspersed with own observations (in bolded black).

I have long been a supporter of Rohrbaugh and Herzog’s readings of The Talents, albeit with some nagging doubts, and I still think their view is defensible. Readers may wish to read my post, The Talents: “The Fate of an Unlikely Hero” for my summary of Rohrbaugh and Herzog, before reading Meier’s footnote-essay below.

From A Marginal Jew, Vol 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, by John Meier. Footnote #159 to chapter 40 (pp 356-359).

The question of whether the master [in the parable of The Talents] should be seen as a symbol of socio-economic oppression in an unjust society has been raised repeatedly by socially conscious interpreters since the early 1990s. Prominent among such critics are Fortna, Rohrbaugh, and Herzog. Other scholars who have developed this line of interpretation in one direction or another (postcolonial criticism, liberation theology, and/or feminist hermeneutics) include Folarin, Fricke, Ford, Joy, Braun, and Dowling. Fundamental to most of these approaches (some of which are just are warmed-over Rohrbaugh) is the inversion of the presumed optic of Matthew and Luke (the master represents God or Christ at the last judgment, the slaves are Christian disciples or leaders, the first two slaves are rightly rewarded for their zealous doing of God’s will, and the third slave is rightly punished for his failure to carry out God’s will) to recapture what is claimed to be the original message of Jesus (the master represents oppressive socioeconomic systems in general and capitalism in particular, the first two slaves are quislings who cooperate with the system and therefore in their own oppression, and the third slave is the courageous protestor, rebel, or whistle-blower who dares to denounce and unmask the unjust system by refusing to cooperate with it, even though this rebellion exposes him to punishment).

Rohrbaugh’s 1993 essay is often cited by subsequent critics who follow this line of interpretation. He appeals to what anthropologists have taught us about peasant economics, especially within Mediterranean culture, a culture that modern Western exegetes have difficulty understanding because of the presuppositions of Western capitalism. He admits that we cannot be sure of the original historical setting or audience of the parable. From suggesting that the audience may have included Galilean peasants, Rohrbaugh quickly moves to focusing on this hypothetical audience of peasants. To peasants, the rich were inherently evil; they exploited the poor peasants by their exchange economy that multiplied wealth for the rich but siphoned off whatever surplus the peasants might produce in their economy of limited goods. Hence, in the parable, the third “servant” (Rohrbaugh does not translate doulos as “slave”, a translation that would have weakened his whole approach) is wicked only in the eyes of those who share the elitist mentality of the rich master. To a peasant audience, the servant has done the honorable thing by preserving what was entrusted to him without participating in the oppressive capitalist system accepted by the master and the first two servants.

Rohrbaugh supports his interpretation by appealing to a passage in the 4th-century Church Father Eusebius, who offers a brief paraphrase of a different version of the parable that he claims his found in the Jewish-Christian Gospel of the Nazoreans. Rohrbaugh asserts that the chiastic structure in this version presents the third servant, the one who kept the money intact, as the one whom the master receives with joy. Going one step further into unlikely hypotheses, Rohrbaugh suggests that the version of the parable in the Gospel of the Nazoreans has preserved the more original form of the parable and that the canonical traditions adulterated the story early on. In the end, Rohrbaugh offers the possibility that Jesus may have intended the parable to be ambiguous: the elites in Jesus’ audience would have interpreted the parable as good news for the rich and bad news for the peasants, while the peasants in his audience would have taken the opposite tack. It is fairly clear that Rohrbaugh considers the peasants’ interpretation to be the correct one, but he ends on a coy note of studied uncertainty.

What is to be said of such an approach? While the intentions of its champions are admirable, good intentions do not necessarily guarantee correct exegesis:

(1) It is telling that most of the authors do not engage in a detailed analysis of both the Matthean and Lukan texts by way of form, tradition, source, and redaction criticism. Many exegetical decisions are simply announced rather than argued or demonstrated. A hypothetical  original version of the parable in the mouth of Jesus is explained without any hypothetical text being produced (e.g., Fricke). Appeal is sometimes made not to an original text but an originating structure (so, e.g., Pilch). The problem here is that frequently some details of the Gospel narratives and even of the wording are selectively retained, more often from Matthew but sometimes from Luke.

I’m not sure how this would impact either Rohrbaugh’s or Herzog’s readings. Like Meier, they ignore Luke’s subplot of a nobleman who goes abroad to acquire kingly status. Their reconstruction of the original parable from Matthew isn’t at odds with Meier’s (which he argues was independently received in the M and L sources). They all seem to agree that vv 29-30 of Matthew are editorial: “(29) For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (30) And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Herzog makes some allowance for v 30. In asking about the fate of whistle-blowers like the third servant, and whether or not they would find welcome in peasant villages given former hostilities, he concludes that “these are difficult questions, especially when one lives in the outer darkness, struggling to survive day to day, weeping and gnashing teeth.” (Parables as Subversive Speech, pp 167-68) And Rohrbaugh notes that v 29 is a peasant truism in any case: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and it happens because of the way people like this master treat people. It was probably an early editorial meant this way, until co-opted by the Matthew who approved the truism by turning it into an allegory.

Meier, for his part, allows that “possibly some more severe punishment concluded the original story, in place of the extremely severe punishments added by Matthew and Luke” (A Marginal Jew Vol 5, p 306). Like Herzog, he finds the weeping and teeth-gnashing to be editorial but if authentic would simply extend the natural thrust of the story’s message.

So as far as I can tell, Meier’s first criticism doesn’t amount to anything.

(2) Surprisingly, in the whole process, the essentially metaphorical world of parabolic narrative is often ignored in favor of a literalist reading of the hypothetical original, as though the story were speaking directly about social and economic conditions (on this, see Chenoweth, “The Vulnerability of the Literalist”, 176-77, 182-83, against Herzog). But who then would need a parable to offer such criticism?

A fair point. As a rule, parables are metaphors, extended similes, allegories, or narratives which carry some symbolic meaning. However, there are also the more socio-economic “example stories” like the Good Samaritan, Rich Fool, Dishonest Steward, Rich Man and Lazarus, Pharisee and Toll Collector, and even those outside Luke, like the Unmerciful Servant, which illustrate behavior to imitate or avoid, and these parables have a more literal edge. On Rohrbaugh and Herzog’s readings, the original form of the Talents would be similar to such social-example parables.

(3) Indeed, why amid all the non-metaphorical, direct, and blunt criticism that he aims at certain social practices (e.e., divorce, oath-taking, overstrict sabbath observance) does Jesus never criticize the most glaring socioeconomic oppression and injustice of his day, namely, slavery? The objectionable practices of overaggressive capitalism pale when compared to the ghastly realities of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. Yet in both parable and praxis, Jesus seems not to be troubled by the institution, which he apparently takes for granted. It may be for this reason that some commentators prefer to translate douloi in our parable as “servants” rather than “slaves”, despite the fact that “slaves” is by far the more likely translation (see Beavis and Glancy). One may question whether the whole Marxist/liberation theology approach makes sense of the story if the douloi are understood to be the slaves of the master and not hired servants. For example, Herzog’s explanation depends upon the third servant being a powerful retainer of an aristocrat; this retainer, according to Herzog, has shared in oppressing poor peasants and now, as an honest “whistle-blower”, risks exposing himself to the ire of the peasants he formerly oppressed as he is thrown out of the master’s household to become a day laborer. Needless to say, this does not work when doulos is understood as “slave”. Actually, not all peasants in Galilee were extremely and equally poor; some more affluent peasants might have owned a slave or two and therefore would not have automatically sided with the supposedly heroic third slave who opposes his master.

It’s true that the rest of the gospel and NT traditions offer no critique of the patron-client institutions that everyone in the Mediterranean took for granted. Society would have collapsed without them. Though perhaps that’s the point. Maybe elitist landowning, servitude, and slavery were too much of a given to attack directly and be taken seriously. The whole point of Herzog’s thesis is that Jesus used parables to nudge hearers into entertaining unlikely possibilities on their own. Apocalyptic thinkers dream big, and Jesus may have used some of his stories to hint at a world unencumbered by systematic evils which people were capable of facing off even now in preparation.

Also: translating doulos as “slave” instead of “servant” would only strengthen the general case being made here, not weaken it. If the scenario involved slaves, then Jesus would be condemning what slaves are forced to do by greedy masters. They are the means by which masters rob and take what is not theirs.

(4) That the third slave is a hero who courageously rejects the oppressive structures of capitalism by hiding the entrusted money in the ground (or cloth) collides with the clear statement that the slave hid the money out of fear (Mt 25:25/Lk 19:21), not out of bold opposition to his master. (On this, see Wohlgemut.)

A false dichotomy. Fear would certainly accompany a bold act of defiance that would result in the slave’s banishment, to be left with no support in a hostile world.

(5) The appeal to The Gospel of the Nazoreans suffers from a number of liabilities. No complete text of this Gospel has come down to us; basically, we are dependent on quotations and paraphrases in early Christian authors. It shows definite knowledge and dependence on Matthew. Compounding the problem, the version of the parable in Nazoreans seems to mesh elements from the parable of the Talents/Minas with the details of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Worse still, Eusebius does not quote the text of The Gospel of the Nazoreans in his Theophaneia , but merely gives us a brief paraphrase. In addition, it is by no means clear that there is the kind of chiastic structure in the narrative that Rohrbaugh claims. As Wohlgemut notes, Rohrbaugh’s chiastic reading conflates two different reactions of the master that Eusebius distinguishes: the threat uttered against one slave and “the word spoken against” another slave.

The chiastic structure in the Nazoreans gospel seems pretty clear to me. That it is Eusebius’ paraphrase, and dependent on Matthew, doesn’t really affect Rohrbaugh’s conclusion. The point is that we have an example of dissatisfaction with Matthew’s judgment on the third servant, and thus the idea that he is the story’s hero isn’t necessarily a modern wish-fantasy. In at least one ancient circle, the third servant who hid the talent was the one “accepted with joy”, while the other two were punished.

(6) In the end, one must distinguish between historical-critical exegesis and various forms of advocacy hermeneutics (Marxist, liberationist, feminist) that seek to make ancient texts speak to present-day concerns, whether or not our present-day concerns ever appeared on the mental horizons of the ancient writers. Whatever the hermeneutical validity of such approaches for the present, they usually wind up doing violence either to the Gospel texts or to a sober and credible reconstruction of the message of the historical Jesus.

Well, I say this all the time. There’s nothing worse for historical criticism than advocacy interpretations. But the Rohrbaugh/Herzog reading of the Talents doesn’t necessarily involve that. There are genuine cases when ancient meanings turn out rather nice for us. If the Hebrew prophets alienate us for hurling their bile at idolatry, their same anger resonates with us when it is turned in defense of the poor and oppressed. Meier’s reading of the Talents could be right, in which case the “capitalist” heroes stand for something other than fiscal investment schemes. But Rohrbaugh makes a sound case for the capitalists being condemned as they literally stand in the story. Rohrbaugh and Herzog aren’t eisegetes just because some eisegetes will like their interpretations.

To reiterate what I’ve said elsewhere: Meier’s book on the parables is the best available for its skeptical treatment of parable authenticity. But for interpreting the few which stand a good chance of being authentic, matters aren’t so easy. On the assumption of a prophetically angry Jesus, Rohrbaugh’s reading of the Talents is plausible, and one that I still find convincing.

Five Essential Books on the Parables

These are the books on Jesus’ parables you should read, if nothing else. Represented here is critical skepticism (Meier), peasant readings (Herzog), progressive wisdom (Levine), evangelical restraint (Snodgrass), and breezy table-talk (Scott).

marginal1. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed “voice” of Jesus as everyone thinks. Many of them probably don’t originate with Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in certain human activity, and however small that seemed, there was an organic connection between it and the revelation of God on the last day), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing the demands contained in God’s gift), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. If you’re going to read only one book on the parables, it has to be this one. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place, or for reversing the burden of proof by giving their authenticity the benefit of the doubt. See my full review.

2. Parables as Subversive Speech, William Herzog. 1994. Now, if I were confident that many of the parables originated with Jesus, this commentary is a helpful lens. According to Herzog, Jesus’ stories weren’t “earthly stories with heavenly meanings” but “earthy stories with heavy meanings”, meaning they only hinted about the coming kingdom of God by focusing on the gory details of the here and now. The key, he says, is to resist the gospel tendency to equate masters and landowners with God, since these figures are really villains. When a messianic king forgives an astronomical debt but then turns ruthless, he’s not a divine cipher of limitless forgiveness (his ruthless actions prove doesn’t believe in that); he’s an example of messianic pretenders who promise sabbaticals and jubilees but become oppressors themselves as soon as they win the crown. Or when a master commends the self-serving schemes of two servants, and then railroads a third servant who does the honorable thing (by burying money as commended by Jewish law, instead of participating in rapacious investment schemes), he’s a rather poor allegory for God. Herzog reads the parables in the way honorable peasants might have identified with the stories, and while he can be persuasive, he has an Achilles’ heel. His readings depend on literalist readings of social and economic conditions, where parables tend to be metaphorical. But on the assumption of a subversive Jesus whose parables have been reclaimed by the gospel writers on completely different terms, Herzog’s readings are at least plausible.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine3. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy Jill-Levine. 2015. Some of the lessons drawn here are great for my personal Unitarian consumption, but they’re highly agenda-driven. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. Whenever themes signal “the last coming first and the first last”, she calls that an editorial intrusion. Not only that, she leaves no room at all for any hint of an “Us-vs.-Them” polemic that could reinforce judgments and divisions, despite that Jesus was a judgmental prophet. Levine has an axe to grind against critics who see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context, to the point where it becomes all consuming. In her mind, if Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. Unfortunately, if there’s no kernel of truth to any of this, it means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize. Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock, and while some of her concerns are valid, others betray a politically-correct paranoia. From a theological point of view, I have to admit I like her interpretations of the parables, but they should be seen for what they are: bastardized products of history and modern liberalism. See my full review.

stories with intent4. Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass. 2008. This huge study is best summarized as “a mine of information, both of ancient languages and texts and of modern commentators and debate”. That’s the positive. “Yet something is seriously wrong with a method that, in the end, has the historical Jesus, the early Christian tradition, and any given evangelist practically collapse into the same person.” (Meier, A Marginal Jew above, p 55). Snodgrass is an evangelical, and so his naive optimism is a guarantee. I recommend his tome not as a reliable lens onto Jesus, but as the best reference tool that engages the voices of many scholars. Every parable is analyzed, and prefaced with sections which list all primary sources containing any hint of parallels and relevant information to the parable — passages in the bible, Greco-Roman writings, early Christian writings, and later Jewish writings. It’s worth noting that Snodgrass considers The Unmerciful Servant to be the most revealing and compelling story which illustrates the nature of Jesus’ parables more than any others. The message, according to him, is one of grace and responsibility, a rather traditional reading which dodges some hard questions. I still think Herzog’s interpretation of that parable survives Snodgrass’ attack. The parable seems to be more about an unmerciful king, and an implicit critique of messiahship suggesting that while messiahs can start out benign, they quickly and inevitably become captives of their own command.

hear then5. Hear Then the Parable, Bernard Brandon Scott. 1989. Misguided in almost every aspect of its intention, this commentary is worth reading for that very reason. It’s a perfect example of how not to explain Jesus as a social subversive. If you’re going to make him a revolutionary, then do it right, for Christ’s sake, like Herzog does (see 3, above). Herzog’s revisionism can certainly be criticized, but at least it’s credible within the Jewish peasant framework Scott tries so desperately to assimilate. He interprets the parables against the backdrop of Jewish myths and peasant world-views, which promises to yield good results until he walks right away from them. For example, in the parable of the Talents, he opposes the conclusion that his own analysis demands, that the third servant is the hero of the story. While the third servant’s speech moves an audience to identify with his plight, says Scott, the audience is nonetheless being asked to see the hidden side to the Torah — the “burden of its preservation”. Acknowledging that a Jew would see this as a caricature, Scott still presses the fantasy: “the price for protecting and preserving the Torah is the loss of a future”. The future, in other words, is claimed not by preserving precious gifts, but by acting boldly as if the rules have been changed, to liberate oneself from the paralysis of the Torah’s demands. Breezy table-talk like this fills Scott’s commentary. It’s the wisdom of the Jesus Seminarians masquerading as counterculture, but first-century Jewish peasants could hardly have heard the parables in this way. Scott does provide helpful discussion of the way certain myths are modified (as in The Mustard Seed and The Leaven), but on whole this study is a misfire, though a very instructive one.

Safety Tip: Carbon Monoxide Detectors


No, I don’t work for the Fire Department, but I am a public servant, so take this as free safety advice. Smart home owners use CO detectors, while those of us who think we’re smart don’t give them much thought until something scary happens.

In my case over a week ago, I noticed a “burnt” smell emanating from my utilities room. I went in and found that the top of my hot water heater was over heating like Dante’s Inferno, and so assumed something was wrong with the heater. Not so. Professionals came and found the heater was perfectly fine. What they did find was that a bunch of sheet-rock had collapsed in the chimney, preventing gasses from escaping, backdrafting back down onto the water heater and into my home, which included carbon monoxide. Someone else in my condominium area had a similar problem only a few months ago, and almost died for it. Thanks to the prompt professional responses, my chimney was cleaned that day; the heat and hot water swiftly restored. I was advised to get a CO detector — as if I needed persuading. Hell, I bought two. I chose a digital-display model (see above), which should read “0” most of the time, allowing for the occasional 1-30 PPM which, according to the instructions manual, “can often occur in normal everyday conditions”. When the display reads higher than 30, the alarm goes off. You can buy other alarms which trigger at 50. And according to some wisdom, healthy adults can tolerate up to 70 PPMs if the exposure isn’t long-term.

I wish I could have seen the PPM readings before my gas was shut off and the chimney cleaned. Because I apprehended the problem right away, and threw open all my sliding windows (in my living room and bedroom), I didn’t get sick. But I’ve no idea how much CO was in my home, especially my utilities room. My plumber guessed, based on the amount of sheet-rock taking up the chimney — there was one piece in particular that was almost completely blocking the passage — that it could have been anywhere between 100-600 PPMs in the utilities room with the door closed. Some fraction of that would have seeped into the rest of my home, and obviously if left unfixed, over time, even more.

Before last week, I didn’t know what “PPM”s were. “Parts per million” means the number of CO molecules in every million molecules of air (so, for example, 100 PPM of carbon monoxide means that for every 999,900 molecules of air, there are 100 molecules of CO). Here is the danger chart. A recent study found that the average peak CO levels during home alarm incidents was 452 PPMs.


Victoria: The Single-Shot Sleeper

victoriaVictoria is acclaimed for its single camera shot, which is just, but also somewhat unfortunate as it runs the danger of sidelining the film’s deeper strengths. Whenever I hear a film touted for being shot in a particular way, I’m on gimmick-alert. A correspondent recently said to me, “the one-take phenomenon is getting old, striking me as the aesthetic equivalent of ‘my dick is bigger than yours'”, which isn’t unfair. Hitchcock did long takes in Rope to great effect, and True Detective’s wide tracking shot in episode 4 is an instant classic. But films like Russian Ark and Birdman could have done just as well without relying on their superficial “long-take” aesthetic.

The case of Victoria is like Rope and True Detective, using its uninterrupted focus in the right ways to forge an incredibly immersive viewing experience. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. They’re hoodlums, but not very bad ones, their crimes usually restricted to shoplifting beer and trespassing onto apartment roofs where they have quiet night parties. Victoria finds them endearing, as did I; frankly I could have watched their casual conversation for the film’s duration. She and Sonne (the group’s sort-of leader) in particular feel a growing attraction, and within an hour we are so invested in these two that if the film stopped here it would be a perfect romantic short.

victoria3Instead it takes a sudden turn. One of the guys passes out drunk and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist. No one really wants to do the robbery; the guys are blackmailed into it by a gang leader who had protected one of them in prison. Victoria is a good sport through all of this, putting up with misogynistic indignities from the gang leader who also threatens to withhold her as a hostage when the guys show signs of cold feet. As the driver, she avoids the dirty business of entering the bank and pointing guns, but the getaway is a ripper. The single camera shot achieves a breakneck momentum as Victoria turns frantically into side-streets and drives too fast instead of blending into the traffic’s speed.

Because Victoria and these guys are basically good people, we alternate between feeling helpless and exhilarated as they sink into quicksand and pull themselves out with surprising reversals. My favorite scene is the celebration after the heist.victoria4 They go to a dance club, and the thundering music and dialogue fade as a soft piano score plays over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but it’s a strangely precious moment — the last ray of light before the cops descend.

That final foot chase guarantees an unhappy ending, but it’s still impossible to predict. The twists and turns are relentless. Shots are fired, people die, and even a baby is compromised. This is all to say that Victoria’s seamless camerawork never fails on its promise. I was so impressed I watched it again the next day. And I have updated my Best Films of 2015 list, putting this gem all the way up at #3.

Guest Blogger: Bob Kruger on the Setup and Play of D&D

[Editor: In his sequel post to The Essentials of Dungeons & Dragons, Bob Kruger continues his initiation of the beginning Dungeon Master. Here he warns against common traps that can quickly ruin a game — over-relying on combat, railroading players, and subordinating one’s godlike power as the DM to every roll of the dice. This is some of the best advice available, and if you take it to heart, you stand a good chance of making your D&D games fun and rewarding.]

D&D Setup and Play; or, How to Do It
by Bob Kruger

My first D&D essay for Loren’s blog ranked D&D elements from essential to arbitrary. I described how the D&D rules exist merely to get the Dungeon Master and the players working together to build a story. The rules formalize some activities that characters will engage in, and together with the dice, they facilitate the impression – one might say illusion – that the story world has objective laws. In short, the rules are indirection, a magician’s handwaving. You cannot be naively bound by them and expect to play a good game of Dungeons & Dragons. They exist to facilitate a story, not to dominate your attention.

My goal with this essay is to help you understand how that works.


To play D&D, you should acquaint yourself at least with the tier 1 trappings as I described them in the last essay. At a minimum, you need to know about the five Platonic solid dice; the four basic character classes; the four basic races; the alignments involving good, evil, law, chaos, and neutrality; the six attributes of strength, intelligence, constitution, wisdom, dexterity, and charisma. You should understand skill checks, armor class, and saving throws. You should learn the main cleric and magic-user spells and popular magic items. You should figure out how you’ll grant experience points and what scale you’ll use to determine when characters level up and thereby gain more hit points and new skills and spells. You should know about gold pieces, and to a lesser extent copper, silver, electrum, and platinum (well, maybe not electrum), along with gemstones of various kinds. You should know what standard weapons and armor are available and acquaint yourself with the most popular monsters in the game (at the least: humanoids and giants, dragons, undead, demons, lycanthropes, a few squidgy things, and a variety of gigantic reptiles and arthropods).

Next, memorize the adventure you’re going to run. Buy The Village of Hommlet or one of the other low-level adventures in Loren’s post 40 Classic D&D Modules Ranked; get an idea of what makes it work and then use it or write your own. (Don’t worry that the adventure you buy has old rules; translating rules and stats should be trivial, and where it’s not trivial, dump the rules and stats.) Know the geography, know all the important buildings and their rooms, know all the major monsters and their treasures. Know what the probable endgame is, provided the characters survive. Will the characters ultimately slay a dragon? Retrieve a powerful magic artifact? Bring down an evil leader? Gain a clue to a greater adventure?

Evaluate the story possibilities of each intelligent monster and “non-player character” (that is, the people in the adventure whose roles you’ll act out). What does each monster and non-player character, or NPC, want? Which ones are allied with each other, and which are enemies of each other? How do the adventurers threaten the monsters’ goals? How might they advance the monsters’ goals?

Write down the names of the intelligent monsters and NPCs, putting them into allied groups, and draw lines to enemies, thicker lines for serious personal enemies. Beside each one, write what they want more than anything in the world, and their most loved companion and/or possession. Take a few notes about how the characters might fit into their plans.

List non-intelligent monsters and what relationship, if any, they have to intelligent monsters. How might intelligent monsters use them to help or hinder the party?

Finally, write out a list of names for good and evil characters and monsters, so that when you invent characters on the spot – and you should now and then — you can pick a name that has the right tone. If you have a name handy, your players will assume you’ve got an interesting background all prepared to back it up. That may sound like pressure, but with practice, it’s not hard make up a background as it becomes relevant. If you don’t trust yourself, sketch out some backgrounds to go with your name list.


From a first glance at the D&D rules, you’d gather that the procedures are complex. They’re not. As Dungeon Master, you describe a scene, answer questions that arise, and act out the roles of NPCs. When the characters have fulfilled some scene objective, like having met a character and gotten information, slain a monster, or passed a locked door or dealt with a trap, you give a general narrative summary to move them to the next interesting situation. If there’s a question of an action succeeding, you do a skill-check roll, whose result you may only pretend to consider. When there’s a fight, you resolve blows in a round-robin, according to initiative order (look it up), rolling dice for monster attacks and letting the players roll dice for their characters’ attacks.

That’s pretty much it, but it’s a deep skill to see it goes well.

A Little More Procedure

First, you tell your players the large story of the world, who the famous political figures and monsters are, and what condition the world is in. This should comprise only a few sentences.

Next, you tell your players what the immediate situation is and immerse them in a scene. When they’re first starting out, you give them strong direction, but don’t explicitly hand them their motivation and goals. See “The Setup Problem,” below.

Narrate details to get the players asking questions. If they are asking questions, they are exercising their point of view, trying to visualize your world. See “The Point of View Problem,” below. It’s great if you do some acting now and then and address the players in the role of an NPC or monster, but you don’t need to push it. Simply stating what a character or monster says or does in third person will suffice most of the time.

Note that you set up a scene and narrate in real-time mode for mystery and conflict. Don’t linger in a real-time scene unless it has larger plot implications. Meeting various shopkeepers in town, for instance, to get the best trade price for gems should be summarized unless you want to acquaint the characters with a significant NPC. If the players insist on a real-time chat with a shopkeeper who has nothing to do with the plot, then make him have something to do with the plot. You might have to rewrite your script and move a character from point A to point B and change his name and profession. So be it. Always reward your players for taking initiative.

When there is a combat, all you really need to consider are surprise, initiative, ranged attacks, and melee attacks. Never dither in interpreting rolls, especially combat rolls. It’s enough to have a general sense of the armor classes the various characters have and the circumstances that might make fighting easier or harder. An average character with no armor is going to be hit on a 10 or better before modifiers. A heavily armored fighter might be hit on an 18 or better. Most monsters have bonuses, so a roll of 18 is going to be a hit most of the time. As Dungeon Master, don’t worry about getting it wrong: you’re never wrong, but you may have to stretch for a reason why you’re right, especially if your players know the rules well. Learn the intricacies of combat only to supply convincing answers to questions. Don’t slow down your combat to make allowance for the rules. Keep the combat moving, and start giving everyone cumulative bonuses if it threatens to drag on.

800px-RPG-2009-Berlin-2You are performing for an audience of players. It’s great to get input from the audience, and to work with the audience, but really you’re there to lead and entertain them. You definitely are not working against them. Here are some general tips for performing with confidence.

  1. High rolls always succeed in some way, unless success is proscribed ahead of time for a good reason, for example, if a key does not fit a lock because it’s important to the story they find the right key.
  2. Get players in tough situations, and then exert your imagination to help get them out. Make sure you have plausible levers to pull. For instance, have them run across strong NPCs who can come in and help.
  3. Lie shamelessly. The DM is right even when wrong. If the players catch you breaking the rules, cover it up with an excuse. Never concede a mistake; never be indecisive. You do not make mistakes. However, learn enough of the rules so that you’re confident you can break them without being called out.

You don’t make mistakes. But let’s pretend you could. Don’t make the following ones!

  1. Getting the characters involved in a combat that has no relation to any larger story.
  2. Having combats last more than a few minutes, unless they’re showdowns elaborately staged with miniature figures. Long combats are for encounters with archenemies, with monsters the players know on a first-name basis.
  3. Spending more than a second looking up what any die roll means. It’s so tempting to do. Don’t do it! Pronounce your judgment. Bone up on the rules after the game and apply them next time if you want.
  4. Letting the characters roleplay with characters or monsters that have no relation to the larger story or who cannot lead them to an effective place.
  5. Asking players what their characters want to do rather than giving them an effective setup that gets them asking the questions.
  6. Letting the dice tell a bad story.



D&D has serious problems as a storytelling art form that are unacknowledged in the rules. Here’s what they are and how to address them.

The World Setup Problem; or, the Young Readers Problem

Why is there a dungeon stuffed with monsters and treasures nearby? Why haven’t powerful characters and disciplined soldiers already cleaned out the dungeon? Or why haven’t they crushed the assassins guild in the city or routed the wererats in its sewers?

I call this the Young Readers Problem. If you’ve got kids you read to, you may have noticed that in most children’s books, the hero is an orphan or the practical equivalent. Just as most of these heroes need some freedom from adult supervision, the beginning characters need to fill a niche in a larger adventuring ecology that has alpha predators at the top like giants, demons, demigods, and high-level heroes. Here are some excuses for why your characters might need to fill the big shoes:

  • There’s a major pitched conflict between the forces of civilization and those of chaotic evil, where all the proven heroes are called away to fight, leaving local ruins vulnerable to unchecked incursions of low-level monsters.
  • The campaign happens in the aftermath of a major battle that has annihilated most local heroes and boss monsters alike. The few survivors are regrouping in secret.
  • Higher-level characters inevitably get enmeshed in adventures that take them to the Outer Planes, leaving the prime-material world largely undefended.
  • High-level heroes and their antagonists are hiding in plain sight, concealing their powers for fear of attracting attention to themselves. There’s a sort of stalemate to which the player characters are mostly, but not totally, oblivious. The party can do their thing only because neither captains of good nor lords of evil really consider them a threat, though both sides will be watching as the characters mature.

All these scenarios accomplish two things: they give the starting characters ideas about the kind of heroes they can become and the interesting trouble they can aspire to, and they establish the campaign backdrop.

The Adventure Setup Problem

railroad“Thou shalt not railroad your players.” This is an important commandment. The characters must be free to go where and do what they want. The setting should not be so brittle that there is only one path, especially if that path can be blocked. But when you’re first launching a campaign, your players need direction. The players should not be compelled to follow a certain course of action, but the setup should be strong. If they exit the setup, hit them with another similarly strong setup from another direction.

Here are potential setups:

  1. “You meet as chance travelers on the road and get caught in a storm. You seek shelter in a cave, and a lurking ogre rolls a stone over the entryway and attacks.” [After defeating the ogre, the party sees the ogre’s wife fleeing with a basket of live human children. The cave is part of a complex that leads to ancient ruins. The party doesn’t have to rescue the children. They can roll the stone away from the entrance, and leave the cave, but how will they live with themselves?]
  2. “You meet in an inn. After getting to know each other over drinks, you’re approached by a mysterious gnome who says that he’s looking for stout adventurers to do a job for him.” [The gnome has a map to a treasure in some ruins. Maybe the treasure is a sham and the gnome just wants to get the characters isolated for an ambush. The ambushers may be cultists of an evil god and bear a map to the real adventure, or maybe they defeat the party and drag them to prison, where they find a way out of their cell into the cultists’ monster-infested operation.]
  3. “You answer the ad of a baron who had his men test your adventuring skills. The baron sends you to a hamlet on the edge of his lands where people have been mysteriously disappearing. He pays you silver upfront with promise of gold if you solve the mystery. You travel to the hamlet, where the town elder puts you up for the night in his spacious house. He and his wife are bringing you ale before the fire, when someone bangs on the front door, shouting, ‘For the love of God, let me in!’ There’s a scream. When you investigate, no one’s there. But then you see shadowy figures in the distance surrounding the house.” [I was in an adventure like this. Vampires attacked and carried away an NPC ally to a nearby keep, so we launched a rescue.]
  4. “You’re set upon by thieves in a town backstreet. They’re not very tough, and you beat them up, allowing them to escape with their lives. Afterward, an old man approaches you, and says he’s impressed. He wants to hire you for a job.” [The old man is a wizard who wants to rescue his girlfriend from monsters, but he can’t go to the authorities, because she’s wanted for thievery herself. It’s no accident he came upon their fight. He hired the thieves to test the party’s skills, and the party might figure this out. The party might refuse employment and instead report the wizard to the town authorities. Maybe he has rivals who’ll then take an interest in the party; or allies who’ll make things difficult.]

A good setup should put the characters in an angsty situation. People will suffer if the party doesn’t take action. Or, something mysterious is going on, and they’re torn by curiosity. Simply saying there’s adventure and treasure waiting in that cave yonder will serve for most players, but it’s a weak start, and you’ll have to overcome low expectations by being especially clever later on.

The Point of View Problem

In fiction writing, you tell a story through the viewpoint of one or more characters. The things that the characters notice reflect their mental state, their habits, and their preoccupations. The things they notice reinforce their character.

How’s that work in D&D? The Dungeon Master describes the scene, so the players borrow their own characters’ viewpoint from the Dungeon Master.

This problem is not completely solvable, but it can be mitigated a lot. Most of your narration should be prompted by what the players are interested in and ask questions about. In this way, you’re collaborating on the characters’ point of view. You know your game is working when the players are frantically asking questions, declaring actions, or hanging on your every word for information. You know your game is not working if you have to keep asking your players questions. Give them captivating details to ponder. Also, make sure your players understand their options and prod them about their skills and spells until they have some they regularly use, like spells to detect magic, know alignment, or see hidden objects, and the ability to hide, listen, or move silently. They should never be out of options. And if they try something, it should rarely just fail; it should give them a thread to follow to the next interesting situation.

If the players are not asking questions or otherwise taking initiative despite your best efforts to draw them out, you can get one of them to roll a twenty-sided die for a Perception check to notice something. You can let them apply their wisdom bonus or penalty. Ideally, you seldom do this. When you do, make it at least intermittently rewarding. Not only will it grab their attention from then on, it reminds them to ask questions.

A Perception die roll that indicates success shouldn’t really be more significant than failure. Both represent an opportunity for you to advance the story. For example, maybe the characters are at an inn and a cultist assassin is among them. You may decide a high perception roll indicates that a character spots a wicked curved dagger at the assassin’s belt, and something (poison) drips from the scabbard onto the floor. With a low roll, the character may glimpse something mysterious on the man’s belt when the man arranges his cloak but the character isn’t quick enough to see what it is; however, the character will notice a spot of liquid on the floor. Either way, there’s a mystery that amounts to the same level of direction. Unless the player is especially dimwitted, they will almost certainly ask questions about the mysterious liquid.

But what if the player really is dimwitted? Well, your challenge then is to make the character look smart. Maybe a fawning non-player character helps the player make connections. A knight’s squire may opine, “If only we had some way of sneaking up silently on the hobgoblins,” to remind the character of his elven boots of stealth.

It’s great to have smart players, but it’s also rewarding to overcome their limitations.

The Combat Problem

d_d_4.0_party_artWhat is combat good for? I think it was Ursula Le Guin who once wrote that the more action there is in a story, the less is going on. This can be especially true of combat in D&D, where the “action” is abstracted down to dice rolls and some narrative.

Far too may Dungeon Masters in my experience run their adventures as a slog from one session of dice-rolling combat to the next. Several hours of play can be summarized as “The party killed a bunch of orcs and an ogre in a ravine. Then the party killed some trolls in a cave. Then the party killed another bunch of orcs.” And so on, without much progress in realizing a story.

Monsters have stats for taking damage and dealing damage, and combat’s an obvious way to interact with them. The D&D rules comprise a lot of material on armor, weaponry, fighting, and damage-dealing spells, so it’s easy to get the idea that the game is all about combat. Combat is formalized and game-like in a way that’s easy to understand, and it’s a clear fallback when no one at the table knows what else to do. Characters and monsters run into each other, then you might roll for surprise, you definitely roll for initiative, and you take turns rolling to hit, and when someone hits, they roll damage. Repeat.

The problem with combat, other than its being a crutch for the baffled, is twofold. On the one hand, if players routinely prevail, the combat becomes a rote distraction that doesn’t really complicate the situation in interesting ways. On the other, characters may get killed. A combat that isn’t clearly pointless can still be unpredictable and mess up the direction of the game.

You need to manage combats so that they build on each other to complicate and enrich your larger story.

The basic function of combat is to help players gauge how generally powerful their characters are. The academic term used by game mavens Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias, and Robert Gutschera in their excellent book Characteristics of Games is “positional heuristic,” or rule of thumb for knowing how you’re doing in a game. Combat is a positional heuristic. If it involves a little concrete math, it helps the game feel objective and sets player expectations. As players defeat and are routed by a few different kinds of monsters, they get a sense of how they’re doing, and when their characters advance in level, they can appreciate the advantages they’ve gained. As characters approach the heart of an adventure, say deep into the dungeon, or near the inner court of an evil king, the combats become incrementally harder, which can increase tension.

When combat goes against the party, the setback should hold the seed of an interesting development. Way back in junior high, I ran an adventure for my cousin where he infiltrated the home of evil merchants in a town. They got the drop on him, and knocked him unconscious. He had already pretended to be their friend and revealed that he knew about their plans, so it seemed logical that they would interrogate him. What’s more, he had been talking to powerful good citizens and told them that he would investigate the merchants and report back. So not only was he kept alive for interrogation, but help was on the way. The interrogation even became a de facto reverse interrogation, as the merchants let slip crucial information while asking their questions.

This seemed logical, but it was far from self-evident. You have to be creative. Always.

Keep in mind that combat may not be the only option for resolving an encounter, and may be the poorest one. Most creatures, intelligent or not, don’t want to risk their lives in a fight. Always think about their motivations. Monsters can try distraction, bargaining, and intimidation. They might try to dupe the party. Maybe they lure a party into a fight with other monsters that they want eliminated. Maybe the party does this to the monster. Rather than a liability, one’s opponent can be an asset if manipulated or recruited.

The Rules Problem

The rules get in the way of playing every bit as much as they make playing possible. D&D is not about following rules. Even so, it’s good to agree on a sizeable body of rules and encourage everyone to learn them. The rules applied to the dice in conjunction with the mistakes the DM inevitably makes prompt the DM to improvise and constantly scavenge for new storytelling opportunities. In short, covering up your rules mistakes can be a big and rewarding part of the game.

Say a player rolls to hit a ghoul and you declare a miss when the player, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Monster Manual, insists that his character should have hit. The wrong thing to do is concede a mistake. The right thing is to change the situation on the fly to make yourself right. As the DM, you must always be right. Maybe you decide that the ghoul wears a +3 ring of protection. Then you realize that when the characters defeat the ghoul, they’ll be getting a magic ring that will make them too powerful, so you decide it’s a cursed item that will turn a character into a ghoul, or an item with limited charges, or a ring only wearable by ghouls. Or maybe you decide that a +3 ring of protection is better than the treasure you originally assigned to the ghoul and let it stand. In any case, you want to apply the rules so as to avoid many of these improvisations, but every mistake should be viewed as an opportunity to enrich the story.

If no one is overly meticulous about given rule details, especially in combat, then you’re very silly if you track them. Combats should be fast, but often they’re very very slow, because players try to incorporate all the possible situational modifiers. Why? In the interest of “realism”? The DM should imaginatively describe the combat scene and then roll and look at dice just long enough to create a little tension, longer when the players are really on the hook, so that their imaginations have a little time to work. It’s more important that the DM master drama than the rules.

Players will generally not consider how fair the DM is to their opponents. But some may try to avail themselves of every obscure rule, bogging down the narrative. The DM needs to be familiar with the rules just enough to refute these players’ stratagems. Probably the easiest thing to do is to keep the narrative moving, giving the player scarcely more time to declare attack options and bonuses than is needed to swing a weapon (or roll a die).

The Dice Problem

A D&D adventure that really modeled reality would never get around to rolling dice. It would be run by a Dungeon Master who had godlike knowledge of an impractical number of variables. He would know whether the arrow hit the target because he would know the distance, wind speed, amount of coordination and muscle memory the shooter has, plus gazillions of other factors, reaching to the limits of time and space. If he rolled dice at all, they would not be “to-hit dice”; they would be judging events in the quantum foam, on a scale that makes a single atom the size of a galaxy.

Dice are generally too crude to model reality. But D&D dice are an exception! They are magic dice. They channel a world where your characters really exist. The dice tell the story of what actually happens. What’s more, this is always a fascinating story that will captivate, move, and inspire your players. For example, the dice never kill the characters. If the players are making an effort to use their brains, the characters will win through. Only willful stupidity, either yours or the players’, will get the characters killed.

If the dice are telling you that the characters are unfairly thwarted or killed, or even if they’re telling a boring story, you’ve made a mistake. You’re using the dice to judge the wrong thing. Instead of re-rolling the dice, use your power as Dungeon Master to change what you’re measuring the dice against. Is the axe-wielding ogre likely to smash the character flat? If the next die roll can ruin the story, then you’re missing something. The dice only tell good stories. You roll a hit. You roll lethal damage — closed-casket lethal. There’s no way out of this, right?

Wrong. There’s always a way out. For example, in this situation, the ogre’s axe hits not the character but his plate-mail breastplate. Roll to see what happens to the breastplate…. If the result is anything less than a 20, the breastplate breaks. The armor is ruined, and the character knows to flee. If it’s a 20, the axe is ruined. Maybe it even shatters, sending a chunk into the ogre’s eye, blinding it or even killing it outright. (Are you about to look for this in the rules? Don’t look for this in the rules.)

Maybe an evil wizard who’d been secretly watching the proceedings hits the ogre with a lightning bolt, slaying it mid-stroke. Of course, the wizard didn’t do this out of kindness; he wants to interrogate the character and find out how he got so far in his dungeon, or he wants the character alive so that he can feed him to his lycanthropy-cursed daughter, or have him serve as a cat’s paw and go to the Tunnel of Traps to grab the golden monkey off the pedestal. (You didn’t know there was an evil wizard in this dungeon before the ogre made the die roll? Well, lucky you: now you know.)

Or maybe you’re not comfortable going off-script. Maybe you just rolled the die wrong and need to roll it over. Yeah, maybe that’s it. This is an embarrassment, of course, but no one is likely to notice just this once. And it’s not near as embarrassing as having the dice tell a bad story. Because dice don’t tell bad stories.

Dungeon Masters do.