RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense

This is RPG-ology #35:  Believable Nonsense, for October 2020.


This article is named for the lost Game Ideas Unlimited:  Believable Nonsense, whose original ideas are recalled here.

Years ago I assisted two of my sons in burying a beloved cat, somewhere along the outside of the fence around our yard.  That event inspired the original thoughts for a number of articles, most recently Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  However, the aftermath of that event inspired an entirely different line of thought.

On my way back into the house I left the spade on the deck by the front door.  I should have known better, merely because it’s the kind of thing my wife would consider unsightly and inappropriate—you don’t leave garden tools lying by the front door.  It wasn’t long before she saw it and objected—but her objection completely surprised me.  Didn’t I know, she said, that it was bad luck to track dirt from a grave through the front door of the house?  Did I not know that this was why whenever you returned from a funeral you entered the house through the back door?

In fact I did not know any of that.  Dirt is dirt, and its origin is not particularly interesting to me most of the time.  Perhaps it would be different were I a geologist or a forensic scientist, but these things are of only general interest to me.  When I return home from anywhere I always use whatever door is most convenient for me, which is usually the front.  I can usually fathom the origins of most superstitions—walking under ladders has a chance of dislodging tools from above or knocking someone over, breaking mirrors in dressing rooms where you’re likely to use them probably means slivers of broken glass which will be in the floor boards for a long time before vacuum cleaners are invented, and black cats are easy to overlook particularly in the dark.  I’m afraid, though, that I don’t grasp the danger in grave dirt.

What intrigued me at the time, though, was the realization that the world is filled with superstitions, every culture having developed its own.  I wondered, how do you bring these into the game?  How do you create believable nonsense for your non-player characters, taboos some fully believe and others claim not to believe but are still wary about?

It strikes me that many of these would have a forgotten origin story—someone got sick eating a melon on the new moon, and so now it’s bad luck to eat melons on the new moon; someone was fishing from Long Point at high tide and got swept away, so it’s bad luck to fish from Long Point at high tide.  Or reverse it:  the only crewman to survive the wreck of the Sarsaparilla was also the only one wearing a blue shirt, so it’s good luck to wear blue shirts aboard ships.

Of course, if you can keep your wits about you you can slip these into non-player character interactions, even invent them on the fly:  “Don’t do that!  Don’t you know it’s bad luck to…”  It’s more difficult if you want it to be a superstition of a player character race, because you have to give these summary versions to the player and discuss to what degree his character believes them—fully, or only in that incomplete way in which they make us nervous, or truly not at all?

That then leads to the tougher question:  how many of them are true?  What happens if the player characters ignore the seemingly nonsensical superstitious wisdom of the locals?  There might be something to the local belief that you shouldn’t touch the rock at the end of the village, or drink from the fountain on the side of the mountain.  Superstitious nonsense might be true; there might be hidden dangers in the claptrap spoken in the village.

Anyway, it can make for a good story.


Previous article:  Invisible Coins.
Next article:  Phionics.

Tough Choices Make for a Good Game

Many years ago, when we were just learning to play D&D Third Edition, our weekly gaming group spent over a year exploring the Temple of Elemental Evil. What started out as a brief tutorial in a new game system never ended, and a year later several players grew bored and frustrated. Though I joined the group a few months after they began, when the PCs were already at 6th-level, I soon had a 9th-level fighter. Moreover, this fighter had a laundry list of magical items and equipment, though where he kept any of that stuff was beyond me. When my mind began to rebel against such senselessness, some players just shrugged, while others told me that the ‘campaign’ was only a tutorial so it didn’t matter. Well, after more time passed, one exasperated player finally said aloud that the campaign lacked any hint of realism, but rather than blame the DM, he instead took the high road and suggested that the group start, you know, role-playing. Now that we had most of the mechanics down, perhaps we should either start over or start playing the characters like real people. He pointed out that the PCs had been exploring the seemingly endless underground site for close to two weeks in a row (in game) without ever stopping to rest, to eat, to drink, or to sleep. Unfortunately, the players largely ignored his objections as trivial. The game dragged on for a few more months, but it eventually imploded because there was zero interest left. While that two-year campaign was torturous in many ways, we had a lot of laughs and also learned to play D&D Third Edition. More importantly, I learned something fundamental that later helped me as a DM: tough choices make for a good game. The reverse is also true, of course: a lack of tough choices often makes for a poor game.

Though this concept of tough choices could be the title of an entire series of articles, I wish to limit myself here to just three annoying practices that I have witnessed countless times. Though I hardly expect that everyone has had the same experiences, some of you, especially those that have played for a while, can probably attest to seeing a few of these. Perhaps you do these things yourself and even defend the practices. No matter. This isn’t about right and wrong or about assigning blame. I simply suggest that these practices actually detract from a good rpg game session (at least one in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons). If these practices are common in your game, you may not even realize that your game is hindered. I suggest trying a few changes. After a few sessions, you may notice that your game has changed a bit, and you may like it.

IGNORING SUPPLIES
I have watched PC archers loose one or two arrows per round at their monstrous foes, doing so in six, eight, or ten encounters in a row, yet somehow they never run short on arrows. When is the last time that you heard a player say, “Guys, I’m down to two arrows”? Maybe your playing history is different than mine, but I honestly can’t recall a player saying that. Some characters purchase arrows during character creation and then go for months or years without every buying more. Talk about getting your money’s worth!

Art by Toren Atkinson for Meatshields!

If someone objects, a player might argue that keeping track of such minutia is boring. “This is a game about adventure, not book-keeping!” a player once told me. Two other players that I remember seemed more bothered by the loss of coin than the effort of tracking arrows. One wonders why someone like that would buy a weapon that requires ammunition. Who knows? However, when pressed, at least one said, “I can’t afford to keep buying arrows. The prices in this village are inflated.” By the way, he was not wrong.

Many years ago, my friends and I sent our PCs deep underground, venturing for days without ever giving a thought to our supply of torches or oil. I remember fighting many creatures in that place and eventually getting out alive with plenty of treasure. I don’t ever recall running low on light sources. More recently, I have seen a party of about ten PCs in a long file, winding its way through a narrow tunnel. When the PCs in the lead, carrying the only light source, ran forward to scout ahead, the DM told the PCs in the back of the party that they were now in the dark. An annoyed player grumbled, “We have torches, ya know.” To that the DM flatly asked, “Did you light them before the fighter in the front ran off with the lantern?” Annoyed and a bit incredulous, the player responded with, “We would have when we saw him move away.” This sort of play makes me bury my head in my hands. Yet, we did have fun, and we did so without worrying too much about light sources.

My opening anecdote already touched on how a group could completely ignore the importance of food and water, let alone rest. It was silly, and again a few players seemed annoyed at the suggestion that we start tracking such things. Yet, we had some fun. As a kid, I remember playing in Tracy and Laura Hickman’s desert-themed adventure called Pharaoh. It is still one of my favorites, but I laugh now at our silliness because I recall that food and water were never concerns during that adventure or during the two sequels. One could certainly argue that we had a blast without ever giving a thought to food or water, and that is true.

IGNORING CARRYING CAPACITY
I submit that bags of holding and portable holes are perhaps the most useless magical items in the entire Dungeon Master’s Guide. Do I dislike the idea of those items? Certainly not! In fact, they’re great. My issue is that so many players and DMs completely ignore realistic limitations on what a person can carry that those items become pointless. A player might moan, “But the encumbrance system in AD&D First Edition is awful!” I couldn’t agree more. It may have improved in later editions, but I haven’t met a single player that has liked any system for carrying capacity.

More recently, my gaming group was exploring an old castle. I watched a fellow player run his seven-foot-tall, female, half-orc barbarian-cleric in her characteristic style. She has a penchant for bull-rushing enemies, dropkicking them, or tackling them. As a side note, I love that she does this for flavor, though some other players dutifully remind the player that the PC could deal more damage with standard moves and attacks (yawn). Anyway, twice or thrice in one recent session, the half-orc delivered a tackle that would have made Jack Lambert proud. After rolling around on the ground several times with her opponents, she then pulled out a javelin and hurled it at a new foe. I could not help myself and asked, “Where did she have this javelin all this time?” Without missing a beat, the player responded, “Tied to her back.” Ok. I laughed inside, for having fought full-contact, mock battles in medieval armor for more years than I want to admit, I can tell you that carrying just an extra longsword can be positively unwieldy when you’re in the grind of a melee. Carrying a long weapon on your back, not to mention rolling around with one on your back, is absurd. I laughed inside but said nothing. The half-orc missed with the javelin, but what did she do the very next round? “I try with another javelin,” announced the player. “Where did you get that one?” asked the DM. You know the answer, right? “It was tied to her back. I had two,” he said with a straight face.

IGNORING AN ITEM’S LOCATION
I have no funny anecdote for this, but several times in the last few months, my fellow players have become disgruntled while their characters were in the middle of combat. It may have been a wounded character that wanted to drink a healing potion. It may have been a character that wanted to read a scroll. It may have been a character that wanted to make the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail with oil and rags. In each case, the DM informed the player that it would take at least one round to accomplish the task. In each case, the player grumbled. Again, I put my head in my hands. Of course, the DM was correct. Indeed, in the AD&D game that I run, I would have required a minimum of one round to do such things, and in AD&D a round equals one minute. In these instances, we are playing D&D Edition 3.5, and the players were annoyed that they lost one round, which is only six seconds! Few of the players can roll their dice in six seconds, yet they expect their character to back away from combat, take off the mysterious backpack (that holds everything and never gets in the way), throw it on the ground, rifle through it, retrieve the desired item, and then use it in six seconds.

“I don’t want to miss my turn,” a player might object. He might even continue, “It takes at least ten minutes in between rounds—on a good day—and I don’t want to wait ten minutes before I can actually do something!” I admit that there is logic there, and of course one can sympathize with not wanting to miss out. I think of my eight-year-old when she doesn’t want to go to bed because she doesn’t want to miss anything.

SO WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?
I just laid out three common practices, but in each case, I seemed to admit that the game continued, we usually had fun, and some of the players’ complaints were at least partially justified. So what’s the problem then?

Dungeons & Dragons, as initially envisioned, is a game of exploration and treasure hunting. In this game, player-characters, after carefully selecting their equipment, explore dark, dangerous, and sometimes remote locations in search of treasure, confronting any monsters that threaten them along the way. Exploration is a fundamental part of the game. Removing that, by and large, leaves mainly combat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if that is all that you want, why not just play a gladiatorial game with alien races? That could be fun, but the experience would be radically different from the initial vision of D&D. Some may object to the idea of clinging to a decades-old vision just for the sake of orthodoxy, and that would be a sound point. Yet, I submit that anyone making that argument has not given Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson enough credit. Their initial vision of the game took into account a very basic precept: tough choices make for good games. Consider the following ridiculous example:

Your DM allows your party to have the entirety of the equipment list in the Players Handbook, spread out between the various PCs. He doesn’t care how you manage to carry it all. Furthermore, he does not let the incredible burden that you now carry inhibit your ability to gather as much treasure as you want. This is every player’s dream, right? Even better, when the PCs realize that they need a particular item, even in the midst of a battle, the DM does not force the PCs to spend several rounds rummaging through their colossal hoard of possessions. Instead, a PC can find the item instantly and carry on without losing even one round of action. For the moment, let’s put aside the objection that this breaks radically from the initial vision for the game. Let’s ignore that this would break radically from the exciting and legendary literature on which the game in based (the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, the adventure tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber, the Lord of the Rings saga by J.R.R. Tolkien, or the various legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). Let’s dismiss the fact that this would make the game much more akin to Pokemon with medieval trappings. I submit that more important is that the game would be BORING. Logistics force players to make tough choices, which in turn creates tension. Tension is what keeps a movie audience on the edge of its collective seat at the movies. Tension is what makes you keep flipping the pages of a book when you are an hour past your bedtime. Tension is what makes many role-playing sessions dramatic and memorable. Eliminating these for the sake of convenience actually does more harm than good to the experience. Consider another silly example:

Imagine playing a game of Monopoly with some friends, some of which have never played before. In this example, all of the players love the game (or at least the idea of it, though if they are over the age of eight, I question their sanity). The game begins normally, but as it progresses, half of the players get increasingly annoyed with having to pay rent, having to pay fines to get out of jail, or having to pay random fees like a luxury tax. Another player even grows tired of collecting rent and collecting money when he passes Go. Thus, several players advocate for doing away with the use of money in the game, as they find it trivial.

Hmmmm. Are they wrong? Should they be able to do whatever they wish with their game? Isn’t the most important thing that they are having fun? Well… no, yes, and yes. However, the real question is this: why would those people that wish to get rid of money play Monopoly in the first place? When asked, one might tell you that he loves rolling dice and just likes to see if he can move fastest around the board. Another might say that she likes seeing if she can avoid going to jail and can instead land on Free Parking, Broadway, or Park Place. These are not ‘wrong,’ of course, but the game without money certainly isn’t Monopoly. Anyone that truly loves the game, as is, and sits down to play in a game without money is in for a big disappointment. If they are new to the game entirely, they might not complain, for they have no idea what they are missing. That is my point though. They would be missing much of what brings tension to the game—much of what forces players into tough decisions. As this is a key ingredient of any challenging and memorable game, they are missing out.

Before I continue, a quick request: Please don’t write me to tell me that ‘having fun is what it’s all about.’ I already know that. If you think that I’m trying to stop anyone from playing their games as they wish, you haven’t read this carefully. I am suggesting that, if players have come to ignore logistics and other hints of realism in their games, they may be missing out. They may not even know that they are missing out. I merely suggest that they try reintroducing some logistics, as they may change the game for the better. How to do this, you ask? I think that players can certainly do their part, but I think that DMs must take the lead here. DMs can design their adventures in such a way that logistics can make or break the party’s chances for success. That’s the key. Consider the possibilities below.

DESIGNING ADVENTURES WITH LOGISTICS IN MIND
When it comes to ammunition, keep track. A character that is heavily invested in a bow, for example, will only have so many shots. The game changes for him when he runs out of ammo. That should not mean that the fun is over. Far from it! This new challenge requires that PC to be more creative and more careful, at least until he can find more arrows. Great memories often result when characters face terrible danger when already disadvantaged. Moreover, such a situation allows the DM to place arrows as meaningful treasure. In a game in which even magical arrows can seem a bit hum-drum, the player can find satisfaction in finding two quivers of mundane arrows. This is how you keep the game fresh and avoid the slippery slope that leads to Monty Haul campaigns.

As a history nerd and a movie nerd, I cannot help but think of several movies in which a lack of ammunition plays an important role. I’ll offer here just one example. The 1979 movie Zulu Dawn is based on the true tale of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, in which several thousand Zulu warriors attacked an invading British expeditionary force in what is now South Africa. The supremacy of modern industrial warfare is on full display during much of the battle, as the British soldiers, armed with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles, just mow down the onrushing Zulu warriors. Yet, a beleaguered British soldier, nervously eyeing the Zulu lines, mutters, “but bullets run out, and those bloody spears don’t!” As the British fire volley after volley, the tension becomes palpable, and when the movie shows a diligent British quartermaster, handing out ammunition one small box at a time to a line of desperate soldiers, you want to jump through the screen and smack him. For a moment, try to imagine that movie (or the battle itself) if the British had endless ammunition. Yawn.

If tracking ammunition seems like added work that you, as the DM, do not want to do, ask the players to help. I do not mean simply asking players to mind their ammunition. In a group of great players, they will do this naturally, but if your group needs a little more accountability, try this instead. Fill out an index card, listing each missile-using PC and his or her ammo. Keep the card in the center of the table. Whenever someone looses an arrow or bolt, ask him to cross it off the card. You may need to remind players a few times, but after a while, it should become habit. This ammo card goes to the DM between sessions. Not only will there be an accounting of ammunition, but every player that uses missiles will notice when the group as a whole is running low on ammo. This may urge players to have their PCs start looking for more ammo, and if nothing else, it makes several players aware that their limited resources are dwindling. This adds tension. The ranger that has weapon specialization in a bow, a +2 magical bow, and only a few +2 magical arrows left will start to squirm, knowing that soon he will have to draw his non-magical longsword, with which he has no bonuses at all. For such a character, the next battle will be tense. Will they be able to prevail before he runs out of ammunition? If not, he’ll have to make do with his longsword, and that will be memorable! Even advancing down an empty tunnel becomes tense because the player will be anticipating the next combat at any moment. Does the party hear a noise coming from down the tunnel? While this may generate tension in any circumstance, it would now generate even more because of limited resources.

When it comes to food and water, keep track. This is admittedly more difficult to use, at least at face value, because most editions do not clearly state that you lose hit points or strength points whenever you miss meals or fail to drink enough water. When game mechanics ignore something, you can be certain that players will too. I am convinced that if the game mechanics did not have rules on drowning, many players would expect and demand that their characters be able to walk for days underwater without ill effect. Rules encourage or discourage behavior. It’s simple. Though the game often lacks rules on food and water, I suggest that you do what most early DMs were entirely expected to do: make up a simple mechanic. If a character is in a desert without shade or water, perhaps he loses a strength point every hour (if you are feeling strict) or every day (if you are feeling generous). Instead of strength, perhaps the PC loses one hit point every hour. There is no right mechanic. Just make up whatever seems sensible. Is this being cruel? Not at all! The goal is not to kill the PCs. The goal is to make the PCs aware that they will not survive for long in a desert without shade or water (imagine that).

If tracking food and water (not to mention strength points and hit points) seems like a lot of work, don’t worry. It need not be complicated. You need not calculate how many ounces each waterskin holds or research the exact hydration needs of the human body in certain conditions. Keep it simple if you wish, but clearly give the PCs a reason to carry and to keep track of water. If you wish to be grossly generous, perhaps each PC on your typical wilderness trek must consume at least one skin of water per day. If they do not, they lose strength or hit points. That certainly isn’t complicated, but it does provide complications for the group. Will they go off the trail to search for water? Will they drink from the stagnant pond that they come upon next (risking sickness and throat leeches)? Will they push on and risk dehydration, fatigue, and collapse? Remember—story complications (like dwindling resources) lead to tough choices, which create tension and make for a memorable game.

One small side note on the above: I tend to favor loss of hit points instead of strength points for two reasons. First, most players instinctively get that hit points mean life. Without them, it’s “Game over, man!” (quoting the late, great Bill Paxton in Aliens). Players may be less aware of the danger of lost strength points. The second reason that I favor hit point loss has to do with mechanics. In AD&D (First and Second Editions), a loss of strength only affects a PC if he initially had extremely high strength or if his strength drops to an extremely low score. That means that strength loss poses little threat. In contrast, in Third Edition and in later editions, a PC’s strength score does indeed affect most characters and in many ways (attacks, skills, etc.). This seems good, until you realize that it requires you to do many mathematical adjustments up and down the character sheet, which slows play and takes the focus off of the story. Hit point loss, on the other hand, has little to no effect on other mechanics (regardless of edition) so there is no delay or distraction.

When it comes to light sources, keep track. While the need for food and water is obvious, it may not seem urgent. After all, you can live without food for weeks and can survive without water for about three days in temperate conditions. In contrast, the need for ammunition can seem immediate and pressing when in a dangerous dungeon, abandoned temple, ruined castle, etc. Yet, even running out of ammo pales in comparison to losing the gift of sight. Of course, darkness is a staple in horror movies, and for good reason. Even some action movies make limited use of the effect. We find a poor example in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right after the Nazis seal Indiana Jones and Marion in an underground chamber. As Indy tries to figure a way out, Marion fends off snakes and yells, “Indy the torch is going out!” If the torch had died, they would have been trapped underground in pitch darkness with hundreds of snakes. This is a poor example only because the condition does not last long enough for the audience to feel anxious. Indy sends a giant statue crashing through a wall and discovers a way out. If he hadn’t, though, the movie would be much darker (bad pun—not intended). The same is true with the classic movie Jaws (which is really a horror movie, but the second half of the film seems much like an adventure movie). Toward the end, after the characters spend hours excitedly hunting the shark, water damage to the boat causes the lights to go out. In that instant, despite all that you’ve seen to that point, the mood changes. This too is only a mediocre example because there is still some light outside. Imagine the movie if that had occurred in the middle of the night. Terrifying.

I think many DMs can use darkness to better effect in their games. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time that the party had no light source at all or was in danger of losing it for more than a few moments? I imagine that most DMs require the party to light a torch or lantern, but as time passes, can the characters simply light another torch or refill the oil lantern? Put differently, has the party really had to contend with being in a dangerous or hostile environment in compete blackness? If not, consider a few possibilities on how to bring about these conditions or how to use darkness once you have it.

First, keep track of torches or flasks of oil the same way that you track ammunition. An index card will do just fine. In fact, you can even put this light-related information on the back of the ammunition card suggested above.

Second, design your dungeon (ruin, temple, etc.) with an area that makes it difficult for PCs to bring torches through. A narrow underground tunnel may have a fierce draft that blows out just about any flame. Though you may know that the draft only exists in a limited area, the PCs should not know that. Will they turn back, will they push on while blind, or will they innovate and find another solution? Tough choices make for good games. In addition to drafts, you could use water as a barrier between two areas. This too is common in movies (even if light is not the focus). Consider The 13th Warrior, at the end of which the characters, trapped underground with monsters closing in, try to escape by swimming through an underwater tunnel in the hopes that they will find their way out (talk about desperation—would you do that?). Another silly example that comes to mind is in Conan the Destroyer, when they enter the wizard’s castle to get a magical key. Yes, the movie was terrible (I know), but my point is that the only way in was beneath the water. In your game, perhaps the only known way to access a certain cavern is by swimming underwater. Do the PCs push forward? If so, they will be without light at least temporarily. Will they manage to keep the torch dry so they can light it on the other side? If not, how would they see? Do they decide not to swim underwater and turn back instead? Do they seek another, perhaps longer or more dangerous route? Tough choices make for good games.

In addition to making it tough to maintain their light sources, consider how to use darkness effectively if they fail. For starters, remember the notion that the greatest fear is that of the unknown. While we often repeat this saying today as a way of implying that we actually have nothing to fear, in our games there may be very good reasons to fear the dark. Let’s start with terrain hazards. Pits (man-made or natural), crevasses, chasms, and crumbling ledges are common underground, and each could lead to serious injury or death.

Continuing with this idea of the unknown, consider how the DM can use darkness to make monsters more frightening. Though the PCs may not be able to see, a crafty DM might add tension by allowing PCs to hear creatures around them, to smell creatures around them, or even worse, to feel creatures around them. That hissing, slimy thing that just bumped into the character in the rear of the party may be terrifying and powerful or it may have one hit die. The players will not know (and will often assume the worst).

If it eventually comes to combat, a good DM will realize that fighting monsters should be exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, without any light. PCs suffer hefty penalties to both their attacks and their AC, and they may lack the ability to direct missile fire at enemies. A generous DM may allow a PC to fire blindly and have a tiny chance of success—though there should be an equal chance that the PC might hit a companion. PCs would also be unable to read from magical scrolls. They might not be able to cast certain spells if they cannot see or cannot find their spell components. A thief or rogue cannot use his backstab ability on a foe that he cannot locate. Even the ever reliable and inerrant magic missile requires a clear target. Furthermore, intelligent creatures that can see in the dark will use every advantage. They may strike from a distance. They may strike a PC and back away from the dumbfounded target. Why stand in a line and wait to be hit? More than anything, they would make every attempt to stop a PC from relighting a torch or lantern. In short, fighting in darkness should be terrifying and desperate. Realize too that your game can improve even if a battle in the dark never occurs. It is the threat of such a battle—the fear of such a battle—that can make a session more tense and memorable. Even better, if the PCs ever have such a battle, you can guarantee thereafter that tensions will rise whenever light sources start to run low.

Darkness brings one last side-benefit. In the Stygian darkness, even relatively weak creatures (like goblins) can be terrifying, provided that the DM runs them properly. This is another way to keep the game fresh without having to resort to increasingly powerful creatures to the keep the PCs engaged.

When it comes to carrying capacity, keep track. In the games that I run, I am a stickler with this, but not as you might suspect. The encumbrance rules in AD&D First Edition were indeed awful. They measured weight in gold pieces, each equal to a one-tenth of a pound. Moreover, each item had an encumbrance value, representing not only its weight, but also its bulkiness. Your strength and your armor type indicated how much you could carry and fast you could move. It was logical (sort of), but unplayable. In Second Edition, things improved some. They started measuring things in pounds, and they did away with encumbrance points. This was certainly better, but still a bit clunky for my tastes. In Third Edition, much remained the same, though they simplified the five categories (unencumbered, light, etc.) to just three (light load, medium load, and heavy load). While this is manageable, I opt to use an even simpler way.

As DM, you need not use a Byzantine system to track carrying capacity. I simply ask each player to note on their character sheet where each item is on the PC’s body. Some find it easier to draw a stick figure diagram, showing me where each item is. Before we start, I ask each player to give me a sixty-second rundown. Reason is our only guide. Usually, players are very practical, and I recognize that the PCs are sometimes stronger than the players that run them. Yet, I insist on common sense. A few months ago, when a player told me that he had a spear strapped to his back, I marched into my garage, produced a nine-foot spear, and offered to strap it to his back while he ran around my front yard. He declined. Sometimes we just need a visual as a reality check. When dealing with a simple list on paper, it is sometimes too easy to keeping adding stuff.

When it comes to retrieving items, use common sense. If you ask each player to note where each of his items is located (as suggested above), then this becomes easy. Before we go any further, remember that editions matter here. In AD&D (First and Second Editions) the combat round is one-minute long, while Third Edition and those that followed use a six-second round. Keep that in mind as you use common sense. My rule of thumb is that if a character has an item within his grasp and does not need to look for it, he can usually grab it in one round or less (though using it may take longer). If a disagreement arises, I just ask a player to walk me through the steps that his PC would need to take. Through experience, I have noticed that disagreements usually begin when a player starts with a vague statement like, “I reach in my pack, grab my flask of oil, light it, and throw it at the monster.” Rather than being argumentative or authoritarian, I usually just ask him to clarify each step for me. My favorite phrase here is “I just want to make sure that I understand you correctly.” This is often followed by something like this: “You have a shield in your left hand and a battleaxe in your right. You have one troll in front of you and one to your right. You now want to withdraw from combat—how far by the way? Ok. You want to withdraw 25’. Then you want to drop your axe and shield. Then you want to shrug off the leather pack that was on your back. How many items do you have in there? Sixteen? You want to rummage through those and grab a flask of oil, a rag, and the tinderbox. You then want to open the flask of oil and stuff the end of the rag into the flask, put down the flask, open the tinderbox, remove a piece of charcloth, wad up a bunch of tinder, grab the flint and steel, hurriedly make sparks until one hits the charcloth, blow on it until it flames, throw the tinder on top, blow on it again, use that flame to light the rag, get up, and then throw flask at the monster? Ok. How long do you think that would reasonably take? Usually the conversation never gets into the weeds because just calling attention to the many steps involved helps the player to realize that it would take longer than he imagined. Sometimes a player responds with, “Forget it. I’ll just attack again.” But more times than not, a player will say, “OK. I’ll do that as fast as I can. If it takes two rounds to prepare the oil, so be it.” I want to stress this point: As DM, I don’t want to stop PCs from doing certain things. Quite the opposite! I just want players to be clear on how long it would reasonably take. I have found that the more we discuss this stuff, the more reasonable their desired actions become. They don’t stop doing fun things; they just realize that it may take them a round or so to pull off their cool idea. In the end, they get to choose. Does the PC continue fighting a losing battle against trolls, trying to save his companions from injury and death? Does he call for the whole party to retreat? Does he withdraw from the battle, leaving his friends even more vulnerable for a few moments, while he tries to put together a weapon that might turn the tide? Tough choices make for good games.

If you have not used logistics in your games (for whatever reason), consider dabbling with some of the above ideas in your upcoming sessions. I think you may need to try them for more than a single session, as enough time must pass for supplies to dwindle. Yet have no fear. The ideas are easy to implement, and they force PCs to make tough choices. This adds tension, which players will remember, regardless of what their characters choose to do. Freaked out, frustrated, and anxious players may even thank you afterwards for the wonderful experience. As DMs, we indeed have a weird job.

Faith in Play #35: Seekers

This is Faith in Play #35:  Seekers, for October 2020.


The “magic” in our role playing games is “make believe.”  It’s not real, and no one could by reading any of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks or source books learn how to do any “real magic,” if such a thing exists.  Indeed, you can’t learn it from any of our fantasy fiction, not Narnia, not Middle Earth, not even the Harry Potter books in which young “wizards” and “witches” attend classes in which the teacher characters explain to the student characters how to do it.  It’s just not in there.

The image shown is the alchemical symbol for sulfur and as such has no more occult meaning or power than the letters of the alphabet.

Yet once in a while someone tells about how the game was a sort of “gateway” for him to become involved in paganism and occult practices.  What should our concern be for such individuals?  How should we respond in such situations?

The first point that should be noted is that such people aren’t casually drawn into magic by the games or books.  They are looking for something, and they use fragments of information from the books as a starting point to help them look.  Magic in games such as Dungeons & Dragons is inspired by a wealth of sources, including the Bible (healing, parting water, calling fire, raising the dead, and more are all miracles from scripture), but also from other sources, mostly fictional, some of which have tapped popular culture and books about occult practices.  It is apparently not impossible to use books about fictional magic to help search for occult magic, and easier now in the world of the World Wide Web than it was forty-some years ago when such searches required hours in library card catalogues.  But these people aren’t stumbling into magic because it happens to be included in game books; they are seeking it, and using game books as a reference.

That matters because people who are seeking such things can usually find them.  Game books and fantasy fiction are hardly the only sources for such information; they’re not even very good ones.  Yet fantasy games do something in relation to these seekers that other sources do not:  they bring them into contact with other people.  This is why it is so important that Christians be involved in these games—if we leave the games to the Pagans and Wiccans and occult practitioners, then when someone is seeking magic, there will be people there to point them to Paganism and Wicca and the occult, and no one will be there to point them in the right direction.

While that is critical, it might seem that the second point contradicts it:  it is not our job to prevent people from falling deeper into sin; it is our job to point them to the way out.  Many people cannot be saved until they recognize just how lost they are, and we are often trying to prevent them from becoming that lost, damaged enough that they recognize their own need.  At least sometimes we need to let go and let them fall, so they can grab the hand that really can save them.

But to help them at all we need to understand why they are looking for something at all.  My impression is that people who want magic feel inadequate; they need something to make them feel more important, more empowered, than other people.  We have the answer to that.  We are in touch with the greatest of all powers, the Name above every Name, and He tells us that each one of us is infinitely important, important enough that Jesus died for us, not just for all of us, but for each of us.  We need to communicate that to these lost people.  Those of us who have truly connected with God don’t need the paltry substitute that they call magic.  Our reality is much greater than that.  We need to offer that to those who are seeking magic in their lives.

The author has previously written on this subject in Difficult Question:  What if Non-Christian Friends are Interested in Magic?.


Previous article:  Guidance and The Machine.
Next article:  Thanks.

Complex Firearms for D20 Games

Public domain photo. Source: https://www.pikist.com/free-photo-sjtuq

There are several concepts that need to be understood for proper potential damage dice for a given firearm system. There are two kinds of cavities that are created when a projectile hits a body. The wound cavity is created by the track of the projectile damaging tissue as it travels through the body, creating a hole or tunnel as it goes, and in some cases creating multiple tunnels of damage if it fragments. The second is the Stretch cavity which is created when the shockwave of the projectile hits the body and moves tissues around like throwing a rock into a pool of water. For handguns, there are many impressive gel tests that show very dramatic stretch cavities using slow motion video. However the stretch cavity does not actually damage any tissue. Only the wound cavity damages tissue. Tissue damage causes bleeding, and when there is enough blood loss, the target is stopped. Larger projectiles make larger holes and thus more blood loss potential.

The shock of the stretch cavity can, in rare cases, cause enough shock to the nerves that it can render the target unconscious. Hydrostatic shock, where the stretch cavity actually causes tissue damage, does not occur with any tissue damaging results unless the projectile has enough foot-pounds of energy when it strikes the body, depending on the size of the body being hit. Energy is mass times velocity squared. Heavier projectiles have more mass, but require more pressure to give them velocity. The smaller the target, the larger the stretch cavity, the more potential for hydrostatic shock. This is not easy to translate into game terms. However, as a general rule, in Tiny targets, Firearms always product Hydrostatic shock. In size Small, 400 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (in hunting terms, this would be Class I game—Rabbits, Badgers, Coyotes, Antelope, etc.). In size Medium, 700 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class II game—Cougars, Deer, Antelope, Black Bear, Humans, etc.). In size Large, 1200 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class III game—Brown Bear, Mountain Sheep, Elk, Caribou, Moose, etc.). In size Huge, 1200 foot-pounds or more energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class IV game—Elephant, Hippo, Dragon, etc.)

The next issue is entropy; the projectile slows down, thus reducing its energy, as it travels. All Centerfire Rifles do Hydrostatic shock (unless they are chambered in a pistol cartridge) at under 100 yards. Some handguns under 30 feet can also do it. Beyond 100 yards, it depends on the cartridge being used (higher pressure has more velocity; heavier projectiles have less velocity but more mass) and the barrel length (the longer the barrel the more velocity). Things like barometric pressure, elevation, and so forth also play a role in the velocity of the projectile, and therefore the energy of the projectile when it impacts its target. The further out a target is, the less energy the projectile has to apply to the body. The furthest away, unless using specialty optics, that a good shooter can shoot effectively is 1200 yards. Game hunters and guides recommend you not take a shot with any standard cartridge rifles at anything further out than 400 yards. In order to have a humane kill, the magic number is 1200 foot-pounds of energy. If your platform and cartridge being used can’t produce that at the range you are considering taking the shot at, don’t take the shot.

There are literally thousands of developed loadings for a given cartridge. To simplify things, though, there are three basic bullet types: Standard loading for most cartridges is a full metal jacket bullet. Expanding, in most cases, is a jacketed hollow point or soft point round. Armor penetrating is typically an iron core round. The standard loading is assumed in the following pages. Expanding bullets will do an extra die of damage in exchange for a 25% penalty to the Accuracy Range increment. These are usually ‘defense’ rounds in Handguns. Armor Penetrating adds a bonus to hit to represent the negation of armor class and an identical penalty to damage to reflect the energy lost punching through the armor. In most cases, a flat +4 to hit and -4 to damage should be assessed. If the armor has a Damage Reduction rating (DR), you ignore it. Yes, they are nasty! But they are also dangerous, as they ignore Hardness of objects. Don’t use them inside a space ship!

Taking all these factors into consideration, we can lay some ground rules in determining weapon damage for Firearms in simple fashion. First, Rimfire Rifles, Black Powder, Pistols, Shotguns, and Centerfire Rifles have different pressure thresholds, and so they are separated. Rimfire uses a flash compound in the rim of the case that ignites the powder. Because of this, the weaker case does not allow for higher pressure. Centerfire uses a primer cup held in a primer pocket in the case. This allows for much higher pressure. Black Powder doesn’t use primer at all. Second we can simply utilize generic data on cartridges in “standard” platforms for that cartridge off Wikipedia.

What follows is a “simple” way to determine damage and range for a given “standard” platform for a given firearm cartridge using Pathfinder Second Edition rules. I took the “normal” top and bottom end cartridges to calculate the range increments and rounded the numbers off to make is simpler. There are more powerful, and less powerful, guns than what I used to determine the mean, but I kept it to what would be considered common firearms. For example a 500 S&W Magnum does 5000 J of energy out of pistol, and a 50 BMG rifle does 21,000 J of energy… and they cost between $5 and $20 per shot to fire… so they are not very common, and really mess with the numbers if you include such beasts.


All Firearms have a Damage Range increment, in addition to the normal Accuracy Range Increment other ranged weapons have. The Accuracy Range increment can be improved with the use of an Optic system.

Firearms Range Increments, Table 1

Weapon Type Accuracy Range Increment* Damage Range Increment
Centerfire Rifle 300 feet / 100 m 300 feet / 100 m
Rimfire Rifle 150 feet / 50 m 150 feet / 50 m
Handguns 75 feet / 25 m 30 feet / 10 m
Shotguns (scatter) 50 feet / 15 m 10 feet / 3 m
Smoothbore Black Powder guns 75 feet / 25 m 30 feet / 10 m
Rifled Black Powder guns 225 feet / 70 m 50 feet / 15 m
Black Powder Scatter guns 50 feet / 15 m 10 feet / 3 m

At the first Damage Range increment, damage is normal. But for each Damage Range increment out, the firearm does one damage die less. If it is down to its last die, the die type reduces by one die type for each Damage Range increment after that; with a minimum of 1 damage.

*Hollow point and soft point bullets give a 25% penalty to the Accuracy Range Increment

Optics

A Scope adds the Volley 30 trait to the weapon. In Pathfinder 2e terms, you have a -2 penalty to use the gun if your target is within 30 feet / 10 m of you. The Accuracy Range Increment is increased by 33%.

Red Dot systems do not impose the Volley penalty, but only increase the Accuracy Range Increment by 10%.

Optics may also grant features such as night vision or recording capabilities, depending on the system used.


The bigger the caliber of projectile, the larger the wound cavity, reflected in a larger damage die size:

Firearms Damage Dice, Table 2-1

Imperial Caliber Metric Caliber Damage Die
.17 – .236 4.318 – 5.994 d4
.237 – .302 6.02 – 7.671 d6
.303 – .368 7.697 – 9.347 d8
.369 – .434 9.373 – 11.024 d10
.435 – .50 11.05 – 12.7 d12

Most black powder pistols are .36 or .45 caliber (d8 or d12). Most black powder rifles are .45, .50, or .58 caliber (d12).

 The higher the energy, the more dice are rolled:

Rifle Damage Dice, Table 2-2a

Energy in Joules Dice**
< 2000 J 2d
2000 J / Black Powder 3d
3000 J 4d
4000 J 5d
5000+ J 6d

Pistol Damage Dice, Table 2-2b

Energy in Joules Dice**
< 300 J 1d
300 J 2d
500 J / Black Powder 3d
900 J 4d
1300 J 5d
1500+ J 6d

** Expanding bullets get an extra die of damage.


Shotguns shoot multiple projectiles and are treated differently as they are designed for short ranges, and therefore the size of the shot determines the number of dice:

Shotgun Damage Dice, Table 2-3

Shot Size Dice
#000 Buck 5d12
#00 Buck 5d10
#0 Buck 5d8
#2 Buck 5d6
#4 Buck / Black Powder Scatterguns 5d4
#5 Shot 4d4
#7½ Shot 2d6
#8 & #9 Shot 1d6

If only one die is being rolled, it may ‘explode,’ meaning that if the highest possible result is rolled, the die is rolled again, and the result is added to the original roll. This can continue until the highest possible result is not rolled.


To determine the damage and range of a specific gun, we simply look up a cartridge on the Wikipedia and compare its caliber, type (centerfire, Rimfire, or handgun) and energy. Use the highest rated energy loading on the page. For example, I’ll look up 7.7×58 Arisaka on Wikipedia. It has a diameter of 7.92mm. It’s highest rated energy listed is 3136 J. So looking at our lists above, it uses 4d8. Not too shabby. So instead of creating long laundry lists of damage, we’ve created a formula to convert any firearm to Pathfinder 2e damage.


Here are some more common cartridges converted:

A standard 5.56 NATO (AR15/M16) would use d4s, and at 1859 J it gets 2 of them (they can also fire .223 Remington at 1814 J, still only 2 dice).

A 9×19 Parabellum (9mm, 9mm Luger) +P Pistol uses d8s and at 617 J uses 3 of them. This covers the Beretta M9 (FS92), the standard NATO side arm from 1985 until 2017. Also the Sig Sauer P320 (RX17) from 2017 to Present. It is the most popular round next to .22 Long Rifle. The Glock Model 19 is the most popular handgun in this cartridge. Portland Police use Glock Model 17, as do all Federal Agencies except the Border Patrol and NCIS.

A .357 Magnum Pistol uses d8s and at 964 J uses 4 of them. Examples include the Smith & Wesson Model 27/28, Colt Python, and Ruger Security Six. A lot of State Police agencies and the Border Patrol switched from S&W 10s to S&W 28s in 1955 and used them until 1992.

A .357 SIG Pistol uses d8s and at 978 J uses 4 of them. The Glock Model 31 is the standard U.S. Border Patrol and NCIS sidearm.

7.62×39 (AK47/SKS) Rifles use d8s (0.310 caliber projectiles) and at 2108 J uses 3 of them.

The .38 Special +P Pistol (S&W Model 10 was the standard Cop gun from 1899 until 1990) uses d8s and at 476 J gets 2 dice.

The .40 S&W Pistol uses d10s and at 797 J uses 3 of them. Most cop guns are Glock Model 22.

.45 ACP (Colt 1911) uses d12s and at 796 J uses 3 of them. This was the U.S. Forces Pistol from 1911 until 1986 with 8+1 rounds. A smaller 6+1 round Officers’ version was carried by U.S. Forces Officers from 1955 until 1985. A 7+1 Round Commander version was available for Civilians.

A .270 Winchester rifle uses a d6 and at 4006 J uses 5 of them.

30-06 rifle uses d8 and at 4042 J uses 5 of them.

M1 Garand is a 30-06, but must be loaded to under 2800 J so they get 3 dice (use of regular 30-06 ammo will blow the op rod off the gun and damage it).

7.62×45 NATO rifles (M14) use d8s and at 3560 J uses 4 of them (they can also fire .308 Winchester at 3700 J, but still only 4 dice)

.22 Long Rifle in a Rifle gets d4s and at 277 J gets 2 of them, but only 1 in a Pistol.

Note: There are more powerful guns, but this keeps them capped for playability.


Additional Rules

Report Shock: When you fire a firearm without a suppressor, Report Shock takes place. The rules may vary depending on the game system, but by and large, if you are within 25 feet of the muzzle of an unsuppressed firearm, you must make a Fortitude, Constitution, or equivalent saving throw. In Pathfinder 2e, it would be a Simple DC for your level at Good Difficulty. If you succeed, nothing happens. If you fail, you take 1d8 points of non-lethal damage, and are both deaf and stunned for one round. If you are already deaf or have hearing protection in place, you are immune.

Overpenetration: If a target’s hit points are reduced to zero and there is still damage left over, the bullet “blows through” the target and may strike a creature or object behind the target. The original attack roll is used to see if the round hits, and if so, the remainder of the damage roll is applied to that target.

Recoil: Modern and Black Powder Firearms generate Recoil after each shot. A cumulative -1 penalty to hit is applied per shot fired to the next shot. This lasts until the shooter takes the Readjust action, Moves, or performs some other Action other than firing the weapon. However, Firearms are Agile weapons. In Pathfinder 2e, Recoil offsets the Agile trait when doing a multi-attack. If you do not do some other action prior to firing, the penalty continues to accumulate across combat rounds.

For instance, in Round 1, you fire three times. The first shot has no penalty. The second is at -5 (-4 for an Agile weapon and -1 for Recoil). The third shot is at -10 (-8 for Agile weapon, -2 for Recoil). In Round 2, you keep firing. The fourth shot is -3 for Recoil. The fifth at -8 due to -4 Recoil and -4 Agile weapon. The sixth is -13, and so forth. In Round 3, you take the Readjust action, which clears the Recoil penalty.

Reloading: Reloading is an Interact action and may require more than one action, depending on the weapon system being used. Most magazine-fed systems take two actions to reload: one to draw the magazine while ejecting the old one, and one to load the magazine and charge the weapon system.

Non-detachable magazine systems take a number of actions equal to 2 per cartridge being loaded, as do swing-out revolvers when not using a speed loader. Using a speed loader device takes only 3 actions to reload. Single Action Revolvers take an additional action per cartridge to eject spent cartridges through the load gate.

Modern single shot systems take three actions to reload: One to eject the spent cartridge, one to ready the new cartridge, and one to load the cartridge.

Black Powder weapons take 10 actions to reload. This time is cut in half if they have pre-measured powder wraps and a wad and ball block. Paper cartridge and cap & ball weapons take five actions to reload per chamber. Non-cap (primitive) Black Powder weapons such as wheel-locks take an additional two actions to ready the pan unless the user employs a single-action fire ability or spell to ignite the pan.

Running the Single Session Adventure

The fourth and final piece of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios.

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2 • Prep for the Session


Encourage Play that Saves Time

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote that I would avoid issues pertaining to social graces (or lack thereof), but the question of whether players should toy around with electronic devices at the table applies to single-session adventures more than to normal adventure and campaigns. Suffice to say that your group should be in agreement on how to handle this, for delays could result in failure to complete the adventure, which would ruin the entire session for everyone. If need be, have a quick discussion on this before the game starts.

The DM will find it more important than ever to handle THAT player—the one that makes all the bad jokes that have nothing to do with gaming—the same one that side-tracks everything by recounting his day at work in the middle of the game. You are adults so you need no advice on how to handle it, but be aware that not addressing it could possible ruin the game for everyone if you don’t finish. Read more

RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins

This is RPG-ology #34:  Invisible Coins, for September 2020.


This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Invisible Coins on July 27, 2001.  It is only slightly edited for republication here.

You’ve probably heard the line about our strange and beautiful relationship—in which I’m beautiful, and you’re… well, I’ll assume you’ve heard it.  My relationship with Multiverser creator E. R. Jones was, from the beginning, strange on both sides.  There were many things about us that appeared similar (to the point that we were mistaken for brothers, and sometimes still people aren’t certain which of us the bearded dark-haired bespectacled faces in artist Jim Denaxas’ sketches depict).  But the more we got to know each other, the more it appeared that we did many of the same things for very different reasons.

He wore a beard because shaving was inconvenient.  I wore one because I didn’t like the feel of the sweat and oils on my face after shaving.

We both put ice in our coffee.  I did it because I’m not very patient about beverages, and would certainly burn myself on it before it cooled.  He, on the other hand, preferred his coffee cold, a throwback to his army days when that’s the only way he could get it.  (And he was the cook.)

We were both highly respected for our skills at running Dungeons & Dragons, both of us having begun some time in 1980.  My reputation was that I was closer to the book rules than just about anyone else.  He, on the other hand, built his entire game on that phrase in the preface, “the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game,” regarding the rest of the system optional.  We learned much from each other in the process of playing together, but our games were never the same, perhaps in some sense not even remotely similar.

And both of us had the habit of periodically tossing an invisible coin into the air and catching it, slapping it on our wrists ostensibly to see whether it was heads or tails, when someone asked a question which required thought. Read more

Prep for Single Session Adventures

Part 3 of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios. 

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2


Give out Characters Beforehand

If you decide to use pre-generated characters, send the character sheets to your players before game day. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with the character a bit. This is especially important for spell-casters, which are more complex to run than fighters. Distributing the sheets early also fosters excitement and anticipation for your game.

Bring Extra Stuff

Expect a few players to forget dice, pencils, and paper. These things take only a few minutes to gather, and the players in question will be grateful. Besides, you don’t want anything to delay you, as time is fleeting on game day.

Preroll For NPCs

This is a trick that I’ve used successfully for years now. The slow pace of the combat round has been a bugbear in most versions of D&D, and I imagine that other games have similar problems. Though I learned from experience that AD&D (or 1st Edition) can move combat along quicker than later versions, pre-rolling attacks and damage will speed things up, no matter what version you play. Of course, you can do this in your regular campaigns too, but the practice is doubly helpful with single-session adventures.

I usually roll between three and seven attacks for each monster, but use common sense. If you have twelve goblins, then perhaps thirty rolls are enough. Several goblins will likely die in the first few rounds, and if they are getting stomped, they will likely flee and end the combat. After rolling attacks, you can usually eyeball the numbers and figure out how many potential hits you have. If I rolled thirty times, I might see only ten rolls that are above a 14. Roll that many damage rolls and then add a few extra for good measure.
When you pre-roll damage or attacks, ensure that you include all known modifiers now. The more math that you do beforehand, the less you’ll need to do on game day, and combat will move that much quicker. Make sure that you are clear on what modifiers you already included (jot it down if necessary). Read more

Faith in Play #34: Guidance and The Machine

This is Faith in Play #34:  Guidance and The Machine, for September 2020.


Some people I know are terrified of the vision of the world in Person of Interest, the television series currently available on Netflix.  In it, a man going by the name of Harold Finch has created a hardware/software combination that monitors and analyzes all the data everywhere—cameras, cell phones, online computers, everything.  Using this data, it predicts terrorist attacks and gives limited information to a secret government agency so that these can be thwarted before they occur.  Yet Harold took the system one step further:  he designed it to inform him of the identities of anyone about to be involved, as victim or perpetrator, in a planned violent crime not related to terrorism.  He wanted to save the lives of people involved in such crimes, and so the machine gives him social security numbers of such people.

Harold Finch is brilliant at computers, but slightly handicapped, walking with a limp, so he can’t do this himself.  He recruits John Reese to do the legwork, and eventually Sameen Shaw joins them; two police detectives, Lionel Fusco and Joss Carter, also help them when called, knowing that their information is always good but not how they get it.  Eventually someone who calls herself Root (Samantha Groves to Harold, but she doesn’t like that name) also joins them, apparently recruited by the machine itself.

It doesn’t frighten me.  I see in it a wonderful metaphor of divine guidance, and the fact that God directs each of us in accordance with our own place in His plan. Read more

The First Line of Offense

For the first time, I left the evening of D&D feeling accomplished. This time, things seemed to click. The DM drew us further into our character development, and I felt more connected to the character I had essentially created as a joke, as well as a game that was still extremely foreign to me. My character now breathed. There was a specificity to the spells that he cast that resonated with me in a way they wouldn’t have if the DM would’ve continued to explain every attack and action for us. He had stopped holding our hands and telling our stories, to allow us to start cultivating our own facets to the overarching narrative. I cast fire bolt from my right arm, and it wells up from my chest, down through my veins, boiling hot, welling up on my pointer finger until it propels toward its target.

Simple, I know. Rudimentary, even. Yet, allowing me to describe my attacks has enriched what was, up to this point, a difficult play style to get into. After the DM handed the reins over to the players to think quicker and to be more decisive, the game comes across much more alive. It’s as if we’re racing a clock that doesn’t keep time, but does push the passing of time and the narrative forward. Once we took too long deliberating over our next move and, all of the sudden, incredibly jerky kobolds start chucking rocks at our heads. As *plonk* annoying *bump* as *boof* being pelted by rocks is, it is equally refreshing to feel the narrative being pushed, to have that sense of urgency and purpose. Time didn’t stand still, there is no pause button, and I deeply appreciated that!

Read more

RPG-ology #33: Flirting

This is RPG-ology #33:  Flirting, for August 2020.


There was a Game Ideas Unlimited article of this title that addressed these ideas (not, it should be noted, romance).  That article appears to have been lost, and this is an attempt to address the ideas afresh.

We roleplay for many different reasons.  Ron Edwards has identified three fundamental motivations, ways in which gamers enjoy games, identified as gamism, narrativism, and simulationism, and described at Places to Go, People to Be in the article Theory 101:  Creative Agenda.  It is the third of those, simulationism, which is of interest in this article.

What characterizes simulationism is the love of learning, of exploring what something is like; it is in some ways the broadest.  We explore places, from Narnia to Saturn 5 to post-apocalyptic earth to Toontown.  We explore milieus, from medieval Asia and Europe to the wild west to outer space.  We explore professions, real and unreal, from gunslinger and swordfighter to wizard and starship engineer.  We even explore what it’s like to face death.

Yet I think one of the most interesting, subtle, and overlooked things that we explore is our own identities. Read more