This is RPG-ology #43: Muscle Memory, for June 2021.
We are interrupting our restoration of the Game Ideas Unlimited series for this new game and story idea.
I was tying my shoe—something many of us do every day without really thinking about it, but for no reason I paid attention as my left hand looped the one string around the thumb of my right hand, and my right hand passed around the bight that I had created, and together they pulled to tighten the knot. This, too, was something I don’t really think about but which I do constantly. I am doing it right now as I type this. I will do it again in a few minutes when I stand up and walk out of my office.
Many of the knots I learned to tie as a scout I still tie without thinking more than that I need to tie a knot and this is the right one; some of them I have to think about how to tie because I don’t use them often enough to remember them. Yet obviously this doesn’t just apply to knot tying. Already I hinted at touch typing, that I don’t really think about where the keys are on the keyboard, nor indeed what letter I need next, but simply let my fingers produce the words that are in my mind. I also mentioned walking, an extremely complex collection of muscle movements in which we shift everything from our toes to our spine to our arms to balance our weight as we move it from one foot to the other and back. We learned to chew and swallow food, our tongues performing the important task of shifting chunks between our teeth to be broken into more digestible bits, then moving the prepared mash down our throat. There are things almost every one of us does every day that we do without thinking how we do it, because our muscles know what to do. This is called muscle memory, that parts of our body have been trained to know the pattern of the task we want to accomplish so we need not think about it.
Most of these may seem like fairly ordinary tasks, but the ability goes into specialization. It once was that people would be able to dial frequently called phone numbers that they could not so easily recite without imagining the dial. That has mostly vanished from the world—but those with password patterns on their phones do much the same thing when they sign into them. When I cook, many of the “simple” things I do, from stirring salads to flipping burgers, are done largely with muscle memory, and the same applies to washing dishes and scrubbing pots. Moving far beyond that, it is obvious that many combat skills are largely trained muscle memory, from Oriental weaponless fighting to S.E.A.L. team snipers.
The list could easily be expanded. Acrobats are an obvious example, but lock picking shows clear signs of involving muscle memory, along with other “thief skills” such as stalking. Operating a small boat alone or in concert with others clearly falls into this category, but also many of the skills involved in operating a larger one.
How, though, does this matter to your game, or your writing? The thing is, nearly any physical activity can become a muscle memory skill, something you can do without thinking; it can certainly be done by careful consideration of the steps involved (think of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes planning each movement in his attack run before he attacks), but it is not as easy to do that way. This is why Daniel-san paints the fence, waxes the car, and buffs the floor in The Karate Kid: muscle memory is created by repetition, practice. What the character does repeatedly over time becomes more natural, not just because the muscles are strengthened but because they learn how to move in sequence to achieve the desired result.
It’s too easy to say that that can be applied to almost anything, from turning pages in a book to operating an M1 Abrams tank. The truth is, it is difficult to imagine any skill to which it can’t apply. Thus if you want your character to become better at something, demonstrate that he does it frequently, and if your character appears to be doing something repeatedly, show that he gets better at it. The fiction takes on more of a sense of reality if there is a connection between repeated use of a skill and improvement in it.
And that sense of reality is what makes fiction work.
Hi class, I hope you’re all enjoying the new year!
I’ve had the opportunity to test out two new games since our last class. One is a reworking of the Visit of the Magi and another is a Kingdom Building Game that I’ve wanted to try out a long time before (and have said so in previous articles).
Running both of them I noticed something. It might not specifically be a “gaming with kids” thing, but it was very noticeable that in the two games the gimmicks and props I used were so successful! They were the things that were enjoyable. I think there are a few lessons there, specifically when gaming with kids.
Lesson 1: Visualize
Rules in games of make believe are sometimes quite hard to understand, especially for kids, but simple, visual things are not.
In the kingdom building game the kids gave me decisions for their kingdoms at the end of each class and then I parsed them at home (which proved way more work than I anticipated). The next class I gave them the results and options back in an envelope which had their ruler’s name on it, addressed in flowery words and script. One of the 10-11 year olds said: “Whoah! This really makes me feel like royalty!” They had also gotten a map, which they started annotating and taking notes on, completely unprompted! They loved it.
The other game had simple rules which were turned into a simple character sheet with simple symbols on them–a head for thinking, hands for doing and a heart for feeling. They could write their score in the symbol and that made it easy to find, discuss and explain things.
Lesson 2: Input and Randomness
In the Visit of the Magi game I included random tables to come up with situations in set scenes of the story. Instead of filling in the tables myself for each scene, I left them empty and each scene of the story the kids had to give me nouns or verbs or jobs or habits etc… which filled in the random tables on which I then had to roll to see what happened. It kept a very railroaded story still filled with a lot of surprising events. And also, the kids loved it. Once they got that their words could define what happened next it was a very chaotic shouting match that happened each scene. It was very fun.
In the kingdom game the kids didn’t know which rulers were which kids, especially since I played it in two schools at once! They did not know which ruler was which kid, if they were from this school or the other, or if they were one of the three NPC rulers in the game. This made them use the precious little actions they had, mainly for writing notes to each other. Also, the behind the scenes rules had me rolling dice for actions they took and just to see if something special should happen. This had some interesting results. One ruler found strange eggs which he ignored as he built his golden villa in a volcano. As I rolled a very bad result for a random events roll the egg hatched a dragon that burned down the kingdom and flew away, being a menace on the other players as well!
Kids don’t really care about the rules all that much unless they need them. There are exceptions of course, but generally, as you the teacher play the GM you are generally considered, being a teacher, to be fair and honest. Abstracted thought is hard for younger children and even young teens might struggle with it. Making things visual helps a lot. Having props is also a great deal of fun. It makes things tactile.
Having some amount of input that will be immediately noticeable is also a great way to have them engaged. It’s the same rush as sending in a drawing to a television show to have the possibility that it is shown on TV. Being able to have an impact on the game like this is very fun. It is a great tool. And whether or not your rules are finished (as with the Magi game) or being made as you play (as with the Kingdom Building Game) it doesn’t really matter. The experience is fun. And that’s why we play games, right?
Homework Question: What gimmicks have you used in games and did they work? Why?
This is Faith in Play #43: Slavery, for June 2021.
On September 16, 2019, then five-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez was apparently kidnapped from a playground in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Ongoing investigations have revealed nothing but a sketch of one unidentified person in the area. A seventy-five thousand dollar reward has been offered for her return. Contact the FBI, New Jersey State Police, or Bridgeton police department with information.
I have opened with this because I often find myself arguing that slavery in Dungeons & Dragons™alignment terms is a law/chaos issue, about how society is structured versus the rights and freedoms of individuals. The Bible gives us clear instructions for someone choosing to be a slave, and considers that a viable working system within the social structures of ancient Israel.
The Alavez case is, of course, different.
We don’t know what has happened to young Dulce. Investigators are fairly certain that she is still alive, and that she has not been taken by family despite the possibility of a custody dispute. She was left unattended at the park, with her younger brother, for what is thought to be a few minutes, and so the snatching is thought to have been a crime of opportunity, that someone who likes watching children became aware that the girl was unattended and rushed her into a vehicle (someone has said a red van, but that has not been confirmed) while the mother was helping another child with homework perhaps thirty yards away sitting in a car. However, whatever the circumstances, whatever the motivation, it appears that the kidnapper considers the child his property; she is effectively a slave, wherever she is.
In the Biblical model, slavery is permitted as a means of settling unpaid debt, the debtor being sentenced to a fixed period of years of service to the creditor. This is effectively the same as incarceration for theft (lest we somehow think it unfair by our modern standards), with the benefits that the government doesn’t have to pay to keep the prisoner and the one holding the prisoner gets compensated in the form of labor. The Biblical model then permits that if the person so enslaved decides that being the slave of this creditor is a better life than trying to make it on his own, he can choose to continue as a slave for the remainder of his life. It is in that sense voluntary servitude, chosen by the slave. The viability of that as a social system might not be obvious to us, but someone who cannot manage his own life could well discover that his life is better with someone else managing it.
Slavery in what we might call the modern world, from as far back as the Ivory Coast slave trade to Dulce Maria Alavez, is entirely different. Persons are taken from their homes, families, towns, lives, and forced into servitude.
Over the millennia, people have become slaves in many ways. Some were prisoners of war, prizes of conquest. Some were kidnapped and sold, as the East Africans did to the West Africans to provide slaves for the European and American markets. Some entered into servitude voluntarily.
We don’t know what has happened to Dulce Maria Alavez. We do know that she has been taken against her will, and against that of her family. We extrapolate that she has been enslaved, wherever she is, whoever has claimed ownership of her. That is the part of slavery that is wrong, the “up front” aspect that asks how this person came to be a slave. Good and evil are involved there. Good and evil also apply to the question of how slaves are treated, and Saint Paul accepted slavery as a legitimate part of the Roman social order in which Christians of the time lived—as long as masters and slaves treated each other well.
As you build your fictional social structures, bear in mind what makes slavery wrong and under what circumstances it might be morally acceptable. It was not always a violation of the rights of individuals; sometimes it was an option for a viable way of life. In our fictional worlds it can be that. In the real world, we are more likely to have cases like Dulce Maria Alavez.
Previous article: Lucifer.
Next article: An Alignment Grid.
Monotheism seems to be fairly uncommon in most campaign settings, but it is far more playable than one might think. I once thought that such a system would equate to boredom because it seemed to eliminate a few fantasy staples, such as friction between the gods, religious wars, and even non-violent religious rivalry—all of which generate a lot of interesting drama. Upon closer inspection, this is not the case at all.
For starters, a monotheistic world can still have rebellious spiritual beings. Of course, Christianity has its Devil, popularly known as Lucifer or Satan, in addition to its fallen angels and/or demons. Islam has Iblis, sometimes called ash-Shaitan, in addition to its afarit (or efreet in popular gaming parlance). Judaism has its shedim (sometimes translated as demons, though they are not as prominent as in Christian writings). Thus, spiritual warfare in the Heavens or on the Prime Material Plane is still an option in a monotheistic setting. Indeed, most monotheistic religions today (at least the Abrahamic ones) paint the One God as the source of all good, meaning that any rebellious spirits are necessarily evil. Even if this were the only religious variance in your campaign setting, such a setting would still have the classic contest of good versus evil. PCs could spend their careers battling the influence of Asmodeus, Demogorgon, Orcus, and myriad others. If you wish to put your own twist on things, you could make up your own archdevil or demon lord. There are plenty of ideas to mix and match. Such a wicked spirit can give spells to evil clerics, acting as a deity in all but name. Some DMs might decide that even a powerful, rebellious spirit does not have the ability to bestow the highest-level spells, but others might reasonably decide that powerful angels and other such creatures (rebellious or not) can indeed grant all listed spells.
If you allow for more than one significant rebellious spirit, you’ll have several types of evil clerics running around in the campaign world. The DM may not wish his players to run evil characters, but at least these evil sects would provide variety among the PCs’ opponents. It is common to describe demons and devils as fighting against each other and/or amongst each other, so a wily DM can get creative in pitting evil NPC groups (followers of these wicked spirits) against one another.
In a monotheistic setting, religious wars are still possible too, perhaps against a vibrant and advanced civilization, located across the sea or on the far side of a desert or mountain range. The Crusades provide the most obvious example. From 1095 to 1291, Christians high and low were obsessed with driving the Muslims from Palestine. The two-century-long struggle was incredibly brutal, and for many Christians the outcome was disappointing, but from a story-telling point of view, the period was indescribably rich. Though the Crusaders proved themselves to be relentless, cunning, and often fearless warriors, they often found themselves outclassed in terms of manpower, logistics, and technology/engineering. How might this apply to a game setting? If a PC’s homeland is locked in an intense struggle against an advanced civilization—especially one unified by an opposing religion—dozens of plot hooks arise for the DM. A critical mind may question if such religious wars fit under the heading of monotheism, for the Crusades seem to be a contest between opposing gods. However, both Christian and Muslim writers at times described their opponents as deceived by a devil or demon. In a game setting, this can certainly be the case. There are other alternatives too. The enemy civilization’s clerics may not be ‘clerics’ in game terms. Whatever their class, they may study arcane magic instead, or they may not wield magic at all, decrying its use as the blackest of witchcraft.
In a monotheistic setting, religious warfare is also possible against savage heathens on the frontier. The Northern Crusades serve as a possible example here (taking of course the Christian point of view). In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Roman Catholic armies, spearheaded by German crusaders, conquered the heathen tribes of northern Europe, forcibly settling Prussia and parts of the Baltic states. Crusading knights often raided deep into the gloomy trackless wilderness, sometimes becoming lost, and sometimes going mad from ‘forest cafard’. In rare cases, the heathens tied captured knights to trees and roasted them alive in their armor as sacrifices to their heathen gods. Indeed, some scholars have dubbed the Teutonic Knights’ forest campaigns in Prussia and Lithuania to be the most brutal wars in all of medieval history (which is really saying something, given the violence of the period). If you borrow this aspect for your game, the danger to the PCs lies in the barbarity of the enemy and the isolated geography of the frontier. With regard to religion, the savages in the game setting could easily worship devils/demons, thereby providing creepy foes.
Though it seems counter-intuitive, a monotheistic setting can also have great variety within the religion itself. First, a religion can have different sects, such as Christianity’s Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and later Protestantism. Of course, Islam has the long-standing split between the Sunni majority and the Shi’a minority. Judaism, at least in the last few centuries, features Orthodox Judaism, Reformed Judaism, and Conservative Judaism. Historically, at least in the case of Christianity and Islam, these sects often came to blows. This provides yet another variant on religious warfare: a crusade against cultured heretics in the heartland of your civilization.
Perhaps the best example related to Christianity is the ruinous Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), in which Roman Catholic armies attacked their Eastern Orthodox cousins and sacked Constantinople itself, considered for centuries to be the bastion of Christendom. How did it get to that? A host of doctrinal issues and regional rivalry led to the Great Schism of 1054. In the century that followed, each side became bitterly disappointed with the other’s actions during the Crusades. The friction culminated in the desecration of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom. Meanwhile, we find another interesting example in the heartland of Western Christendom, where orthodox Roman Catholic armies launched the Albigensian Crusade, invading southern France to destroy the growing Cathar heresy there (1209-1229). The question of orthodoxy certainly took center stage, but politics, regional rivalries, and greed also played a role in the brutal campaign. For yet more examples, look to the emergence of Protestant Christianity in the sixteenth century, when accusations of heresy raged like a wildfire across Western Europe. Warfare and persecution between Catholics and Protestants reached a fever pitch, and entire kingdoms took sides. In just one example, King Philip II of Spain famously launched his vast armada in 1588 to bring all of Protestant England back into the fold (he failed).
Islam certainly suffered from sectional violence as well. Division arose immediately upon the death of the Prophet in 632, when rival camps claimed the leadership of the Faithful. Though the majority of Muslims (Sunni) hailed the first four successors (caliphs) as ‘Rightly-Guided’, the minority (Shi’a) rejected three of them, supporting only Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad. Rejection first turned to bloodshed in 656 when Shi’a rebels assassinated the third caliph, paving the way for Ali. His ascension brought unity, but it lasted only a few years. In 661, Sunni assassins cut down Ali, and into the power vacuum stepped the wealthy Umayyad family of Syria. To maintain power, Umayyad agents supposedly poisoned Ali’s eldest son in 670, while a few thousand Umayyad soldiers slaughtered Ali’s second son and his followers in 680 at the Battle of Karbala.
The Sunni-Shi’a division only worsened in time and eventually had geopolitical ramifications. The unified caliphate vanished circa 750, when Shi’a rebellion brought an end to Umayyad rule in all but Iberia. Their victory was short-lived, for the Abbasid dynasty renounced Shi’a Islam after seizing power. However, the Shi’a later led a successful rebellion in North Africa and in 973 established a rival caliphate in Egypt, based in Cairo. The Crusaders’ initial success during the First Crusade (sometimes called the Princes’ Crusade) was as much due to Islamic division as Christian zeal and heavy cavalry. Much later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Turks ruled a vast empire from Constantinople (renamed Istanbul), while the Mughals ruled much of India. Both were primarily Sunni, while the Shi’a Safavids, wedged between these two empires, ruled all of Persia. They fought for centuries. There is certainly no shortage of warfare and political infighting in a monotheistic setting.
In discussing disputes between sects of the same religion, one must wonder how that could work in a fantasy game, in which daily spells seem to be obvious proof of orthodoxy. There are several possible explanations, but the overriding theme is that divine affairs are not always clear to humans, even when there is indeed one clear and absolute truth. We have a way of being blind to that truth. We have a tendency to interpret things as we wish. One possible explanation for spells wielded by opposing sides within the same faith is that God grants spells to all of his clerics, even those that are off-track. Of course, the DM has certain ways to warn PC clerics of their deviance, even without taking away spells. There could be a chance of spell failure. Alternatively, spells might work every time but lack some potency. Alternatively, spells may work consistently and fully, but a cleric may not receive all of his allotted spells. While most PC clerics would quickly notice the above omens, NPC clerics may not, or, even if they do, they may not interpret the spell failure as an indication of their own deviance. In short, there are a many ways to explain wayward teachings of NPC clerics, so spellcasting ability should not be seen as a truth meter that would eliminate disputes.
One can also take a similar approach to divination spells, such as commune. The forthcoming answers, if they come at all, may not be as clear as clerics would like. The histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are filled with examples of leaders bickering over details that God never sees fit to clarify—at least not in the manner and to the degree that they desire. Remember too that most clerics will not have access to a spell like commune, which is 5th-level (at least in AD&D). Leaders certainly will, and it seems likely that they would use such spells to answer important theological questions, but God does not always agree on the importance of our questions or the timeliness with which He must answer. Besides, however irritating it may be in life, mystery is a good thing in a game.
Despite the previous examples of religious violence, actual warfare between factions need not be the case in your monotheistic campaign setting. Perhaps things have not escalated to that point yet, or perhaps the warlike days within the faith are now over (for now). If politics is your thing, the non-violent friction between sects can be a driving force in your campaign. Religious leaders can vie for power and influence, using non-violent means. Such leaders might want to gain control of sacred scriptures, build the greatest temple in the known world, reduce the influence of rival leaders (religious or secular), and/or have their own rules and interpretations enforced. For historical inspiration here, one might look to the leading Christian cities of the first few centuries. The bishops of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople all vied for influence in those early years. Alexandria and Antioch developed rival catechetical schools, sparring over theological issues well into the fifth century. Meanwhile, after Constantinople became the seat of the Empire in 330, the bishops of Constantinople began to challenge the traditional leadership of the bishops of Rome.
Though PC clerics are unlikely to debate theology, it is possible. A creative DM could identify one or two interesting topics that cause endless debate within the PC cleric’s religion. Rather than debating the precise nature of God, clerics in a fantasy world might argue over something of much greater interest to players, such as resurrection. Perhaps one school teaches that resurrection is indeed possible and praiseworthy, allowing God’s most favored servants to continue his work. An opposing school might teach that the faithfully departed rest forever in the arms of God, thereby denouncing resurrection magic and decrying any resurrected person to be a devil in disguise. Another interesting issue might be the faith’s stance on healing unbelievers. Is it charitable and laudable or wasteful and offensive? Whatever the controversy, the DM can decide that the issue is unresolved, allowing for either comical or tense debates between PCs and NPCs. Alternatively, one school might prevail and declare the opposing view to be heresy, forcing the PC cleric to choose a position. Such controversies are ripe for role-playing, and one can add them to a traditional fantasy game without placing undue emphasis on storytelling.
Even within a single religious sect, you can provide great variety by using different branches. The Roman Catholic Church is again a good example. First you have the divide between the secular clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) and the regular clergy (monks, friars, and nuns). For any that may be unfamiliar with the terms, the secular clergy (the term seems like an oxymoron) serves the needs of lay people, or secular people. The regular clergy developed a bit later, when devout people willingly adopted a highly regulated lifestyle (regular here meaning ‘regulated’ as compared to ‘normal’). The friction between these two branches was palpable in the thirteenth century, with the secular clerics accusing the various regular orders of insubordination and the regular clerics denouncing the worldliness of the hierarchy. In light of all that, why must a fantasy religion have only one category of clerics? Perhaps the Faith has evolved a more complicated hierarchy, composed of two or more branches, each with its own purpose. At least in the games that I’ve seen, clerics seem to do very little pastoral care. That always made me wonder. If God’s chosen clerics provided little to nothing, would the masses remain faithful? It seems unlikely. At the very least, reclaim some reality for your game by having branches of NPC clerics that see to the mundane needs of the faithful and to the administration of the temples. Perhaps a majority of clerics in your world, low-level and armed with only a few spells, spend much of their time and most of their spells caring for the flock. Certainly, throughout Western Europe, a constant stream of sick and infirm pilgrims visited churches to receive blessings and healing. Clerical branches in your world need not mirror those of the Roman Church (secular and regular) but adopting such a division does give you a very rich model.
Diving even deeper, we find great variety in the regular clergy itself. This arose organically, as specific needs led to the creation of different religious orders. For example, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the various religious-military orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, etc.) sprang up to safeguard Christian pilgrims and to defend the Crusader states in Outremer. In the thirteenth century, several mendicant (begging) orders arose as a reaction against the perceived worldliness in the monasteries, and even these new mendicant orders had their special niches. For example, the Roman Church created the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans or ‘Gray Friars’) largely to contain popular mysticism, for many were dangerously close to heresy, and the order gave such men an outlet that was still within the pale of orthodoxy. The Order of Preachers (Dominicans or ‘Black Friars’) specialized in theology and preaching, which explains why its members increasingly staffed the Holy Office of the Inquisition, designed to combat heresy. In the sixteenth century, when the existing orders seemed powerless to stop the perceived Protestant heresy, the Roman Church developed the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), providing the Pope with highly educated ‘stormtroopers’, whose very name soon became a byword for loyalty to Rome (at least until the twentieth century).
Even regular orders that had no official specialty eventually gravitated towards one. Consider the contemplative Benedictine monks (‘Black Monks’), who were by far the most common type of monk in Western Europe for several centuries. Those affiliated with the abbey at Cluny in France, at the height of their influence in the twelfth century, became known for their vast agricultural estates (which gave them political independence) and their utter devotion to liturgy. These ‘soldiers of Christ’ waged a spiritual battle for the salvation of their souls and those of their patrons, performing almost constant prayer at Cluny Abbey. To a degree, their militant rhetoric paved the way for the true military orders, whose members fought with swords rather than psalters. We see another example of specialization among Benedictines in the twelfth century. The monks at Citeaux Abbey in France began a reform movement that stressed strict discipline and hard labor. These Cistercians (‘White Monks’) often sought isolation on remote estates in the mountains or on the moors, and yet their industry and hard work gave them a reputation as pioneers.
Think of how easily one could use this basic framework to create a dozen fantasy religious orders within a single sect, each with its own focus, domain spells, unique spells, and mission statement. You might have one or more military orders, an order that focuses on prayer, one that focuses on healing and administering hospitals (hospitallers), one that focuses on preserving books, another that focuses on missionary work, another that excels at taming the wilderness, and yet another that is renowned for its orthodoxy and its skill in ferreting out heretics. The sky’s the limit. If you wish to capture the flavor of an old and sprawling religion, create significant overlap between orders and set them up as rivals (in most hierarchies, overlap usually occurs when new groups form and take on the role of older ones, without actually eliminating them).
It’s fun to present the PCs with two lawful good groups that despise each other. For an historical example, consider the petty War of St. Sabbas (1256-1270), in which rival Italian cities fought each other near Acre. Events drew Templars and Hospitallers into the conflict, and their long-standing rivalry (they both filled the same niche), may have actually come to blows. Even Gary Gygax inserted this strange dynamic into his games when he created the first gods for his home-brew campaign. When his players demanded gods for their clerics to worship, he eventually gave them two rival lawful good religions, pitting the followers of St. Cuthbert against those of Pholtus of the Blinding Light. Followers of St. Cuthbert were fond of thumping dissenting fools on their heads with clubs, while clerics of Pholtus had a tendency to blind infidels with a light spell between the eyes. Even a simple arrangement like that makes for wonderful non-lethal drama.
So, what’s not to love about monotheism in a game setting? History provides myriad examples of classic spiritual warfare (‘good versus evil’), religious warfare, factional rivalry, and non-violent competition even within a single religion. Despite its viability, I don’t really expect DMs to adopt a monotheistic setting, but perhaps some of the above ideas may help you to flesh out a few of the main religions in your existing campaign setting. Variety is always nice, and, strangely, we can get more of it by borrowing from monotheistic organizations.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Who?, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
There is something about role playing games I find at least a tad unrealistic. It has to do with character generation. And it doesn’t generally matter whether character generation is done by randomized rolls, point purchases, or decide what you want and run it by the referee. They all seem to have one thing in common: the player knows everything that matters about the character; the character knows everything about himself.
That is not the way my life has been. I somehow doubt that your life has been that way, either. I have spent a lifetime working out my strengths and my weaknesses, and even today the list is tentative. I would say that I am intelligent, articulate, creative; that I have strong innate skills in music, and strong abilities in math. On the other hand, I have little skill in the visual arts; I don’t have the hands for drawing, and dance is a completely opaque medium to me. And my business skills are terrible. I’m a poor salesman, can’t run a budget, and am too disorganized to keep reliable records. For years I’ve been cataloguing in my own mind what things I do well and in which I should defer to the expertise of others. But it is far from a complete list. Each year I find things I thought I did well at which I am not so talented as I believed; each year I discover new things to add to my strengths. I expect—I hope—this is also your experience.
Yet it has rarely been the experience of any of my role playing game characters. From the moment play begins, they know their strengths and their weaknesses; and if they gain new skills during play, or improve old ones, they know how good they are at these with far more precision than you or I could even imagine for ourselves. In Dungeons & Dragons they can compare an 18(73) Strength against an 18(74) Strength, or a 30% chance of picking locks (level one thief with +5 racial or dexterity bonus) against a 29% chance at the same skill (level two thief with no bonus). In Multiverser, too, we know that the character with the 1@6 strength is just a bit stronger than the one with a 1@5 strength, that all other things being equal the 2@3 skill is better than the 2@2, and that a one-point difference in chance to hit can make or break a character on that critical attack. And with that one percent difference, we can decide which character should attempt the shot; we know that, however infinitesimally, he is better. The precision with which we understand our characters is unavoidably transferred to the precision with which they know themselves—they know when they are good, and they know how good they are, in very specifically definable terms. (And if you don’t think this is true, take a look at my material on ADR’s and Surv’s, a system for accurately determining the best attack forms and the most durable characters in a[n Original A]D&D party, to see just how well some game systems lend themselves to such analysis.)
To some degree this is unavoidable. Game system characters must comport to game systems. Their abilities must be in some sense quantified (and just because the scale lacks numbers doesn’t mean it isn’t quantified). And many things must be agreed before they become necessary, or the session degenerates to an argument about what the character can or cannot do instead of proceeding as an exciting game experience.
Yet there are certainly ways to give characters at least a little mystery. And if done right, they can enhance the game experience without interfering with the flow.
I’m going to save a lot of space here by referring you to a page I have about mystery options. This was not my idea; it was something developed by E. R. Jones before we met. But I provide it as a sort of player option in my AD&D games. The short version is that when the character is created, the player is permitted (not required) to roll for things he does not know about his character, things which the character does not know about himself. Such things serve as plot hooks and premise devices during the game, but they also make the characters something extra, people who find that their own lives are stories, not just characters who try to become part of the stories.
But that’s only one way to do this.
In most games, if your character learns a new skill he has learned it at the lowest level of ability possible. Multiverser gives a bit of leeway to this—a player character can on a good roll learn a skill at a slightly higher ability. This edge, however slight, makes it seem that the character had a knack for something, and so picked it up more easily than most people would have done. It’s almost entirely random—but there’s no reason why it has to be. The referee could easily determine for each character that there are certain things at which that character would excel were he to put his hand to them, and keep that list secreted away in his notes. When the character attempts to learn the skill, success could be automatic, or at least heavily bonused. The player would get the sense of “I’m good at this,” and the character would have discovered something about himself that was unexpected.
You could push this further, giving the character low-level skills he doesn’t know he has. Not credible, you think? Well, think again.
When I was knee high to a grasshopper, my parents would occasionally take me to this farm where they would put kids on the back of a horse and walk the horse once around a paddock. I never learned to ride. Years later friends put me on a horse, and although I was not entirely comfortable they agreed that I had a “natural seat.” I had learned a bit of a skill I didn’t know I knew. You can find a way to give characters these hidden skills, either by listing them secretly when play begins or by adding them at moments during the game.
This might seem fairly straightforward stuff, and many of you have undoubtedly used variations of this—secret character papers on which the true abilities are listed, character background stories which include mysteries to be unraveled and revealed during play. But it might have escaped your notice that there are two distinct ideas at work here. How you use this very much reflects the way you think about your games and what is important to them; and learning to use them the other way could significantly expand your horizons.
What to most of you will be the obvious concept is the way in which these past secrets affect the character’s abilities in the present. The player who discovers that his character can already tie a knot or climb a cliff or fly a speeder has an in-game advantage, an edge related to play. So does the one who has an affinity for a specific weapon he tries to use, or a facility for computer use. These types of secrets make for stronger characters in the competitive sense—they have a better chance of succeeding in the long run.
But past secrets can also affect the character’s relation to the plot. The one who can open the magic door because he has the blood of the trusted general of the ancient king is not just in the story; he’s part of the story. The same is true of the one whose ID tattoo contains the activation code for the interface, or whose family heirloom holds the secret to the location of the lost treasure. When this is well done, the characters are the story. Sure it can be fun to be an adventurer seeking a lost treasure Indiana Jones style, just lucky enough to be the one who got to it first. But it’s so much better a story if you are seeking your treasure, fulfilling your destiny, and not just out on a lark with some friends. By carefully crafting these unknown aspects of your player characters you make them stronger in a story sense, in the sense that the world would not be the same without them, that they aren’t just another interchangeable set of explorers.
If you’ve watched the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, consider Dawn. She was abruptly introduced one season, and everyone—including her—accepted that she had always been Buffy’s sister who somehow hadn’t been around (staying with Dad, perhaps?) But gradually we learned that Buffy never had a sister. Dawn was some incredible secret power sought by a powerful supernatural being that the gods had chosen to hide by disguising it as a person and connecting that person to others who would protect her. She became the focus of many stories and much emotion, as one by one everyone figured it out.
Now imagine that you thought of that, and that one of your player characters is Dawn. No one knows that but you. The clues will be dropped along the way, and slowly everyone will realize that Dawn’s explanation for herself doesn’t add up quite right. They will suspect her of deceiving them; she will be confused and uncertain. Meanwhile, there’s the villain out there searching for her, not knowing what form the power took. Maybe the player characters become aware of this, but don’t know that they have it. The regular adventures of your game continue—but beneath, behind, and around them all is this other aspect, the revelation of the truth about Dawn. You have given depth and drive and distinction to your game which will pull it all together as a string of unrelated adventures under a meta-story which slowly grows in importance.
Like I said, there really is no reason why any player should know as much about his character as the referee does. As God knows me better than I will ever know myself, so I feel obliged to know many secrets about my player characters that they have yet to discover.
A few months back I looked at a controversial television series and expressed some thoughts on guidance. This month I am looking at an even more controversial television series, Lucifer, and finding another lesson.
Yes, the theology is wonky in so many ways, and the characters are all fundamentally immoral in their attitudes and actions. However, the show often causes me to think, challenging me with interesting ideas. This is one of them.
To bring you up to speed, the titular character is indeed the Lord of Hell to whom all demons owe allegiance, whose job it is to torture those whose guilt brings them there. He’s tired of it. He feels like his Father, God, is running his life, and he wants to be free of that, to run his own life. Sound familiar? So he goes to Los Angeles and opens a nightclub.
He meets Chloe, a police detective going through a divorce but a woman of integrity, and he finds her fascinating. He also finds that she makes him vulnerable—quite literally. Normally nothing can harm him, but when she’s near he becomes mortal in his vulnerability. She doesn’t know he’s the devil incarnate—indeed, initially the only ones who know are the angel sent to persuade him to return to his job in hell, and the demon who came along with him as something of a sidekick. However, over the course of many episodes it is clear that Lucifer and Chloe are falling in love with each other.
Then, several seasons in, the bomb drops. Chloe was a miraculously born child, whom God created specifically to be the perfect mate for Lucifer. Lucifer learns this, and he is furious: once more God is manipulating his life.
I am one of those who believes that God created one woman who was perfect for me, for whom I was the perfect man, and brought us together. I would wager that at least some of the regular readers of this column hold a similar belief. That doesn’t mean everything always runs smoothly—part of that perfect mate is that she, or he, is going to be one of God’s tools in knocking off your rough edges, in forming you into the person He intended you to be. I am grateful that God has done this for us.
See the difference?
God made me; God made Lucifer. God made my wife, and He made Chloe. I perceive that in making me God knew exactly what He was making, and so in making my wife He created someone who would fit perfectly. That He manipulated our lives to bring us together is one of the good things He did for us. Yet for Lucifer, the fact that he has fallen for the girl whom God made to be perfect for him, and she for him, is God controlling his life, and he does not want that. This might be the perfect girl made especially for him, but he would rather be miserable in hell than let God dictate that which makes him happy somewhere else.
Back in Bible college people often talked about the prayer that said to God, “I’ll go anywhere you want, except to be a missionary to Africa.” We talked about how foolish that was, because if God’s perfect plan for your life included being a missionary to Africa, there was no place else where you would be happier. We all want to be happy, but we all have this notion that we know what will make us happy, and we want that and not something else. God knows what will make us not only happy but the best selves we can be, and He promises to perform that work in us.
The question for us is whether we will let God guide our lives, or insist on having it our own way.
This is RPG-ology #41: Over My Shoulder, for April 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.
We are skipping another which has already been published, but since this thirteenth entry is itself an index of the first twelve, all but one of which have been republished here, we will go directly to it. A few editorial notes will be [bracketed].
I doubt any of you have been counting, but this is the thirteenth article in our Game Ideas Unlimited series. I’m not superstitious (in that sense of the word). The number thirteen doesn’t mean anything frightening to me. But if you’re adept at calendar math, you know that thirteen weeks (and not twelve) is three months, a quarter of a year.
It’s our anniversary.
I’m a believer in holidays that look back at the past, to see whence we came in an effort to know whither we are going. There are a dozen columns behind us, each one different. If you haven’t read them all, perhaps now would be a good time to see what ideas you missed; and if you have, it won’t hurt to jolt them back to your mind. But we’ll also take a moment to look at looking back.
I introduced myself and the series with a column appropriately called Introduction [not included in our republications but now available as mark Joseph “young” web log entry #384: Game Ideas Unlimited Introduction]. In it we promised that these columns would include many and varied ideas, sometimes giving you something you could use directly in your games, but more importantly trying to teach you how to be creative, where to find ideas. It also contained links to several other articles I’ve written, as a way both of introducing myself and of providing game ideas to you.
The second idea, An Amusing Dungeon, was primarily for fantasy gamers. It sketched out an adventure in which standard medieval fantasy characters found themselves in a magical amusement park, terrified of the rides and confused by the rest. More basically it was about devising challenging and creative settings by taking something familiar and putting it in the wrong place.
Transmats, the third entry, took us solidly into science fiction. If you run a sci-fi game and have matter transmission technology, you probably added a lot of things to your world after reading that one. Even if that’s not you, the challenge behind it was to look at the technology in your worlds and make sure you consider all the implications.
By the time we looked at My North Wall in the fourth article, we were looking for world ideas and finding them in very mundane places. There was a brief side trip into misdirection as a story tool and a chance to look for the leprechaun in the painting on my wall, but overall we were finding ways to draw ideas from the things around us.
The fifth article, Screen Wrap, talked about ways to use teleportation to create maze-like challenges. It was presented in a practical, nuts-and-bolts sort of way that works with both fantasy and science fiction, and included some ideas on getting a very similar effect without moving the characters at all.
If you’re carrying a notebook around just so you can write down something you see each day, it might be because you took my advice seriously in Pay Attention. This sixth column suggested things to include in such a volume, and how they might be useful in the future.
I told you a little bit about my family in number seven, and asked you about yours. I said we were all Living in the Past, and that there were far more story, world, and character ideas in the past than in the present, worth exploring. And from some of the mail I received, I’d say that many of you began exploring those ideas, finding out about your parents’ lives.
We went for a walk in a blizzard in Snow Day. I wanted you to move your mind out of where you were into another world, and experience it vividly enough that you could bring your friends into it with you. If we did that, the eighth entry succeeded, and may have helped you develop some tools for better presentation of your setting. And if it’s a hot day today, maybe you’d like to go back there for a moment and cool off a bit.
Number nine was in some ways controversial. I told you about Invisible Coins, and how to use these to control the direction of your game. Many of you are probably afraid of this idea, as I was; but sometimes the importance of the die roll isn’t what it is but what you wanted it to be.
Maybe we got a little heady with Empiricism [republished under the title Creatures], discussing the philosophy of David Hume. But the tenth article had a practical side, too, as it made us consider the limitations of communication, and examine the degree to which our descriptions need to convey impressions rather than information. It also had a clever sketch from Dimitrios “Jim” Denaxas “illustrating” the idea.
I unscrambled the word “Aptrusis“ in column eleven. In doing so, I looked at my own approach to solving a puzzle, and the place of puzzles in games.
Although column twelve was called Monster Design, I didn’t design a monster. Instead, I presented a set of ideas which to my mind were important in creating a good monster—not game mechanics, but the nature of the beast itself and the way it is presented within the game world.
The value in looking back lies in looking forward. [Thirteen] weeks ago, I said I was going to give you ideas, but go beyond that to help you learn to find your own ideas. I promised that our column would turn in every direction, sometimes practical and sometimes esoteric, sometimes fantasy and sometimes science fiction, sometimes design and sometimes presentation. So far we’ve been there and done that—not in a tired way, I think, but in a way that suggests successes on which to build.
But my opinion is not the important one here. What matters is whether you think we’re achieving the objectives. More to the point, what of all this did you find useful? Of what that we’ve done would you like more? And is there anything you expected that you’ve not yet seen but would still like? Have we gone too far? Have we gone far enough? It’s not that I’ve run out of ideas—I might never run out of ideas. It’s that not all ideas are equally valued, and there are many directions which could be explored in the next quarter. I’m thinking about developing character background, looking again at how people think, maybe examining superstition. Which ideas will we pursue? In part that’s up to you. By the time you read this, I’ll be several weeks ahead in writing them; but your thoughts on what is worthwhile will certainly affect the future of the series at some point.
So roll some of those invisible dice, and as they clatter on the table [write a forum post leave a comment] to tell me what it is that you really want them to say.
Recently somewhere on the Web a discussion arose that suggested that if you build a world in which God or the gods manifest visibly frequently and work wonders regularly, there is no need for faith in such a world. I am persuaded that this is a serious misunderstanding of the concept of faith, and that we should understand it aright not only for our games but for our lives.
Abraham is said to have entertained God face to face, and yet is also given as the prime example of what it is to have faith. How can Paul say that Abraham had faith in God, when Abraham had absolute proof of God’s existence?
Faith ultimately means trust, and it is actually the most common thing in the world. It is, in fact, the way we know most of what we think we know.
How do I know that George Washington was the first President of the United States? Someone told me; I trusted both that they were correct and that they were honest. That’s faith. How do I know that the earth is eight light minutes from the sun, and that the earth goes around the sun, and not the sun around the earth as it appears? Again this is faith, that I believe what I was told. Why do I hop out of bed onto a floor, believing that it will be there, and will support my weight? Once again, that’s faith.
How do I know that my God is concerned about me, even when life is not going according to my plans? That’s faith—I trust Him.
We have faith in people, that is, we trust that our friends and family are not going to harm us or abandon us. Sometimes our faith is misplaced, but it is still faith. So even when the proof of one God’s or many gods’ existence is incontrovertible, faith is a critical part of that—or any—relationship.
It was also asked whether to have one God or many gods in your fictional world, whether for game or story, but I wrote about that decades ago in Faith and Gaming #8: In Vain (link to more recent republished copy).
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.
We skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; and already ran the second and third, so that last month featured the fourth in the series, linked below. This is number eleven, as we ran quite a few out of sequence already. For the sake of history, we ran number five Screen Wrap almost two years ago in June, six through eight, Pay Attention, Living in the Past, and Snow Day in sequence the summer before because they connected to each other, and number nine Invisible Coins last September. The tenth, originally entitled Empiricism, was rerun under the title Creatures two years ago.
I really don’t like certain kinds of puzzles. People think it’s strange. After all, aren’t I one of those super-intelligent people, and since I am, wouldn’t I enjoy games for the super-intelligent? Bah. I don’t like those mathematical magic squares. Finding the next one in the sequence doesn’t excite me.
And these: Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cook and Mr. Baker met on the street. “It’s funny,” said Mr. Baker to the man who was the carpenter, “that each of us is named for a trade, and although between us we represent all three of the trades of our names, not one of us has the job that matches his name.” So which one is the carpenter, which is the cook, and which is the baker? The Law School Admission Test—L.S.A.T. for those of you more familiar with test abbreviations—has those, in varying levels of complexity, as about a quarter of the questions.
I hate those, too.
And I don’t unscramble words.
It isn’t that I don’t think I can do these. On the contrary, the problem is that as soon as I see the problem, I know that I can solve it, given enough time and effort. It generally becomes clear fairly quickly that if you shift the information around sufficiently, eventually the answer will appear. It is inevitable.
And that reduces the entire exercise to busy work.
I don’t like these puzzles because they are exactly like having to do homework. The answers are attainable, often without much that could be considered cleverness or even thought. You just have to plug away at it until you find it. I’ll show you what I mean.
My youngest was handed an assignment in which all the adverbs had been “scrambled” and he had to unscramble them to answer the questions. I’m supposed to help him with his work (this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me—I can do his work easily, and don’t see how that helps him learn, but I don’t have the patience to listen to him whine some days about how hard it is and how he can’t do it), and I’m supposed to check it when it’s done. So I read the paragraph, and all the words quickly revealed themselves, but for one.
So I have no idea what this is. I note that it contains the word “apt,” and that the “usis” ending is worth considering. But as yet I don’t see a whole word. So I change things around, at first keeping the two halves isolated.
I like the way the first four letters work; they seem to have a lot of possibilities. The last four don’t, though, and I’m already thinking of pulling one of the “s”‘s to the front, as there are an awful lot of words that begin with “s,” and “sp,” “st,” “str,” and “spr” are very common starts. But before I do that, I try another twist.
It’s not working. It’s time to shuffle things in a larger way, move letters between the front and the back.
Understand that in the back of my mind I’m already aware that I could systematically examine every combination—start by switching the last two, then shuffling the last three, the last four, as if testing permutations in a Mastermind game. I’m also quite aware that it can take a very long time to do that, even with the aid of a computer. I wonder if there’s a scrambled word cruncher on the net, like the “convert your phone number to words” site I once saw. But I’m working on the assumption that poking at this inductively will eventually give me a letter combination I recognize. In fact, I get such a letter combination when I bring the “s” up to the front.
However, it’s too much. I’ve got a five letter run that looks good, but the rest can’t be made into the end of any word I can see.
And this is supposed to be third grade work. Did I mention that I don’t like scrambled words?
A classic movie comes to mind; but this is supposed to be a time or place.
This actually sounds like a word; I pause to see if I can find the word—no, it would be a cute pun in a way, but probably very few would get it. Keep going.
Well, I’d tried the “str” opening, I had to try the “spr.” This is so far from inspiring that I drop it.
I’m beginning the think again about whether I can have the computer print them all to a text file. Then I could open it in Word, and the spellchecker would choke, but maybe find for me the one word that is not misspelled.
And suddenly I can see it; it’s right there. I have enough of it that the rest falls into place. I have unscrambled the word.
Did I mention that I really don’t like scrambled words?
I’m sure some of you knew what Aptrusis was almost as soon as you saw it in the title; your mind is geared to unscramble words more quickly than mine. Others have not yet made the final step to finish the process. Don’t worry about that—we all process information a bit differently. But more than a few of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with game ideas.
Quite a bit, actually.
I just took you for a walk through a mental process. This, in a perhaps abbreviated form, is the way I thought about this problem. In some ways it should have seemed familiar to you, like I was doing something you might have done; in some ways it should have seemed surprising, like I turned left where you would have climbed the ladder. That means that there are similarities between the way you and I think, but we don’t think quite the same way. What looks easy to you, what is easy to you, might stump me, at least for a moment; and I might breeze through something that would confuse you.
Years ago, before people were talking about drama, karma, and fortune mechanics, or about narrativist, gamist, and simulationist goals, or about actor and author (and more recently director) stances in role playing games, someone tried to divide players up into categories of what they wanted to do. Some, it was said, were there for the action, fighting monsters and escaping with treasure. Others were there for the characters, the creation of story and the development of their world. But there was a third category about which I don’t hear much anymore: some play for the puzzles. They like solving them. Whether it’s a riddle, or a logic problem, or a scrambled word, the moment that the story stops and the players have to put their minds to cracking a problem is the moment this player shines. And in fact, I am that player. I like solving puzzles as the way to the solution of the mystery in the game. It’s just that there are some puzzles which don’t seem to me like puzzles at all. They seem like homework. I never liked homework (and left too substantial a share of it unfinished over the years). I want puzzles, but I don’t want homework.
And because we know that each of us thinks a little differently about everything, it follows that the puzzles that appeal to you might not appeal to me. So if you’re creating the situation, you need to think of puzzles that will appeal to the players, particularly to the players who are going to be the ones to tackle and enjoy them. If they like wordplay and don’t like numbers, they aren’t going to enjoy a numerical puzzle so much as a linguistic one. And probably they’re going to have trouble with some puzzles, to the point of frustration. The last thing you want to do is give them a puzzle that they aren’t going to like and will frustrate them. After all, they’re here to have fun. The puzzle should be challenging and fun.
This was a lot of words to say that, if that was all I was going to say. Why did we bother to go through that look at how I solve scrambled words? It was supposed to bring into focus the fact that everyone approaches puzzles a bit differently (at least, of those that bother to approach them at all). Everyone likes different types of puzzles, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in puzzle solving. So you can’t assume that because a puzzle looks too easy to you that they’re going to get it right away. You need to have a grasp of what puzzles entertain your players, what kinds of puzzles they enjoy and which ones provide the right level of challenge, if you’re going to use them, and gear things for that. The puzzles that appear in your adventures must entertain and challenge without frustrating.
Did I mention I hate scrambled words?
The word was “upstairs.” I have since been given the URL for AnagramFun.com, which would indeed unscramble any collection of letters you insert into whatever word or words can be derived from them.
Mr. Baker says that he is not the baker, and that the carpenter is not Mr. Carpenter; but since Mr. Baker is talking to the carpenter, he is not the carpenter either. (I don’t know—they don’t allow that Mr. Baker might be mistaken; and they don’t allow that he might talk to himself. But I suppose in logic puzzles things have to be logical, even if they aren’t realistic.) He must therefore be the cook. Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Cook are therefore the baker and the carpenter, but since Mr. Carpenter is not the carpenter he must be the baker, and thus the carpenter is Mr. Cook. But perhaps the answer is as confusing as the question.
This is Faith in Play #40: Harry Potter Series Follow-up, for March 2021.
This was originally published as an entry in the Blogless Lepolt web log at Gaming Outpost under the title Opinion Vindicated, and recently recovered thanks to Regis Pannier of the French edition of Places to Go, People to Be.
Many of you will by now have seen the news that J. K. Rowling has stated her heroic and much-revered character Dumbledore is “gay.” Already I have been asked about this, and I will be giving my answer here in a moment. What interests me more is her revelation, more quietly reported, that the entire Harry Potter series is, and has always been, a Christian story. Rowling kept this “secret” close to her breast while dealing each book, as she feared giving it away too soon would lead readers to guess the end before they reached it. This pleases me. I’m not the only person to have noticed the Christian influences in the Harry Potter series, and I’m certainly not the most vocal of those defending it, but I have taken a stand in defense of the stories as part of my unofficial position as defender of Christian fantasy in the modern world. Having her say what I have been saying is rewarding.
On the other report, over on MySpace, a mysterious friend through a friend who often asks me odd questions, Dr. Jack Centipede, asked me my opinion of the report. My comment there was truncated—apparently I failed to keep to some unstated word limit imposed by MySpace—so I am going to copy what was saved and attempt to complete it here.
I don’t want to say that an author is wrong about her own character, so what I’ll say instead is, I don’t see it.
There is something of a pernicious error which grew in the twentieth century, which holds that two men who care about each other and who bond with each other are therefore homosexuals. C. S. Lewis complained about this, saying (I think in The Four Loves) that when you have these close friendships, that “philos” “brotherly love,” someone will say that of course they are “really” homosexual—and that what you feel is pity for the one who says this, because it suggests that he has never known real friendship. It is quite possible for men to care about each other without being homosexual, but in our age every effort is made to characterize such relationships as homosexual, because those in homosexual relationships want to be able to claim that their relationships are “normal.”
I see nothing in Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald that indicates it to be more than a very close friendship, the kind of friendship I have had rarely in my life. Dumbledore is not gay, but caring and sensitive and eager to know people and to forge relationships with them. It is not the same thing.
Let me make two more points on this, briefly.
First, if Dumbledore is gay, then any man who has ever felt a close connection, a bond of sincere friendship and mutual interest, with any other man, is also gay. I think—indeed, I would hope—that that would be all men everywhere. By this definition, then, every man is gay; and if that is so, then the category is meaningless, and no man is.
Second, it is significant in my mind that the same is not said about women. We assume that women forge these dear and close friendships with other women, and that this says nothing about their sexuality. It is only when men forge such relationships that this becomes “homosexual” or “gay.”
This puts men in a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, we are accused of being cold, uncaring, unemotional, self-centered and self-interested, failing to bond with others, failing to share our true feelings. On the other hand, should we venture to warm, care, emote, reach out to and bond with others, and share our true feelings, we are suddenly branded as “gay.” You can’t have it both ways. Either it is quite normal for people—men and women—to have caring relationships with each other, or it is always abnormal for anyone—man or woman—to care about a member of the same sex.
Thus I think Rowling has fallen into the trap of assuming that her character Dumbledore must have been gay because he cared deeply for and about another man. I care deeply for and about my father, my uncles, my cousins, my brothers, and my sons; that does not make me gay—nor does it make me gay if I also care deeply about friends who happen to be guys. What’s a guy to do, anyway? After all, if I, as a married man, care deeply about other men, I am labeled “gay;” but if I care deeply about other women, I am labeled “lecherous.” The only kind of man we will accept as manly is the one who doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and that’s not the kind of man we need in this life.
From there I commented on the Christian connections of the book, including the above news link, but since I’ve already done that here I won’t repeat it.
There are a dozen things I am supposed to be doing right now, I suppose, but rather than attempt to list them here, I’m going to attempt to do them, and maybe tell you about them tomorrow. The gout persists, flaring up overnight, but calming a bit as I work; I wonder to what degree the constriction of my feet within my shoes is reducing the pain.