Faith in Play #42: Lucifer

This is Faith in Play #42:  Lucifer, for May 2021.


A few months back I looked at a controversial television series and expressed some thoughts on guidance.  This month I am looking at an even more controversial television series, Lucifer, and finding another lesson.

Yes, the theology is wonky in so many ways, and the characters are all fundamentally immoral in their attitudes and actions.  However, the show often causes me to think, challenging me with interesting ideas.  This is one of them.

To bring you up to speed, the titular character is indeed the Lord of Hell to whom all demons owe allegiance, whose job it is to torture those whose guilt brings them there.  He’s tired of it.  He feels like his Father, God, is running his life, and he wants to be free of that, to run his own life.  Sound familiar?  So he goes to Los Angeles and opens a nightclub.

He meets Chloe, a police detective going through a divorce but a woman of integrity, and he finds her fascinating.  He also finds that she makes him vulnerable—quite literally.  Normally nothing can harm him, but when she’s near he becomes mortal in his vulnerability.  She doesn’t know he’s the devil incarnate—indeed, initially the only ones who know are the angel sent to persuade him to return to his job in hell, and the demon who came along with him as something of a sidekick.  However, over the course of many episodes it is clear that Lucifer and Chloe are falling in love with each other.

Then, several seasons in, the bomb drops.  Chloe was a miraculously born child, whom God created specifically to be the perfect mate for Lucifer.  Lucifer learns this, and he is furious:  once more God is manipulating his life.

I am one of those who believes that God created one woman who was perfect for me, for whom I was the perfect man, and brought us together.  I would wager that at least some of the regular readers of this column hold a similar belief.  That doesn’t mean everything always runs smoothly—part of that perfect mate is that she, or he, is going to be one of God’s tools in knocking off your rough edges, in forming you into the person He intended you to be.  I am grateful that God has done this for us.

See the difference?

God made me; God made Lucifer.  God made my wife, and He made Chloe.  I perceive that in making me God knew exactly what He was making, and so in making my wife He created someone who would fit perfectly.  That He manipulated our lives to bring us together is one of the good things He did for us.  Yet for Lucifer, the fact that he has fallen for the girl whom God made to be perfect for him, and she for him, is God controlling his life, and he does not want that.  This might be the perfect girl made especially for him, but he would rather be miserable in hell than let God dictate that which makes him happy somewhere else.

Back in Bible college people often talked about the prayer that said to God, “I’ll go anywhere you want, except to be a missionary to Africa.”  We talked about how foolish that was, because if God’s perfect plan for your life included being a missionary to Africa, there was no place else where you would be happier.  We all want to be happy, but we all have this notion that we know what will make us happy, and we want that and not something else.  God knows what will make us not only happy but the best selves we can be, and He promises to perform that work in us.

The question for us is whether we will let God guide our lives, or insist on having it our own way.


Previous article:  Faith.
Next article:  Slavery.

RPG-ology #41: Over My Shoulder

This is RPG-ology #41:  Over My Shoulder, for April 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.

We are skipping another which has already been published, but since this thirteenth entry is itself an index of the first twelve, all but one of which have been republished here, we will go directly to it.  A few editorial notes will be [bracketed].


I doubt any of you have been counting, but this is the thirteenth article in our Game Ideas Unlimited series.  I’m not superstitious (in that sense of the word).  The number thirteen doesn’t mean anything frightening to me.  But if you’re adept at calendar math, you know that thirteen weeks (and not twelve) is three months, a quarter of a year.

It’s our anniversary.

I’m a believer in holidays that look back at the past, to see whence we came in an effort to know whither we are going.  There are a dozen columns behind us, each one different.  If you haven’t read them all, perhaps now would be a good time to see what ideas you missed; and if you have, it won’t hurt to jolt them back to your mind.  But we’ll also take a moment to look at looking back.

I introduced myself and the series with a column appropriately called Introduction [not included in our republications but now available as mark Joseph “young” web log entry #384:  Game Ideas Unlimited Introduction].  In it we promised that these columns would include many and varied ideas, sometimes giving you something you could use directly in your games, but more importantly trying to teach you how to be creative, where to find ideas.  It also contained links to several other articles I’ve written, as a way both of introducing myself and of providing game ideas to you.

The second idea, An Amusing Dungeon, was primarily for fantasy gamers.  It sketched out an adventure in which standard medieval fantasy characters found themselves in a magical amusement park, terrified of the rides and confused by the rest.  More basically it was about devising challenging and creative settings by taking something familiar and putting it in the wrong place.

Transmats, the third entry, took us solidly into science fiction.  If you run a sci-fi game and have matter transmission technology, you probably added a lot of things to your world after reading that one.  Even if that’s not you, the challenge behind it was to look at the technology in your worlds and make sure you consider all the implications.

By the time we looked at My North Wall in the fourth article, we were looking for world ideas and finding them in very mundane places.  There was a brief side trip into misdirection as a story tool and a chance to look for the leprechaun in the painting on my wall, but overall we were finding ways to draw ideas from the things around us.

The fifth article, Screen Wrap, talked about ways to use teleportation to create maze-like challenges.  It was presented in a practical, nuts-and-bolts sort of way that works with both fantasy and science fiction, and included some ideas on getting a very similar effect without moving the characters at all.

If you’re carrying a notebook around just so you can write down something you see each day, it might be because you took my advice seriously in Pay Attention.  This sixth column suggested things to include in such a volume, and how they might be useful in the future.

I told you a little bit about my family in number seven, and asked you about yours.  I said we were all Living in the Past, and that there were far more story, world, and character ideas in the past than in the present, worth exploring.  And from some of the mail I received, I’d say that many of you began exploring those ideas, finding out about your parents’ lives.

We went for a walk in a blizzard in Snow Day.  I wanted you to move your mind out of where you were into another world, and experience it vividly enough that you could bring your friends into it with you.  If we did that, the eighth entry succeeded, and may have helped you develop some tools for better presentation of your setting.  And if it’s a hot day today, maybe you’d like to go back there for a moment and cool off a bit.

Number nine was in some ways controversial.  I told you about Invisible Coins, and how to use these to control the direction of your game.  Many of you are probably afraid of this idea, as I was; but sometimes the importance of the die roll isn’t what it is but what you wanted it to be.

Maybe we got a little heady with Empiricism [republished under the title Creatures], discussing the philosophy of David Hume.  But the tenth article had a practical side, too, as it made us consider the limitations of communication, and examine the degree to which our descriptions need to convey impressions rather than information.  It also had a clever sketch from Dimitrios “Jim” Denaxas “illustrating” the idea.

I unscrambled the word Aptrusis in column eleven.  In doing so, I looked at my own approach to solving a puzzle, and the place of puzzles in games.

Although column twelve was called Monster Design, I didn’t design a monster.  Instead, I presented a set of ideas which to my mind were important in creating a good monster—not game mechanics, but the nature of the beast itself and the way it is presented within the game world.

The value in looking back lies in looking forward.  [Thirteen] weeks ago, I said I was going to give you ideas, but go beyond that to help you learn to find your own ideas.  I promised that our column would turn in every direction, sometimes practical and sometimes esoteric, sometimes fantasy and sometimes science fiction, sometimes design and sometimes presentation.  So far we’ve been there and done that—not in a tired way, I think, but in a way that suggests successes on which to build.

But my opinion is not the important one here.  What matters is whether you think we’re achieving the objectives.  More to the point, what of all this did you find useful?  Of what that we’ve done would you like more?  And is there anything you expected that you’ve not yet seen but would still like?  Have we gone too far?  Have we gone far enough?  It’s not that I’ve run out of ideas—I might never run out of ideas.  It’s that not all ideas are equally valued, and there are many directions which could be explored in the next quarter.  I’m thinking about developing character background, looking again at how people think, maybe examining superstition.  Which ideas will we pursue?  In part that’s up to you.  By the time you read this, I’ll be several weeks ahead in writing them; but your thoughts on what is worthwhile will certainly affect the future of the series at some point.

So roll some of those invisible dice, and as they clatter on the table [write a forum post leave a comment] to tell me what it is that you really want them to say.

Previous article:  Aptrusis.
Next article:  Who?.

Faith in Play #41: Faith

This is Faith in Play #41:  Faith, for April 2021.


Recently somewhere on the Web a discussion arose that suggested that if you build a world in which God or the gods manifest visibly frequently and work wonders regularly, there is no need for faith in such a world.  I am persuaded that this is a serious misunderstanding of the concept of faith, and that we should understand it aright not only for our games but for our lives.

Abraham is said to have entertained God face to face, and yet is also given as the prime example of what it is to have faith.  How can Paul say that Abraham had faith in God, when Abraham had absolute proof of God’s existence?

Faith ultimately means trust, and it is actually the most common thing in the world.  It is, in fact, the way we know most of what we think we know.

How do I know that George Washington was the first President of the United States?  Someone told me; I trusted both that they were correct and that they were honest.  That’s faith.  How do I know that the earth is eight light minutes from the sun, and that the earth goes around the sun, and not the sun around the earth as it appears?  Again this is faith, that I believe what I was told.  Why do I hop out of bed onto a floor, believing that it will be there, and will support my weight?  Once again, that’s faith.

How do I know that my God is concerned about me, even when life is not going according to my plans?  That’s faith—I trust Him.

We have faith in people, that is, we trust that our friends and family are not going to harm us or abandon us.  Sometimes our faith is misplaced, but it is still faith.  So even when the proof of one God’s or many gods’ existence is incontrovertible, faith is a critical part of that—or any—relationship.

It was also asked whether to have one God or many gods in your fictional world, whether for game or story, but I wrote about that decades ago in Faith and Gaming #8:  In Vain (link to more recent republished copy).


Previous article:  Harry Potter Series Follow-up.
Next article:  Lucifer.

RPG-ology #40: Aptrusis

This is RPG-ology #40: Aptrusis, for March 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.

We skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; and already ran the second and third, so that last month featured the fourth in the series, linked below. This is number eleven, as we ran quite a few out of sequence already. For the sake of history, we ran number five Screen Wrap almost two years ago in June, six through eight, Pay Attention, Living in the Past, and Snow Day in sequence the summer before because they connected to each other, and number nine Invisible Coins last September. The tenth, originally entitled Empiricism, was rerun under the title Creatures two years ago.


I really don’t like certain kinds of puzzles. People think it’s strange. After all, aren’t I one of those super-intelligent people, and since I am, wouldn’t I enjoy games for the super-intelligent? Bah. I don’t like those mathematical magic squares. Finding the next one in the sequence doesn’t excite me.

And these: Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cook and Mr. Baker met on the street. “It’s funny,” said Mr. Baker to the man who was the carpenter, “that each of us is named for a trade, and although between us we represent all three of the trades of our names, not one of us has the job that matches his name.” So which one is the carpenter, which is the cook, and which is the baker? The Law School Admission Test—L.S.A.T. for those of you more familiar with test abbreviations—has those, in varying levels of complexity, as about a quarter of the questions.

I hate those, too.

And I don’t unscramble words.

It isn’t that I don’t think I can do these. On the contrary, the problem is that as soon as I see the problem, I know that I can solve it, given enough time and effort. It generally becomes clear fairly quickly that if you shift the information around sufficiently, eventually the answer will appear. It is inevitable.

And that reduces the entire exercise to busy work.

I don’t like these puzzles because they are exactly like having to do homework. The answers are attainable, often without much that could be considered cleverness or even thought. You just have to plug away at it until you find it. I’ll show you what I mean.

My youngest was handed an assignment in which all the adverbs had been “scrambled” and he had to unscramble them to answer the questions. I’m supposed to help him with his work (this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me—I can do his work easily, and don’t see how that helps him learn, but I don’t have the patience to listen to him whine some days about how hard it is and how he can’t do it), and I’m supposed to check it when it’s done. So I read the paragraph, and all the words quickly revealed themselves, but for one.

  • aptrusis

So I have no idea what this is. I note that it contains the word “apt,” and that the “usis” ending is worth considering. But as yet I don’t see a whole word. So I change things around, at first keeping the two halves isolated.

  • partsuis

I like the way the first four letters work; they seem to have a lot of possibilities. The last four don’t, though, and I’m already thinking of pulling one of the “s”‘s to the front, as there are an awful lot of words that begin with “s,” and “sp,” “st,” “str,” and “spr” are very common starts. But before I do that, I try another twist.

  • tarpiuss

It’s not working. It’s time to shuffle things in a larger way, move letters between the front and the back.

  • utripass

Understand that in the back of my mind I’m already aware that I could systematically examine every combination—start by switching the last two, then shuffling the last three, the last four, as if testing permutations in a Mastermind game. I’m also quite aware that it can take a very long time to do that, even with the aid of a computer. I wonder if there’s a scrambled word cruncher on the net, like the “convert your phone number to words” site I once saw. But I’m working on the assumption that poking at this inductively will eventually give me a letter combination I recognize. In fact, I get such a letter combination when I bring the “s” up to the front.

  • straispu

However, it’s too much. I’ve got a five letter run that looks good, but the rest can’t be made into the end of any word I can see.

And this is supposed to be third grade work. Did I mention that I don’t like scrambled words?

  • spartius

A classic movie comes to mind; but this is supposed to be a time or place.

  • aspurtis

This actually sounds like a word; I pause to see if I can find the word—no, it would be a cute pun in a way, but probably very few would get it. Keep going.

  • spraitus

Well, I’d tried the “str” opening, I had to try the “spr.” This is so far from inspiring that I drop it.

  • parssuit

I’m beginning the think again about whether I can have the computer print them all to a text file. Then I could open it in Word, and the spellchecker would choke, but maybe find for me the one word that is not misspelled.

  • pastusir

Um… no.

  • upstasir

And suddenly I can see it; it’s right there. I have enough of it that the rest falls into place. I have unscrambled the word.

Did I mention that I really don’t like scrambled words?

I’m sure some of you knew what Aptrusis was almost as soon as you saw it in the title; your mind is geared to unscramble words more quickly than mine. Others have not yet made the final step to finish the process. Don’t worry about that—we all process information a bit differently. But more than a few of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with game ideas.

Quite a bit, actually.

I just took you for a walk through a mental process. This, in a perhaps abbreviated form, is the way I thought about this problem. In some ways it should have seemed familiar to you, like I was doing something you might have done; in some ways it should have seemed surprising, like I turned left where you would have climbed the ladder. That means that there are similarities between the way you and I think, but we don’t think quite the same way. What looks easy to you, what is easy to you, might stump me, at least for a moment; and I might breeze through something that would confuse you.

Years ago, before people were talking about drama, karma, and fortune mechanics, or about narrativist, gamist, and simulationist goals, or about actor and author (and more recently director) stances in role playing games, someone tried to divide players up into categories of what they wanted to do. Some, it was said, were there for the action, fighting monsters and escaping with treasure. Others were there for the characters, the creation of story and the development of their world. But there was a third category about which I don’t hear much anymore: some play for the puzzles. They like solving them. Whether it’s a riddle, or a logic problem, or a scrambled word, the moment that the story stops and the players have to put their minds to cracking a problem is the moment this player shines. And in fact, I am that player. I like solving puzzles as the way to the solution of the mystery in the game. It’s just that there are some puzzles which don’t seem to me like puzzles at all. They seem like homework. I never liked homework (and left too substantial a share of it unfinished over the years). I want puzzles, but I don’t want homework.

And because we know that each of us thinks a little differently about everything, it follows that the puzzles that appeal to you might not appeal to me. So if you’re creating the situation, you need to think of puzzles that will appeal to the players, particularly to the players who are going to be the ones to tackle and enjoy them. If they like wordplay and don’t like numbers, they aren’t going to enjoy a numerical puzzle so much as a linguistic one. And probably they’re going to have trouble with some puzzles, to the point of frustration. The last thing you want to do is give them a puzzle that they aren’t going to like and will frustrate them. After all, they’re here to have fun. The puzzle should be challenging and fun.

This was a lot of words to say that, if that was all I was going to say. Why did we bother to go through that look at how I solve scrambled words? It was supposed to bring into focus the fact that everyone approaches puzzles a bit differently (at least, of those that bother to approach them at all). Everyone likes different types of puzzles, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in puzzle solving. So you can’t assume that because a puzzle looks too easy to you that they’re going to get it right away. You need to have a grasp of what puzzles entertain your players, what kinds of puzzles they enjoy and which ones provide the right level of challenge, if you’re going to use them, and gear things for that. The puzzles that appear in your adventures must entertain and challenge without frustrating.

Did I mention I hate scrambled words?

The word was “upstairs.” I have since been given the URL for AnagramFun.com, which would indeed unscramble any collection of letters you insert into whatever word or words can be derived from them.

Mr. Baker says that he is not the baker, and that the carpenter is not Mr. Carpenter; but since Mr. Baker is talking to the carpenter, he is not the carpenter either. (I don’t know—they don’t allow that Mr. Baker might be mistaken; and they don’t allow that he might talk to himself. But I suppose in logic puzzles things have to be logical, even if they aren’t realistic.) He must therefore be the cook. Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Cook are therefore the baker and the carpenter, but since Mr. Carpenter is not the carpenter he must be the baker, and thus the carpenter is Mr. Cook. But perhaps the answer is as confusing as the question.

Previous article: My North Wall.
Next article: Over My Shoulder.

Faith in Play #40: Harry Potter Series Follow-up

This is Faith in Play #40:  Harry Potter Series Follow-up, for March 2021.

This was originally published as an entry in the Blogless Lepolt web log at Gaming Outpost under the title Opinion Vindicated, and recently recovered thanks to Regis Pannier of the French edition of Places to Go, People to Be.


Many of you will by now have seen the news that J. K. Rowling has stated her heroic and much-revered character Dumbledore is “gay.”  Already I have been asked about this, and I will be giving my answer here in a moment.  What interests me more is her revelation, more quietly reported, that the entire Harry Potter series is, and has always been, a Christian story.  Rowling kept this “secret” close to her breast while dealing each book, as she feared giving it away too soon would lead readers to guess the end before they reached it.  This pleases me.  I’m not the only person to have noticed the Christian influences in the Harry Potter series, and I’m certainly not the most vocal of those defending it, but I have taken a stand in defense of the stories as part of my unofficial position as defender of Christian fantasy in the modern world.  Having her say what I have been saying is rewarding.

On the other report, over on MySpace, a mysterious friend through a friend who often asks me odd questions, Dr. Jack Centipede, asked me my opinion of the report.  My comment there was truncated—apparently I failed to keep to some unstated word limit imposed by MySpace—so I am going to copy what was saved and attempt to complete it here.

I don’t want to say that an author is wrong about her own character, so what I’ll say instead is, I don’t see it.

There is something of a pernicious error which grew in the twentieth century, which holds that two men who care about each other and who bond with each other are therefore homosexuals.  C. S. Lewis complained about this, saying (I think in The Four Loves) that when you have these close friendships, that “philos” “brotherly love,” someone will say that of course they are “really” homosexual—and that what you feel is pity for the one who says this, because it suggests that he has never known real friendship.  It is quite possible for men to care about each other without being homosexual, but in our age every effort is made to characterize such relationships as homosexual, because those in homosexual relationships want to be able to claim that their relationships are “normal.”

I see nothing in Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald that indicates it to be more than a very close friendship, the kind of friendship I have had rarely in my life.  Dumbledore is not gay, but caring and sensitive and eager to know people and to forge relationships with them.  It is not the same thing.

Let me make two more points on this, briefly.

First, if Dumbledore is gay, then any man who has ever felt a close connection, a bond of sincere friendship and mutual interest, with any other man, is also gay.  I think—indeed, I would hope—that that would be all men everywhere.  By this definition, then, every man is gay; and if that is so, then the category is meaningless, and no man is.

Second, it is significant in my mind that the same is not said about women.  We assume that women forge these dear and close friendships with other women, and that this says nothing about their sexuality.  It is only when men forge such relationships that this becomes “homosexual” or “gay.”

This puts men in a lose-lose situation.  On the one hand, we are accused of being cold, uncaring, unemotional, self-centered and self-interested, failing to bond with others, failing to share our true feelings.  On the other hand, should we venture to warm, care, emote, reach out to and bond with others, and share our true feelings, we are suddenly branded as “gay.”  You can’t have it both ways.  Either it is quite normal for people—men and women—to have caring relationships with each other, or it is always abnormal for anyone—man or woman—to care about a member of the same sex.

Thus I think Rowling has fallen into the trap of assuming that her character Dumbledore must have been gay because he cared deeply for and about another man.  I care deeply for and about my father, my uncles, my cousins, my brothers, and my sons; that does not make me gay—nor does it make me gay if I also care deeply about friends who happen to be guys.  What’s a guy to do, anyway? After all, if I, as a married man, care deeply about other men, I am labeled “gay;” but if I care deeply about other women, I am labeled “lecherous.”  The only kind of man we will accept as manly is the one who doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and that’s not the kind of man we need in this life.

From there I commented on the Christian connections of the book, including the above news link, but since I’ve already done that here I won’t repeat it.

There are a dozen things I am supposed to be doing right now, I suppose, but rather than attempt to list them here, I’m going to attempt to do them, and maybe tell you about them tomorrow.  The gout persists, flaring up overnight, but calming a bit as I work; I wonder to what degree the constriction of my feet within my shoes is reducing the pain.


Previous article:  Of Aliens and Elves.
Next article:  Faith.

RPG-ology #39: My North Wall

This is RPG-ology #39:  My North Wall, for February 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.  This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.

We have skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; the second and third, An Amusing Dungeon and Transmats, have already appeared.  This was the fourth in the series.  Others which have already been republished will be noted but skipped.


I’m looking for world ideas.  I’m always coming back to that.  I’ve got books to write, games to run.  For every idea someone promises to prepare for publication, I need another one lined up in case it doesn’t come through.  So I’m looking for world ideas much of the time.

Right now I happen to be looking for them in my office.  But they’re here—you just have to know how to look.

The room is a mess.  I’d like to tell you that it’s because I’m still moving in, and I could get away with that as it is true.  For the last couple of years I’ve had office materials in two places, and everything from one of them is here—but the other houses two file cabinets and many boxes of books and papers which will have to find a place here.  But the truth is that I’m a messy sort of person, and have been so since I was very young.  I read an article thirty years ago that mentioned that creative people preferred a degree of clutter, and I’ve armed myself with that as a defense ever since.  I’ve a pretty good idea in which of these piles to look for anything from world maps to bank statements.  Still, I should put some of this away.

Across the room I see four mugs on top of a cabinet.  The cabinet will eventually house some of those books and papers.  I’ve never done a world about corporations and businesses; but who would want to play in such a place?  The mugs are of more interest to me.  The first was a Christmas present from one of my kids; it’s one of those Coca-cola™ mugs with the playful polar bears on it.  I’ve done an ice age world; it should be published soon.  My second son has written a sketch of a world with intelligent animals and dumb humans—not really an original idea; Jonathan Swift did a good job with that, but it has potential.  I don’t see combining the two ideas, at least not at present.  And those bears would make for a bit of comic relief, but not a world.

The second mug has been mine for a long time.  I’ve had my coffee in it at late night games for as long as I can remember, took it with me when I was teaching cub scouts, and keep it in my room so that no one will break it.  I’m surprised it’s lasted so long.  It’s got a Magellan age map on it, and says Captain.  I don’t think I’ve done a good swashbuckler yet—a merchant sailing adventure of that period, yes, but I could do something on the order of Captain Blood, where the pirates are the misunderstood heroes.

The third mug was another gift, an “I love you” mug from one of my younger sons.  It’s really very Valentines and Lace.  I remember playing in a game in which my character fell in love with a non-player character; and I remember running a game in which one of the players went actively seeking a wife.  Come to think of it, there have been a lot of romantic interludes over the years, from the time Marsonian rescued Lemunda the Lovely to the time Chris married Olivia in The Dancing Princess and Bill asked Blake’s 7‘s Cali to be his bride.  But I’ve never tried to do a setting in which romance was the focus.  I’ll have to give that more thought.

The fourth mug is navy blue, almost black, slightly marbled.  I bought this one for myself, because I really liked the color.  From here, it’s just a dark mug on top of the cabinet—hardly a fount of inspiration.  Yet it immediately reminds me of Tristan’s Labyrinth, an underground maze with no exits and no lights.  Darkness can be an important element in a setting.  A world entirely in darkness presents its own challenges.  Of course, as with the labyrinth, the creatures who are native to that world would not rely on sight, or at least not in the same sense as we do.  It would only be interesting if the player characters come from another world, one in which light is abundant, and have to negotiate the darkness.  In Tristan’s Labyrinth there were walls, and if you had no light you could navigate by feel through the darkness.  Perhaps I could do darkness again, this time without walls.

There is a window fan tossed up on the cabinet behind the mugs.  I just finished an underground world with giant exhaust fans providing circulation, so that’s the first thing it brings to mind.  Is there something else I can do with fans?  I vaguely recall some underwater science fiction piece in which huge impellers drew water into conduits.  An underwater setting has special problems, although you can do it sort of like the Mars of Total Recall, limited biosphere containments on the ocean floor.

The TV is next to the cabinet; it’s on top of my son’s dresser, which is in here until I can get the extra hardware to put his bunk bed together in his room.  The dresser itself has an almost colonial look to it, suggesting a foray into an historic game.  The juxtaposition with the television and VCR stacked on top creates an impression of an eclectic technology, a world in which the old and the new coexist; and I wonder whether they do so in harmony or tension.

There is a painting tossed up on the wall behind the TV, partly obscured.  It landed here because it had to go somewhere, and there was a nail in the wall there.  It was a wedding gift from the artist, Bernice Wurst; I’m told she is one of New Jersey’s outstanding artists today, but I still think of her as the lady who lived around the corner and had coffee with my mother once in a while.  And I always remember the Halloween night when she came to the door convincingly made up as a Chinese waiter.  (At ten years old, I did not recognize her; but my mother didn’t either, and thought she was a boy, so it was a convincing disguise.)  But none of that is in the picture, as useful as it might be.

The painting is a still life, flowers in a vase.  I’m not a florist, but they look to me like mums, mostly in orange and yellow, with a splash of red and leaves in several shades of green down to almost brown.  It’s the sort of painting style which is somewhere between realism and impressionism—I see carnations, but if I look more carefully I realize that there are no petals in the puffs, just splashed on highlights and paint texturing.  In another context some of them would be popcorn balls or cotton candy.  And there is something very strange about this picture.  It hung on our walls for years; and then one day my wife asked if that leprechaun had always been sitting in the middle of it.  I looked and looked, and finally I saw the profile of a pink and white face, the brown hair and sideburns, the green-suited body with arms and legs, seated on one of the flowers as on an ottoman.  I had never seen him before; but now he is the first thing that catches my eye whenever I see the picture.  I suspect that you would not see him the first time you looked at the picture; but that if once you saw him he would be obvious.

As I think about that hidden leprechaun, it reminds me that you can often hide things in plain sight; misdirection is one of the best tools for building suspense.

I once ran some early episodes of Blake’s 7 as a Multiverser game.  One of them has a wonderful piece of misdirection that worked like a charm.  The crew boards a spaceship that seems to be in distress, finds the crew drugged and the pilot dead.  They begin sorting through the disorder, and find that the pilot scrawled something with his blood on a piece of panel.  In preparing for the game, I carefully etched the awkward wavy lines to a blank sheet of unlined paper.  This became my piece of panel.  I pulled it out and looked at it, and in character read off the squiggles as a number while handing it to the player, asking his character whether that meant anything to him.  It did not.  The adventure continues, the player has that sheet of paper with that number on it the entire time, and he tries to solve the mystery—who killed the pilot and placed the gas in the ventilation system?  Why did they do it?

But those squiggles aren’t numbers; they’re letters.  They spell the name of the killer.  As soon as someone points that out, it’s obvious—but because I told him what number it was, the player only saw the number, no matter how many times he looked at it. He was trying to figure out what the number meant, not what the squiggles meant.

There’s a speaker in the corner, part of the last bit of musical equipment I ever bought, a P.A. system. I had my computer running through it a while ago, and the audio feed from the VCR still does.  There are a lot of good stories you can do in the music world, but you have to start with a character who is a musician.  In Sliders, Rembrandt Brown was in a world where his other self was a huge success (and in an irony that probably rang deeply with a lot more than musicians, his success was credited to the fact that he went left where our Rembrandt went right).  My Multiverser player character also met a self who had become a star.  Not every character, not every player, is right for such a story.  But it reminds me that some of the best stories are built on the lives of the players, the “might have beens” that they missed, and an exploration of what that could have meant.

I’ve finished one wall.  There were quite a few ideas there, if you knew how to see them.  I’ve got three more walls I could do, and more things in the middle of the room.  The house has seven rooms and a hall upstairs, three or four (depending on how you count them) downstairs, so I could find many more ideas here.  I could keep going.

But I think I’ll let you look at your walls instead.

Previous article:  Polyglot.
Next article:  Aptrusis.

Faith in Play #39: Of Aliens and Elves

This is Faith in Play #39:  Of Aliens and Elves, for February 2021.


Fantasy and science fiction are riddled with races.  Star Trek offers Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, Bajorans, and a host of others.  Dungeons & Dragons gives us multiple varieties of Elves, Dwarfs, Gnomes, and Halflings, just for starters, and keeps going from there.  Even Harry Potter gave us the giants and the centaurs and the house elves.  It is inherent in fantasy and science fiction that there are intelligent beings who aren’t human.

This, though, gives us a theological problem:  how do they fit into the plan of salvation?

One possible answer is that they don’t.  In original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons humans and quite a few demihumans had souls and could be resurrected, returned to life in the same body.  Elves, however, did not have souls and could not be resurrected.  Instead, they had spirits and could be reincarnated as some other creature.  There is an implication that humans have an afterlife on the Outer Planes, but elves do not, continuing their lives in the Prime Material Plane perpetually.  Given that, it would follow that elves neither needed nor could receive whatever salvation brought humans into heaven.

A viable alternative is that all the races are in fact related, that by whatever peculiarity the elves are also descendants of the first human, or in the science fiction realm, humanity on earth is descended from a first Adam who was not on earth, and so all intelligent life in the universe is similarly connected through that one ancestor.  In one of his short stories, Ray Bradbury suggested that after ascending into the clouds Jesus kept going to carry His message to other planets.  Perhaps the connection is such that the gospel applies to all intelligent life forms.

It has been suggested (by C. S. Lewis) that perhaps humanity is the only intelligent life that is lost and in need of saving, or most lost and most in need of saving, and so the rest of the universe is safe because it never fell.  St. Paul would seem to think otherwise, but he doesn’t talk about it much so it could be overlooked.

I confess I don’t have an answer to this with which I am fully comfortable.  I do think that because it is fiction we can skirt the issue a bit—after all, fictional characters aren’t really lost or saved, even when we say they are.  They are only illustrations of being lost or saved.  If in our fictional world our soteriology stretches to cover some we would have difficulty covering in our real world, that’s part of what fiction is about:  exploring what might be.

As always, I am interested in your solutions to this problem.


Previous article:  Places of Worship.
Next article:  Harry Potter Series Follow-up.

RPG-ology #38: Polyglot

This is RPG-ology #38:  Polyglot, for January 2021.


I was going to call this article I Speak Jive, but it just happens that earlier this week I was chatting with someone about movies and he suggested that a movie could not get away with that joke today.  Given the recent clime (I am writing this the summer before it publishes, because I like to stay ahead of schedule on my deadlines) I decided that maybe I could mention it, but I couldn’t use it for the title.

It is important to mention, though, because it illustrates the problem being addressed here.  How do you communicate in a world in which many languages are spoken?  Last month I wrote about inscriptions, and gave a link to a table of one hundred sixty-nine identifiable recognized languages in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I won’t swear I got them all.  At any moment a character’s life might depend on his ability to talk to someone, or something, that doesn’t happen to speak the same language.  What are the options?  Complicating it further, even people who speak the same language can have trouble understanding each other.  There are jokes about Scotsman, Irishmen, and Welshmen speaking English to Englishmen, and when you mix in Yorkshire, Liverpool, and the East End of London, you wind up with the beginnings of a new Tower of Babel.  Indeed, Chinese may be the same written language, but those who speak the various dialects from different parts of the country are incomprehensible to each other.

The “common language” of the Dungeons & Dragons world is not so absurd as we might think.  The Greeks conquered a substantial part of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and when the Romans took over that territory, the Greek language became established as the language of trade throughout what they called the civilized world.  Still, although most even modestly educated people were at least trilingual (their native language, the commercial language Greek, and law language Latin), there were many who spoke only the local tongue, and as with Americans traveling in Europe you might suddenly find yourself faced with someone who doesn’t have a clue how to speak English, and doesn’t understand even when you speak it loudly and slowly.  Not everyone speaks common.

Star Trek resolved the issue by giving everyone “universal translators,” implanted in the ears, which automatically converted anything anyone said to the language of the listener.  Of course, from time to time the travelers encountered people whose language was too alien for the translator to render, and Spock had to do a computer analysis of the new language and reprogram the devices to handle it.  Not everyone speaks a language the device can translate.

Historically the solution has been to find interpreters, persons who speak more than one language and can translate what each party says to the language of the other.  This is tricky.  My high school French teacher commented once that she could get around Paris quite comfortably, but if her car broke down she would be clueless concerning how to talk about the distributor.

There’s a joke about gangsters questioning a foreigner about the location of some loot they had stolen.  They found a translator, who put the question to the prisoner.  “I don’t want to die,” he said.  “It’s not worth it.  The million dollars is in a suitcase behind the basement furnace at 1212 Delancy Street.”  The interpreter turned to the gangsters and said, “He says, you can kill me if you want, I’m never going to tell you what you want to know.”  Interpreters are not always reliable.

My sister speaks three languages—English, French, and Chinese—well enough that she worked as a United Nations translator for a while, but she sometimes gets thrown by words that are apparently not uncommon.  Still, multi-lingual interpreters are the go-to for communication between those who don’t speak a common language.

Even when they do, sometimes an interpreter or two is needed to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that arise when neither party speaks the shared language well.


Previous article:  It’s Greek to Me.
Next article:  My North Wall.

Faith in Play #38: Places of Worship

This is Faith in Play #38:  Places of Worship, for January 2021.


As a boy I several times went to summer camp at Camp Lebanon (in Lebanon, New Jersey).  One of its more memorable aspects was a chapel in the woods known as The Green Cathedral (pictured).  To me there always seemed something providential about the place—a perfectly flat open space was surrounded about three-quarters of the way by cliff walls, highest opposite the opening; people had added crude benches, a lectern or pulpit, and a simple cross, but regulars would point out that there was a natural cross in the cracks of the rock of the cliff face directly behind the wooden one.  It was one of the few places I’ve been in my life which seemed to have that air of the holy, that feeling that this place was in some sense sanctified, set apart for God.

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That was not, though, the first place that came to mind when I thought of places of worship.  I rather thought of the great cathedrals and mosques of Europe and the Middle East.  Then as soon as I thought of them, I was reminded that in the far east it is much more common to have tiny shrines, buildings so small the worshiper cannot enter but simply stands in front making his prayers.  In Dungeons & Dragons, the druids have less than that, groves in the forests.

There was something grove-like about that chapel in the woods at camp, something almost druidic.  Sitting alone in a place like that, it was perhaps easy to understand the nature religions.

I didn’t have to wonder why the west built such huge stone buildings as places of worship and the east tended not to do so.  There were three reasons why large buildings were constructed in the west that didn’t apply in the east, and understanding the religions in your game world will help you understand what kinds of religious buildings you need, and where.

The first and obvious reason why large buildings were constructed in the west is that the religions of the west—and I’m including Islam along with Christianity and Judaism—involved and indeed required gathering.  In some places it was a crime not to attend regular services, and at least a sin in many others.  That meant large numbers of people coming together at regular times, and without regard for weather conditions, making large buildings necessary.  The more densely packed the local population, the bigger the building had to be.  It was also valuable to make them sturdy enough that repairs would not be required as often.

In the East, faith was more a private and personal thing.  Large gatherings were uncommon.  You went to the holy place to bring your offering and make your prayer, and you left; sometimes you spoke to a holy person who attended the shrine.  If you encountered someone else there when you arrived, you probably waited respectfully for them to finish so you could start.  They didn’t need a building for that.

The second reason should not be discounted.  We might call it ostentation, but should not suggest thereby that it was a bad thing.  The people building these gathering places wanted them to be beautiful, wanted the world to know that they loved their God or gods and were willing to make financial sacrifices to give the best, most beautiful, building possible.  The Gothic arches in cathedrals of that period had pointed tops, accompanying tall spires, all of which pointed to heaven.  They were designed to say, see how much we love our God.

Whoever built the shrine in the East might have been known or recognized for having done so, but in the main it was done for his personal use and shared with others.  Perhaps a significant sum was spent on it, but there was no competition, no need to be particularly ostentatious.  A small building was sufficient.

The third reason for these buildings, though, was defense.  Nations were frequently at war even with themselves.  Don’t be fooled by the hype—the wars weren’t usually about religion, but about territory and sovereignty.  Religion was just a side issue often used as a rallying cry.  Yet because it was an issue, religious leaders had to defend themselves and their people.  Even monasteries would have walled enclosures and defensible gates, and would bring in the peasants when soldiers were known to be approaching.  Princes would help build cathedrals that doubled as fortresses—after all, if you’re going to spend that much money on one large solid building, it ought to do more than one thing, and these buildings did many things, but one of them was provide a last line of defense against invaders.  Some invaders had the respect not to attack a church, but some did not, so defense was necessary.

In the East, no one cared, really, whether you were particularly religious or which religions you believed.  Even today worshipers can be syncretic, following the practices of several religions, and no one thinks they are being unfaithful to one just because they also adopt another.  Conquerors didn’t care about the shrines or the religious leaders or the faith of the people; they were just there for the land and the tribute.

Obviously there are religious buildings sized between the huge cathedrals of the Western cities and the tiny shrines of the Oriental countryside—but the size of the building is to some degree a measure of these factors:  does it have to provide a meeting place for worshipers, such as a synagogue?  Will it be ostentatious, such as a mosque or Greek temple?  Does it have to be defensible, such as a monastery?  Answer those questions, and you’ll be closer to knowing what kind of religious building you need.

And maybe it’s just a grotto in the woods with a few benches, a lectern, and a religious symbol.


Previous article:  Balancing on the Corner.
Next article:  Of Aliens and Elves.

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

The year 2020 surprised all of us, as we scrambled to make life work under entirely different conditions.  However, the viral impact on our web site was minimal, as although we slowed down a bit we continued providing what we hope are valuable quality articles on gaming and faith.  Last December we published 2019 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous year and so maintaining a continuous index of sorts working back through the previous Thirteen Months in Review covering a bit more than all of 2018 and Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website covering 2016 and most of 2017.  I am now attempting once again to summarize another a calendar year of material, for those who missed something or want to find something they remember.

Again January opened with a new Faith in Play article, and we got a full year from the series:

  1. #26:  Fields to Harvest January 7, 2020, noting that Christian ministries to the “geek” community still have work to do.
  2. #27:  Believing Balance February 4, 2020 continues the miniseries on Dungeons & Dragons alignment with a consideration of neutrality.
  3. #28:  Vampires March 3, 2020 considers the metaphorical value of the undead.
  4. #29:  Victims April 7, 2020, explores what it is to be a dependent character, and the importance of such characters not only in our games but in our lives.
  5. #30:  Conflict May 5, 2020, looks at Dungeons & Dragons as a metaphor for spiritual warfare.
  6. #31:  Magic Roads June 2, 2020 discusses the notion of roads that don’t go where you expect unless you go the right way, and connects it to divine guidance.
  7. #32:  Zealots July 7, 2020 continues the alignment miniseries with a look at the side alignments.
  8. #33:  Psionics August 4, 2020 reopens the issue of mind powers in fiction in response to questions and comments from a reader.
  9. #34:  Guidance and the Machine September 1, 2020 looks at the show Person of Interest as instruction about how God guides us.
  10. #35:  Seekers October 6, 2020 considers what to do about friends who are looking for “real” magic.
  11. #36:  Thanks November 3, 2020 talks about thanksgiving celebration and thanks the readers for their ongoing support and encouragement.
  12. #37:  Balancing on the Corner December 1, 2020, finishes the alignment series with a look at how those with corner alignments have to juggle two values.

Two weeks behind that the RPG-ology series also continued:

  1. #26:  Monster Design January 21, 2020 reprints a Game Ideas Unlimited article about what makes a good monster.
  2. #27:  Cures for Dropping Dice February 18, 2020 gives some practical suggestions for keeping the dice on the table.
  3. #28:  Character Death March 17, 2020 talks about the death of the player character and how to handle it.
  4. #29:  Political Correction April 21, 2020 argues that in fiction and games particularly we need to have freedom of speech.
  5. #30:  Story-based Mapping May 19, 2020 suggests that the best way to start a map for a game is to begin where the characters are and work out as needed.
  6. #31:  Screen Wrap June 16, 2020 reposts the Game Ideas Unlimited article about using teleportation to create confusing map sections.
  7. #32:  Doing Something July 21, 2020 suggests how to use odd objects to enhance story by figuring out what they are later.
  8. #33:  Flirting August 18, 2020 recalls a lost article about using role playing to learn about ourselves.
  9. #34:  Invisible Coins September 15, 2020 reproduces a slightly edited version of the Game Ideas Unlimited article, about a valuable illusionist technique.
  10. #35:  Believable Nonsense October 20, 2020 recalls the ideas from a Game Ideas Unlimited article about superstitions and how to work them into play.
  11. #36:  Phionics November 17, 2020 suggesting a category of special abilities that are neither magical nor mental, but reflect the extraordinary body skills of the contortionist.
  12. #37:  It’s Greek to Me December 15, 2020 talks about inscriptions and decorations on magic items.

Although it hardly counts as an article, I also posted Worship Service at Gen Con 2020 Game Fair, announcing the online virtual event which Dave Mattingly organized and hosted on our behalf.

Michael Garcia opened the year on January 14, 2020, with a wonderfully detailed study of Sewers and Such, everything you could need to know to run an adventure in these urban dungeons.  COVID suspended his gaming, so we didn’t get tales of the adventures for a while.  However, he did give us a four-part tutorial in how to design one-shot adventures:

  1. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 1 on July 14, 2020, in which he explores the basic starting point for the task;
  2. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 2 on August 11, 2020, in which he talks about detailing the adventure;
  3. Prep for Single-Session Adventures on September 8, 2020, in which he talks about final preparations;
  4. Running the Single-Session Adventure on September 22, 2020, in which he covers actual game play matters.

He followed this with Tough Choices Make for a Good Game, on October 13, with a holiday-themed adventure, Spreading Yuletide Fear:  A Dark Holiday-themed Adventure, on November 24, and some adventure design advice to finish the year in Designing Deeper Adventures.

Matthew Butler returned with Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2, on June 9, 2020, and The First Line of Offense, August 25, 2020, continuing his humorous look at his gaming experience.

We were honored to be permitted to reprint “Geek Preacher” Derek White‘s article from Knights of the Dinner Table, Quiet in the Convention Center, about gaming conventions providing facilities and services for handicapped and autistic attendees.

Grade school religion teacher Nikolaj Bourguignon brings his experience using games in the classroom to a new series, Roll for Teaching, beginning with:

  1. Hi class. Nice to meet you all! on July 28, 2020, in which he introduces himself and a few of the games he finds best for use with grade school students.
  2. Goals on December 8, 2020, in which he discusses why we are playing, and how to keep that in focus.

Guild President Rodney Barnes brought us Complex Firearms for D20 Games on September 29, 2020, followed a month later on October 27 with Starfinder Stuff for Pathfinder Second Edition.

Lance McClintock approached us to introduce a Christian game he was designing, and we invited him to explain to us what makes a game Christian.  He gave us Christian Game-ism in response, published November 10.

Over a decade ago Scott Bennie drafted an article for us entitled Christianity and Role-Playing Games:  Toward Reconciliation, which slipped through the cracks until late this year when our webmaster found it and published it as Christianity and Role-Playing Games, on December 29.

We expect to follow at least some of these authors into the new year.  In fact, already we have Faith and Gaming and RPG-ology articles standing by.

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild