RPG-ology #11: Scared

This is RPG-ology #11:  Scared, for October 2018.


Every once in a while I will surprise someone, that is, my abrupt appearance causes them to jump.  Usually they say, “Oh, you scared me.”  I always think, and sometimes say, “No, I startled you.”  I always say that when the situation is reversed, if I jumped and someone says, “I scared you,” correcting them that I was not scared, I was startled.  Although the two are related, there is a difference.

With Halloween on top of us, it might be worth a moment to consider the difference.

Scared is a state, an ongoing condition experienced over time.  We say, “I’m scared,” or “I’m frightened,” and we mean that we have a feeling of foreboding or ill ease.  We can be scared because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our utility bills, or because we are walking down a dark city street at night and do not feel safe, or because we have been threatened by someone who might be able to harm us in some way.  Those are in a sense examples of being scared in reality.  We are also sometimes scared in unreality.  A well written horror story in almost any medium can set a mood that causes us to feel on edge, to anticipate negative events, to expect the worst.  Mood has a lot to do with this, and so does creating a stake for the character (see my web log post #132:  Writing Horror or the French translation Maîtriser l’Horreur, and also more recently Faith in Play #5:  Fear).

It is also very individual.  I once read an entire book of Lovecraft short stories, and the only one which scared me was the one atypical story, unlike everything we normally expect from him.  If you want to make someone fearful, you must know him well enough to understand his fears.  What are you afraid of?  It probably is not the same thing as the person sitting across from you.  Fathoming that is essential to creating fear, to scaring someone.

When someone jumps out from behind a door and yells, “boo”, you’re not scared, you’re startled.  Sure, your heart rate rises and your body tingles for a moment as you catch your breath, but that’s not fear, really.  Of course, if you are already afraid—if you are fearful, if you are anticipating something bad—then that startle has a much greater effect—the reason that you jump when the cat leaps out from behind the curtain in the horror movie.  The startle has more impact because it is fed by the fear.  That’s why so many campfire ghost stories end with someone shouting something after talking quietly for several minutes:  the mood builds the fear, and the startle from the shout is intensified by the fear.

So if you’re running a game for Halloween and you just want to startle someone, well, that’s easy enough to do.  Storytellers have done it around campfires for generations.  If, though, you want to scare them, you’re going to have to give some thought to the matter, and particularly to who they are, what makes them tick, and of what are they afraid.


Previous article:  Labyrinths.
Next article:  Aphorisms.

House of Wold (Prophecy)

The House of Wold is possibly more uncommon than the House of Holma. They are often unliked and show up often to deliver bad news. Said to be messengers of God, they are often carrying burdens and always on a mission. Their temples are small, rarely visited and often in remote locations. As a Wold there are only two options: Either accept the Gift or reject it entirely. It is often a sobering life, constantly engaged with death and destruction. It is a life spent on the move. Those that reject it are plagued their whole lives with dreams and visions and knowledge of their refusal to aid those they could help.

Granted Power: Deux ex Machina. Once per adventure the player may reroll a failed attempt after the result is known or make a different choice within the past 6 seconds. They see the failure or outcome just before it happens in essence.

  1. Identify: Determines single feature of magic item.
  2. Augury: Learns whether an action will be good or bad.
  3. Divination: Provides useful advice for specific, proposed action.
  4. Scrying: Spies on subject from a distance.
  5. Commune: Deity answers one yes-or-no question/level.
  6. Legend Lore: Learn tales about a person, place, or thing.
  7. Scrying, Greater: As scrying, but faster and longer.
  8. Discern Location: Reveals exact location of creature or object.
  9. Foresight: “Sixth sense” warns of impending danger.

Faith in Play #11: Halloween

This is Faith in Play #11:  Halloween, for October 2018.


One of the unofficial “traditions” of the Faith and Gaming series was that in October we always talked about something related to magic.  It happened entirely by coincidence (and we have discussed that recently) the first year, and thereafter I looked for topics for October.  That seemed a reasonable tradition to maintain with the new series, so here it is October, and I’m looking for an appropriate subject for the month of Halloween.  It seems, though, that that itself might be one.

Many Christians do not celebrate Halloween.  There is almost a “fear of Halloween” aspect to it, that somehow although we have in some sense redeemed so many of the Pagan holy days—replacing Yule with Christmas and Beltane with Easter, for example—we have not managed to turn Samhain into a God-honoring Christian holiday despite renaming it “Holy Evening” and following it with “All Saints’ Day”.  We just don’t feel like it’s a Christian holiday.

Part of that is undoubtedly because of what Samhain was celebrating, and how it was being celebrated.  Of course, all of that is very sketchy—when Christianity came to the British Isles, the head druids reportedly came to hear the message, listened carefully, and announced that they were putting an end to the practice of their religion because the missionaries had brought the truth.  As a result much of the oral tradition was lost or at best garbled.  However, we have some information suggesting that Samhain was the new year holiday, and that there was this “no time” between sunset and sunrise, the old year ending at sunset and the new beginning at sunrise, or something like that, and during that intervening period of darkness the departed spirits could roam the world.

This was not necessarily entirely bad.  After all, if I did not have assurance she was heaven, I would number my grandmother among those departed spirits who might visit.  Extra place settings were laid to welcome departed family members to dinner.  However, there were other spirits roaming outside, and protections were required to keep them from harrassing the living.  There were things to fear.

At some point our celebrations involved dressing up as those departed spirits, roaming from house to house, and frightening homeowners into parting with treats.  This is the core of the celebration, and so it seems that here is the primary locus of the objection.

That might not be entirely true, of course.  After all, at some point “All Saints Day” got replaced, particularly among Lutherans, with “Reformation Day”.  The Halloween celebrations were likewise replaced with Reformation Day celebrations, and we can probably bet that a good part of that had nothing to do with celebrating Samhain or other Pagan holy days and everything to do with celebrating a day commemorating a lot of people the Roman Catholic Church had designated “Capital-S Saints”, a designation of which the Lutherans and other Protestants were at least skeptical.  Our Protestant forefathers were probably more concerned about the veneration of Christians of previous generations than they were about celebrations of Pagan holy days, the latter not being a significant factor in a largely Christianized Europe.  However, modern Lutherans who celebrate Reformation Day do so with a specific sense that this is an alternative to Halloween, so it is effectively the same position:  don’t celebrate Halloween because of its Pagan roots, celebrate this instead.

Further, if you pursue the objection, you wind up with different reasons for it.

Those who are most adamant in their objection base it on the claim that Samhain is a holy day for witches and Wiccans.  For what it’s worth, that might be true, but it’s not terribly relevant—modern witchcraft and Wicca is an early twentieth century religion, invented in an effort to recreate what someone imagined was the old religion of the Druids and other Pagans.  It has little or no historical roots prior to that, and that means they are co-opting our holiday.  Also, much of the evidence for this comes from people who have been seriously discredited—Mike Warnke was never a Satanist High Priest, and neither was William Schnoebelen, but both of them have influenced many Christians to believe that Halloween was dangerous based on their invented sensational pseudobiographies.  It would be a bit like asking Hugh Laurie for medical advice because he played Dr. Gregory House.

Some people seem to object to the make-believe involved, that children dress up and pretend to be someone else, and adults sanction this.  Children dress up and pretend to be someone else all the time.  What we call “role playing games” they call “make believe”, and they play cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and a wealth of other “let’s pretend” games.  They also raid the old clothes in the attic and dress up to pretend that they’re adults.  These games are part of their exploration of self-identity, ways in which children figure out who they are and grow to become adults.  One special day that sanctions this does not make it more common, and quashing that day would not make it less so.

Yet there is an attitude among some that children should only pretend to be positive pretend persons—princes and princesses, firemen and nurses.  We might debate just exactly what persons are positive.  Would soldiers be positive, or not?  It might depend on whom you ask.  The father who is a marine would probably be proud to have his young son dress the part; the mother who lost a son in the war would likely be upset if her daughter did so.

Yet there is a side of this that such people are missing.  What happens when a child dresses as a vampire, a mummy, a ghost, some kind of monster?  What happens when the child role plays that which he quite reasonably or unreasonably fears?

The answer, according to some psychologists, is that it helps the child come to terms with his own fears.  He is afraid of ghosts, but here for a few hours he is the ghost, and in becoming the ghost discovers that perhaps ghosts are not something to fear.  By pretending to be the monsters, we remove the fear from them.

Take that with however many grains of salt you wish, but accept that there might just be good reasons to embrace the celebration of Halloween, even if you personally find it distasteful.


Some of this appeared a year ago in mark Joseph “young” web log entry #208:  Halloween, in answer to a question on the subject.  The publishing world being the sort of confusing mess that it is, this page was written before that one, but that one might be useful for other reasons.

Previous article:  Goodness.
Next article:  Fiction and Lies.

Terror in the Tower, part 2

The Beckett family ventures into the Temple of Pholtus described in part 1 of this adventure narrative.


Background

The session began with the PCs at a ruined temple of Pholtus, not far from the western shores of Blackwater Lake. They had already explored one outbuilding, where they found some hidden valuables in a buried stone vault. One such bauble was a silver decanter that slowly filled with fresh water. Daniel discovered this the hard way when it leaked through his backpack and breeches, giving the group a laugh.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers. Characters in gray text were not present during this encounter.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum

Read more

RPG-ology #10: Labyrinths

This is RPG-ology #10:  Labyrinths, for September 2018.


In game terms, a labyrinth is a geometric puzzle, a system of passable and impassible spaces solved by the discovery of a consecutive path of passable spaces connecting some number of points, commonly the entrance and the exit.  A maze, usually, refers to a type of labyrinth for which there is a unique solution, only one path that connects two points; a labyrinth might instead have many solutions, or no solution.  The distinction is significant in several ways; they are related puzzles, but both the ways in which they are created and the techniques for solving them are different.

Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007. http://www.tonipecoraro.it/labyrinth28.html CC BY 3.0

Labyrinths can occur naturally, when geologic forces crack rocks in seemingly random patterns.  Even mazes can be naturally occurring—if a tunnel system was carved by water which has since mostly evaporated or drained away, it commonly carves one exit point, and then the current follows that path and ignores the others.  Mazes are more commonly created by intelligent action, although sometimes an intelligence will create a labyrinth for any of several reasons.

Labyrinthine road patterns sometimes develop from the process of acretion, as new residents add new housing and thus new streets attached to old ones.  Suburban developments are often labyrinthine by design so that residents familiar with the roads can exit in any of several directions but others will not consider the connected roads a viable short cut between two points outside the development.

The Minotaur was kept in a labyrinth because a maze would have been too easy to solve.

A maze in two dimensions is easier to solve from above than from within; the eye can trace patterns and look for the connecting path, spotting and avoiding dead ends early.  Still, from within a two-dimensional maze you are guaranteed to find the way through if you pick one wall and follow it.  This will take you into many dead ends, but it will take you out ultimately.  A labyrinth with more than one solution cannot necessarily be solved this way, as there is a high probability that you will be caught in a loop.

Three-dimensional mazes are considerably more difficult to solve, because we are not generally accustomed to considering them three-dimensionally.  These are most easily created as multi-level constructions with stairways, ramps, or chutes and ladders connecting them in specific points, often connecting some levels but not accessing intervening levels.

Five level three-dimensional maze, top level to the left, crossbars mark ladders, with markers for up and down. Entrances are on the middle level, center of left and right sides.

One mistake often made in maze design is designing inward only—that is, many mazes are easily solved by working backwards, the tricks and turns and deceptive paths all designed to mislead the one coming in from the front.  This is not as much of a problem in a role playing game maze, because these can often be placed in locations in which the characters will initially approach them from one side.  On the other hand, the designer can take advantage of this by creating the maze backwards, such that characters will easily find their way in but will be confronted by the confusion on the way out.  However, many tabletop gamers become very good at mapping, so the scenario designer might need some particularly complicated tricks to stymie his players.

Fortunately, fantasy and science fiction give us such tricks.  In Dr. Who:  The Horns of Nimon, the space in which the Nimon lived was a giant logic circuit, the walls switches which seemingly randomly switched from “A” to “B” positions making it impossible to have an accurate map created from passing through it.  I have recommended using teleport points, in either fantasy or science fiction settings, by which any character crossing a specific spot on the map in a specific direction is moved to a specific other spot on the map not necessarily facing the same direction, but is not moved back on the return journey, passing the arrival point unaware that it was there.  There are many ways to use this—creating recursive occlusion, as in Dr. Who:  Castrovalva, a section of the map in which there are many entries, but only one exit, all the other exits delivering you to the entry point on the opposite side of the isolated area; creating maze-like labyrinths in which the characters are moved to parallel paths but the occupants know how to use their teleport points to get where they want to be; creating duplicate rooms in which characters who enter one room always leave from the other.  I have used all of these techniques, and have had players trying to resolve their situation for several play sessions.

I have also confused players by using maps with repeating patterns, causing them to believe they had returned to a place they had already been when they were instead in a different place exactly like it.  Nothing is quite the same as watching a player attempt to erase and correct a map that was already right.


Previous article:  Three Doors.
Next article:  Scared.

House of Foura (Luck)

The House of Foura is an odd house by comparison to the others. The House is closely associated with the Aruman, dreams and destiny. They are sought when a way must be found. Despite their good fortune, they often don’t accumulate much wealth or seek fame. They instead seek to fulfill their purpose. To a one they are driven towards one goal or another and become focused on that need. Their temples are usually in disarray, but some are places the desperate seek when all else fails.

Granted Power: Providence. Once per game session the player may pick either an attack, skill or save. The results will be the best possible outcome. If an attack, not only is it automatically a critical but it will also be maximum damage.

Luck Domain Spells

  1. Entropic Shield: Ranged attacks against you have 20% miss chance.
  2. Aid: +1 on attack rolls, +1 against fear, 1d8 temporary hp +1/level (max +10).
  3. Protection from Energy: Absorb 12 points/level of damage from one kind of energy.
  4. Freedom of Movement: Subject moves normally despite impediments.
  5. Break Enchantment: Frees subjects from enchantments, alterations, curses, and petrification.
  6. Geas/Quest: As lesser geas, plus it affects any creature.
  7. Control Weather: Changes weather in local area.
  8. Moment of Prescience: You gain insight bonus on single attack roll, check, or save.
  9. Miracle X: Requests an intercession.

Faith in Play #10: Goodness

This is Faith in Play #10:  Goodness, for September 2018.


Back in May I introduced the notion that in the original Dungeons & Dragons game, alignment was the True Religion of the game, what the characters ultimately fundamentally believed.  I did not at that time delve into what those religions were, but promised to return to the question in future articles.  This is the first of those, second in the alignment miniseries, dealing with the alignment aspect everyone always mentions first:  what does it mean to be Good, and what does a “Good” person believe?

First, let us be clear that “good”, in game terms, does not mean “obeying the rules” or something like that.  It is not a religion of laws, but a religion of attitude.  It is defined as the belief in promoting the greatest benefit for the greatest number.  The word beneficence is perhaps the best synonym for it.  Javan’s Feast was an example of good in action:  how do I help these poor people who are struggling to survive?  Good King Wenceslas, in initiating the practices of the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, known in England as “Boxing Day” because Christians box up their spare and leftover food and deliver it to the poor), demonstrated the acts of a good-aligned person in giving one poor man food in the depths of winter.  A “good” person (or character) will break the law, if doing so will make the lives of others better.  If indeed Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, his actions were criminal—but decidedly good, which is why his story is so revered.

Good has a good reputation.  Most people, even most “evil” people, want to be perceived as “good”.  It is characteristically compassionate, caring for the needs of others, in a sense putting others before self.  Good people are generally against torture, will probably not perform it themselves, and will only tolerate it if it seems absolutely necesssary to rescue someone else or somehow beneficial to the one being tortured.  They are generally against unjustified killing—to put a sentient creature to death, there must be some evidence that the creature is guilty of some heinous evil and unlikely to be rehabilitated.  Killing orcs just because, hey, they’re orcs, is questionable.  Killing orcs because there is clear evidence that these orcs have committed felonious crimes against nearby human or similar settlements that need to be defended is certainly acceptable.

On the other hand, good people can be misled or misinformed, in essence wrong.  They can genuinely believe that certain actions promote the welfare of the greatest number of people which in fact do not.  At that point the question becomes whether they should have known better—is it that the orcs they killed were not involved in the attacks on the human settlements, but the characters had good reason to believe they were, or is it that orcs attacked the human settlements so humans are attacking random orc settlements?  Understanding good can be tricky, because people often do what we might think bad things for good reasons.  Many slavers genuinely believed that they were taking primitive sub-human creatures out of the poverty of their homeland into a better life as domesticated animals.  Indeed, most domesticated animals live longer than their wild counterparts, and are healthier and more comfortable along the way; why might it not be so for humans?  We abhor such practices—but our characters’ perception of the best possible benefit for the greatest number might well be something we would not perceive as “good” because of our own background.

There is a degree to which “good” is definitive of Christian love.  The game version probably does not need to be held to quite that standard of self-sacrifice and servanthood, but a saint who lives so would definitely be a clear example of the “good” alignment.  I hope that your own alignment is “good”, whatever alignment you prefer for your characters.


Previous article:  Clowns.
Next article:  Halloween.

The Moons of Northumbria

In this series of articles, Michael Garcia shares various custom rules and handouts related to his worldbuilding for his ongoing Northumbria campaign. 


It is well known among scholars that the world has at least two main continents and countless islands, surrounded by at least four seas. Of these continents, the vast region known as Northumbria is the northernmost. While civilizations on the other continents are not the focus of this work and the savage inhabitants of the countless islands are rather unimportant, the heavenly bodies, at least those visible in the northlands, are of great interest and concern. We must study these bodies—those that move and those that are fixed—to understand Astrology and the secrets of the universe. Read more

RPG-ology #9: Three Doors

This is RPG-ology #9:  Three Doors, for August 2018.


Probably over a decade ago now there was a big debate in the community of people who enjoy logic puzzles when Marilyn Vos Savant published her solution to one, and many disagreed with her.  I was belatedly dragged into the argument by my father, who sent me a late and partial version of the question.  Eventually I obtained what I take to have been the original question but concluded that her answer was incorrect.

Now, I might not be as smart as Ms. Savant.  After all, she has the highest tested I.Q. on record.  My Intelligence Quotient has always been at the top of the scale on every test I’ve taken, including the Mensa tests, but I have never taken the Triple Nines test.  I can say that on the Law School Admissions Test, which is comprised entirely of various types of logic puzzles, I scored better than ninety-nine-point-eight percent of those who thought themselves smart enough to be lawyers, which was the highest bracket for the test.  It is not impossible that she is wrong and I am right, as I explain in the third of the three pages I wrote on the subject.

This is not really about that, except to the degree that the issue that Ms. Savant failed to see in that case is the issue I want to address here:  the motivations and objectives of the referee, and how knowing them can make a difference to the way you play the game.

Perhaps you have read the short story The Lady or the Tiger.  If so, you probably already know where I am going—but I suggest that, just as Marilyn was dealing with three doors, we have three possible referee attitudes.

I will begin with the killer referee.  I have had conversations with dungeon masters who are proud of their dungeon designs with the inescapable fatal traps.  This referee considers it his duty to get the upper hand and kill all the player characters, and he expects their players to be very cautious and very perceptive.  He is there to beat you.  He is like the host on the three doors puzzle who only offers you the opportunity to change doors if you in fact already have the right one and he wants to tempt you into giving it away.  If you recognize that you are playing with a killer referee, your play has to be careful, circumspect; you have to watch for traps, expect to retreat from overwhelming enemies, and use defensive strategies and escape plans as a regular part of your play.  That’s not to say that it can’t be fun.  Grig said, “I always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.”  Knowing that your referee is going to pull out all the stops to defeat you makes the victory all the more thrilling, and defeat considerably less embarrassing.  The deck was, after all, stacked against you, so if you lost, that was the way it was dealt, and if you won, you beat the odds.

The door at the other end of the row is perhaps the reverse, the beneficent referee.  This guy is on your side.  He wants to see you win.  You might not know that he fudges dice in your favor, but the fact is he will never throw anything at you he does not honestly believe you can beat.  I don’t mean he’s necessarily a “candy store” game master (although they are usually of this sort), but rather he is one who makes an effort to bring you through to victory.  With this kind of referee, the odds favor winning if you take the chance—he built a scenario you can beat, and if he has created something you can’t beat it’s because it will be quite clear to you that this is there to turn you in a different direction—he puts his tarrasque at the edge of his map so you won’t contemplate going where he isn’t ready for you.  The plan here is to make you look like heroes, to give you battles you can win and come away feeling good about it.  That’s not always as much fun as it sounds—if you come to a place where you think it’s impossible for you to lose, winning loses some of its charm—but knowing that the referee is on your side gives you confidence to take a few more risks than you might otherwise.

There is, of course, a door in the middle.  We spoke previously about Playing Fair a couple months back, and there are referees who let the chips—or the dice—fall where they will.  The scenario has not been stacked against you, but it’s not stacked in your favor, either.  If your referee rolls a lot of dice when you ask him questions, and it seems that the dice are dictating whether it’s a good or bad answer, this might be the type of referee you’re facing.  There is much to be commended about such referees.  They will give you a fair challenge, not making it too easy while at the same time not trying to kill you.  Their scenarios are much less predictable, overall, because it is entirely possible that they have rolled up an encounter that is well beyond your ability, and just as possible that they have created one that will be a cakewalk, and you aren’t going to be able to guess until you’ve walked into it.  This is the guy we think our referee is; he’s also fairly rare.  With this guy the way to play is probably realistically—don’t be overconfident, but don’t believe that everything is a trap.  He has made it as fair as he can, which means you have to be careful, but not paranoid.

So those are three general types of referees—killer, beneficent, and fair—and that’s how you play if you can recognize which one you’ve got.  I wouldn’t bother to ask:  quite a few wouldn’t know the answer, some would be wrong about themselves, and those that do know also know better than to tell you.  But if you can figure out how your referee thinks, you can use that to improve your outcomes in play.


Previous article:  The Illusion of Choice.
Next article:  Labyrinths.

House of Curren (Travel)

Eapon is a giant planet, and travel is a major part of life. The house of Curren is well known for being involved with vehicles and living mounts of all types. Further, their temples serve as inns, visitor centers and other places that accommodate those on the road. Small Curren Houses can often be found along travel routes to supply fuel, food and other needs.

Granted Power: Any penalty for terrain or environment to movement is halved whether they are on foot, flying an aircraft, or riding a beast. Additionally they always know which way is north.

  1. Longstrider: Increases your speed.
  2. Locate Object: Senses direction toward object (specific or type).
  3. Phantom Steed: Mundane mount appears for 1 hour/level from the local environment. Stats may vary by creature.
  4. Freedom of Movement: Subject moves normally despite impediments.
  5. Shadow Walk: Step into shadow to travel rapidly. Instead of walking the border between shadow and material it is the border between the physical and spirit realms. Spirit encounters may be greatly increased. If in a vehicle, the vehicle’s speed is doubled.
  6. Find the Path: Shows most direct way to a location.
  7. Phase Door: Creates an invisible passage through wood or stone.
  8. Freedom: Releases creature from imprisonment.
  9. Summon Monster IX: Calls natural creature that you may ride and that may fight for you. The creature must be plausible for the area. Known for calling birds of great size. Duration is 1hr/lvl