RPG-ology #20: Pay Attention

This is RPG-ology #20:  Pay Attention, for July 2019.


When Multiverser was first going to publication, artist Jim Denaxas suggested that from henceforth everything in my life had become tax deductible.

My job today is to create worlds, and to find ways to import worlds to games—my games and the games of referees around the world.  Whatever I do in pursuit of that job is a business expense.

If I go to see a movie, I’m researching plots, stories, and sometimes fantasy or science fiction settings.  If I read a book, it’s the same thing.  The newspaper is a source of world ideas; so, for that matter, is the television.  But those are the obvious things.

I could go on vacation, and justify it as a study of other parts of the world.  How much more realistic could my development of a Greco-Roman culture feel if I’ve walked the Appian Way, or stood before the Parthenon?  Could I write as convincing an Asian setting without visiting China and Japan?  If we’re setting this in the mountains in the summer, a trip to the Poconos is helpful, but wouldn’t it be so greatly enhanced by traveling to the Rockies, the Alps, and perhaps the Himalayas?  I can visit the beach and learn much; I can visit Historic Gloucester, legendary Malibu, and even the black beaches of Hawaii and learn so much more.

And no world experience could be quite complete without understanding the food.  Fine restaurants offer the opportunity to understand the culture, my own or any of a hundred other nationalities and ethnic groups.  Concerts, whether longhair in my father’s more traditional sense or in my generation’s reactionary sense, add to my comprehension of a people, a place, a time.  And I could spend hours wandering around museums—natural history, science, art, culture, or technology, all great sources of ideas, information, background.  No matter what I’m doing, I am involved in research, finding ideas for worlds and stories and games.  And since that’s my job, it’s all tax deductible.

Well, I’ll argue that with the Internal Revenue Service another time.  Don’t get me wrong—I usually win when I’m dragged into court.  I just don’t know that they’d be so willing to accept my definitions of business expenses as I propose.  Meanwhile, there’s another point.

But in order to get to it, I’m going to wander away from it.

I took a Creative Writing:  Fiction class back at Gordon College.  At the time (probably 1977), I had no expectation of ever using it in life.  I hadn’t heard of role playing games, and saw my future as a musician and composer, not a writer.  (If you’re in college and you aren’t in some highly technical field that guarantees you a job in a lab somewhere almost before you graduate, the best advice I have is keep your options open, learn broadly everything you can about everything they offer, and keep your books and your notes.  If your degree isn’t something very specifically in demand, it isn’t your primary goal.  Yes, you are there to get a degree; but far more important than that, you are there to learn everything you can, to know what is taught, and to understand how to learn and how to think.  Those are the real things you learn in college:  how to think first, how to learn second, how to find information third, and the lessons themselves fourth.  The degree, a scrap of credential, only shows that you had the opportunity to learn these things.  It’s not the goal, but evidence that the goal may have been reached.)  I took this creative writing course because it sounded interesting, and I wanted to learn about writing; I thought I might one day write the next great fantasy novel, in the far future, but it certainly wasn’t on my list of career objectives.  Yet it has proved in several ways to have been one of the most valuable courses I took.

One of the basic requirements of the course was the maintenance of a writer’s journal.  We were to carry a notebook with us at all times, and every day to write something—anything—in it.  It could include descriptions of things we saw or people we met; plot ideas or story concepts; dreams and fantasies; drafts of bits of required papers; mental observations; images and similes and metaphors.  I started it because it was required; but I kept it up intermittently for years thereafter, and have three notebooks packed with such writings.  In there you’ll find story and world ideas for fantasies and horror and science fiction.  You’ll find my realization that mysteries have to be written backwards—that the author has to know who did it and how from the beginning, and then unravel it by presenting the clues available to the detective.  You’ll find the original notes which became my Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict article.  I wrote about the technical details of some of the jobs I had; I described landscapes and skyscapes from many times of the year in several parts of the world.  Co-workers were sometimes sketched as potential characters, and conspiracies were hatched.  I wrote a few entire short stories in those pages, and from these taught myself much.  In one, I examined the difference between what a wizard might have done and how his victim might have perceived it, recognizing that magic is less about what the user can do and more about what he can make others believe he did.  And you’ll find the moment I realized that Frank Herbert broke perspective to capture a moment, and the moment I realized that he and J. R. R. Tolkien held my attention by splitting the action in their stories between several stages and moving from one to another.  So much that I learned about people, places, plots, and ideas can be found in the pages of those notebooks.

And every once in a while I go back through them, looking over the old ideas.  I wrote a few short stories for my sons’ teachers to use in their holiday celebrations in school, and dug through the books for color and descriptives that would make the scene more real.  They have proved quite valuable.

And that brings us back around to that point I mentioned a few paragraphs back.

Every minute of your life, every step that you take, you are surrounded by story ideas.

The clerk at the grocery store—look at her.  Is she young and pretty, and expecting a wonderful life ahead of her?  Is she old and tired, doing this to support her three kids?  You don’t know; but notice her, watch her, make some guesses.

There’s a gas station on the corner; they just built it last year.  What was there before that?  I drove through my home town a few months ago on my way to visit my parents, and realized that I did not recognize anything familiar but the road itself—if any of the stores were there when I was a boy, I did not notice these.  Each building can be part of your world, or an inspiration for part of it; and in a matter of only a few years, some will be gone, and most changed in some way.  Capture the present.  Make notes on the past, what you can remember of it.  No, I’ve never used downtown Ramsey in any of my game worlds (or, not yet, anyway); but the bits of it that I remember make good fodder for other worlds.

Look at the sky, the trees, the ground, the roads, the houses.  What month is it?  How many times have you run a game in which the season for the characters was different from that of the players?  Do you really know what summer looks like, smells like, feels like?  How July is different from August?  How summer rain and spring rain differ?  Can you convey that within your descriptions?  Can you convey the difference between December and January while sitting around the pool in June, and make your players shiver from the cold?  Learn the settings.

I read an interview with a successful French photographic artist.  In it he gave the obligatory word of advice to those who aspired to a career akin to his.  His was quite interesting.  Ignore the standard social convention, he said:  stare at people.  You must see them to be able to understand what they look like.  I would say the same thing:  stare at everything and everybody, at least in a figurative sense.  Don’t think of anything as mundane or insignificant; it is in fact the mundane and insignificant that provides the best color, and often the most interesting ideas.

Do you need a notebook to do this?  Probably.  Maybe right now you don’t—maybe you can draw from your current experience pretty well, and create things from what you know.  But there are many things I wish I’d written when I saw them.  I would have a much larger base from which to create had I done so.  I have many years of experiences which are faint memories now, good and bad memories lacking the detail for which I could wish.  I suspect no matter how thoroughly you preserve your observations, there will always be things you forget and wish you could remember—the pleasures and pains of life, the family gatherings which seem so routine at the time and so poignant later (“the last time we saw Grampa alive”), the daily activities of school or work that you would rather avoid but which will not be here forever.  Life is packed with these moments, stories, people, places.  You don’t need me to give them to you—you just need to preserve them and shift them into new combinations.

So in a sense this entry in our series has been about keeping a notebook.  But it’s more essentially about keeping your eyes and ears open, paying attention and noticing things around you, and finding a way to keep those observations for future use.

This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited:  Pay Attention, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.


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Next article:  Living In the Past.

Scrabble, Risk and Why I Haven’t a Clue

I’m coming to realize that I don’t reflect on the past enough.

If I stop and take a minute to reminisce, I do remember my grandfather—Roy—fondly. He lived what seemed like forever away to a young boy, but his home always smelled warm, inviting, and scented with whatever potpourris my grandmother had laid out, often times with a fire going in a small nook fireplace, annexed to his dining room. My grandfather would greet our family, but I always felt like I was the one he was waiting for, and he would take me onto his knee, bony as it was, and we would talk about everything my younger self found important. Though many specific conversations have faded, there are still a few memories that remain vivid: watching him work on his fully functioning model train set that took up half of the basement, playing Lode Runner, Jack Sprat, and Olympics on his Apple (with the huge floppy disks), and, lastly, board games.

My grandfather loved words and language, which has played a significant role in who I’ve become. I can recall reading the dictionary for leisure while learning and applying new words, and even today I work as an American Sign Language Interpreter. So, in a way, I’m in the word business. The lazy-Susan Scrabble game with the plastic gridded board was his game of choice, and a Scrabble dictionary was always handy. I’m sure I was constantly and soundly beaten, but I don’t remember ever losing, as the steady rolling of the well-worn ball bearings kept me entertained from turn to turn. Wssh wssh! However, I DO recall Grandpa having a “newer” computer that had a Scrabble game and a computer opponent named Mavin. Mavin was a word wiz, and would constantly challenge Grandpa’s mettle. Even so, he would sit me on his lap, and we would work together to beat Mavin, often times looking up his words to hopefully use them against him at a later time. Thinking back on Mavin, I still feel heat rising up in my chest, while consternation is starting to knit my brows into a full on furrow. MAAAVIN! Phew, okay… Breathe in, breathe out…

Thankfully, my two uncles also love board gaming and, at the time, were young enough to live at home with my grandparents. Risk was their game of choice. Little wooden cubes, slightly elongated three-sided round-edged blocks all of different colors denoting army/allegiance, a game board of the world, and a whale with a sailors cap. The wood smell, the dice clacking on the table, and games lasting for hours while armies strategically made their way across continents. Aptly named Risk, the risk taking—now called a push-your-luck mechanic, I believe—went hand in hand. Sure, you may have 10 armies holed up in Siam, but I want Australia and I’m willing to pit my five armies against your 10, because I can roll three dice at least twice! Whether winning or losing, the thrill of taking over the world beckoned me, and I fell in love. Games of Risk became quicker, more of my siblings got involved, and world domination suddenly became a personal affair.

It’s funny now talking about enjoying Risk, as many of my current fellow gamers (serious and otherwise) speak so poorly of Risk, despite my advocating how quick of a game it can be, especially in light of how long even set up can take on modern day games (I’m looking at you, Xenoshyft, Near and Far, etc…). I still hold a special place in my heart for Risk, and much of that love is what spurred on my continued interest in gaming in general!

Years later my family was gathered around the table for some card games, dice games, and board games. When we’d had our fill of party games, we transitioned out to play Clue (Cluedo outside of the US) and began set up. Clue was a game that we seldom had played, but enjoyed when we did. Putting the three cards (person, place, and weapon) into the top secret envelope, I chose my character (Prof. Plum: purple is my favorite color) and rolled a 6. I made my way to the study. Upon my second roll, I went into the study and made my first accusation, Mrs. White, in the Study, with the Lead Pipe. My younger brother to my left checked his sheet and couldn’t contradict the guess. Passing to my mom, then my sister, no one could prove the accused character’s innocence, nor could they refute the room or the weapon choice. At that point, I checked my own sheet to see if I had erred: I hadn’t. Much to the disbelief my family was throwing around, I opened the envelope to reveal Mrs. White, the Study, and lastly the Lead Pipe. I had won on my very first accusation! My family was so upset that we didn’t play Clue again for the rest of the night. Incidentally, even to present day we haven’t touched Clue again, and even after marriage and having children of my own, Clue remains buried in our game closet. We have since replaced it with Outfoxed!, which I believe is my mother’s saving grace (she still rolls her eyes when I mention Clue), as it doesn’t matter if we guess correct quickly, because we are all about catching the fox and not beating each other.

Now-a-days gaming in my home can be just as volatile, if not more so, as my wife has joined the crew. I often joke—though sometimes I wonder—that my wife comes to the gaming table with divorce papers in hand! She gets so over-the-top competitive that most of our gaming sessions are cut-throat and she holds no mercy! We’ve been married for just over eight years, but I’ve rarely seen my wife come as alive as she does when she’s playing a gotcha or take-that game and is gotcha or take-that-ing me! Even when we are playing team games she gets no satisfaction being on my team, even if we win. She would rather be on someone else’s team and try to stomp me into the ground. I’m sure there’s some psychoanalytical path you could venture down, but instead I have since made a heavy lean towards cooperative games. It doesn’t spark the fire in her like competitive games. We’ll sit down to a one vs. one game of Love Letter, and she is bent to get those love letters through to the Princess. I love my wife.

Amidst the craziness of different gaming ventures, I am able to look back through time and find myself thankful. My grandfather passed away when I was 12 or 13, at that time there was a cacophony of life changes happening around me and to me, but there is one memory I hold on to. The church he attended was a smaller church that had recently built a new building: expansive, two tiers of seating, and quite overwhelming to my young teen self. For the funeral the church was packed—both tiers—and the minister moved to a time for comments/memories people wanted to share about my grandpa. There were fewer attendees that didn’t comment than did, and most focused on how my grandfather’s greeting them and following up with them from week to week had deeply impacted their lives. He lead an adult Bible study for a while as well, but again a mass majority of the comments dealt with him as a greeter. It is imprinted on my heart the outlook he maintained in life. He did something seemingly simple; he greeted church-goers. At the same time, my grandfather’s actions had such a weighty impact, all while doing what he believed was God’s will. I imagine they all felt like they were the ones he was waiting to greet, just as I had felt so many years ago. God had worked through my grandfather, and I could see the evidence of this, and it stuck: do everything for God. Don’t worry about the perceived “importance” but remember who we do things for. There are more stories I could recount about my grandpa, but I can say with confidence that his impact in the small things has rippled into waves of importance when I’m confronted with the big things. My faith was planted by him, and after his passing I learned to rely on God, who continued to water those seeds my grandpa sowed during Scrabble.

Faith in Play #20: The Problem with Protests

This is Faith in Play #20:  The Problem with Protests, for July 2019.


It was brought to my attention that twenty thousand well-meaning wrong-headed religious conservatives have signed a petition asking Netflix not to run a show produced by Amazon exclusively for Amazon Prime subscribers.  The show is a scripting by Neil Gaiman of a book he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett, and centers on an angel and a demon cooperating to prevent the Antichrist from coming to power and bringing the apocalypse.

The most cogent of the objections, I suppose, is that it makes Satanism seem light and acceptable.  That’s not really surprising, given that Pratchett was a brilliant humorist and satirist, and Gaiman is a respected fantasy author; one would expect anything they wrote together to be funny on some level.  Other complaints are just foolish, such as that God is voiced by a woman (God in Genesis clearly embodies all that is masculine and feminine in one being, and so could express Himself as Herself if that suited His/Her purpose), and that the Antichrist is portrayed as a normal child (we know so little about The Antichrist, or even if that’s a proper designation for any individual—the word appears only four times, all in John’s first two letters, and always in ways that suggest a generalized bunch of people who share the title and were active when John wrote).

I’m told that Netflix has agreed not to air the show, which is both funny and sad—sad because I don’t have an Amazon Prime account but I do have a Netflix account, so unless I give in to the pressure from my Patrons and spend the money on Amazon I’m not going to be able to see it, funny because of course Netflix was never going to be offered the opportunity to air it so it’s an empty concession.

And this highlights the first big problem with these Christian protests.  I am one of probably millions who would not have heard about this show but for the news of the petition.  Many will have considered subscribing to Amazon Prime for the opportunity to see it—a Neil Gaiman scripting of a book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett is going to attract a lot of potential viewers, and Amazon could not have asked for better publicity.  When I was a boy, there was a cartoon show about a flying squirrel and his friend, a moose.  (It was originally entitled Rocky and His Friends, after the lead character Rocket J. Squirrel, but the sidekick became so popular he soon got equal billing in Rocky and Bullwinkle and then top billing as it became The Bullwinkle Show.)  At one point they did a story arc about the “search for the Kirward Derby”.  What we kids didn’t know was that at the time there was a successful television personality named Durward Kirby.  Reportedly Kirby threatened to sue, but Rocky producer Jay Adams replied by letter saying, “Please do, we need the publicity.”  That may be the first time anyone recognized that in the entertainment world there is no such thing as bad publicity, and loudly objecting to anything in that field can only make it more popular.  It is said that one of the reasons TSR did not more aggressively attempt to address Christian objections to Dungeons & Dragons back in the 80s was because the young people the game was targeting were more likely to want to know about a game that their parents and the churches condemned.  The probability that Amazon would have pulled the show in response to a petition was negligible, and so the only likely outcome of the petition is exactly what it achieved, advertising the show to many who would not otherwise have been aware of it.

That the petitioners don’t recognize this also makes them look foolish.  Of course, these particular petitioners look the more foolish because they petitioned the wrong network.  That is not only foolish in itself, it makes it blatantly evident that possibly not a single person who signed that petition knew what it was to which they were objecting—they had never seen the show, perhaps not even a trailer for it.  Had they seen it, at least some of them would have realized that it was not on Netflix but on Amazon, and so that ignorance is underscored in this case.  Yet apparently not even the people who started the petition saw the show, because they didn’t know it was on Amazon, either.  I don’t know who started the petition, but even if that person saw the show, for twenty thousand sheep to sign a petition against something about which they know only that one person didn’t like it—well, it reminds me of the Penn and Teller riff where they attend an environmental rally and get people to sign a petition to ban the potentially dangerous chemical di-hydrous oxygen (which is in fact water).  I’m not against anyone protesting for or against anything in which they believe, but I really do think that before you sign your name to a petition you ought to know what it is really protesting.  These people didn’t—and that is so frequently the case with petitions launched by the religious right that such petitions make religious people look more foolish.

Which further means that we become more marginalized.  Objecting to a fantasy television series on a limited access channel does not make us relevant; it makes us laughingstocks.  There go those Christians, once again condemning what they don’t understand.  They did it with rock music; they did it with role playing games; they did it with modern art.  Now once again they’re shooting off their mouths about what’s wrong with something about which they know absolutely nothing, and want us to believe that what they say has any meaning.  There’s no point listening to anything they say, because it’s obvious they don’t know what they’re talking about.  That’s what we’re teaching the world every time we sign another of these foolish counter-productive petitions.  If you’re wondering why no one listens when you preach the gospel, well, it’s because so much else that you said was nonsense that nonsense is what the world expects to hear from you.

I’m sure my request that we give up these petitions will fall on deaf ears.  I only hope that perhaps you might know better than to sign one in the future.  Certainly there are things in the world to which we ought to object, against which we ought to take a stand.  Do so, but only if you are personally informed concerning the object you are protesting and can, yourself, speak intelligently against it without regurgitating lines that you’ve been fed by someone who perhaps knows as little as you.

The title of the show is Good Omens.


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Next article:  Villainy.

Christ and the Dice #2: My Current Game (a brief overview)

I have played in and run many games, and many types of games, over the years. From high fantasy to low, from games of nobles intriguing to pirates at sea, I have been on a star-ship crew and run with a coterie of vampires, vast epics and simple one shots, and everything in between. And drawing from all of those gaming experiences I feel that I can safely say that my favorite type of game is an Epic Good Guy game in a fantasy setting.

While I have had a lot of fun with most games I have played in and run, nothing seems to beat running an epic story with a diverse party of good guys—which is why I am enjoying my group’s current game so much. I am running a largely high fantasy game, set in our home brewed world, using D&D 3.x (plus our house rules).

The world we are playing in is one that several of my friends and I started working on more than two decades ago. It is a collaborative effort that several of us have continued to this day. (We still haven’t named it, we just call it the Composite World.)

The game so far has taken place on a continent named Oirth, in and around the Empire of Torell. The party has four members, three of whom are from Torell; the fourth is from far away. They are all some flavor of Good for their alignments and spend more time, in character, worrying about doing good than they worry about getting loot.

The nominal leader of the party is Van, a half-elf paladin/priest following the god of knowledge. This character is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is both of his parents were half-elves. His father was born full human, but he drank from a magic pool that turned him into a half-elf. Also both his father and his mother were PCs in a previous campaign, and his father’s parents were PCs in a game before that!

Van’s “wife” is Xu, a warrior monk from a powerful and rich nation state known as Cho, which is far away from our empire. The word wife is in quotes because in the back story they developed, it was decided that Van and Xu traveled together in a great caravan and at one point came upon a village where, unknowingly, they met the requirements to be husband and wife by the village’s customs. So they had to agree that they were married (that is all that it took there, no ceremony needed). And since then, Van, being a religious and honest type has presented them as married, while Xu keeps denying it, providing some amusing comic relief.

Shrike is a human wizard/rogue, and was a friend of Van’s from their youth. Though he largely grew up on the streets, he hasn’t let that turn him from the path of good. It could be because his master, the wizard who taught him how to control his magic, was gentle but adamant about doing the right thing. And while he is definitely a good guy, he seems to be the most interested in worldly riches. And spell books, always spell books.

Our final party member is Raif the halfling bard/druid. He was raised in small village in Bain’s Hope Forest, a large forest in Torell, and he grew up interacting with the fey, elves, and the immortal human Bain, whom the forest is named for. This has made for a character who is largely innocent, devoutly good and, until he began adventuring with our party, very naive about “civilization”. He may have a touch of fey blood in his lineage, or maybe it’s a bit of dragon blood, but there is something a little otherworldly about him. And he travels with a big celestial dog named Loup. I should mention that Loup is a Very Good Dog, just ask Raif, or wait a few minutes and he will tell you.

The characters who already knew each other met Raif in the backstory we developed for the game. This happened when Raif ran into them while they were trying to deal with an evil sorcerer who was despoiling the forest Raif called home. After a spring, a summer and a fall of adventuring together to defeat this vile evil, they wintered in a village on the edge of the forest, which is where and when the game proper began.

The story started out simple enough, with a lieutenant of the empress’s own guard asking them to investigate a missing agent in a relatively nearby but hostile kingdom, Kand. They traveled to the nearest port city, Serrael, and took a sail to the capital of Kand, where they encountered the blatant bigotry of a very xenophobic nation. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t like this nation. While there they fought some giant spiders in a nearby forest, and in town they defeated a couple of evil fighters, one of which was being influenced by an evil intelligent sword.

The party was able to establish an underground branch of the empire’s church through some few faithful who lived there. They were attacked by the secret police, though they were not identified. Through some subterfuge and careful planning, they were able to rescue the agent, and his wife, and smuggle them out of the kingdom and back to home.

During their adventures in Kand, they recovered a very old set of full plate from their home empire, and decided that they should try to return it to the family, if any remained. They also formed a profitable mushroom import business (it was a cover that paid off handsomely). Also in Kand they began to get the first clues that the Servants of Sutek (an evil god) were active again.

On their way home they took care to drop the evil sword in the deep ocean. And upon their return from Kand they spent a week resting at a very nice upscale inn, on the empire’s coin. They took this down time to learn some spells, identify some magic items and to spend some gold.

As their rest week came to an end our intrepid adventures were approached by a high ranking member of the church, and asked to travel far to the north, across the sea to the land of Hest. They knew that Hest was a region that had supplied raiders and conquerors who had harried and fought the empire for centuries so they were cautious. But the bishop revealed that he had learned about a cache of books from many centuries ago that were reported to be extant somewhere in the vast lands of Hest and he wanted the characters to find and recover them if possible.

Of course the paladin Van, being clergy of the church, and a paladin, agreed immediately, and the rest of the party quickly joined in, perhaps due to the promise of glory and a respectable reward.

On their way to Hest they were able to find the family that the full plate armor belonged to and returned it to much fanfare and gratitude, and they also defeated a band of river pirates. It turns out that they really don’t like pirates.

They are currently in Hest, far from home and trying to deal with peoples who do not like them and whose languages they only barely understand. In the course of this quest, they have continued to encounter the priests and followers of Sutek, adding to the growing evidence that something dark is afoot. They have also helped marry a couple of young loves who were running away from their warlike families (the druid performed the ceremony). They have fought trolls, various outsiders, undead, and more. And they have had an interesting conversation with a fairy lord.

Our last game left them at the city of Hvammr, a city founded a little over a century ago, by a warlord sorcerer, who, according to legend, disappeared a decade or two after founding the city. The city was abandoned around the time the sorcerer disappeared but is a magnet for treasure hunters.

Since entering the city they have fought more Servants of Sutek and a party of treasure hunters who were not the friendliest. And they have met a young child-like being who they believe to be the spirit of the city.

And then half of my gaming group had to go to Origins Game Fair, so I didn’t get to game this past weekend. But we should be picking up the story this weekend and I am hoping to drop some more clues about what the Servants of Sutek are up to, if we get far enough.

RPG-ology #19: Treasure Auction

This is RPG-ology #19:  Treasure Auction, for June 2019.


A recent article by Michael Garcia, Treasure Division:  A Case Study From Northumbria, got me remembering treasure division from the past.  I was in quite a few games, and we had quite a few ways of doing it.  In more than one group, the party leader decided who got what, and tried to keep everyone happy while ensuring that useful objects went to the party members who could most benefit the party with them.  One of the groups tried a method recommended in one of the Original Dungeons & Dragons™ rulebooks that involved rolling dice, with higher level characters rolling more dice and henchmen rolling fewer, which one of the groups tried once or twice at least; I might have modified it for their use.  At least one party regarded every object property of the party, and it wasn’t given to you but put in your care for you to use for the benefit of the party, to be returned if you left the party or died.  These are all interesting and useful methods, but with one party I needed a very different method–and as party leader, I found one, which some of the players loved and others hated.

First, the party situation should be backgrounded.  My character was hired to go on a mission, promised a few thousand gold coins and permission to keep anything we obtained along the way other than the object we were to retrieve.  I hired seven people of different races, classes, and alignments to be part of that mission, promising each of them a specific share of what we obtained–two of them, whom I hired to be my lieutenants, were to receive larger shares than the others.  The mission took more than a week but less than two, if I recall correctly, and we recovered the object and a few thousand in cash, plus something approaching two hundred objects some of which were obviously useful for some characters (e.g., swords and other weapons) and others of which might be either worthless or strange magic artifacts.  It fell to me to find a way to divide these fairly, and there were a few items that certain characters particularly wanted.  I also faced the fact that once the treasure was divided the characters would also divide, and if there were another mission it would fall on someone, probably me, to hire a team for it, and up to them whether to accept my offer.

My solution was to hold an auction.

Because there was no loyalty and my character did not use magic, it was stated up front that no one was permitted to use any magic such as detect spells on any of the objects prior to distribution.  Just because the wizard says something is not magical does not mean he isn’t intending to buy it cheap and sell it to someone else.  Only hired members of the party were permitted to bid, or to be present during the bidding.

I organized the items in what I thought made sense as the least to most valuable, given what could be told by looking at them.  I then divided the cash between the party members according to their promised portions, and put the first item on the table.  I had prepared myself by jotting down for each object what my character would give as the opening bid (and if no one else bid, it defaulted to me for that amount), and how high I was willing to bid for objects I particularly wanted.  Everyone else could then bid in an open auction until there was a highest bid no one would overcall.  That person then paid the amount into the pot and received the item, and we moved to the next.

As auctioneer and party leader, I would periodically decide that the pot had grown large enough that I should divide it according to the proportions promised each party member, partly so that they would have cash to keep bidding.  I knew (but had not anticipated) that several of them had borrowed money from non-player characters so they could bid high on objects they particularly wanted, so the pots got rather large sometimes.

The logic of the system is that every object we obtained went to whatever character placed the highest value on it, or at least within the bounds of their funds, and for at least the value of the person who put the second highest value on it.  Objects thus went to the people who thought them most valuable, and everyone was compensated for the value of every object, having tacitly agreed that it was not worth more than that.  The people who love the system love it for that reason.

Of course, auctioning almost two hundred objects among eight players was an extended bit of roleplaying.  With interruptions for the shenanigans of some of the player characters, it took most of three game sessions to complete, and people who don’t like the system generally remember that “waste of time” and the tensions of trying to bid high enough to get the objects they really wanted.

I swear by it, and whenever I’m the party leader I use it; I’ve been in games where others from that game or even others who heard about that game think that the auction is the best way to divide treasure objects.  I’ve also known at least one gamer who won’t play in a game if the auction system is going to be used, but I’m not sure his absence is all that much of a loss.

I would be interested in how your parties divide treasure.


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Battle Among the Hill Ruins

This tale follows from the events of Tracks on a Moonless Night.


Image by Iwona Olczyk from Pixabay

Background

Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue have been in the region around Blackwater Lake for months now, searching for Sir Garrett’s lost ancestral estate, named Falconridge, which once lay somewhere near the shores of the lake. After several adventures and misadventures, the Winchester party is now split into several groups.  Several members of the retinue are down south in the bustling city of Yarrvik, while others remain at Blackwater Keep or the nearby village of Lakesend. One remained near the ruined Temple of Pholtus, which the party recently explored. The rest of the Winchesters and their new unlikely allies, about two-dozen pilgrims of Pholtus, were to advance on the abandoned temple in force.  The Winchesters were to serve as an advanced guard that would lie in wait, hoping to flank the evil forces that would certainly attack the pilgrims of Pholtus, who formed the main body.  However, this plan derailed when dozens of strange, robed men ambushed the Winchesters in their forest camp at night, dragging off Master Gimlet and an allied man-at-arms named Brother Marcel.

After the battle, the Winchesters regrouped. Garrett sent three of his companions with all the horses toward the temple, where they hoped to meet up with the pilgrims. Meanwhile, Garrett, Alinachka, Brother Rolf, Ragnar, and Brother Carloman spent an hour plowing through the forest at night, following the enemy’s tracks and searching for their missing comrades. A small band of dark-robed figures ambushed this small group at a steep ravine, killing Brother Carloman and wounding several others. Several cultists slipped away during the fighting. Frustrated, the Winchesters continue the pursuit.

From the DM

I waffled on whether or not to lead the PCs to one of the villains’ lairs, where conversions are typically done. I decided that this would push them too far off course so instead I allowed the party to catch up to the captors and to rescue their companions. If the party is astute, they’ll realize that the fast-moving villains had ample time to escape. Just what did they do to the captives, and why did they allow the captives to be rescued? Next session, the PCs may be in for a surprise. Read more

Faith in Play #19: Simulationism

This is Faith in Play #19:  Simulationism, for June 2019.


One of the complications of discussing whether what’s called “simulationism” in Ron Edwards’ Big Model is that even Ron Edwards has had trouble figuring out what it is.  We have looked at gamism and narrativism, and decided that there are Christian values in those approaches to play, even if there are also pitfalls.  Yet if we’re going to consider simulationism, we’re going to have to understand what it is.

As I covered in the third part of Theory 101 for Places to Go, People to Be some years back, Creative Agenda (or the French translation Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives), simulationism is driven by the desire to learn, to know, to experiment and understand.  That’s why it seems to have so many expressions–from the players who have their characters leap off cliffs because they have calculated that the fall won’t be fatal to those who become involved in the minutiae of combat to those who explore geography and culture.  Simulationism is expressed in other activities, in participating in war reenactments, watching travelogues and cooking shows, even taking college courses as a recreational activity.  For many people, the drive to know is what controls the way they play their games.  It is something of a vicarious experience, the feeling of being there, and so coming away with some notion of what it would be like to be there.

Simulationism is walking a mile in the other man’s shoes.  It is exploring what life would be like in another time or place.  It is learning, gaining knowledge.

I once had a debate with my brother in which he put forward as a premise that knowledge was inherently good, and that it was always good for knowledge to be disseminated to as many people as possible.  I objected to the premise.  Knowledge, I asserted, was a useful tool which could be used for good.  I think that is where this discussion ultimately takes us:  how will we use the knowledge we gain from our play, our experimentation, our vicarious experience?

That doesn’t mean that such play, such motivation, is wrong if we can’t identify the benefit before we play.  Scientists (and there’s a simulationist motivation if ever there was one) speak of the importance of “basic research”, that is, experimenting in directions with no immediate obvious value because when you don’t know what you might learn you can’t predict how it might be useful.  Many of our modern conveniences have their roots in someone simply wanting to know what would happen if, and then asking how that could be used.  Learning has value, even when we don’t always see the value immediately.  The high school student who challenges that he’s never going to need to know the math or science or history lessons he is forced to learn is short-sighted, and life will probably surprise him at some point.  Not everything we learn is useful, but it is often the case that we learn useful things from unexpected sources.

There are pitfalls in this.  Sometimes we want to know some things that it is better not to know.  We have all heard the idea that you “can’t unsee” something, and there are undoubtedly things you wish you’d never learned.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have learned them–only that sometimes what we know is not always an encouragement to us.  We would like to keep our minds always on the good, pure, honorable, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise, but then, we are also to be wise as serpents while being innocent as doves.  Maybe there are things you don’t need to know, that would tear down rather than build up–I am persuaded that I don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of horror movies, although I do need a working knowledge of some of the important ones (Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Alien, Terminator) just to do my job.  Maybe you need to know more; maybe you don’t need to know as much.  Yet learning is valuable, and simulationism is about wanting to learn.

So we find once again that Christians can find value in all three of the “creative agenda” that drive our play.  It’s just a matter of understanding how to do this to the glory of God and the edification of ourselves and others.


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Christ and the Dice #1: Introduction

My name is Osye E. Pritchett III (pronounced Oh-Sea). I am a Christian and a gamer. This is my story (abridged).

To start I would like to affirm that I believe in God. I believe in the Incarnation; that is, I believe that God became man in the person of Jesus. Wholly God. Wholly man. I believe in His death and resurrection.

Contrary to many of our co-religionists, I also believe that it is acceptable to play role-playing games, even the dreaded game Dungeons and Dragons.

I was born in 1970, and was raised in various Pentecostal churches and denominations. Most of my schooling was in private schools, predominantly Baptist schools. As an aside I want to point out that going to Pentecostal churches and attending Baptist private schools is a great way to confuse a young child.

I have attended a plethora of churches across the U.S., east coast to west coast, from non-denominational to Anglican to Methodist (I am currently visiting an Anglican church). Throughout these experiences I have made a casual study of the teachings of quite a few denominations, finding many areas of agreement between them. These areas of agreement have encouraged me to support communication, communion, and love between the believers of different confessions. As it says in John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Read more

RPG-ology #18: Waterways

This is RPG-ology #18:  Waterways, for May 2019.


We mentioned rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water in connection with maps when we talked about Country Roads and again when we were talking about the placement of Cities, but we barely touched on them, more from the perspective of their influence on other aspects of our maps and our worlds.  Maps and worlds, though, are complicated things, in which everything influences everything, and understanding how waterways work will help us put together better maps.

This is difficult for me, because so much of it seems obvious to me so I expect it will be obvious to everyone else.  However, I have the advantage, as I think I mentioned in Shock, of over a thousand miles of long-haul canoeing, so I am perhaps intimately familiar with rivers and lakes and ponds and how they work.  I thus hope that I’m not telling you too many obvious points, and that some of this proves to be practical.  Let’s start with some terms.

A river is pretty much any waterway that flows downhill.  They can be big or small, swift or lazy, shallow or deep, straight or meandering, rocky or clear, in any combination.  Smaller rivers are often called brooks, streams, creeks, and similar diminutive titles, but the only significant difference is the attitude of the people toward the waterway and the probability of it going dry, which rivers rarely do.

Lakes and ponds are usually found as interruptions in rivers, and they are distinct from rivers in a significant way.  A lake or pond is formed in essence when water pours into a natural basin and has to rise to the level of an exit point.  Because of this, the surface of a lake or pond is level, while that of a river is always sloped–if you look at the accompanying photo, you can see that the downstream end is downhill.  In the vernacular, lakes and ponds are generally distinguished by their size, but technically they are distinguished by their depth:  a pond is shallow enough that water plants such as waterlilly pads can root on the bottom and grow on the surface, while a lake has at least some areas in which it is too deep for that.  Lakes and ponds are sometimes created intentionally by the use of dams, built by people or sometimes by animals, most typically beavers.

It is difficult to distinguish a sea from a lake in many cases.  Seas tend to be the terminus of rivers, at least one and often several, but most of them either drain into or are contiguous with the oceans, which are also sometimes called seas but which as a word tends to refer to the vast expanses of water separating the continents.  The two exceptions to the drainage rule are the Dead Sea, which is constantly evaporating and so is too salty to support marine life, and the Mediterranean, which also loses its water to evaporation but is large enough that its salinity, although elevated, is not inimical to such life, and fishing and the like are active there.  (It is easy looking at a map to suppose that the Mediterranean drains into the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibralter, but the water there is mostly flowing very rapidly in the opposite direction, salt water from the Atlantic constantly replenishing the losses in the Mediterranean through what some have called the world’s largest waterfall. There is an undercurrent flowing westward as a small amount of dense saltier water goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but the bulk of the volume is inflow from the Atlantic.)  It is also the case that seas tend to be salty while lakes tend to be fresh, but this is not a hard and fast rule, there being a number of salt lakes in the world.  Part of this is because the distinctions between lakes and seas are not made in all Indo-European languages, and English has often translated words strictly that were used loosely.

A passageway that connects two bodies of water of the same or similar level is usually called a strait (or sometimes straits), usually unlike a river because water flows in and out both ends generally with the shifting tides.  If it is wider or longer, it is often called a channel, but this word also refers to the best path through a river—rivers tend to carve a deeper groove through which most of the water travels, and boats and ships navigate through these deeper sections either with or against the current. In modern times, these channels are marked by buoys, red buoys to the right when traveling upstream (“Red Right Returning”), black buoys marking the other edge.

A bay frequently appears as a brackish (that is, salty but less salty than the ocean) body of water connecting a river to a sea or ocean.  As the tide rises, water from the ocean pours into the bay, often forcing its way upstream reversing the “normal” flow of the river; the Delaware River is brackish as far upstream as Trenton, New Jersey, about eighty miles upstream, about fifty feet above sea level, and this reverse flow is often used by ships to navigate to inland ports upriver.  As the tide ebbs the bay drains into the ocean, and the river into the bay, and fresh water makes its way downstream to wash away the salt.  Because of the backwash, those upstream ports have rising and ebbing tides, but these are out of phase with the coastal tides that drive them, often by as much as six or eight hours, depending on how far upriver you go.  A very small bay-like inlet is usually called a cove; a lagoon generally is a type of coastal pool that fills from ocean spill when the tide rises over its banks, and then slowly evaporates, frequently not completely before being refilled.

A wadi is something like a river, but significantly different.  Common to inland tropics such as Africa, the wadi is a watercourse that floods and dries in a seasonal cycle.  During the “rainy season” water falls in the highlands and flows down very like rivers, working downstream and gradually covering thousands of acres of ground, pooling but flowing, spreading over wide expanses of open space.  Animals are aware of the seasonal cues, and migrate toward the anticipated flood; plants desiccated from drought spring to life and blossom.  For a few months it is a lush wet marshy world, water plentiful, wildlife active.  Then gradually it all evaporates, leaving the dry grassland to wither in the heat, as the animals scatter to places better able to support them during the drought.  The water from a wadi never reaches the seas, soaking into the earth and evaporating into the air long before joining any other watercourse.  Wadis do not support ship traffic or permanent settlements, because the water level is non-existent for a significant part of the year and rarely deep enough for more than the smallest craft.

Swamps, marshes, bayous, and deltas all tend to be areas where a river spreads out to a shallow wide area, usually with a channel passing through it somewhere but often a confusing labyrinth of waterways leading to dead ends and shallow muck.  Wadis do support marshes and swamps during their wet periods; bayous and deltas tend to be at points where the river meets the sea, and are brackish like bays.

Now, this might sound obvious, but water falls from the sky.  Really all of it does.  Water in wells and water coming from springs is water that fell from the sky and soaked into the ground, then collected atop or between layers of rock and either sat waiting to be collected or built up pressure from gravity until it spurted through an exit.  It gets into the sky by evaporation, the vast majority of this from the vast expanses of tropical oceans—if your world does not have vast tropical oceans, you will have a lot less rain, and a lot less fresh water.  Evaporated water, water vapor, is held in greater quantity in denser warmer air; if the air cools or becomes depressurized, it cannot hold as much water and so releases it.  This is why so much precipitation (rain and snow) falls on mountains:  warm moist dense air currents are shifted upward into cooler low pressure altitudes, and can no longer hold as much water.  From there it collects in streams or soaks into the ground.

There is an interesting atmospheric phenomenon at this point.  As water falls, it washes carbons out of the air, turning into mild carbolic acid.  It has always done this; this is not a modern result of air pollution, although air pollution does contribute to it.  Carbolic acid which lands on dirt and soaks into it decays and releases its carbons back into the atmosphere.  That which lands on rock and flows into streams dissolves the rock, creating calcium carbonate which washes downstream into the oceans, burying the carbon for millenia.  That’s not really useful to this discussion, though, so ignore it.

Technically, a well is a hole dug deep enough to hit what is called the water table, the level under the ground where bedrock prevents water from seeping deeper, and so has water refilling it constantly from the surrounding lands.  It is sometimes confused with a cistern, which is a dry hole usually lined with stone designed to catch rain when there is rainfall and keep it deep and cool in the ground during the dry seasons.  The famed Jacob’s Well is actually a cistern.

This is also obvious:  water flows downhill.  Because of this it is constantly “seeking” the lowest point, and that means it collects into fewer larger rivers.  If it pours into a low point—call it a basin—it collects there, rising as a pond or lake until it rises over the lowest edge.  A lake can have several rivers feeding it, or no rivers feeding it if it is fed by a spring or springs below its water line, but rarely does it have more than one draining it—odds are good that there will be one lowest point, and once the water starts pouring through it erosion will make that point lower.  If the lake is filling faster than it is emptying, it might rise high enough to begin spilling from another point.  However, most typically these are near enough each other that the streams soon join creating an island at the head of the river.  If the two streams are headed in different directions, it is most commonly the case that one of the outlets will erode until all the water passes through it, the other becoming dry unless it is fed by other water sources below.

Where the ground is steeper, the water moves faster and generally straighter.  It follows the lowest ground, but in doing so carves the path deeper, sometimes wider, removing the dirt and softest stone.  If it comes into a pocket of harder stone, it will be turned, but the turning will create swirls and eddies which often drill deep spots in the riverbed.  The northern reaches of the Delaware River are frequently shallow enough to wade through, but where it turns sharply at Narrowsburg, New York, there are whirlpools during flooding and the depth at the curve is over a hundred feet deep.  Rocky rapids form where the ground is too hard to erode easily and the slope is steeper, as the river becomes forced into a narrow space often between high banks and spreads over the area to become swift and shallow, the irregular bottom redirecting the current in directions difficult to predict without surveying in advance.

Where the ground is less sloped, the water spreads to cover a wide path and flows more slowly, but still tends to follow the lowest ground and carve a channel.  In older sections of the river these channels are often meandering, and as the water ultimately settles into them they form snake-like slow rivers with very little noticeable current, frequently surrounded by marshy ground, meadows, and flood plains.

As rivers join, they become wider and deeper, and usually become straighter as the land is less able to resist the flow of the water.  These wider deeper rivers which ultimately reach the sea are frequently navigable by ocean-going vessels, and as we noted are also subject to reverse flow when the tides rise, thus brackish but also easier to navigate upstream.  They will carve deep sections particularly at curves and bends in the river, as in Narrowsburg, creating good ports at such curves, considerably more so than along straight paths.  Upstream of a certain point ocean vessels, which have deep drafts to provide stability in rough seas, give way to shallow-draft river boats, able to navigate farther upstream.

The same currents that form harbors on rivers do so where rivers hit the seas, which makes such points doubly convenient for trade, as a port there accesses both the oceans and the river.  Such harbors are also created where the coastline recedes sharply, as ocean currents form eddies which create depths near the shoreline, although if the surrounding ground is low there will probably be a river outlet there, and if not the deep water is likely to be surrounded by cliffs, making for good anchorage but a bad place for a port.

So to summarize, most rivers begin from streams in mountains, flowing downhill and collecting into larger rivers, forming lakes in low spots, rapids over steep rocky ground, meandering courses over flatter softer ground, ultimately becoming large enough to support riverboat trade and then ocean vessels, subject at the downstream end to tidal backflow, emptying into seas and oceans sometimes through intervening bays.  Harbors form where currents have carved significant depths, usually at the mouths of the rivers and at river bends.

Now you have some idea of how to put the waterways on your maps.

I have omitted canals from this discussion.  Men build canals usually where there are two disconnected waterway systems near enough to each other that it would be commercially profitable to be able to run boats or ships between them.  Usually these involve mechanical locks which enable the control of the flow of water between the two systems, particularly if they are not at the same level, and typically because such canals often have to cross ground that is higher than either of the waterways (the reason the waterways haven’t flowed into each other).  Sometimes canals are built to get around sections of a river that are not navigable, if there are navigable sections upstream of falls or rapids.  They are a lot of work to build, operate, and maintain, and if neglected gradually deteriorate.


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