Friday, February 27, 2015

Playtest Time! Fiasco - Reunion: Class of 1994

Thursday night, I gathered with 2 of my friends to run my first RPG session since last summer. When you're nearing 40, life gets so busy that it's hard to get into a new hobby that requires so much time in one sitting as an RPG session can. It's also hard to find people interested in playing an RPG if your current circle of friends isn't already into the hobby, and I've been itching for a couple months to play the Fiasco playset that I wrote back in November.

It's got the makings of a Fiasco!
There were three of us.
Sam is a gamer.
Julie is not.
I wrote the playset.

We met at Denny's to play. Don't laugh.

If you're not familiar with Fiasco, it's a very improv-heavy roleplaying game that relies on storytelling and player collaboration. There's no game master, but one person generally facilitates, and since I was the only one that had experience with this game, I took the helm.

Dice are used, but mostly for character creation and scenario building, then used during the game to determine whether scenes end well or badly for the characters in the spotlight. There's no number crunching, so it's very easy for anyone to pick up on it.

We rolled the dice and took time to establish our connections. My character, Edward Pacanowski, was at one time very close friends with Johnny O'Malley (Sam's character), but at present, we were sworn enemies. Between us was an Object - the class ring of a girl who had gone missing.

Johnny's relationship with Leah Johnson (Julie's character) was that of two friends who had known each other since freshman year, with a need to reconnect.

Leah's relationship with Edward was that we were outcasts -- we dressed funny because neither of us could afford the current styles that everyone else wore. We had a shared location, which was a party bus that was picking up random people on the way to the reunion.

To spice things up, we added a bonus element, an object: the disk with the nefarious computer virus on it.

After creating our connections, we gave our characters some background: Johnny, Leah, and Edward were all close friends in high school, in a small Midwestern town called Centreville.

Leah was the happy glue that kept everyone together. Since high school, she had moved around a lot; present day, he had been living in Miami for the last 9 months, but it was never fully established what she was up to. Johnny was the driven, vision-minded computer genius, who had a brilliant idea for a computer program called ChatKitchen, which would allow people to chat with each other in instantaneous real time, an application that hadn't been fully realized yet in the early internet age. In present day, he had been divorced for 10 years, was working customer service, and is coming to the reunion to try and reclaim some of the peace he once had as a young man. Edward (not Ed, not Eddie, but EDWARD) was a shy, non-confrontational type who had a creative streak -- he designed his own clothes (mostly because he couldn't afford the boss threads everyone else liked) by reclaiming and repurposing fabrics and materials from other sources, such as horse blankets, furniture upholstery, cow dung, et cetera. Present day Edward is a fledgling clothing designer, whose custom-made pieces were picked up for distribution by a local boutique store, and he has dreams of leaving Centreville for greener pastures (or maybe blacker asphalt).

2 other characters that were introduced during Act One were Melissa, whom Edward was in art class with and had a major crush on, and who eventually went missing. Jessica, Melissa's best friend, became good friends with Edward after Melissa's disappearance, and Edward developed feelings for her ... again, never acting on them.

At some point, the ChatKitchen program that Johnny had been working on gets tanked, and Johnny comes to believe that Edward had something to do with it. At the same time, Johnny expresses his intention to ask Melissa out, which causes Edward to view Johnny as a rival. This is the beginning of the rift between Edward and Johnny, and the springboard from which everything else connected.

One thing that stuck out to me was the potential for this playset to lend itself well to expository flashbacks, something that I'd never considered when writing it. Someone who critiqued this playset for me pointed out that the relationship options had a good grounding in the present day, while the needs seemed to be hovering in the past. This was partly by design, but I understood his point. From my perspective as a writer, I was drawing from my personal experience of thinking someone was exactly like you remember them 20 years ago -- whatever their personality was at the time you last saw them, that's exactly how you expected it to be the next time you saw them, no matter how much time has passed. The concept of who they were has been stuck in your brain, because you have no other basis for comparison.

However, given the fact it's a high school reunion, I completely overlooked the fact that flashbacks are almost a given with this playset. And we had plenty of them in the Act One. Then things took a turn when we got our Tilt elements.

That's right, Innocencen. Don't judge me.
Tilt 1:
Paranoia -- the item you stole has been stolen
Tilt 2:
Innocence -- somebody is not so innocent after all

I won't replay the way the story unfolded, but I'll just say it got kind of convoluted, even with only 3 player characters. The end of Act Two felt like a natural progression of dissolving friendships, something that emotionally had the punch of real pain, even though it was a game. We could all feel the things we'd held onto for so long slipping away from us, and none of us could control it.

It's easy to create drama when you think you know what the other characters are going to do. But when it comes to the denouement, the Aftermath, we quickly found out that even though the endings might make sense, all bets are off.

Our aftermath was tragically classic, poetic, and brilliant at the same time.

Johnny's aftermath description was Horrible ("You are probably dead"). The computer virus finally reared its ugly head, and the case of the missing girl was solved (thanks to those meddling kids). Johnny gave up any chance of living, ridding himself of his earthly pain while simultaneously exacting his revenge on the entire world.

Leah's aftermath, The Worst Thing in the Universe, saw her past evil actions finally catching up to her, but she gets to have her much-needed last words with her children to steer them in the right direction before she never saw them again.

And Edward's aftermath, Harsh ("A big black cloud of hurt is going to rain all over you"), saw his quest for seeking justice ending with the justice he sought, but also with him having a psychotic break, creating fashions for his fellow inmates at the insane asylum.

The best thing about Fiasco is that it is truly a collaborative game. Everybody brings something to the table, the story develops best when players build off of the ideas that other people. There was one point where I had an idea, and I shared it with Julie by writing a note and passing it to her -- I did this because if she also thought it was a good idea, it wouldn't have worked if Sam's character had known about it.

After the game, we talked about how else Fiasco could be implemented, who else we knew that would enjoy playing it, and what kind of setting we'd like to play next.

One other thing... As part of the setup of this playset, I created a playlist of songs that would have been popular around 1994, when the characters would have graduated high school. I had that playlist queued up on my laptop, and we used it as background music while we played. Good thing for us Denny's wasn't pumping music into their dining room, and we found that having the music going in the background was a great way to enhance the experience. When the first scene started, we heard Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole"; when one of the characters was working through not getting to be with his crush, we heard Meat Loaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"; when the scene on the party bus started, it was C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat"; and when we were working through the aftermath, the lyrics to Faith No More's "Epic" rang out...

"You want it all, but you can't have it."


If you like good storytelling, and the idea of creative collaboration sparks your interest, check out Fiasco. If you'd like to try this particular playset, you can download it on

Can't wait until the next game.

There Is No Box.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"You're My Favorite" Isn't a Compliment for a Worship Leader

I love to worship God through music. I love leading people into worship, and then worshiping with them. But I don't love some of the comments I get about how I worship, or how my leading of congregational worship affects them.

(By the way, I discovered that if you spell "worshiping" with 2 p's, using the double-consonant rule you learned in grade school, Google Chrome suggests that maybe you meant "horsewhipped" instead. Just a little nugget for ya.)

As a performer, I have to balance my ego with my calling to lead people into worship. Yes, the performance matters because if the excellence isn't there, it can be a distraction. But the performance isn't the driving force when leading worship -- it's only a baseline, a foundation for us to concentrate on worshiping God through the song, and for others to more easily enter into worship with us.

Still, I pour everything I have into musical worship, especially from the stage. It's my M.O.

So whenever I'm playing at an open mic night (all 2 times I've done it so far), running an RPG, doing comedy, or singing on stage for entertainment purposes, my ego wants the recognition. There's always some kind of insecurity that wants to know whether people liked it or not. My first time playing at an open mic night, I sang one of my original works, a love song I'd written to my wife in a major key with an uptempo feel. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see at least 3 people bobbing their heads, obviously getting into the song. I gotta tell you, I loved that I could write and perform something to conjure that kind of response.

But when I'm leading worship, it's different. I want people to respond, but for a different reason. I want people to experience God in a way that I know they can. Not everyone likes contemporary worship music, and there are some that relish the thought of singing an old-fashioned hymn with only an organ and the congregational voices providing the musical texture. But I worship the way I know how, which is to do it with some kind of reckless, yet controlled, abandon.

I get physical. I make eye contact with people. Sometimes I close my eyes and allow the song to wash over me. There are times the lyrics I'm singing sink deep into my soul, and I become emotional. There have even been a few times I've been very close to not finishing a line in a song because I thought I might begin to weep.

I guess I'm kind of an open book when I worship. I know God wants us to be that vulnerable with Him, but since I lead worship, it happens in front of everyone.

My problem is the comments that I get from people in the congregation after service is over.
"I love it when you lead worship."
"You have such an amazing voice."
"You are so anointed."
"I love to watch you worshiping God."
"You're my favorite one up there. I love everyone, but you're my favorite."

That last one's real. And it bothers me. I mean, it REALLY bothers me. Partially because people feel the need to say it at all, but more because they're not saying it about everyone on the team.

When I was in high school, I learned the importance of not just playing your instrument in the band, but playing WITH the band. The very definition of the word "band" indicates a group of people all doing the same thing. It would be normal for people to come up to us once in a while and give us a compliment. But Mr. Kinnison, our director, said that as members of the band, we should never have an "I/me" attitude, but always a "we" attitude. So the proper response to a compliment on our performance should be, "Thank you, we really appreciate it," or "We're glad you enjoyed it." Something to that effect. We knew that people are talking about the band as a whole, because it's unlikely that your uncle picked out your single flute part from among 150 other musicians. So it made sense.

But when leading worship in a church, you have far fewer people on stage, and everyone's voice is unique, so it's pretty easy to tell who's who, and it's easier for people to single out what they like. So I try to remember the "we" mentality and not hang on the "I/me" perspective when someone comes up to me and pays me a compliment.

Now, they could be complimenting the band's performance as a whole, or reflecting on how easy it was for them to worship God because of our playing, or whatever they're trying to convey. But when they single me out in their compliment, it troubles me.

Here are some of the things I struggle with on this.

1. My ego wants to receive the accolade. Honestly, this is easier to resist than some might think. I often hear compliments when I feel I've not performed my best. During those moments, I've had to trust God to help me operate in a spirit of worship, even if I hit wrong notes, drop a line of lyrics, or if my voice isn't feeling well. In those times, I'm surprised when people make an effort to say something positive, because I don't think it went very well. But yeah, I enjoy being lauded. I mean, who wouldn't want to hear something positive about themselves?

2. I'm not the only one up there. I'm surrounded from between 3 and 9 other people, depending on the day, and we're all coming together as one unit to try and worship with everyone else. So it's odd when someone points out the efforts of only one person.

3. I'm worshiping, too.
I'm not there to entertain you. I'm not providing a paid service. You didn't buy tickets to a concert, and I'm not receiving a paycheck. I'm there for the same reason you are -- I want to worsh God with my friends and family in the faith. You'd still be able to worship without me, and I'd still be worshiping if I wasn't on the stage.

4. I have nothing to do with the anointing.
I prepare my heart for worship, practice my craft, and ask God to lead me in what to say and not say during worship. Beyond that, what happens in that room is up to Him. So if our time of worship together is blessed and the Holy Spirit is moving in a way that everyone can sense, I can't make that happen. God will move in the way He moves. I just try to prepare for whatever He does. So when you tell me how anointed the worship was, that's great, but it ain't me. Don't get me wrong, I'm encouraged, honored, and even humbled that God chose to use me and the rest of the team to usher in a time of experiential worship, but it wasn't my decision. And I can't turn the anointing on like flipping a switch.

5. I HATE that you feel like you have to pick a favorite worship leader.I cannot tell you how much it bothers me when someone in the congregation says that I'm their favorite worship leader. I'm not saying this to brag, and this isn't false humility talking. I really don't like it, and it happens more often than you'd think. Actually, I hate that they feel like they have to pick a favorite in the first place. I mean, I get it in one respect, because we all have our favorite musicians, and if you asked the typical churchgoer, they'd not only have a favorite worship song, they'd have a favorite version of that song, as performed by a favorite musician of theirs.

I want to dissect one of the above quotes that I hear from some people.
"You're my favorite one up there. I love everyone, but you're my favorite."
Nearly every time someone tells me I'm they're favorite, they make sure they tell me that they love everyone on the team. Let's be honest -- if you feel like you have to make that point, to say you love every other worship leader, you probably don't. At least, that's my initial reaction to hearing that. And the reason it bothers me more than anything else is because all of the worship leaders in your church SHOULD be leading at the same level of excellence and preparation. But the harsh reality is that they're probably not all on the same page. So I can't really fault you for picking a favorite.

My hope and prayer is that everyone would be able to enter into worship no matter who's on the mic. We should all be able to expect a move of God, an experience with God, every time we gather together to worship as a collective. But sadly, not all worship leaders prepare the way they should. I wish I could say that it's only like that in my church, but I know it's a problem in churches everywhere.

And this, I believe, is why it's not the fault of the person who's picked their favorite worship leader. I think the responsibility lies with the worship leaders that aren't doing the preparation they need to beforehand.

One of my biggest pet peeves is musicians who don't come to rehearsal prepared.
The purpose of our rehearsal time isn't to learn the songs. Granted, if the setlist only comes out 1 or 2 prior to service, it can be difficult to put in the time you need.

But we've all seen the drummer who asks, "How's this song go again?" or the guitarist who knows every solo but can't take the time to memorize the 1-5-6-4 chord progression, or the vocalist that, for whatever reason, didn't learn the words to the songs. These are things you might consider basic requirements. Many churches use foldback monitors for the vocalists, which have the lyrics on them to use as a reference. The problem with that is that some vocalists rely on that monitor during service instead of memorizing the words ahead of time. I mean, they park their eyes on it and never take 'em away.

I don't get that. I understand the importance of having a fail safe, because I've blanked on lyrics before, and a reference like that is nice to have so that you don't get lost during a set of 4, 5, 6, or more songs. But if you prepare enough, you won't even need to look at that reference monitor -- singing the right words becomes second nature, and you can concentrate more on worshiping God. Besides, if you have to read the words when you sing, you're not leading worship. You're doing Karaoke.

Karaoke - the lowest common denominator of singing.

One of the more well-known passages of Scripture that talks about worship is John 4:23-24...
"Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth."
I think we tend to view this idea of worshiping in spirit and in truth as some kind of lofty concept, and idea that sounds good, but one that we have trouble thinking about in practical terms. Well, I have an idea of how to bring this to the road. First of all, consider that one of the definitions of the word "true" is to be accurate or exact. As a musician, being accurate means you know the song well enough to perform it in its entirety, from memory, and without any mistakes. Makes sense, right?

I'm a firm believer that if you have to read the words of a worship song while you're singing it, then you can't be worshiping God in truth. And if you're not worshiping God, how in the world can you expect to lead others into worship? I've even been told by some people, "Well, I can't memorize lyrics."


Do you know the words to "Jesus Loves Me"? How about the old Alka-Seltzer jingle? Or does "Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world" ring a bell? Because if the answer to any of those is yes, then you can memorize lyrics. "How Great is Our God" can't be too far off.

All it takes is time, repetition, and dedication to what you've been called to do ... or more to the point, what you've committed to do. I honestly don't understand how someone can think they're going to lead people into worship if the very essence of the song -- its lyrics -- aren't embedded in their heart.

I see it this way: If you had to have open heart surgery performed on you, who would you rather want cutting you open? The experienced surgeon with 20 open heart surgeries under his belt, who can do the procedure in his sleep, or the guy who's reading from the medical book while you're on the table because he's never done this procedure before?

Look, we all have our shortcomings. I'm just as fallible as the next guy. I've come in to rehearsal less than 100% prepared before, and I claim every ounce of responsibility for not knowing the music as thoroughly as I should have. Just last night, in fact, I dropped a few lines during rehearsal because I didn't spend enough time with the songs prior to our start time. In fact, the only times I've ever been nervous going on stage for a worship service is when I didn't prepare enough. I hate that feeling, mostly because I feel I'm doing a disservice not just to my team, but to all the people who came to church that day expecting to encounter God. They may still encounter Him in spite of me, but if I can allow God to work through me rather than block something because I'm trying to concentrate on remembering what I should have already memorized, then I'd rather do that.

So nobody's perfect. But if our standard is to worship in spirit and in truth, then let's prepare like it.

And those of you in the congregation, try to remember that your worship leaders are people with egos. Don't put us on a pedestal. Don't lavish us with jaw-on-the-floor dissertations on how talented you think we are. And don't tell us we're your favorite, even if you think it's true. Instead, you can encourage us. Build us up. Thank us for serving. Let us know that our efforts make a difference to you as a worshiper.

But mostly, please don't forget that we're part of a team. It's not about us as individuals. We honestly care more about how we can lead you into a spirit of worship as a team. Because it's indicative of living out our faith -- none of us can do it on our own.

There Is No Box.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Back Burner Project Debuts Quietly in St. Louis

On my birthday last week, I did something I started last year. I performed in public.

When I turned 38, I performed in an improv comedy show with several people I used to work with at ComedySportz St. Louis and City Improv St. Louis. It was the first time I'd been on stage with some of those people in over 10 years, and it was exhilarating to be in the groove with them again.

Last week, I turned 39, and I had the performing bug again. I picked up my acoustic guitar and headed to Hartford Coffee Company in St. Louis, Missouri, and attended my very first Open Mic Night. Among the baby boomer generation representatives, I found a very welcoming, friendly atmosphere, and felt supported by everyone in attendance. Even without a pickup in my guitar, the music filled the place pretty nicely.

This was my first step into my new career as a performing musician, and it's a brief start, but it's an important step for me. My wife was kind enough to record the encounter.

Here are the results.

There Is No Box.