Faith in Play #25: Impact

This is Faith in Play #25:  Impact, for December 2019.


Back in maybe 1981 when I first started explaining on contemporary Christian radio station WNNN-FM that Dungeons & Dragons™ was not some evil cult activity but a very Christian game, I was as a lone voice crying in the wilderness.  In 1997 when I first posted Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons(TM) Addict, Webcrawler (the original search engine) and Yahoo! (at the time a directory maintained by people reading and indexing web pages) between them had a dozen pages on Christianity and role playing games—half of them against.  So sparse was the defense of gaming against the assaults of well-meaning misguided Christians that within days of my posting that page Reverend Jim Aubuchon knew it was there and invited me to join his newly-formed Christian Role Playing Game Association, which within two years would become the Christian Gamers Guild.

I’d like to say that I immediately saw the benefit of joining my ministry with that of others.  That is not how it happened—but I have told that story elsewhere.  Suffice it that God saw the benefit of putting me on their team.

Today the voices that rage against the evils of role playing games have been isolated to pockets of cranks, and most of the world knows that Dungeons & Dragons™ is not a cult but just a game, and a good game at that.  Meanwhile, there are so many people who in an organized way are involved in some kind of ministry involving gaming that there is a Facebook group specifically for such groups, and even though I am one of the moderators of that group and I have more than once read the article on this site naming many of them, Our Friends and Allies—August 2019 by Bryan Ray, I have no idea who they all are or what they all do.

Did we start something?

I can’t make any grand claims for the Christian Gamers Guild.  When Reverend Paul Cardwell joined us for a while, he was already working with The Committee for the Advancement of Role Playing Games.  I don’t know when Bill Walton launched The Escapist, but he has never been a member of our group to the best of my knowledge.  Michael Stackpole and Tracy Hickman were working on rebutting anti-D&D arguments independently of me for as long as I had been doing it.

On the other hand, I know that at least a few of those currently part of that group of game and hobby ministers were at one point members of the Guild now using their talents in other ways.  Further, I know that we had an impact beyond them.  Just recently (now a few months ago, but only days as I draft this) someone found me on Facebook and reported that two of the articles I wrote in the late 90s (the aforementioned Confessions and the recently unburied and republished Morality and Consequences:  Overlooked Roleplay Essentials) had had a positive impact on his life and marriage, as they helped persuade his wife that his gaming interest was not something evil.  That was someone I helped twenty years ago of whom I only just became aware.  They use to say in media that you will hear from one out of a hundred listeners or readers.  That suggests there were a lot more that I helped whom I will never know were helped.

So what, am I patting myself on the back and giving praise to the organization of which I am so visible a member?

That is not my intention.

I wrote that first article because I saw a wrong that needed to be addressed.  In fact, I drafted the original sometime in the mid eighties, based on notes from the arguments I’d made on the radio prior to that.  I did it because I saw a need.  It made it to the web in large part because I had it already largely drafted and needed material for a web site that would draw attention to the game I had just published.  I had no intentions nor expectations of becoming a recognized defender of hobby games—that was God’s decision.  What I want to convey to you is that if you do what God has put in front of you, if you right the wrongs you see at hand in the ways you see to do so, you will ultimately have far more impact than you imagine.  You will change lives simply by becoming involved in them.

There is a local pastor whose church is not more than five miles from my house; I know him because his mother and I attend the same church.  One particularly cold night he found a homeless man trying to shelter himself on the front steps of his church.  He took care of that man that night—but he thought he, and his church, ought to be doing more for the many homeless on the streets of their small city.  One had recently died trying to take shelter in or obtain clothes from a clothing donation box.  He started opening the church sanctuary on cold or stormy winter nights for homeless people to sleep on the pews.  He worked with other churches in the city and with city officials and police, establishing a program called Code Blue to identify potentially harsh weather, and soon managed to set up places where such people could sleep on such nights, not only in his city but in the two other major urban centers in our county.  This was not enough; creating something called the M25 Initiative (for Matthew chapter 25), he got people working on finding and fixing abandoned houses and moving homeless families into them.  They are approaching a hundred families so helped—and with their initiative, the State has passed legislation supporting such efforts in every county, and local businesses including the major hospital chain have helped fund and manage the program.  (The hospital says that putting people in homes reduces the numbers coming to the Emergency Room for shelter on such nights.)  Reverend Robin Weinstein has, I think, had far more impact on people’s lives than I have had, but it began because he insisted on giving a homeless man shelter on a cold night.

People always say, “Let yourself be used by God.”  Yet the hearers often respond, at least within themselves, “How?”  The answer is right here:  do what you see in front of you to help people and correct wrongs, and God will use you in that, and open more in front of you.


Previous article:  The Christian Veneer.
Next article:  Fields to Harvest.

Environment Matters: Improving Your Gaming Area

A wonderful thing about fantasy role-playing games is that they unfold mainly in the minds of the players. They are games of wonder and imagination. Players that keep this concept firmly in mind realize that they can play almost anywhere. Over the years, I’ve played AD&D (my game of choice) in basements, in dining rooms, in living rooms, and in a bedroom (sixth-grade sleepover). We’ve sat on floors, folding chairs and bar stools. We reclined on couches and played poolside on lounge chairs. To a limited extent, we once played in a car and while walking through a park. Your environment can be minimal, if necessary. A few sheets of paper, a pen, and some dice are all that is really needed (and the even dice are questionable). Nevertheless, a nice gaming area can indeed make the game session much more comfortable, more efficient, and more intense.

I have been blessed in that I have been able to play RPGs for over 25 years now, and I’m currently blessed with a comfortable home in which to play. Over the last few years, I decided to make small, incremental improvements to our area. Why not, especially if gaming is a consistent hobby? I am quite pleased with the results so far, but I’m always looking for small ways to improve further. Inspired by an article by Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, I recently took stock of all my gaming area features, and I share my thoughts with you now. Perhaps an idea that I borrowed along the way might prove useful to your group. I would love any tips or suggestions that you might have.

A Good Table

The best shape is highly debatable and likely a matter of taste. Space requirements and cost are also important factors. However, almost everyone agrees that having a table is key to a good game. It allows players to connect with one another, and it builds intensity. Granted, I would game on the floor if I had to, but getting a good table is worth the effort.

My friend used to host our games for many years, but he eventually passed away. His brother asked if I would take the table and continue the tradition, and I accepted. The table was one that he had made from a sheet of 4′ x 8′ plywood. He slapped some sort of fiberboard over it. He then nailed 3″-wide strips of pine on all sides to give it some depth. On the underside, he attached the folding legs from a folding table. Thus, while a bit large and bulky, it does fold up. Initially, I wasn’t sure that I wanted this thing set up permanently in my basement so being able to take it down quickly helped to convince the wife to allow it. Once I set it up, I decided to spend 20 minutes to stain the sidepieces a walnut color. I also had strips of molding that were unused so I nailed them on and stained them as well. These were just minor touches, of course, but you no longer see unpainted lumber. As for size, we could fit seven players and a DM without a problem. As it is a bit wide, I opt to store a bunch of terrain and other stuff in the middle toward the DM screen. It makes for easy access, and it adds some atmosphere too.

Bookcases and Magazine Holders

Having easy access to many gaming books is obviously a bonus. My den, where we play, had some built-in shelves, which I used in the early days. However, after the wife warmed to the idea of the den being a gaming room, she suggested sprucing it up a bit. She found a mildly inexpensive, two-shelf, black, wooden bookcase from Target. As we had just received a nice tax return, I ordered seven of them. They now line the walls in certain areas. The ones behind the DM hold my figures, some terrain, and spare dice, while some nice candle holders, a lamp, and some knickknacks adorn the tops. Another case holds all of my RPG rulebooks and modules.

Atop two of the cases, I placed some decent looking magazine cases that I bought at Staples. Though only black faux leather, they do keep things looking neat and on the nicer side.

Side Tables

A friend gave us a spare wooden kitchen table. It’s somewhat small, and we don’t use it in the kitchen, but we didn’t want to throw it out. Thus, it now sits against one wall and is quite useful. I keep my portable LED tracing ‘table’/pad on it (not used during the game, but very handy to have out during game prep), along with other knickknacks. I also have another lamp on it. You can never have too much table space (or light).

I keep a smaller wooden table near the traditional DM spot at the head of the table. I keep more figures on it, along with several other props and a few binders.

Computer

I have no laptop, though that would be ideal, I guess. Instead, I have my iMac on an old computer table near the DM-side of the table. Though initially I used this only during game prep, I have come to use it more and more during play. I like having various audio files and soundtracks ready to play, and having the iMac within reach makes that easy. Also, I now keep several relevant documents open for easy reference. Furthermore, if the players catch me completely off-guard, it usually only takes me a minute to pull up the needed information from some other document on my hard drive.

A Brother laser printer sits on the same computer table, making it extremely convenient for game prep. It also makes it very easy to print a document during play if they need it.

Leather Armchairs

The den was a den before it was a gaming room so we have two old leather armchairs in there. Rather than get rid of them (we have no other place to put them, and we kind of like them), we put them up against a wall. When our smaller groups play, no one sits in them, though they do offer a nice break for anyone whose butt hurts or who wants a change of pace. In our larger group, one person usually sits in one, though he gets up during battles.

Terrain

I have very mixed feelings on terrain, though you wouldn’t know that from the amount that I have. I do love the atmosphere it brings, and it does make envisioning certain things much easier. However, I do not like having several rooms set up for each session (as many are wont to do when you have so much of it—and as pictured on Dwarven Forge’s website for obvious reasons). I’ve found that a pre-made layout ends up dictating the session instead of being a useful prop. No. We use terrain in almost every game, but it is always in a form that we can throw together and take apart very quickly. We’ll make a room or two at a time, as we go. This is why I opt to keep most of the terrain right on the table. The types of terrain pieces that we keep on the gaming table are those that we use often: about 50+ stone dungeon floor tiles (10′ x 10′), many stone dungeon wall tiles, some curved stone dungeon wall tiles, some cavern floor tiles, cavern wall tiles, cavern outcroppings, boulders (small and large), tree stumps, fallen trees, small trees, and large trees (lots of trees).

Other types of terrain that I keep in the bookcases include all kinds of treasures, furniture, boxes, crates, barrels, stone columns, campfires, etc. Actually, many of these things are so cheap and get so much use that I highly recommend picking them up. Unlike the Dwarven Forge sets (which are beautiful, but quite pricey), you can get these miscellaneous items rather cheaply. I prefer Legendary Realms for this small stuff (they have a store by me, but they are also on eBay, I believe).

At some point, I grew tired of putting back and then pulling out the same small pieces each session. I found a common plastic bin (maybe 6″ x 12″) and threw these small pieces in it. When we need those pieces, I just grab the bin from the bookcase.

Gaming Mats And Plexiglas

We have used several different types of vinyl wet-erase mats over the years (Chessex battle mats, for example), and we’ve also gone without a mat. I eventually decided that drawing a map on a mat was more trouble than it is worth. I hate to take game time to draw with any accuracy, while very poorly done maps cause more confusion than clarity. Also, the wet-erase markers never quite work perfectly so after a while you can see old drawings on the ‘clean’ mats, which stinks. There are also different types of vinyl maps; some are plain (often cream color), while others are gray and look like stone, and others are green to resemble a forest. Which to use?

I eventually settled on a large (48″ x 48″) green forest mat, which makes setting up a forest encounter extremely easy. With our vinyl mat permanently laid out, we just grab a handful of trees and boulders and scatter them about. When we want to make dungeons or caverns, we just grab the stone tiles and place them over the green mat (which soon disappears beneath them).

Plexiglas is an old gamer’s trick to keep those Avalon Hill-style folded maps pressed down flat so your cardboard unit counters don’t slide. I eventually obtained two small pieces for my table. They do not cover the whole thing (no need), but together they cover about half the table—the part where we have the mats and where we throw together dungeon tiles. This protects the mats and gives you a nice, hard, flat surface for figures.

The Plexiglas gives an added bonus too. There is usually some room around the perimeter, where we would not usually set up tiles or have figures. In those spots, I lift up the Plexiglas and throw some paper props underneath, like the menu to the local tavern, the prices at the local trading post, an index card of Varangian runes (so those PCs that ‘know’ the runes can just peer down to recall what they know), and an index card with the phases of the AD&D combat round (for newbies that may get confused).

Player Chairs and Snack Tables

We use black folding chairs, but they have padding on them, which makes them bearable. Again, players can always get up and sit in the two armchairs nearby if they want a break. I also have my computer chair for a player that doesn’t want to deal with folding chairs.

Though it’s unreasonable to ask players not to put stuff on the table, it is a secret pet peeve of mine because we lose so much space for props and figures. To mitigate the encroachment, I set up snack tables with coasters between every two chairs. For a touch of class, I have gargoyle coasters from Paris and square marble coasters from upstate NY.

Card Table of Snacks

On the other side of the den, about 10′ from the table, is a small card table with assorted snacks, drinks, and paper goods. My players are very comfortable in helping themselves to anything on the table. I usually provide some staples (pretzels, soda, flavored water, and iced tea), while each player often brings a small something. A 30-gallon, black, garbage bag is kept open over there, and it makes cleaning up afterwards a snap.

Cork-board

About two years ago, one group of players spent so much time arguing among themselves over priorities that they confused themselves and lost track of their objectives. Not great game-play, for sure. Though I believe in natural consequences, I did not want this tendency to ruin the game. Thus, I purchased a 35″ x 46″ cork-board, some push pins, and a stack of index cards. I taped a Sharpie to the top. I stash the board out of sight until game time, and then I just lean it against the treadmill, or wherever they want it. It definitely helped. My other groups do not need this so it remains out of sight.

Walls

Huh? Our den has old wooden paneling from the 1970s or 1980s. Not our cup of tea, but changing that is like #412 on our to-do list. How to make use of the paneled walls without ruining them? Masking tape. My current campaigns center on a large lake. A friend used a plotter at work to print an enlarged copy of the map. At his suggestion, I then taped it to the wall for the players to see. It’s great. It really draws players into the game. Everyone can see basics from the table, but anyone can also walk over and point out details. I do want to get a laser pointer so I don’t need to push past seated players to get to the map.

While thinking of the paneled walls as a giant bulletin board, I also printed out another fun prop and taped that to the wall. What was it? I asked every player to tell me which famous Hollywood actor would play each of his or her PCs. Then I found a good picture of each celebrity, dropped each into a Word doc, and labeled everyone. Now each party has a visual of all the other PCs in the party.

The best part about all this is that I can pull the stuff off the wall in about five minutes, if the need arises.

Custom DM Screen

Back when we were playing 3E, I wanted a custom DM screen for the many house rules that we had created. A friend suggested those black, foam, tri-fold, presentation boards, which you can pick up at Staples. I cut it down a bit. It’s 12″ high and has three sections. The center section is 24″ wide, and each of the two wings is 12″ wide. That’s a good-sized DM screen. I then printed out some great pictures, cut them out, and then used rubber cement to fix them to the players’ side of the presentation board. I then printed out my custom tables and affixed those to the DM side. I was quite happy with it and used it for many years. When we switched to AD&D, I made a new one for that.

Ironically, I no longer use it much, though it still sits in place near one head of the table. I seldom reference it, but it does serve to wall off some of my notes, my figures that I pulled out for use during the session, a stash of pencils, specialty dice, etc.

Extra DM Seat

Initially, as DM, I sat at the head of the table (very traditional). However, I disliked being so far away from the figures on the table, and I found myself having to get up constantly. As we have groups of three-five players on average, there is usually some extra room at the table. Thus, I took to sitting in one seat that would be next to the DM. Behind that spot, facing away from the gaming table, is the computer and printer. Thus, from that spot, I can access the computer, still slide into the traditional DM spot at the head of the table, and more easily get to the map and the figures on the table. As stupid as this may sound, I also find that it lessens the poisonous ‘players v. DM’ mentality. In that spot, I keep a cute dice tower and my DM dice for the night, as well as my index cards that I use to keep track of initiative. In that spot, I also keep an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of cardboard, with ten boxes drawn on it–one for each segment in a combat round. I place small chits on the boxes to note when the party and when the monsters go in a given round.

For a DM chair, I use a Gaiam rolling ball chair, which is comfortable and easy to kick out of the way, when I need to get up (which is still often).

Ambiance

Candles are fun—that is until you cannot see or until you get eyestrain. As much as I would love some sort of fancy lighting, getting my electrician to put in dimmer switches for the high hats is not in the cards at the moment. However, as the den has taken on a rather clubhouse feel, I hung three strings of small Christmas lights around the room, where the wall meets the ceiling (small finishing nails hold them up). I throw them on this time of year, or whenever I want to smile (they make me happy). Subconsciously, they add a warm, cozy feeling to the room.

I also have a few scented candles around the room, and though we don’t play by candlelight, I sometimes light the candles for fun. I also have a few battery-operated candles that look pretty realistic (I think Luminara is the expensive company that makes them, but there are cheaper ones on Amazon).

Memorial Cup

This is probably very atypical, but I’ll mention it anyway. I am very fortunate to have been part of a group that has been playing regularly for almost 40 years! Players have come and go, of course, but the core has remained for much of the duration. I joined them in 2002 or so, when they had already been going strong for about 20 years. My friend Doug hosted the group (he was the one that built the table, mentioned above). His childhood friend, Mike, was a permanent feature of the group from the start. Sadly, in 2015 Mike lost his bout with cancer. Refusing to be separated from his friend, Doug followed just months later. Well, it took us about six months to get over their passing, but we eventually recommenced play. With a nerdy nod to the movie Excalibur, we found a nice medieval-looking goblet and placed it on the table. When we play, we fill the cup in fond memory of Mike and Doug.

So there you have it. That’s our gaming area. Not long ago, a young solar panel technician came to the house to measure something, and when he walked downstairs and passed the den, he stopped in his tracks and said, “Whoa! What a setup!” He actually caught me off guard because I never really think of our setup as anything extraordinary. We have no mini-fridges, no projectors dropping down out of the ceiling, no mood lighting, etc. Yet, I guess when you improve things bit-by-bit, you don’t notice how far you’ve come. So I leave you with this challenge: Find one small way to improve your area as this year comes to a close. It need not be expensive. You needn’t spend money at all. Maybe it’s just how you arrange the furniture. Maybe it’s repurposing an old table that is gathering dust. Be creative. Better yet, ask your players to help. Ask them to make suggestions. They might even donate some doodads or toys to your area. I certainly inherited some features of mine. Great stories and the accompanying memories certainly make playing groups tighter, but so does a shared space. It’s your clubhouse. Make the most of it and have fun doing it.

RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon

This is RPG-ology #24:  An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.


On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan.  The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title
Game Ideas Unlimited:  An Amusing Dungeon.

Photo by flickr user Waldo Jacquith under Creative Commons 2.0 license, no changes were made.

  Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players.  After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me.  I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting.  But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one.  One of those was that dungeons had to make sense:  there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built.  And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.

  The story I invented was fairly simple.  Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren.  It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction.  The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy.  The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.

  The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others.  The newcomers made changes, making this their homes.  Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.

  Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers.  They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts.  A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes.  One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age.  Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.

  And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries.  For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.

  It was an amusement park.

  It wasn’t difficult to design.  I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion.  There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs.  Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.

  Some of these were very straightforward.  There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display.  Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear.  A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one.  A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat.  And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked.  I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin.  But there was so much more.

  The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive.  The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi.  The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level.  The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters.  And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.

  My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl.  The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south.  The room had a thirty foot ceiling.  There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front.  The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall.  A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning.  As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall.  Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them.  This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall.  But then the truly terrifying happened:  the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below.  They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun.  Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop.  One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon.  Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth.  But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.

  But their favorite was probably the roller coaster.  This began as a bench at the end of a hall.  If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall.  I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them.  But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant.  Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them.  The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another.  I think one of the players may actually have screamed.  I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.

  I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember.  They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried.  Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had.  Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.

  I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work.  It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map.  Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war.  This was just part of the show.  What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.

  A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined.  This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon.  I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality.  I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions.  The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical.  By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.


Previous article:  Nonrandom Thought.
Next article:  Transmats.

New Home for the CGG!

Yahoo recently announced that the Groups service that the CGG has relied upon for years to manage our main email discussion list is being scaled back. Archives, photos, databases, polls, etc will be deleted come December. Since we do, in fact, use most of those features, we decided to move over to Groups.io, which not only has a less Orwellian privacy policy, it also seems to generally run better.

Naturally, several people have raised the question “Why stick with email? Wouldn’t Facebook/Reddit/Discord/a forum/other service-du-jour be better?” The reason’s are three-fold: First, email has staying power. It’s unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future. Discord may go the distance, or it may fade into obscurity like ICQ. Google+ ceased to exist, and any given other service probably will, too, in the long-term. But even if Groups.io itself goes away, our inboxes remain, and we can find a new service or set one up ourselves if necessary.

Second, email is passive. If I had to remember to go to a forum or a Facebook group every day or every week, even as a Board member, I’d eventually lose the habit. Others would, too, and before you know it, CGG would be as dead as Fans for Christ. Since the Guild’s messages come directly to me, even if I ignore it for a time, eventually I’ll remember to look in that CGG folder in my email account. That’s probably the primary reason the CGG is still around after all these years—it takes very minimal effort to stay connected to it.

Finally, there are plenty of other groups that cover those other venues. Want to talk with Christian gamers on Facebook? Check out The Tavern. Is Discord your thing? Saving the Game has a vibrant community there. CGG’s primary venue has always been email, and for the time being, that continues.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re ignoring other channels. Grant, of the aforementioned Saving the Game, did set up a CGG Discord channel for us (invite available on request. Email admin@christian-gamers-guild.org for a link), and there are two Reddit communities operated by a CGG member: https://www.reddit.com/r/christianitygaming/ and https://www.reddit.com/r/DarkDungeons/

Anyway, as always, membership in the CGG is open to all, and it’s as simple as joining the discussion list. You can do that via email by sending a message to main+subscribe@Christian-Gamers-Guild.groups.io or by going to the group’s web portal at https://christian-gamers-guild.groups.io/


As a consequence of the move, if you subscribed to the CGG at some time in the past but had stopped receiving email for one reason or another, you may have received an unexpected welcome email and a spate of new conversations starters from the new distribution list. Obviously that’s been unwelcome to some people because I’ve had about a dozen notifications of people immediately leaving the new list. So allow me to apologize—it’s never our intention to spam anyone, but mechanized processes definitely do have their downside in that regard. Of course, those who are uninterested in the list probably are equally uninterested in coming here for an explanation…

Faith in Play #24: The Christian Veneer

This is Faith in Play #24:  The Christian Veneer, for November 2019.


My attention was called to a crowdfunding effort for a Christian-themed game.  This was long enough ago that I expect, or at least hope, that nothing I say will impact the success of that funding effort, because it really looks like it might be a good game and I hope they succeed in bringing it to print.  However, it was presented to me through a Christian gaming forum, and the tag line was

Be the first of the wise men to reach the Christ child in Bethlehem. A new Christmas game tradition.

It was being produced by a company named Christian Haven, which is confusing because it appears that that actually is the name of the senior designer on the project, and not a clever idea for a name for a company that produces Christian games.

My gut reaction to that blurb was, how is it not a remake of Parcheesi?

In fairness, that’s a bad reaction on two fronts.  First, just because a game draws strongly on the design of another game doesn’t mean the new version is not as good or better than the old.  I spent many hours in past decades enjoying the game Sorry, which is essentially just Parcheesi with cards and a few other quirks; Trouble is also Parcheesi, but with the Pop-o-Matic® dice thing (a great idea for kids’ games because you can’t easily lose the dice).  Another version of Parcheesi could be a fine game, and shouldn’t be discounted simply for being a bit derivative.

It’s a bad reaction on the other front because the game is a lot more complicated than merely a remake of Parcheesi.  There appears to be the potential for intricate strategy, the involvement of random complications, and the necessity for resource management.  Its resemblance to the classic board game is minimal.

Yet my problem is whether it is a “Christian” game.

Perhaps I am too hasty.  Nothing on the funding page claims that this is a “Christian” game; it is billed as a “Christmas” game.  Christian Haven can’t help having been given that name.  On the other hand, one of the mechanics involves answering trivia questions, and half of these are Bible-based (the other half based on “history”).  It is clearly a game for Christians.  That of course does not make it a Christian game—there are many things marketed to and for Christians which in themselves are not “Christian” and which are sometimes even a bit dubious in their values.  I could raise issues with any game, but I have fewer complaints about this one than I have with Monopoly.

I am thrown back to that unanswerable question:  what would make a game “Christian?”  I proposed a design for an activity I called a Christian Game a couple years ago, and one of my readers teased that only I would call an exercise in Biblical exegesis a “game.”  I’ve commented before that I don’t have a definition of “game” that would include everything I would include and nothing I would exclude, and that only complicates the matter.  Yet I find it difficult to label anything “Christian” beyond people and groups of people and their interactions.  That in itself suggests that there ought to be something like a Christian game.  However, I’ve been Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild for about two decades now, and the only use of that phrase I can genuinely defend is that it identifies any game played in a Christian way by Christians.  You can’t put that in a box.  A Christian theme and a Bible trivia mechanic make a game that will appeal to Christians and not to others, but that’s just a coating on a game.  If it were about Muslim pilgrims racing to Mecca and had Koran trivia cards, it would be the same game for a different audience; that version would no more be a Muslim game than this one is a Christian one, because the game has not changed, only the veneer.

Again, none of this is passing judgment on whether the game in question is a good game.  It probably is.  I just don’t think it’s necessarily a Christian game, and wouldn’t want it marketed as such.

Editor’s note: The name of the game in question is Stella Nova: Journey of the Magi.


Previous article:  Kralc’s Law.
Next article:  Impact.

RPG-ology #23: Nonrandom Thought

This is RPG-ology #23:  Nonrandom Thought, for October 2019.


A long time back in Faith and Gaming:  Mechanics we talked about Fortune, one of three methods of resolving outcomes in our games:  the use of dice, cards, and other randomizers to create unpredictable random outcomes.  We discussed then the question of how Christian faith relates to randomness.

Of course, the randomizers we use in our games are not entirely random.  That’s what we’re talking about now.

17th Security Forces Squadron Police Officer, John Hernandez, practices approaching the scene of an active shooter during the tactical driving course at the shoot house on Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 27, 2019. Individuals practiced engaging targets while operating a vehicle and navigating through multiple advanced driving courses. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Seraiah Hines/Released)

As I was musing on probabilities, I read a headline that stated that there was a drive-by shooting in a nearby town.  I’m sure that the town would like to think of itself as a city—it happens to have the largest geographical area of any municipality in the state, and I am told that police in our county seat jokingly refer to their law enforcement division as “the real police,” but it is largely rural space save for a long developed commercial district along three or four crossing roads.  The headline surprised me, and got me wondering about the probabilities of being killed in a drive-by shooting.  It appears that there are hundreds every year in the United States, so the probability of someone being killed in such a shooting on any given day is near one hundred percent—but the probability that it would be any specific individual is negligible, something that could not reasonably be anticipated.

Still, I doubt anyone would argue if I suggested that the probability of being killed in a drive-by shooting is significantly higher in sections of Chicago than it is in the rural counties of New Jersey.  Such shootings may seem in one sense completely random, but they aren’t completely random.

That is our objective when we design fortune mechanics for our games:  attempt to reflect the probabilities of any particular outcome.  It is not particularly likely that a character would be killed in a drive-by shooting, but if we have that in our games we want it to be something that might happen in our cities and probably won’t happen in our towns.  On our “wandering monster” tables, dragons are very rare and orcs rather common, because we envision our fantasy worlds as overrun by orcs but containing relatively few reclusive dragons.  In some situations we achieve that by “curves”—the roll of three six-sided dice to generate character abilities in most versions of Dungeons & Dragons is a solid example.  One character in two hundred sixteen will roll a natural 18 strength; a like number will roll a 3.  One out of seventy-two will roll a 17, and a similar number a 4.  Most characters will roll more or less ordinary strength, between 8 and 13, just as most people have average strength.  The “randomness” is structured.

So, too, in combat, in most games there is a value that hits and a value that misses, and a range of values between the two for which how good the two combatants are, one at offense and the other at defense, determines which ones hit and which ones miss.  There is randomness—you can always roll a miss no matter who you are—but it is controlled.

So how do you do that?  This column can barely begin to scratch the surface of such discussions.  The primer in Appendix 3:  Basic Dicing Curves in Multiverser:  Referee’s Rules is eleven pages long.  There are a lot of ways to use dice to create different kinds of outcomes, and some of them are considerably more difficult to calculate than others.  However, the calculation process is part of the game design process:  you need to work out how your probabilities are falling.  This will at least get you asking the right questions, and in today’s world once you’ve asked the question you can find the answer somewhere.

Probably.


Previous article:  Snow Day.
Next article:  An Amusing Dungeon.

Faith in Play #23: Kralc’s Law

This is Faith in Play #23:  Kralc’s Law, for October 2019.


I don’t want to say that Arthur C. Clarke is famous for this; he is, after all, author of the book behind one of the most iconic of near-term science fiction space travel movies (have I limited that enough?), 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  However, he is quite frequently cited for one of his proposed “laws”, with sufficient prominence that it has become known as “Clarke’s Law”.  It states

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,

and a significant part of the point of the quote is to imply that magic never has to be the explanation for anything, because something we do not understand could well be technology beyond our knowledge.

I don’t know whether Clark believes in magic; I don’t know enough about the man.  James “The Amazing” Randi is a devout disbeliever and debunker, yet I read a short story by him years ago (in Omni Magazine) in which the lead character, a stage magician, discovers that there is real magic in the world outside his knowledge, and so seeks to learn it.  It is easy to assume that what we are watching has an entirely scientific explanation—what we would perhaps prejudicially call a “rational” or “logical” explanation.

However, the reverse is also true. Read more

RPG-ology #22: Snow Day

This is RPG-ology #22:  Snow Day, for September 2019.


As I write this, it’s snowing; snow is sticking to the ground, and we’re probably going to be snowed in.  At least, the boys are hoping there will be no school tomorrow.

That makes no sense to most of you as you read this.  By the time it reaches print (or the electronic equivalent) it will be summer.  I am writing this well in advance of the anticipated publication date.  Here we recently saw the tips of crocuses before the snow buried them, and were worried about some of the other early flowers blooming too soon.  Spring will have passed here when this is published, and all thoughts of snow and ice will be forgotten.

No, I talked about the past slipping away last month.  This month, something different.

I want you to remember the last time it snowed wherever you are.  For some of you this might be an impossible task.  For that I apologize.  Most of my readers are experiencing summer, and winter is just a memory; some are experiencing winter, and need imagine little.  If you’re one of those unfortunate enough to have always lived without snow, this experiment won’t be so much help for you.  Maybe you can use it for something else—focus on what it feels like to be an excluded minority, and write an article about injustice and discrimination.  (See, you can take anything and use it for ideas—you just have to keep turning it over until you find a side you hadn’t seen before.) Read more

Manage Your Factions with Mind Mapping

I was in a conversation recently about how Game Masters manage factions—how do you track their activities and relationships? I use a technique of mind mapping. If you’ve never heard this term, a mind map is a drawing that abstracts the relationships between people, organizations, nations, etc into a spatial diagram. It can look similar to a flowchart, but it doesn’t necessarily progress to an end point. Here’s a sample of a map I used for planning a long-ago Unknown Armies campaign:

Read more

Faith in Play #22: Individualism

This is Faith in Play #22:  Individualism, for September 2019.


Quite a few years ago now I was playing a character in an experimental Attorney class in a game largely based on original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™.  I had just successfully defended a player character (an Antipaladin) on a murder and robbery charge, and the player said to me, “Boy, your character must be really lawful.”

I answered, “No, he’s Chaotic Neutral.”

And that illustrates just why it is that the Chaos side of the alignment graph is so badly misunderstood and so poorly handled.  My attorney was Chaotic in the best traditions of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):  he firmly believed that every person (character) had the right to be and to do whatever he wanted, as long as in doing so he did not unfairly infringe on the right of any other character to do or be what he wanted.  Although anarchy can be the consequence of chaos pushed to the extreme, chaos is not about anarchy, but about liberty.  It is the alignment expressed in the Bill of Rights, espoused by the Libertarian Party, and represented by Democracy. Read more