Quiet in the Convention Center!

The following editorial was originally published in Knights of the Dinner Table #268 and is posted here with permission.

Derek W. White’s article from KODT 268, “Quiet in the Convention Center”

I’ve been going to gaming conventions for over twenty years and, as an extrovert, one of the things I have enjoyed about them is seeing all the people and hearing the joyful sounds and laughter as people play games.

I love seeing crowds of people excited about gaming, the numerous people wearing costumes, and the chaos one can find in a dealer hall. For me, this is my “meat and drink” when I attend a convention.

But that’s not true for everyone.

Over the last few years, I have become more and more aware of the need for conventions to find ways to meet the needs of differently abled gamers.

As our hobby continues to grow, we are finding more and more people with autism and similar disabilities who need special spaces to calm down and relax. As someone who counts a number of the “old guard” who worked for TSR and other various other gaming companies as close personal friends, they have mentioned to me how difficult it is for them to get around at many of the larger conventions because they are not very handicap accessible.

The noise level at conventions also makes it difficult for them and finding a quiet place to sit is not always easy.

I have become even more keenly aware of how differently others react to all the sights and sounds at a convention because it has impacted me on a personal level—my son was diagnosed with autism about five years ago.

For those not familiar with autism, it is a condition where people are characterized by having difficulty in social interactions and communication.

They also may find themselves restricted by repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. Since those with autism are on a spectrum, the ability to function around others varies from person to person with some individuals being able to function very well while others find themselves only able to interact with one or two people at a time. Many find themselves at various places between those extremes.

Those with autism experience a hyper-sensitivity to bright lights, certain sounds, smells, and tastes. Even certain types of touch can feel extremely uncomfortable. You can see how in a convention setting, this can become very unsettling and overwhelming as it is unpredictable as to when an autistic person might have a negative reaction.

As a father who has raised one gamer and is now raising another one, I wanted to find a way to incorporate my son into the gaming experience at conventions as I had done with his older sister.

I wasn’t sure how to do this. His sister is not on the spectrum and enjoyed all the sights and sounds when she was younger, but my experiences with my son at various conventions has been as different and varied as the conventions themselves.

Larger conventions would be out of the question as they are more difficult for him to maneuver due to all the sights, sounds, and crowds. It seemed my wife and I would be relegated to only taking him to smaller, local conventions.

Then, miracle of miracles, I found myself with a few weeks off this past summer and had the opportunity to speak at one of the larger gaming conventions in the United States. I wanted to take my family with me so that we might have a bit of a family vacation but wondered how my son would react to all the noise.

He had attended this convention with my wife and his older sister a few years prior and I remembered some of the difficulties we faced. We couldn’t predict when the sights and sounds of the convention would overwhelm him but when they did, we knew it immediately. When this occurs, he becomes harder to manage and settle down.

For most people, when they view him in this state, they usually make comments such as, “Oh, wow, this one’s hyperactive” or, if they are really bold they will say, “What an out of control child!” because he begins to run around and finds it hard to focus on the directions we are giving him.

As a family, we had to learn that an autistic child who has become overstimulated is receiving so much input they can no longer focus on one thing.

All of these stimuli have “overloaded his circuits” so to speak and he cannot take any new input. He is just unable to process it.

When we had attended previously, our answer to this problem was to take him back to the hotel room we had been able to secure close to the convention center.

I knew that wouldn’t be a possibility this year because the expense of the hotels close by had risen out of our price range, so we were having to stay a few miles away.

I began looking at the convention’s website and saw they were advertising a “New Sensory Friendly Gaming Room” and I thought to myself, “This is excellent! A place to take him when things get overwhelming.”

I didn’t read the “small print” on the website so I did not realize the organization which was hosting the Sensory Friendly Room had it blocked off after noon on Friday as well as for the remainder of the weekend. The group sponsoring the room were using it for their own “special event.”

So, on Friday afternoon, I found myself with a ten-year-old boy who was overwhelmed with all the noise of the convention center.

His mother had been dealing with his bouncing back and forth from one thing to another for quite some time so I thought I would give her a break and take him to the Sensory Friendly room.

When we arrived, we were told it had been reserved for those who had signed up for it, that we wouldn’t be able to use it. No one had mentioned this to us the previous day so I was very surprised.

My son had already walked into the room and had begun to play one of the games so I found myself having to go in after him and try to explain that we would have to leave. He didn’t understand what was going and was now in tears.

All he could say to me was, “This isn’t fair.” After a little conversation, I was able to take him out of the room and after some searching, we found a place to sit down.

At this point, I knew our day was pretty much at an end even though it was barely noon.

I posted about this on social media because I was upset, my wife was upset, our son was upset, and I was hoping for some answers. I wanted the convention to know what we were experiencing and find out if others had something similar occur to them.

The convention pointed me to the place on the website where it showed the room was reserved by the hosting organization during the most active hours of the convention.

If you’re going to advertise a sensory friendly space, then it should be open to all those who might need it as those with sensory overload do not know when they will be requiring it.

I’m sure many of you may have, at times, experienced some type of sensory overload at a convention.

Now—imagine you can’t filter out all of that extra stimuli. This was what my son faces on an almost daily basis. You may have also seen people in wheelchairs jostled and pushed about as they travel the halls and corridors of a convention.

I know of vendors with accessibility needs who are limited to a short time at loading and unloading zones and have been ordered to move along because they’ve taken too long. Accessibility at gaming conventions is difficult!

As the chaplain at Gary Con, people often ask me where they might be able to find quieter spaces because things can get pretty loud in the designated gaming areas.

It’s not always easy to find those spots but we’re fortunate to have plenty of people who have opened their on-site rooms to people who need a place to chill out from all the noise.

We also have a GM lounge for those who run games and it provides a place for them to get away from all the excitement. It’s not a perfect solution but we are working to make it better each year.

In my day to day job, I am a full-time United Methodist pastor and have served a variety of churches. One of the first things we are asked to do when we arrive at a new site is conduct an accessibility audit.

To be honest, many of our churches are over a hundred years old and not as accessible as we would like. It’s very difficult to get them to a place where they would be compliant, but we are trying. Since these are religious institutions, they are not required by law to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we do our best to make sure we follow the law as closely as possible to make all people feel welcome.

Some of our churches are even working on providing special worship services where people on the autism spectrum who have sensory issues will feel more at ease.

We have seen this need and it’s my hope more conventions see it as well. If more gaming conventions would provide spaces for those with sensory issues—as well as better physical access to its attendees—it would open their doors to people who could not previously attend.

With the CDC reporting that 1 in 59 children have some form of autism and the Pew Research Center reporting 12.6% of the American population have some type of physical disability more and more families are trying to find accessibility options.

Conventions could increase their attendance by finding more creative ways to meet their needs. While it would be nice to see conventions do this out of a desire to meet the needs of a very diverse community, finding new ways to open their doors to people with accessibility needs might increase their bottom line.

There are organizations such as Game to Grow which use tabletop games in weekly “therapeutic social skills groups [to] help young people become more confident, creative, and socially capable.”

Game to Grow recently had a Kickstarter for a tabletop RPG called Critical Core “that helps kids on the autism spectrum build confidence and social skills, one dragon at a time.”

The Bodhana Group “advocates the use of tabletop gaming as a directed therapeutic and clinical practice that can benefit personal growth as well as enhance social and educational services to individuals and families.”

It’s not like autism and similar disabilities are unknown within our community. Shows like Community, The Big Bang Theory, and Stranger Things feature characters who, while they may not be identified as autistic, have some of those distinguishing traits.

Many of us have or know someone with social anxiety issues who has found solace in tabletop RPGs.

These are our brothers, sisters, children, parents, and friends. We should be making it easier for them to come and be a part of our mutual gaming experiences.

I want to end this on a positive note by pointing the reader to a major convention which has made great strides toward providing the spaces I have mentioned above.

The convention which provides a space “for anyone who feels overwhelmed and needs a place to regain their calm” is PAX. These spaces are run by Take This and they provide what they call an AFK room which is run by local volunteers and clinicians.

When I went to check it out, I was wondering which PAX conventions used it and was excited to see all of the PAX conventions use them to provide these spaces.

It also appears these AFK rooms are used at other conventions but, as of this writing, I could not find a list of those conventions on their website.

So, at this point, I hope you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” Do you attend conventions? Would you like to but are worried about accessibility issues?

Contact these conventions via social media and email to ask them about accessibility for people with autism—as well as those with physical disabilities.

Point these conventions to established organizations such as Take This, The Bodhana Group, and/or Game to Grow.

Believe me when I tell you that conventions do respond to attendees’ requests—if there are enough of them talking about it.

It may take some time to work it out but, eventually, we could see the tide shift enabling more people to have access to these spaces.


RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

This is RPG-ology #31:  Screen Wrap, for June 2020.


This was originally published on June 29, 2001, at Gaming Outpost, as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Screen Wrap.

I usually call it “recursive occlusion”; but that’s because that’s what Peter Davison’s Doctor called it in Castrovalva, and now that I get around to thinking about what that means he must have been referring to the method of construction—that the Master had built a trap for him by creating a world based on a formula in which each element was dependent on all previous elements, resulting in a blockage of all exits.  But that’s not important.  The idea is a lot simpler than that.

Years ago there was a video game called Tank.  Tanks would wander around the screen trying to shoot each other.  Thing was, in the early versions you could shoot off the top of the screen and the bullet would come in at the bottom; or you could shoot off one end and have it come in the other.  In some versions you could actually drive the tank that way, off one side and on the other.  It wasn’t the only game that did that, and it was a simple solution to a basic problem:  what do you do about the boundaries?

But it’s an idea I’ve used many times to mystify and confuse my players—and in more variations than you might have imagined.  But if you’ll come with me for a moment, I’ll try to help you imagine a few.

The first one’s easy.  The characters enter some sort of complex—a section of tunnels in a dungeon, an area of rooms and hallways in a space station.  As they pass a certain point, they are inside the boxThe box is clearly marked on your map—it shows that any exits to the east connect to those to the west, and those in the north run to those in the south.  If a character walks into that last ten-foot section on the edge of the box, he’s immediately teleported to the first ten foot section on the other side, so going out one side means coming in the other.  Only one of the entrances is also an exit.  You will be surprised at how many times the players will redraw the same configuration of tunnels before they realize that something is amiss.

The second variation takes the idea to another level.  I did this to one player once, and I’m not sure he figured it out even after someone explained it to him.  I put the same room in two different places on the map.  I denoted them with subscripts so I could keep them straight.  Because they were the same room, if you entered the room, you were in both places at once; but when you exited the room, you always left from the other one.  They weren’t far apart in this experiment—which actually added to the confusion, as he entered the first, left the second and walked back to the first, and drew it twice, but in the wrong position.  At one point part of the party left the room and came back, and then when they all left together they got split up, because some had entered the first room and some the second, but they all were together whenever they were in the room.

You could use this idea to move characters very long distances—another dungeon, another space station, another planet.  You don’t even really need the rooms—you can just use some innocuous looking door.  Looking through the door, you see another room; step through the door, you’re in a room that looks just like the one you saw, but isn’t it.

These ideas have basically focused on keeping the player character inside the box.  You can as easily turn it on its head, and use the same principles to keep him out of the box.  For example, If you’re walking down corridor A and reach room 210, you next pass through a transfer point that takes you to corridor A outside room 280; if you reverse, the transfer will take you from 280 back to 210.  If the player doesn’t know the room numbers or layout, he won’t realize that he’s been moved—until he completes other sections of the map which go around this blocked area, and discovers that the distance between two points in the A corridor is an awful lot shorter than it should be.  You can make it so that access to that central area is only from a specific entry direction, such as above or below or a particular lesser-used corridor (but it can be exited at any point at which it connects).  Or you can determine a sequence of events or “switches” that must be activated to open the area to the characters, such as finding the key, or deactivating the grid, or realigning the circuits at every entrance.

I used an idea like this for a Minotaur’s labyrinth once.  My players were good; they could map a maze in a minute, comprehend any convoluted corridors I created.  The worst thing about facing a Minotaur isn’t the beast itself; it’s the fact that you’re on it’s turf, and it knows how to get everywhere while you’re wandering lost.  But once you’ve mapped a bit of it, it’s pretty easy to keep from getting lost, and the beast’s advantage is gone.  So what I did was create a layout of halls that frequently ran the same distance in the same direction, but parallel to each other a dozen feet apart. Then I put “transfer points” in the halls such that if you were going one direction you would get bounced to another hall, but if you were coming back nothing happened.  The creature knew its way around, and could use the magic to its own advantage; the players always knew which direction they were headed, but once they got involved in the tunnels they never knew quite where they were or how to get back.

Doctor Who faced a Minotaur-like beast called the Nimon once (I won’t swear to the spelling).  This time it was Tom Baker finding his way through the maze.  The thing that made that maze so difficult was that it constantly changed—he worked out that it was a huge set of switches in a communications and transmat system.  That’s a very difficult thing to do—but I can think of two good ways to make it work.  One would be to draw up maybe four or five distinct maps that were the same size and shape and had a few good fixed internal landmarks; that way at random intervals you could randomly change which map was in effect.  Of course, jumping from map to map could be tricky.  You might try making one map on paper that had the landmarks and a few fixed walls as reference points, and then getting four or five sheets of clear plastic overlay to put on top of the map, on which you would draw (or maybe if you’re really ambitious line with thin strips of black tape) the details of each position.  When the layout changed you would pop the new overlay on top, see where the characters are, and slide the old one out.

Of course, this idea doesn’t actually fit the pattern of the others, the pattern of moving the players from where they think they are to somewhere else.  But it probably makes them feel like it does, and sometimes that’s even better—especially if you’ve used tricks to move them around before.  They’ll leap to the conclusion that you’ve moved them, and begin trying to work out where they are.  You can get this effect with even simpler tricks.  Try making a matched pair of seemingly unique landmarks a short distance from each other in a confusing section of paths.  Players unaware that there are two (and especially those uncertain about their mapping skills) will come to the second and think they’re back at the first.

Something like that happened in one of my games, when the player was exploring the world we call Tristan’s Labyrinth.  (It was not called so when Tristan was exploring it.)  The labyrinth is endless; it is made of an L-shaped section designed to fit together such that all exposed sides are the same length (well, a single and double length) with doors that match up, so that you can build outward from one to as many as you need.  This means the same patterns of rooms appear, but not always in the same directions.  You can get the same effect with any of a number of random-connect dungeon floor plans; somewhere I’ve got a set of squares and rectangles published by TSR a generation ago, although I was never terribly happy with the way they fit together.  Just use the same piece against itself, turned around.  In the one game, the player found himself in a room with an interesting shape and several exits.  Deciding to use this as the base for his explorations, he traced out one of the exits some distance and back again, and then another.  The third tunnel took him off the map piece onto the adjacent piece, and connected to another tunnel which led to that same room on the next piece of map.  Carefully he followed it, reaching that identical room.  He looked at it.  He studied it carefully.  He compared it to what he had already drawn.

And then he changed his map.

If you use these tricks, there will be many times when your players will start erasing what they’ve charted, changing and fixing and trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.  But there is nothing like realizing you have gotten them so confused they are erasing the map when it was right.


Previous article:  Story-based Mapping.
Next article:  Doing Something.

Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2

Volume 2: I Can’t Do Accents.

For our second session, two new members joined our party. One permanent addition, and the other dropped in for the evening. The temporary character, my brother, was given the role of guard and a pre-made character sheet. My brother is fairly inept with D&D, not unlike myself, so there was a mite of comfort having him along for the ride. We had snacks on the table, introduced the new players, and we were quickly on our way to continue the campaign.

Having met with the leader of the town, we were tasked with liberating a group of people from a religious building that was occupied by some kobolds and cultists. D&D has a funny way about creature traits. A cultist is essentially a crazed follower. At least, that is what we have gleaned from our encounters and from the info the DM passed on to us. It has been mentioned that this is the common understanding in the D&D world. Also; kobolds are nitwits. Either way, cultists will invariably go out of their way to harm someone, even if it means their own imminent demise, and likewise kobolds rush in fairly foolishly to fights they obviously have no stake in. I guess this has to do with some sort of devotion they claim, but I will have to take the DM’s word on it.

In the cloak of night, we came upon the religious building of worship that was surrounded by a patrolling group of kobolds making rounds every 30 or so minutes, a large party of a mix of cultists and kobolds in the front of the building, and finally a few cultists guarding the rear entryway. All of this while fire was being set to the building, and townspeople were trapped within. We took our time, covertly sending in a messenger, who craftily made their way up to the roof and inside to let the people know we were coming. We also devised a plan to wipe out the back door guards as quickly as possible by throwing open the doors, surprising them, and pummeling them from both sides, all while being cognizant of the patrolling kobolds. Being successful in that task, we pressed on. Later that evening, we found ourselves at a mill with several cultists who would drop down from high above to attack us, hurting themselves in the process, which I was not expecting. Unarmed cultists were trying to harm armored party members, essentially the D&D version of tapping on someone’s right shoulder from behind, only to lean left and wait for them to look right to strike. To put it politely, it was ineffective.

Small lesson here: cultists are dumb. Don’t join a cult, especially a D&D cult. Perhaps this is a well known facet of D&D, but let’s just remind ourselves of the fact that this was my second foray into D&D, and I felt a little bit like I was swimming for a lot of the time. I was acquaintances with the DM, but we didn’t know each other well, and I never considered how getting used to his style and flavor would inhibit my ability to simply immerse myself in the fantasy role. Additionally, there was the fact that I had barely nicked the surface of what D&D could be, so I was overwhelmed by the amount of lore I didn’t bring to the table. I felt more as though I was thrust into the realm than grew up in it, and my game play proved it.

Even Mario is embarrassed by my accent.

Amidst hours of play, the DM abruptly derailed what was happening to ask me who was speaking, and I was caught in the brights. To bring you up to speed, my friend plays a bard. He is also Deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. I am his interpreter in game, which has made for some interesting interactions (one involving a dragon) and some early on confusion, as I used my normal speaking voice for both characters. So, when the DM inquired as to who was speaking, I knew right away that I had erred. The mantle of creating a voice for the bard was set squarely upon me. The bard’s last name is Tempesté so I thought an Italian American “accent” would be suitable. To be transparent, my Italian American accent may or may not have strong semblances to Mario and Luigi from the Mario Bros games. I have learned that I am not good at the aforementioned accent (or probably any accent, for that matter), and to top it off, a few times it seems to slip into an obnoxiously stereotypical French accent a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So, with that in mind, “I faht en your general direction. Now go a-way, or I shall taunt you a second time-eh.”

See you all-eh en Tales of a D&Degenerate-uh, Volume-eh uh-three-uh!

Faith in Play #31: Magic Roads

This is Faith in Play #31:  Magic Roads, for June 2020.


Some years back I was playing in a game in which the city was ruled by chaotic gods who objected to anything being orderly or sensible.  This was particularly noticeable in connection with the roads:  it was impossible to make a map.  I secretly believed that this was because the referee didn’t want to make one himself and so thought it was easier just to pretend that he knew where everything was and how to get there, and make it up as needed.  In play, though, if you wanted to get somewhere in the city, you asked for directions from a non-player character who knew, and you followed them precisely.  These directions were as much ritual as geography–you might have to go around a block and find yourself on a different road when you returned to your starting point, or go halfway down a road or into a cul-de-sac and then return before continuing, or walk under an arch or between the columns on the front of a temple.  If you missed your turn, you hoped you could get back to wherever you began and try again.

I was reminded of this last night as I was driving home and came to the intersection pictured in that satelite view (courtesy Google Maps) pictured to the right.  Coming down route 109 from the west northwest (top left corner) you bear left when 109 curves right into Cape May (The Lobster House, one of the best seafood restaurants in the state, is right below the map) and come to a traffic light.  This is the onramp for exit zero on the Garden State Parkway, which runs off to the north northeast.  There is a conspicuous sign there that says No Turns, so you continue straight across the intersection onto that loop that goes around and returns you to the same traffic signal, where again you go straight to merge with traffic coming over the bridge on 109 from Cape May to get on the Parkway northbound, which begins here and goes off the top right corner of the map.

I’m sure that the intersection is designed that way because during the day, and particularly during the summer, traffic is crazy and someone trying to make a left turn would just hold everything up.  As I sat there around midnight on a late February night with no other cars in sight waiting for the light to change, an odd thought struck me.  It wasn’t that there would be no harm in simply making the left turn and cutting out the loop.  It was wondering about a road where if you made that left turn instead of taking the loop it would take you somewhere else.

I sometimes use my Global Positioning System to direct me to places I already know how to find.  I do it partly because I am interested in whether Google thinks there’s a better way to go than the way I know, but also partly because I know that the system is updated in real time for things like traffic jams and accidents, and have more than once had it send me by a different route than it usually does because the usually longer route will be quicker.

All of this comes to me now as illustrative of divine guidance and intervention.

Like most people, I am often annoyed when a traffic signal turns red as I am approaching.  I am annoyed enough that I often watch the pedestrian signals–at least here in New Jersey they’ve begun installing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs with countdowns which turn to “Don’t Walk” when they reach zero and usually also change the green light to yellow at the same time, so I can estimate whether I’m going to make the light.  When I don’t, though, I sometimes remind myself that God might be stalling me to avoid a potential accident or incident ahead.  My father often said “Don’t be there when the accident happens,” and it may be that our Father takes these little steps to prevent such events–obviously not always, but sometimes.  There is somewhere a book of stories about people who called out of work or were delayed on the way to their offices in the World Trade Center on that fateful day in which so many died.

And so I wonder about our path through life, and whether God sometimes takes us to the place we always expected to go by the route that we never could have foreseen, because it was the best way to get us there.  It might even be that “straight down Main Street and make a right on Broad Street” won’t actually get you to number seven South Broad Street, because that address won’t be there unless you go a block down thirteenth and come back up fourteenth before continuing.  Like the home of Sirius Black, if you don’t take the right steps to get there the destination can’t be found.


Previous article:  Conflict.
Next article:  Zealots.

RPG-ology #30: Story-based Mapping

This is RPG-ology #30:  Story-based Mapping, for May 2020.


I have mentioned before that I belong to a role playing game mapping group on Facebook.  Every day people post beautiful world maps similar to the ones pictured here and ask for feedback.

I am not a cartographer; I am not an artist.  When aspiring young artists send their work to me for my opinion I send it to my art director, because my opinion isn’t worth the price of a cup of coffee on free coffee day.  If they want to know whether it’s beautiful, well, as I often say, a thing of beauty was made by someone else, and they look nice enough to me.  If they want to know if the maps make sense geologically and geographically, I can point out problems (such as those we’ve covered in previous RPG-ology articles including #5:  Country Roads, #10:  Labyrinths, #13:  Cities, and #18:  Waterways).

But if they want to know if the maps are useful, it always makes me feel like that’s not really a good question.  I can’t imagine ever having a use for them—but it took me a while to understand why.

Map by Steve Gaudreau

When I start a map, I begin with the question, Where are my characters right now?  Unless I have a good reason to think otherwise, that is the middle of the piece of paper that’s going to be my map.  (Even when I make maps on a computer I generally have a “virtual piece of paper”, boundaries of the image file and a graph paper grid covering most of it.)  This probably includes a vague notion of Where is the rest of the world?, but as Max Smart once said, “I’m not saying that the rest of the world isn’t lost, 99.”  I need a vague notion of how the characters got here which contains some information about the rest of the world, but since they’re not going to live that part in the story I don’t really need details.

What I do need is the answer to two essential questions.  The first is What is around them that they are going to want to examine?  If they are in a village, I need an inn, stables, tradesmen and craftsmen, probably a constabulary, homes of those who live in town, and probably at least one place of worship.  If it’s a city, I’ve given myself a lot more work, because there are a lot of places someone can go in a city.  In most cases I don’t really have to know how far it is from London to Paris, but I do need to know how far it is from the rooming house to the grocery store.

Map of Kaiden by Michael Tumey

The second question is Where are they likely to go from here?  Not Paris, we hope, or at least not yet.  The first place they’re likely to go is whatever place I have planned for them to have their first adventure.  That might be a dungeon, or a ruin, or an office building, or a spaceship, but whatever it is, I now have to expand my maps to show how to get from here to there, and what they will find when they get there.

There will be other places where they will go.  If they acquire valuable objects, whether jewelry or magic items or tapestries or computers, they probably need to take them somewhere to sell.  That means I need a place where people buy such things, and I need to map the road between here and there and treat that place much as the starting point, creating what they are likely to see when they arrive.  But I didn’t need any of that when the story started; I only needed to have a vague notion of where it was and what was there, so I could put the time into creating the map later.

I’ve called this Story-based Mapping because it is fundamentally about creating the world to meet the needs of the story.  I’ll give kudos to Seth Ben-Ezra’s Legends of Alyria for using this concept.  His world, Alyria, has a handful of significant landmarks—a major city, a huge library, that sort of thing.  When the game starts no one has given a thought to where they are, and there is no map.  When someone says they want to go to one of these places, the plot and the dice dictate how far it is, how difficult it will be to get there, and from that point forward we know where that particular landmark is relative to where we started.  In fact, we might have established where two such landmarks are relative to our starting point but not yet know where they are relative to each other—the plot may at some point dictate that they are adjacent to each other, or that they are miles apart in opposite directions, or that there is an impassible mountain range or waterway or chasm separating them.

This is why those huge world maps don’t interest me.  When I’m running a game or writing a story I need the map to form to what I’m writing.  If I already have a complete map of the world and suddenly I need a pirate base somewhere near my port city, I have to scour the map to find an appropriate location for such a base.  If I’m working with a story-based map, I simply have to expand the map to include the cove or island or port that provides my pirates with a safe haven, and it can be perfect for their needs and pretty much anywhere I want it to be that the characters have not already investigated.

I don’t think those huge maps are useless.  If you are creating a world for other people to use in their games, such as Krynn for the Dragonlance Adventures, having a map that shows where all the countries are located will help those other people run games in them.  But I think that something like the map of Middle Earth, while it might have been drawn from Tolkien’s mind before he started writing, arose organically from the story he wanted to tell:  I need hobbits to start in a quiet remote part of the world and travel a very long way through a lot of dangers but also a few safe spots and ultimately reach a distant dangerous place where they can destroy the Maguffin. Let’s outline what those dangerous and safe places are and where they are located, and then we can create the story to connect the dots.  So if I know what the entire story is before I start writing, I can create the entire map to fit it—but I never know the whole story, not when I’m writing it and certainly not when I’m “playing bass” for a bunch of players who are going to create the story.  I need to be able to create the world as the story needs it, not be locked into land masses and cities and waterways that were created in the hope that they would make a good place for a story.

I’ll probably be thrown out of the RPG Mapping group for this, but I hope it helps some of you understand how to approach making useful maps for your adventures.

Thanks to artist cartographers Steve Gaudreau of Map Alchemists and Michael Tumey for the use of their world maps.


Previous article:  Political Correction.
Next article:  Screen Wrap.

Faith in Play #30: Conflict

This is Faith in Play #30:  Conflict, for May 2020.


A few years back my band Collision left its equipment set up in a church in which we had been practicing.  The drummer had gotten our logo made as a drum head cover, so there was this picture of the earth crashing into a giant cross and exploding.  (I don’t know whether you can see that in the picture, but that’s what it is.)  The youth pastor saw this and complained to the pastor about it; the pastor replied, “Are you kidding?  That’s what it’s really all about.”

My Multiverser co-author E. R. Jones was at a church service somewhere and the pastor asked the congregation how they would define Christianity in one word.  Several other people gave the kinds of responses one expects, and then he gave his:  War.  Our religion is, on one level, about a major spiritual battle between God and all that would oppose Him; we are soldiers in that battle.

When I first read about Dungeons & Dragons™ back in 1980, I was drawn to it because it sounded like this was finally a game that could actually reproduce the kinds of adventures we read about in Tolkien and Lewis and other fantasy authors.  Once I started playing it, though, I realized that it went much deeper than that.  Its use of magic and demons, of good and evil alignments, of spiritual forces, made it a wonderful metaphor for the real battle in which we are all immersed, whether or not we are aware of it.  It reminds us that only spiritual weapons can be used against spiritual adversaries, and that our enemy often is not flesh and blood, even when it uses people as its weapons.

There is some reason to think, and some believers do think, that the ritual of bread and wine was never intended to be a special moment overseen by a priest, but was supposed to force us to take our everyday meals as a reminder of what Christ did, that every time we opened a meal with a bite of food and closed it with a final drink that this would remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, of the body and blood given for us.  Our faith is filled with images and objects whose purpose is to remind us, to cause us to think in terms of our faith.  How wonderful would it be if we played a game that also reminded us, that we are in a spiritual battle fighting on God’s side against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

That’s where we are, what we are called to do.

Fight the good fight.


Previous article:  Victims.
Next article:  Magic Roads.

RPG-ology #29: Political Correction

This is RPG-ology #29:  Political Correction, for April 2020.


The phrase has been around long enough that I cannot imagine anyone in the English-speaking world does not know what “politically correct” means.  In the short form it means never saying anything that might offend any member of any minority group, whether or not such a person is present.  I bring it up here, though, because just recently someone in a role playing group asked whether the concept had any impact on our games.

Ray Bradbury

I hope that my readers are all literate enough to have read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and intelligent enough to have grasped its message.  I have elsewhere cited it in relation to Freedom of Expression, and consider it one of the most important statements on the subject, perhaps second only to the famous dissenting opinion by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (also excerpted at that link).  It is entirely un-American to censor speech; beyond that, it is dangerous for reasons discussed in that article.

The issue here, though, is about censoring the content of our games.  My answer is similar, but with some additional thought.

Someone (I think perhaps the Reverend Paul Cardwell of the CARPGa) once gave me the expression in relation to role playing games the great thought experiment, and I find that to be an extremely apropos description.  In many ways, games are about expressing and exploring ideas, creating characters who either share our beliefs or offer other beliefs, and pursuing where these beliefs lead through the conduct of the characters who hold them.

In my Faith in Play series I have been running an intermittent miniseries on alignment in Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and I discussed what “chaos” means in the entry Faith in Play #22:  Individualism.  I mentioned having played an attorney in one game, and the fact that this lawyer was not lawful but chaotic:  he very much stood for the principles of the ACLU, the fact that everyone has the right to be and do whatever he wishes within the parameters that in so doing he does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same.  I am not a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and they sometimes support cases I would oppose–but I have a lot of respect for their defense of the First Amendment.  Further, playing that attorney in that game allowed me to explore to what degree I agreed with them, believed that the rights of individuals needed to be defended as against the preferences of society at large.

In fact, it seems to me that this entire issue of “political correctness” is precisely about this:  do individuals have the right to believe and say things that are offensive to other individuals?  Do my freedoms include the right to be protected against anything I find offensive?

In my case, at least, they probably don’t.  If you want to call me a dirty WOP, or a stupid Christian, or a narrowminded WASP, I have no recourse.  I object that those are perjorative insults, but you are free to use them.  But what about the game?

In one of my games, a half-orc player character insulted one of my non-player dwarfs.  The dwarf took it in stride and responded, “Did your mother like orcs?”  That certainly would have been politically incorrect if our rules applied to that world, but it was entirely appropriate within the context–and that is the key.  Our worlds, be they fantasy, futuristic, historic, or something else, are filled with people whose views and prejudices are part of their time and place.  In literature we use science fiction and fantasy to explore real-life issues.  Enemy Mine is very much about overcoming racial prejudice, despite the fact that the tension is between humans and aliens.  Captain Kirk says in Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country, “I’ve always hated Klingons,” again exploring racial tensions.  If you’ve never seen the classic movie Tick, Tick, Tick, you’ve missed a story that is very much about southern blacks and whites overcoming their differences.  We use art, and particularly fiction, to explore these kinds of concepts.  The characters within the stories are intentionally politically incorrect, because that is the only way we can convey our message.

There is a caveat here.  We are gathered at the gaming table to have fun, to enjoy ourselves.  Every one of us has limits, lines we do not want to cross.  How graphic is the violence, or the sex?  Are there particular abberations which bother someone at the table?  Some won’t want to play a game that explores rape, or abortion, or–well, there are many aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable individually, and when we get together to play a game we should know what those lines are and not cross them, not make our fellow players uncomfortable.

I don’t believe in being politically correct.  I also don’t believe in being impolite to people.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t have rude characters in my games or my books or my stories.  That political incorrectness is sometimes necessary to explore ideas and beliefs that are different from our own, and so come to understand each other better.


Previous article:  Character Death.
Next article:  Story-based Mapping.

Faith in Play #29: Victims

This is Faith in Play #29:  Victims, for April 2020.


One of the early superhero role playing games gave us the concept of the “DNPC”, the “Dependent Non-Player Character”, the person who is in the story because the hero needs to save someone.  Superman has Lois Lane (pictured) and Jimmy Olsen; Spiderman has Mary Jane and Aunt May.  Within the mechanics of the game system, these people are identified as “weaknesses”, points at which an otherwise powerful hero can be attacked.  If you want to cripple Superman, either you find some kryptonite or you kidnap Lois and Jimmy.

When I asked readers to suggest archetypes, someone suggested these, calling them victims.  Indeed, within the sweep of the story there are these characters, and they are often important to the story.  They create something at stake for the hero.  You can create the threatened child or damsel in distress, but the threat is more potent if it is to a character who is more than two-dimensional, who is a friend of the hero.

Of course, no one particularly wants to play the victim, as necessary as the victim is.  As popular as they are in television and movies, we don’t usually have party members whose primary function is to get in trouble and need to be rescued.  I think if I sat down to group character creation for a campaign and one of the players said, “I want to be the guy the other characters are always having to save,” I would be stunned, and would suggest that he play something that contributed to the party in other ways, at least so that they would have a reason to want to save him.  For most players, if they find their character caught or trapped or imprisoned, their first hope is usually that they will find a way to free themselves, not that their friends would come for them.  Victim is unlikely to be a popular player character class.

Yet I think this reflects an important point for our real lives.

Paul wrote to the Philippians (Philippians 1:21ff) to the effect that he was confident that he would remain alive as long as they needed him.  He wrote this from prison, at a time when it was entirely possible that any day the government would decide to decapitate him.  Yet he was right:  he was released from that prison and continued his ministry to Philippi and so many other places.  We can take confidence from that that we, too, will remain alive as long as we are needed.

I’ll caveat first that neither we nor our loved ones are likely to be the best judges of when we are no longer needed.  It seems to us that many husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, siblings and friends, die when we thought they were still needed.  God knows whether we are needed, or whether His plan would be better served by our departure.  This is not a promise of invulnerability nor even of longevity.  It is a promise that our deaths will not leave our loved ones bereft of something necessary only we could have provided.

But it is the other side of that which matters to me here.  Our world is also filled with the dependent–the infirm aged, the terminally ill, the severely disabled.  We look at some of these and think that their caretakers would be better off were they to die.  They might have contributed much to others during their productive lives, or they might never have done so, but in their present state they contribute nothing and consume much.  Why does God keep these people alive?  If Paul is right, that we will remain alive as long as needed and then go home to God, why are these seemingly useless people still here?

The answer is difficult, but it is that we need these people.  We need people who need what we can give them and can give nothing back.  It is those people who teach us how to love, how to put our love into action, how to do things that matter.  If there were no people with needs, we could do nothing to meet those needs.

Once we understand that, there is one more step we must take:  at some point in our lives we will probably be one of those people, one of those dependent non-player characters who need to be rescued by the hero, one of those needy people who can do nothing for themselves and nothing for those who help them.  Those people are necessary to God’s plan for our lives, and we might one day be those people.  Indeed, some of us might be those people already, wondering why God has us still alive given how much of a burden we are on others and how little we can contribute.  The answer is that we contribute precisely by being a burden, by giving others the opportunity to help us.

So we learn this valuable lesson from the victim archetype:  dependent people are a necessary part of God’s plan for us, and sometimes it is necessary for us to be those dependent people.


Previous article:  Vampires.
Next article:  Conflict.

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.


A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.


Previous article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.
Next article:  Political Correction.