DMing the Bible: Taking One for the Team

2008 August 25
by Dante

I think there are few stories that could be quite as fun for a first time out in a new place as the one on the menu for today. For those of you just joining us, back issues (including an introduction to the series) can be found on the blog, “Wry Juxtaposition.” We’re about a quarter of the way through Genesis, still in the thick of the story of the first patriarch. When we last left him, Abram was traveling by stages toward the wilderness that separated Canaan from Egypt. This time we get to see what happens when patriarchs get frightened and some of the resultant consequences. From an RPG side we’ll look at party role playing under adverse conditions.

The Text
Our story for the day actually is three stories. The events of Genesis 12:10-20 are repeated twice over in Genesis 20:1-18 and 26:1-11. So what’s the story: Abram (remember they haven’t had their name changes yet) and Sarai move to Egypt to escape a famine. Abram knows that Sarai is pretty hot, and worries that somebody there will kill him and take her away. So they devise a cunning plan; they will claim only a sibling relationship. That way if somebody wants her they won’t kill Abram first. As it just so happens Sarai attracted the attention of the Egyptian officials and was taken into the Pharaoh’s house. They didn’t kill Abram, but instead treated him royally well and gave him great swag. However trying to marry somebody else’s spouse is a pretty big no-no, and as a result the Lord punished the house of Pharaoh. Somehow the Egyptians figure out what the problem is and Sarai is restored to Abram and the whole group of them are invited to move on. This is the basic theme repeated once more with Abraham and once with Isaac both of those stories happen in the land of Gerar and feature King Abimelech (I really feel sorry for this guy).
In each of these cases the patriarch is feeling ill at ease as they arrive in a foreign land under trying circumstances. The experience of travel to a foreign country then was a great deal different that travel is today (with some few exceptions, granted). In general when we go from our home countries to other lands we don’t worry about people killing us to take our spouses. This is because we are fairly confident in the rule of law in these other lands and feel that we will be protected commiserate with the protection enjoyed by the country’s citizens. In the Ancient Near East travelers could rely on such assurances. Even in one’s own home country the safety of an individual was tied most closely to the relative power of the tribe or clan that he or she belonged to. Being a stranger in a strange land, Abram and later Isaac might have felt that their power was too weak as compared to that of the residents of the lands in which they sojourned.
Whatever the motivation, these stories represent very real threats to the promise that God made to Abram and his decedents. In each generation the promise was made to the patriarch, but could only really be borne out with the active participation of the matriarchs as well. In each of these tales God restores the matriarchs to her husband (though you got to figure he was sleeping on the tent equivalent of the couch for quite a while), and the story of this family of people continues for another generation.
These texts have long been problematic for Biblical Interpreters of every stripe. Abram lies, but is not condemned. The duped pharaoh is punished by divine retribution. Abram seems to have no real problem sending his wife to sleep with someone else to save his own skin. Anyway you slice it there’s a lack of a hero here. As a code for moral exemplar, this is not the guy upon which to pattern yourself, but as an example for role playing – he might not be that bad.

The Game
Until I get up to speed on 4e this section is going to be more fluffy than crunchy, my apologies in advance. OK so what lessons about role playing can we draw from this tale of silver tongued behavior. Here are some ideas with a word of warning: If you end up with one character being apart from the party for any period of time, have a good and interesting plan to keep the affected player involved and happy. Personally I like given such a person a real antagonistic NPC to play– hell hath no fury as a player wronged.

  • Strangers in a Strange land: though there are thriving towns with efficient town guards and even tempered fair magistrates, it’s not a stretch to imagine a town where the PCs are met with hostility. Such a town might regard the party as weak because they are not affiliated with any of the strong area families.
  • Taking on for the team: In these stories the matriarch is given up as a way of preserving the rest of the party. In your adventure is there a way to try and separate the party? It seems to me that you get a chance for 1. a character who hasn’t gotten a chance to shine yet receive a moment in the sun, 2. basically good characters to engage in some mild back-stabbery, or 3. you have provided a story moment that deepens the bond between characters.
  • Only if you all pull together: As was mentioned above, these tales represent a subtle kind of threat to the promise made by God to these people. In adventure writing there is from time to time the tendency to have the one item of power needed to complete the arch; this is a good idea when writing adventures without a clear idea of who will be playing and the relative natures of the player characters. However there is also what I like to think of as the Captain Planet approach. That is, only when all the characters combine some special thing they contribute to the party can there be success. So at the very least selling the other PCs down the river would be a bad idea, though they might not know it at the time.
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