Faith in Play #45: Special

This is Faith in Play #45:  Special, for August 2021.

A few decades ago when I was studying Paul’s letter to Philemon I realized that the prayer, and therefore the entire book, was about how God had placed special gifts within each of us, making us uniquely suited for His place for us.

Not long ago in the companion series to this one I republished a lost Game Ideas Unlimited article under the new title RPG-ology #42:  Who?, in which I suggested that a character should not know everything about himself, and so a player should not know everything about his character.  This tells us that every character, every player character and every non-player character, has a special place in the world, even if they are not particularly relevant to the story.  There are no unimportant people, and while our stories might be packed with inconsequential characters from innkeepers and stablehands to prime ministers and military commanders, these are people, and they are important.  People matter to God, and they should matter to you.

It is not possible, of course, to fill your fictional world with millions of fully-formed characters; it would be beyond a reasonable challenge even to fill the local tavern with such people.  Nor would it be useful, that is, neither your readers nor your players are going to explore the identities of every peasant in the village.  Yet as impractical as it is actually to do such work, you as the creator of this world and these people need to regard them, and indeed treat them, as if that were true about them.  Even I have seen video console role playing simulations in which villages contain two-dimensional people who when approached say their one or two lines, and repeat the same lines if approached again.  Within the limitations of the video console’s world, that’s as fully formed as all those characters can be—but in your world, those characters should have depth.  It doesn’t have to be relevant depth, that is, the blacksmith doesn’t have to know anything about the caves beyond the mountain beyond what people in the village have said, but if you ask him about the innkeeper he’s probably going to have some knowledge and an opinion, because it’s undoubtedly where he goes to relax after a hard, hot day of ironsmithing.  He might not be the sort of person who talks about his neighbors, but then, he might well be glad to blab to someone willing to chat while he works or even while he drinks after work.  He has a personality, and so do all the people he knows from living and working in the village.

They also have skills outside their professions.  That blacksmith perhaps keeps a vegetable garden to help feed his family, and teaches his son to use a bow and arrow.  The innkeeper’s wife helps with the cooking and serving, but she also does some fine knitting in the evenings while he does the washing up.  The blacksmith’s wife is jealous of that ability, but then, she’s the only one in the village who can make a decent fruit pie, and the innkeeper sometimes buys these when they’re in season and serves them to his customers at a profit.

These individual skills create relationships, interconnections between the people as they support each other, each providing what others need.  At the same time, not one of them sees what he does as special.  Knitting, baking, shooting, gardening, these to those who do them are just ordinary abilities they happened to have learned along the way.  If you asked the blacksmith what was special about him, he might (or might not) brag that he’s the finest smith in the county, but he wouldn’t mention his vegetable garden.  Nor would he mention that his wife makes wonderful pies which they trade to the innkeeper for good warm knit hats and mittens, sweaters and scarves.

The main characters might not care about any of this, and it probably doesn’t matter to the plot.  Yet you should be aware at least that relationships like this, built on individual abilities, are what knit the villagers together and make this a community, not just a bunch of people.  Those people are special, each in his own way, and that specialness is what makes them people.

Previous article:  An Alignment Grid.
Next article:  Undo.

Ten Tips for Turning your Session Notes into Short Stories

When I started to DM with regularity, I began keeping bulleted summary notes on each gaming session.  By my current standards, those first notes were barely adequate.  In time, I made some improvements.  I also began to incorporate into my summary notes some short lines of text that I used during the session itself.  They added a bit of color and flavor.  As I did this more, my summary notes became longer and more colorful, but they also became less useful as a quick reference.  I was faced with a dilemma.  Finally, I stumbled upon a solution that has since worked well for our group.

I now keep my summary notes as simple bullets (they are better than my initial bullets, but that is a discussion for another time).  My notes now provide the most important information to players and DM alike without much flourish, making them easy to reference quickly.  In addition, I occasionally write up the most exciting part of a session in story form.  Into this short story go all the details and flavor that I can muster.  This combination of practical summary notes and vivid short stories can really improve your game.

If you’ve never tried writing a short story from a gaming session, don’t worry.  It’s not that complicated, and your fellow players will likely appreciate the effort, no matter how good the result.  After all, your story is just a retelling of something that already happened—something that you already enjoyed together.  Your readers will lose nothing if your story is lacking.  Of course, with some effort and attention, you will likely produce increasingly better stories.  If you’ve done some creative writing before, some of what you already know will apply.  Yet it’s important to note that many creative writing tips do NOT apply, for you do not control the protagonists as the author of a novel does.  Whatever your experience, don’t shy away from the effort!  If you wish to give this a try, some of the tips below may be of use.

(1) Crop the Session:  Very seldom does an entire gaming session make for a good story.  There is often a great deal of uninteresting and unimportant discussion, exploration, travel, and even combat.  Rather than trying to write about all of this, choose one dramatic event from the session to be the focus of your short story.  It may be a large-scale melee, a wizard duel, or the party’s fight with a large monster.  It may also be the party navigating a deadly trap or some other non-combat encounter.  Choose the most exciting part of the session.  If you’re not sure which to feature, ask the players what they think.

(2) Establish the Basic Flow of Events:  With my starting and ending points now established (for example, “the assault on the robbers’ hilltop hideout”), I start to jot down rough events as I can recall them, also using my notes taken during the session.  I don’t worry about any sort of style or flavor here.  The goal is to record basic facts in chronological order.  I’ll sometimes send an amended copy of my notes (leaving out DM stuff) to my players to see if I missed anything important.  Even better, I ask players immediately after each big battle to name their favorite parts—the scenes that I should definitely include in a later story (if I have time to write one).

(3) Appeal to the Five Senses:  With the crude events recorded, I start to make a list for each of the five senses.  As I review the chronological record of events, I’ll usually jot down every adjective or detail that the PCs may have witnessed.  For example, perhaps my chronological record simply says “PCs attacked by six wolves in forest.  Gimlet wounded.  Ragnar was deadly with his bow.”  Recalling that encounter, I may now jot down the following:  “SIGHT:  rolling hills, conifers (spruce, fir, and pine), pinecones, dusting of snow on ground, scattered boulders, grey fur, yellow eyes, crimson blood, bared fangs, goosefeather shafts, etc.)” I then move on to “SOUNDS:  birds stop chirping, fluttering as flock of birds take flight, growls, screams, grunts, snap of bowstring, thud of arrows hitting targets, etc.” You get the idea.  I do this with each of the five senses.  Later, when I start writing the actual narrative, I use these sensory lists as checklists, crossing off terms as I go.

I’ll often revisit the sensory lists a few times, adding details that I just remembered or even inserting a few details that never existed.  To clarify that last point, I do not change the narrative by adding details.  I simply insert some detail that was never made clear.  For example, I may note the types of trees in that area, the color of a PC’s horse, or the types of dishes that the NPCs served to the PCs at the feast.

Though it is possible to use too much descriptive detail in the narrative (more on that later), you need not worry about that here.  This is simply a list of possibilities.  These are tools that you can use later, so fill up the tool box.  As I revise my sensory lists, I can see beforehand if I’ll later be hitting all five of the senses equally.  I’ll admit that sight still dominates the other senses in my stories, but my attempt to treat the senses equally usually means that I pay much more attention to sound, touch, smell, and taste than I would otherwise.

(4) Choose Focus Characters:  There is no wrong way to tell a story, so do whatever works for you.  I like to select two or three characters to serve as the lenses through which the scene will unfold.  I usually include every PC in my story, of course, but I’ve found that making one or two the stars of the story works well.  Why?

Stories seem more real when viewed from one point of view.  It is how we experience life.  We know what others say and do, but we don’t know for sure what they think.  Given this logic, why not tell each story from only one PC’s point of view?  I have considered this.  However, I found that encounters are often complex, and very often one character, no matter how important or central, does not witness everything.  Telling the story from just that one perspective, though realistic, would not provide a summary as clear as I would like.  Thus, I have settled on using two or three characters as my lenses.

When considering which characters to choose for your lenses, consider first the players involved.  Creative writing requires a bit of artistic license.  If a player will object to your inventing some dialogue for his or her PC, choose someone else’s PC.  Another option is to work with the player so that he or she becomes comfortable with it.  Perhaps you can set some ground rules that will make the player happy.  Ultimately, I think the player will enjoy seeing his or her PC as a focus in a story.  I tend to choose PCs whose players I know very well.  I have a good grasp of the character, how they act, how they think, and how they talk.  This familiarity often derives from the player putting in some work to develop the PC early on.  For example, contrast these two fighters.  Fighter A belongs to a player that never gave you much information about his personality.  He doesn’t say much or do anything interesting.  Fighter B belongs to a player that describes his character as Val Kilmer playing a cavalier—noble and good, but quick witted and sarcastic.  That second PC is far easier to imagine in any given scenario, and you will find writing dialogue for such a character to be easy and fun (assuming that you know who Val Kilmer is!)  Even better, the player may like what you wrote and subsequently play up the character’s personality even more.

When choosing a lens, don’t ruin mysteries.  This may seem like odd advice, but some players play their characters as enigmatic or erratic.  I’m not entirely sure if they do this on purpose or if the characters simply reflect the players’ personalities.  In any case, I realized that making an enigmatic or erratic character the lens in a story may actually disrupt the vibe that the character normally gives to the rest of the group.  For example, one player in our group runs a female magic-user that is literally insane.  She’s functional, but she is definitely not seeing things as others are.  Looking to give each PC an equal share of the limelight, I once started to make her the focus of a story.  Very quickly, I realized that my narrative would expose too many of her inner thoughts, thereby stripping away much of the mystique that the player had built around her.  After struggling to figure out how to deal with that, I decided against making her a lens.  She features in every story, but the characters in the spotlight always view her as a mystery.  Thus, rather than tearing down the mystique that the player has built, each story reinforces it.

You can also use a trusted NPC as a lens.  The main appeal here is that the NPC is yours to control so you need not worry about player objections.  Writing from the NPC’s point of view allows you to share more about that NPC—much more that would come out in the game, for you are showing the NPC’s thoughts and emotions.  I would not do this with many NPCs, as they should not be open books to the PCs, but doing this with one or two long-term party NPCs can really help players grow fond of the NPCs.  Such NPCs are also valuable vehicles for transmitting important information to the players.  In one of our monthly games, I often use a very intelligent, if inexperienced, NPC magic-user for this.  Kind-hearted and gentle, he also is a cousin to most of the PCs, so they trust him implicitly.  I use him in a sage capacity to give the party information in some of my stories.

If possible, use at least one character that is somehow ignorant of the situation at hand, whatever that may be.  This is an old writing trick.  The reader will naturally have many questions about a setting (in fantasy and science fiction, this is especially true).  As the DM and writer, you can answer these questions, but you must do so in an entertaining fashion.  Few readers want to read an essay on a certain race, location, or religion before getting on with the story.  The writer’s trick is to make one of the main characters ignorant of the topic.  When he or she asks his many questions and when knowledgeable characters answer them, it seems like part of the story and not an information dump for the reader.  Of course, there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways of doing this.  You generally want to avoid long Q&A sessions that are obvious information dumps in the guise of dialogue.  Instead, use occasional questions here and there.  In my monthly campaign, when I want to point out certain features of Frangian culture (the main culture of most PCs), I have the female elven ranger notice certain things or ask about certain things.  They are strange to her, whereas they are normal for most of the party.  If you don’t use a character that is unfamiliar with the topic at hand, any explanations will seem really odd and out of place.  Imagine two modern characters leaving work to go get lunch.  It would be really strange for one character to explain to the other how to start a car.  However, if one character had never laid eyes on an automobile before, his or her questions would be natural.

(5) Touch on All Characters:  This is basic, but every player likes to see his or her character in the story (assuming that the character was somehow present).  Do your best to include everyone.  At the very least, try to accurately record each character’s best contributions during that part of the story.  Note, however, that there are times that a PC does nothing of note.  Plenty of times, a PC may be guarding the horses or guarding the rear.  You don’t want to simply skip the character.  Equally unsatisfying is an occasional sentence that says, “Meanwhile, Bori continued to guard the horses.”  So what to do?  First, as the DM, during the session itself, you might get that character involved somehow, even if it turns out to be unimportant.  The character guarding the horses may start to see shadows in the forest or to hear strange noises.  Maybe the sights and sounds are nothing, but maybe they connect nicely to your planned encounters.  For example, if the party is fighting goblins in the woods, perhaps the PC at the bottom of the hill, who you never plan to attack, should see small shadows and hear rustling sounds in the trees around him.  Even if no attack materializes, the player is likely to find the encounter far more interesting.  It makes sense too.  Finally, in the summary, you can mention the poor character’s anxiety as he stands alone in the dark.

On other occasions, a character might be right there in the thick of things, but he might never have an overly dramatic moment worth recording.  Rather than ignore such a character, get a little creative with your details.  Perhaps Bjorn the barbarian fought for eight rounds in a static line, certainly doing his fair share but accomplishing nothing heroic.  You don’t need to describe his fighting that way.  Describe him as furiously hacking at his foes, deflecting shots, driving his foe back onto his heels, etc.  To some extent, all large RPG battles involve a bit of a grind (the better ones have this to a much smaller extent), but by all means don’t describe it that way!

(6) Story Structure:  There are many ways to tell a story.  The simplest is to describe events in chronological order.  When using this method, I like to back up a bit before the dramatic event begins.  I have found that I don’t like to continue the story long after the exciting part ends, for it seems anti-climactic.  Yet, if we start with action and stop right afterwards, you get very little time to build tension or to develop characters.  Start when the tension is already building, and spend a page or so building it further.  Get some dialogue in there.  Allow your characters to notice things that they might not notice once all Hell breaks loose.  Then, describe your exciting and dramatic event.  End soon afterwards, perhaps with a cliffhanger or with an appropriate one-liner.

I used this approach when turning the notes of our monthly AD&D game into a short story called Trial by Combat.  The story begins in the Baron’s feast hall, where the rivalry between the party and the Mandrake family results in a scheduled duel.  The story continues in the inn later that night as the family considers the duel.  Finally, we get to the next morning, when the duel plays out on the fields outside the Keep.

I used this simple approach again when turning the notes of our game into a short story called Terror in the Tower, Part 3.  The story began with the party standing outside in the rain, just outside the cloister of an abandoned temple.  The party leader gave final instructions as he set off with a smaller group to investigate the library tower that loomed over the site.  I tried to build tension as I described their entry into the tower and their ascension to the second floor.  Finally, all Hell broke loose when the party encountered a homebrew monster called a Sentinel.  After they seemingly ‘kill’ the creature, I briefly describe their hasty retreat and return to the cloister.  The last few lines hint at how the group was now in terrible shape, even though they just defeated that horrific monster.

A slightly more complex method, which I often use, involves one or more flashbacks.  I try for one, but occasionally I use two.  I dislike using more than two because readers may become confused by the frequent jumping about.  For this style, I try to start the narrative in media res, meaning in the middle of some action.  It need not be a battle though.  The party may be galloping across the open countryside on horseback or rowing upriver in a galley.  Just give the readers a sense of movement, as this is usually more exciting than sitting in a tavern.  I briefly describe the surroundings, trying to give the reader a feel for the scenario.  I then flashback briefly to some earlier time, allowing the main character to recall how he came to be in the starting scenario.  This is usually where I describe the mission, the adventure, the quest, as well as how it came to be.  I keep this short because this part, though important, is low on action.  Finally, I flash back to the present and move things along to the dramatic event.  As with the above, I try to end with a cliff-hanger or with a memorable one-liner.

I used this approach when turning the notes of our monthly AD&D game into a short story called The Battle of Heinrich’s Horn.  The story begins with the PCs crouched on a hillside, waiting for the signal to attack.  After describing that scene, I had the main character flash back to an earlier scene, wherein a PC lays out the party’s attack plan.  This gives the reader an idea what the characters are planning to do.  I then jump back to the present to push the action forward just a bit.  I then make one last flashback to tell the story of how some enchantments went wrong just before the party ascended the hill.  Finally, I come back to the present once more and describe the attack itself (this was a long and complicated battle).  After the fighting stops, I briefly describe the aftermath and finally try to end on a memorable one-liner.  I could have told this story in chronological order, but I did not want page upon page of inaction before we got to some action.  I could not just skip it, for the reader would be lost.  Flashbacks did the trick here.  Technically, the battle didn’t come any quicker, but starting with the group in attack position made the action seem imminent.

(7) The Right Amount of Descriptive Detail:  Many children and amateur writers naturally focus on what characters do, forgetting to include enough descriptive detail.  Stories that lack such detail can seem bland or tough to envision.  Stephen King is a master of using details to create memorable and vivid scenes.  In his stories, characters do not simply eat cookies, they eat Oreos and get tiny black crumbs all over their flannel shirts.  They don’t drive in an old car; they drive in a green 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible with a dirty white top.  Much of fantasy gaming is still ‘theater of the mind’, even with all the maps, figures, and tokens.  You need this kind of detail to capture the players’ imagination.

Yet, it is possible to include so much descriptive detail that it painfully bogs down the narrative.  Pacing suffers, and readers’ eyes glaze over, despite a genuine interest in the material.  Indeed, one of my most beloved fiction writers, who wrote groundbreaking epics about an evil dark lord and his magical ring, was often terribly guilty of this!  So how to find the right balance?  My first rule is to consider my existing chronological notes (see above in Establishing the Basic Flow of Events) as the bones of my story.  Bones help us to stand up.  If there were twelve inches of fluff in between our leg bones, we could not stand.  Likewise, if we insert whole paragraphs of painstaking description, devoid of action, our narrative will certainly stagnate and even seem to collapse.  A trick, therefore, is to add bits of detail (‘fluff’) to the story elements that contain the action (the ‘bones’).  For example, if you wish to describe the party riding on horseback through a forest (a bone of the story), do not simply write that and then follow it up with three lengthy paragraphs on the types of trees found in the forest, all the legends of the forest, and all the wildlife found in the forest.  The readers likely do not care that much.  Instead, look for instances where you used the generic word ‘trees’, and consider writing specific types instead.  “Odo led his horse through the trees” might become “Odo led his horse through a stand of birch trees”.  Alternatively, find an easy way to insert just a few tree types into the narrative, without changing the focus of the sentences.  “Odo led his mare around the bend” might become “Odo led his mare around a stand of birch trees.”  The focus remains Odo, or more importantly, his action.  You just happen to know that there are birch trees there now.  This is very easy to do.  In fact, it’s so easy that you must guard against doing it in every sentence.

I make my sensory lists (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) before I write the narrative because they show me all the descriptive details that I hope to include.  Seeing them all at a glance helps me to pace myself.  Knowing that I can distribute these details over several pages of the story removes the pressure to add them into every single sentence.

(8) Show, Don’t Tell:  The DM should use this timeless writer’s tip while running the session in question, not just in writing a story from that session’s notes.  However, even in the writing, you can show and not tell.  For anyone unfamiliar with this tip, the gist is to allow the reader to see actions that convey a character’s personality/mood instead of just mentioning that the character has that personality/mood.  For example, in my monthly campaign, a player’s cavalier named William is deathly afraid of water.  When playing William, the player does not say “My character is afraid of water” though he may say in character, “I am not getting on a boat.  I would sink like a rock, even without this plate armor.”  Showing can go beyond words too.  During the game, the player may mention that William, whom the party somehow convinced to get into the boat, is gripping the side of the boat with white-knuckles and moving very little.  Other players can easily envision this, and it conveys the emotion of fear.  Likewise, when writing your account of the session, remember to add such details, even if the player forgot to stress them during the session.  In the case of my game, the player has mentioned his PC’s fear of water very often.  If he forgot to do so on this occasion during play, I feel comfortable adding it in.  It makes the character that much more believable and the overall scene that much more vivid.

(9) Use Dialogue to Maximum Effect:  Dialogue is important for obvious reasons, but it may be even more useful than you think.  In addition to telling the reader who said what, it can also flesh out characters.  If you wish to highlight the selfish nature of an NPC, let his selfishness come out in dialogue with the PCs or with another NPC (an example of ‘show, don’t tell’).

Furthermore, pay attention to vocabulary to maintain immersion.  Nothing ruins the immersive experience of a fantasy game like very modern-sounding words.  Some classic offenders are obvious.  Dispense with slang words like dude, chick, guy, gal, buddy, etc.  Try to avoid modern slang phrases too (“How’s it going?”)  We use such phrases so often that identifying them can be somewhat difficult.  There are far too many to list here, but if you do a brief search for common slang phrases, you’ll find dozens in common use.  Also consider eliminating most modern expletives, as they reek of modernity.  As a side note, whether or not to use expletives in your writing is an entirely different discussion.  If you plan to include them, I simply suggest that you use words that seem consistent with the setting.  This does not mean that you must use Old English swear words, though this can be fun too.  The common expletive for poop is pretty basic and pretty old, so using it will not necessarily break the mood.  For full transparency, note that there is a school of thought that argues that expletives are expletives and should be written as we use them today.  After all, they say, your fantasy characters are not speaking English, but you write in English for the reader’s convenience.  It’s a solid logical argument, but it does not take into account that slang breaks the immersion for many players.  Thus, I try to avoid it to some extent.

One very effective way to make dialogue feel less modern is to eliminate contractions in your writing.  Most contractions are only a few hundred years old.  They are so pervasive that we barely notice them…until they are gone.  This is one of those small finishing touches that makes the work better.  Every now and then, I’ll allow a contraction to remain in the dialogue, usually because I cannot find any other good way to express the thought without losing the emotion.  In such cases, I would argue that phrase probably stands out more because it is NOT the norm.

Lastly, you can use vocabulary in your writing to reflect a character’s social class and manners.  A cavalier from a noble family should sound entirely different from a son-of-a-peasant fighter.  A highly educated magic-user or cleric should sound entirely different from an uneducated street thief from the slums.  Ideally, the players running such PCs would try to show this at the table, but regardless of their efforts, you can showcase such subtle differences in your summaries.  Of course, this requires you to have a decent vocabulary yourself, as well as a grasp of proper grammar.  If you’re rusty, look up a few words and grammar rules.  You’ll be better off for it, and if you do this consistently, you’ll easily be able to distinguish between educated and uneducated characters.  If you need inspiration, take a look at a few movies that depict the highborn.  Though there are probably dozens of good examples, one popular movie that jumps to mind is Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  Though the movie is an historical abomination, it’s very entertaining, and, more to the point, it features several actors sounding properly noble.

(10) Proofread:  I could have left this list at nine, but the teacher in me cannot resist this last famous writer’s tip: ‘Good writing is rewriting’.  If you bothered to take the time to write up your short story, finish it properly by proof-reading it three or four (or ten) times.  Tweak grammar as best you can (grammar refers to parts of speech and how they properly combine to make sentences).  Check your mechanics (mechanics generally refer to rules like spelling, punctuation, and capitalization).  Also look for typos.  Do not rely on a spelling checker or grammar checker, though they are helpful (Jerrold Zar’s brief and amusing poem Ode to My Spell Checker highlights the reason why).

Try to tighten up your sentences.  As a teen, I tried hard to make my writing sound more mature.  Unfortunately, without proper guidance, I simply littered my writing with unnecessary words, generic phrases, and passive verbs to make my sentences longer.  Much later, it took years to unlearn that bad habit.  There are just too many examples of ‘loose, baggy writing’ to list here, but you can go online and find a dozen tutorials on how to tighten up your language if you wish to do so.

Consider sentence types too.  Typically, this is one of the most obvious differences between the writing of a child and that of an adult.  Children tend to write in simple sentences (“The wizard opened his spell book.  The fighter then moved to the edge of the pit”).  Adults tend to blend these into compound sentences (“The wizard opened his spellbook, while the fighter moved to the edge of the pit”).  Adults also tend to start using dependent clauses to make complex sentences (“As his companions moved into the room, the wizard opened his spell book”) or even compound-complex sentences (“As his companions moved into the room, the wizard opened his spellbook, while the fighter moved to the edge of the pit”).  Of course, good writers do not use these longer sentences exclusively.  Change the flow of the narrative by mixing up sentence types.

Try also to eliminate repetitive words or phrases.  You may discover through practice that your mind selects the same word or phrase for a specific situation or idea.  Only by continually re-reading your work will you spot the repetition.  When you do, try using a different word or phrase.  Also, this may sound silly, but reading your work aloud helps greatly with this (just close the door or people will think that you’re nuts).  Often your ears will detect what your eyes miss.

So there you have it: ten tips for writing short stories from your gaming sessions.  If you haven’t yet tried your hand at it, go for it.  Players will likely appreciate your work, and you may eventually become proud of your growing collection.  If nothing else, you will preserve some of your favorite gaming moments for years to come.

RPG-ology #44: Left Hand

This is RPG-ology #44:  Left Hand, for July 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 originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Left Hand, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].

I went to school with a girl who could not tell her left from her right.  I tried to help her with it.  With which hand do you write?  She was ambidextrous, and never thought about it.  Your watch is on your left wrist.  But it was not always so, as she just put it on at random each morning.  I had never seen the trick of finding the letter “L” with your fingers, and ran out of ideas.  She managed to get her drivers license by constantly repeating, “Left is by the door.”  I guess she’ll never drive a motor cycle.

Oddly, I don’t use any of those tricks to find my left hand.  In the past when I was uncertain, I would imagine I was reading something and see where my eyes went for the first word.  I suppose it’s good I can’t read Hebrew.  But today my awareness of left and right is so ingrained I don’t think of it at all.

I do sometimes confuse east and west, however.  It has made for some complications in game sessions, when I had to go back and help redraw a map because I described the wrong direction.  In designing NagaWorld, E. R. Jones intentionally reversed east and west, in an effort to make the world more alien.  Although it does have a tendency to confuse players to some degree, most of the intelligent ones resolve it without resorting to such compass rose inversions.  Either they follow the magnetic compass and conclude that the sun rises in the west, or they orient to the sun and decide that the magnetic poles are reversed.  Such directional tricks do not make a world alien by themselves.

Interestingly, I never confuse left and right from a character perspective.  That is, as the players are mapping their characters’ movement through a hall, I can always recognize whether a door or landmark is on the left or the right of the characters, regardless of which way they are facing on the map.  As they move across the map, I’m moving with them, facing the way they face, so it’s quite natural for me.  But it’s often confusing for the players, who can’t always distinguish character left from map left on the fly.

I think it may be related to the different ways in which we think.

I’m going to ask you a space relations question, and then give you several answers which I’ve gotten to it.  But before you read the answers, stop and consider how you would answer it.  The point of this exercise (as we did once before) is to see that different minds process the same information in different ways.

Pick a random person within sight—preferably someone not facing directly toward or away from you.  Now find that person’s left hand.  I don’t need to know which is their left hand.  I need to know the mental process you went through to find it.  If you’re alone, you might be able to do this by imagining someone in the room with you (don’t make her too pretty—I don’t want to lose your attention completely here); if not, stretch your legs for half a moment and find someone so you can try this—or do it later, and see how your approach compares to these.

Done?  How did you do it?  The way I do it, consistently, is in my mind I move myself to their position, and then match my left hand to theirs.  But one of the most intelligent people I know does the reverse:  he moves that person to himself.  Another individual told me that he knows what left hands look like, and matches that image to the person.  Still others look for clues, such as rings or watches (and hope they’re interpreting these correctly).  I suspect that some of you match one of those techniques, but others have discovered many more.  I also suspect that before today most of you never really gave any thought to how you think about directions.

Yet directions are very important to the re-creation of our worlds.  Most of us are using two-dimensional maps to represent a three-dimensional reality, so we’ve already lost part of it on paper which we have to rebuild in our descriptions.  We want our players to “be there,” to see the world around them.  So we have to convey directions not just as information but as a representation of that reality.  It helps us do this if we understand how we ourselves perceive and comprehend space in the real world; it also helps if we can learn how our players perceive it, so that we can present it to them in terms they understand.

In the back of the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons there was a brief section about other planes of existence.  The material was sketchy, but provided an idea of universes unbounded north or south, east or west, up or down.  Yet at the same time it was clear that these planes bordered on each other such that if you went far enough north or south or east or west you would eventually cross a boundary into another universe; and they were stacked such that there were levels above and below if you went far enough up or down.  It was this incongruity that caught my thought.  My ultimate resolution of the matter was to see that in each of those planes there were six spatial dimensions, and that the indigs, those who had always been part of that world, could as easily perceive each of those as we can tell up from north.  But when our characters were there, they were as limited as we, and their minds resolved the six dimensions into three, two of which appeared as up and down, or north and south, or east and west.  The confusion that is easily caused by indigs telling player characters that they’re going the wrong direction, they need to go this direction which to the characters looks like the same direction is great fun; seeing landmarks that appeared to be in line with each other ahead diverge as they are approached would be fascinating.  And of course it would mean that to reliably reach any place in that world the characters would need a native guide no matter how good their own mapping and direction skills are.

I would like to run a game in a world with four spatial dimensions, maybe calling the fourth “in and out” for lack of a better name—that way the world would have length, breadth, height, and depth.  But in fact it is not easy for players to handle a world in three dimensions which cannot be resolved to two easily.  Such three dimensional thinking escapes us more often than we think.

In Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Kahn, when the Enterprise escapes into the nebula to confuse the sensors of the other vessel, Spock announces that an analysis of Kahn’s strategy suggests two-dimensional thinking.  If Kirk can think three-dimensionally he can gain an advantage.  So what does Kirk do?  He drops the Enterprise below, and then rises back up to the same level to open fire on Kahn from another angle—two-dimensional thinking.  Three-dimensional thinking would have been to take the Enterprise below, tilt it such that it was at right angles to the original plane, and open fire when Kahn crossed in front of them.

But we can’t really map in three dimensions without using cross-sections or levels or something of the sort, so my dream of doing a four-dimensional game world may have to remain unrealized.  More’s the pity.

I’m one of those people who has an innate sense of direction.  I generally know which way to go to find my car when I leave the store, and can usually get back to any place I’ve been before.  When I was maybe eight or nine my parents lost me at the Bronx Zoo, and I went directly to the gate through which we had entered and waited for them.  My fourth son has this same sense.  I never worry about him getting lost in stores or malls or parks (abducted, maybe, but not lost).  It’s a sense of where you are in relation to everything else.  When I’m in your world, I want to have that same sense, that feeling that I know where everything is around me.  It’s up to you to give that to me.  And you can’t, unless you already have it yourself.

Previous article:  Muscle Memory.
Next article:  Learning.

Faith in Play #44: An Alignment Grid

This is Faith in Play #44:  An Alignment Grid, for July 2021.

I thought I had finished discussing alignment, as it appears in Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™.  I had explained why it was the True Religion of characters in the game world, and described Goodness as beneficence, Wickedness or Evil as selfishness, Law as being essentially about Order in society, with Chaos being about liberty and Individualism.  I described four distinct forms of Neutral in Believing Balance, and explained why part-neutral characters tended to be Zealots.  Then when Balancing on the Corner explained the give-and-take of the corner alignments, I thought I was finished.

But periodically I see these grids that are supposed to illustrate alignment with one simple example in each.  The two most recent were how you close a bread bag and how you sign your e-mails.  I am always disappointed; I frequently want to argue and correct.

Instead, I am offering my own grid.  This grid will be constructed of famous people, real and fictional, plus philosophies which usually are connected to politics, economics, or religion, and sometimes organizations which hold to those beliefs.  I am also justifying each choice.

Lawful Good

King Arthur, as portrayed in Camelot:  The man believes in justice, and that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak.  It is ultimately his commitment to the law he is sworn to uphold and his love for his possibly errant wife that is his downfall, as he cannot find mercy without overriding justice.

Neutral Good

Christianity, in the New Testament model:  The fundamental teaching is one of living our lives for others.  There is a balancing act between obeying authorities and defending the rights of individuals, but always with a view to helping people.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, also known as Mother Teresa:  She abandoned her own middle class life to bring assistance to the impoverished in another part of the world, leaving Europe and working to deliver food, medical care, clothing, and housing to India.

Chaotic Good

Robin Hood, in the traditional stories:  He lives in a time of oppression, when the powerful rulers are overtaxing the conquered peasants while living in great ostentation, and he takes the ill-gotten gains of the nobility and distributes it as widely as he can to the impoverished, trying to establish some kind of balance while opposing the will of the lawful authorities.

Marxism, the philosphy:  Karl Marx believed that people were fundamentally good and would, if freed from oppressive economic pressures, work as hard as they could and take only what they needed to survive, sharing with others in greater need.  They would not need anyone to tell them to do this, because it was natural for man to work hard and to share with others in need.

Lawful Neutral

Feudalism, as a political system:  One person ultimately owns everything, and you borrow it from him and so are obligated to keep his rules if you want to continue your use thereof.  Because he cannot monitor everyone, he usually lends very large quantities of his property to a few people, who in turn lend it to others in exchange for obligations, creating a hierarchy.  The rules are absolute; everything depends on the decisions of the ruler.

True Neutral

Taoism, the Chinese philosophical framework:  Its insistence on balancing the yin and the yang is one of the great examples of neutrality in application.

Chaotic Neutral

Libertarianism, the political position:  The Libertarian Party ultimately stands for one thing, the freedom of individuals.

The American Civil Liberties Union or A.C.L.U.:  This organization defends the Bill of Rights and individuals whose rights are being impinged by unjust acts of government.

Lawful Evil

Darth Vader between his fall and his redemption:  Vader unswervingly serves his master, and defends the structure of the Empire.  In doing so, he secures and advances his own position.  It is of no consequence if he must end the lives of others in the process, as long as the Empire is secured.

Capitalism, the philosphy in its pure form:  Adam Smith put forth the belief that everyone always acted in his own selfish interests, and that everyone should do so, because this would ensure the best possible outcome for the world generally.  Those who appeared to be acting beneficently were actually acting selfishly in the belief that a reward awaited them in an afterlife.

Neutral Evil

Darwinism, as a social philosophy:  Based as it is on survival of the fittest, the philosophy that the strong will continue into the future while the weak perish, and that this is right and good, is the ultimate in self-interest.

The Marquis de Sade in his formal philosophy:  He asserted that whatever was, was right, and that men had the right to exert power over women because men were physically stronger.

Chaotic Evil

Atilla the Hun, in the popular imagination:  He attacks others to increase his own wealth by pillaging, sharing with others to the degree that their assistance advances his own benefits.

So that’s the defense; here is the grid.

Lawful Good
King Arthur
Neutral Good
St. Teresa of Calcutta
Chaotic Good
Robin Hood
Lawful Neutral
True Neutral
Chaotic Neutral
American Civil Liberties Union
Lawful Evil
Darth Vader
Neutral Evil
Marquis de Sade
Chaotic Evil
Atilla the Hun

And for reference, here are the individual articles in the series, in their original sequence; in a sense, they together make a single long article on the subject of alignment, of which this article is an appendix:

  1. #6:  True Religion, expressing the idea that a character’s alignment is ultimately what he genuinely believes, and why that should control his actions.
  2. #10:  Goodness, connects the “good” alignment to beneficence as its core value.
  3. #14:  Wickedness, reduces the essence of this “evil” alignment to selfishness.
  4. #18:  Order, explains that the central concept of “law” is maintaining the structures of society, putting the preservation of the social order above that of the individuals.
  5. #22:  Individualism, ties “chaos” to individual liberty.
  6. #27:  Believing Balance, presents four distinct approaches to what the game calls “neutral.”
  7. #32:  Zealots, discusses why a part-neutral alignment means an emphasis on the non-neutral aspect.
  8. #37:  Balancing on the Corner, completes the series with a look at what it means to be devoted to both a moral and an ethical value.

Previous article:  Slavery.
Next article:  Special.

Customizing Player Characters

On one hand, Dungeons & Dragons is so popular and well established that it seems silly to write about so fundamental a part of the game as character class. On the other hand, the game has evolved over four decades, and many players today are too young to recall much of the game in its early years. While the history is not crucial for this article, a little context never hurt anyone.

TSR, Inc. released Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 (this version is now called by many the Original version). Just three years later, the game split into two different (but similar) game systems (confusing just about everyone). A streamlined version of the game eventually settled on the simple title of Dungeons & Dragons, while the other took the name of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (or AD&D). Though many players mixed and matched materials from the two systems without hesitation (and perhaps in ignorance), some designers at TSR insisted that the two systems were distinct and incompatible. In any case, both systems use literary archetypes, called character classes, to describe the fictional heroes that the players control.

Dungeons & Dragons featured seven basic character classes. Most were human (cleric, fighter, thief, and magic-user), but there were also three non-human classes (elf, dwarf, and halfling). AD&D took a different approach by separating a character’s class and race. Permissible races included human, dwarf, gnome, elf, halfling, half-elf, and half-orc. Permissible classes included cleric, druid, fighter, paladin, ranger, thief, assassin, magic-user, illusionist, and monk. In 1985, AD&D added three more classes (cavalier, thief-acrobat, and barbarian). In AD&D, ‘multi-class characters’ and ‘characters with two classes’ were available too, but we need not discuss them here.

In addition to all of these choices, the popular gaming magazine, Dragon, published many unofficial character classes for gamers’ consideration. In 1989, TSR released a second edition of AD&D, which made several changes to character classes. One interesting concept was that of specialist wizards (enchanters, necromancers, illusionists, etc.), though the execution of this fine idea proved to be lacking. As for the classes themselves, there was a slight shuffling and renaming, but more important was the eventual introduction of character class kits. Put simply, these kits were optional class variants, and their number quickly mushroomed to around 100! Second edition also introduced race kits, allowing players to run bugbears, gnolls, lizard men, minotaurs, and more. Whether these kits emerged because people had grown weary of the original classes and races or because people simply love variation is unclear. The point is that there seemed to be endless options.

A man in a plumed hat points a saber at a person sitting at a table in a bar. There is a spilled drink on the table between them.
The Duelist NPC Class in Dragon Magazine (May 1983)

The third edition of the game premiered in 2000, and, while the mechanics changed drastically, the game returned to only eleven core classes. Perhaps having dozens of classes or kits was no longer necessary because the game featured a wide range of skills and feats with which players could customize their characters. Also, this edition made it much easier to mix and match classes. Furthermore, while certain races remained popular, this edition also stated that players could make characters of ANY race. The trend of ever-increasing options continued.

After playing with 3rd edition for over a decade (and generally liking it), our gaming group decided to return to old-fashioned AD&D. We had both practical and stylistic reasons for doing so. First, our group had evolved a bit. A few old friends, who had not played in decades, decided to join us, and AD&D was familiar. Second, AD&D brought a lot of welcome nostalgia to some veteran players. More importantly to me, AD&D had a feel that I really liked, for it reflected the atmosphere found in my favorite fantasy literature—J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s various Conan stories, the various Arthurian legends, and Greek myth. In most of these tales, humans predominate. The other races and creatures (which I love) seem magical precisely because they are rare. For me, the tidal wave of character choices in more recent editions of the game (especially races) ruined this pseudo-historical flavor. In my eyes, the D&D world started to have an atmosphere that more closely resembled the Cantina in Mos Eisley Spaceport than that of Middle Earth, Hyborea, Arthurian Britain, or mythical Greece. When EVERYTHING is strange, NOTHING seems magical. I shall not attempt to make my case here, for it is irrelevant to the idea of customizing characters. Suffice to say that our change back to AD&D did present a challenge to our veteran players. Without a host of skills, feats, and races, how could a player distinguish his regular old fighter from any other? As DM, I wanted to ensure that our players had the ability to do so. I also wanted the ability to customize the dozens of NPCs that I routinely make and run. This article explores a few of the methods that we used to customize characters in our game over the last few years. Whatever edition you play, you might find the following ideas useful if you’re looking for a bit more variation in your characters. The focus is on PCs here, but, of course, you can apply these ideas to NPCs too.

Before mentioning our ideas for AD&D, I should start by giving credit to Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, David Noonan, and Rich Redman, who published several interesting ideas for customizing characters in Unearthed Arcana (2004) for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. For me at least, they opened my eyes to the possibility of variation without introducing new races, classes, or class variants. For starters, they developed thirty-five traits. These are personality descriptors, each of which brings both positive and negative results. For example, a PC with the Abrasive trait gains a +1 to Intimidate checks but suffers a -1 to Diplomacy checks and Bluff checks. By the book, a character can begin with up to two traits. The writers also developed thirteen flaws (one can use either traits or flaws, or both in conjunction). Choosing a flaw allows a player to choose an additional feat for his PC. Each flaw brings only negative results. For example, a PC with the Inattentive flaw suffers a -2 to Listen and Spot checks. These mechanics work because they rest on a tried-and-true premise in gaming: ‘rules encourage behavior’. If you give players bonuses in certain activities, they will likely do those things more often. In any case, when playing D&D 3E, traits and flaws are great ways to customize a PC. You can find the list of traits and flaws here.

Unfortunately, traits and flaws (at least as written) do not easily translate to AD&D because most of the bonuses and penalties relate to mechanics that are absent in AD&D, such as Reflex saves, Fortitude saves, Will saves, skills, and individual initiative. Fortunately, there are still many ways to customize your PCs for AD&D. Most of the ideas below have no mechanical component. Incidentally, many of them work for D&D 3E, whether or not you use flaws and/or traits. In any case, I take no credit for the ideas below, for I gleaned each from someone. If I can remember the source, I will certainly give credit. If not, I apologize.

Prioritized Adjectives

One idea for customizing your PC came to me from a friend named Rich Martin, who blended a few existing ideas from various RPGs. He suggests that you select three or four adjectives for your PC, prioritize them, and then list them on your character sheet, clearly indicating the order from most important to least important. For example, my dwarf fighter named Bori is (1) Brave, (2) Loyal, (3) Practical, and (4) Greedy—in that order. First, the adjectives help me to play him by reminding me of his qualities. Second, the numbering helps me to prioritize my actions. For example, when given the opportunity to pocket several gems without the party noticing (he is greedy), Bori’s loyalty to his friends in the party would overpower his greed. Hence, he would not pocket the gems.

This simple technique is also very useful when you are absent from a session and a friend (or the DM) must play your character. By choosing specific and prioritized adjectives, you provide critical guidance on how to play your character. The adjectives might not apply to all situations, but they have proven surprisingly helpful.


Poster art for the Pillars of the Earth television series
Towering aspirations: The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

Some might call these motivations, impulses, or drives, but the term ‘goals’ is simple enough. Select one thing that really drives the PC to adventure. If you wish, choose one long-term goal and one short-term goal. There are myriad possibilities here, but the more specific the goal the better. Gold, for example is a poor goal because it is too vague. Improve on this by thinking of what the character wishes to buy if he had enough gold. It need not be complicated or refined. For example, one could certainly run a character that seeks ‘the good life’. During the game, he might frequently talk about someday building his own mansion, having servants to carry his gear, having soldiers to fight his battles, dining on silver plates, and having more wine than he can ever drink. Such a character may have grown up on the streets without two coppers to rub together. Alternatively, the character may be from a middle-class family that yearns for the life of a noble, which seems to remain just out of reach.

Use popular TV series for inspiration when it comes to goals. One particularly good one, especially for long-term goals, is The Pillars of the Earth (2010). Set in 12th-century England, the fictional story revolves around a decades-long attempt to build a Gothic cathedral. Most of the major characters have solid, long-term goals. A humble prior wants to complete the cathedral as a tribute to God. A visionary builder wants the same goal to prove that his innovations will work. A manipulative bishop seeks to subdue the prior (by thwarting construction) to increase his own prestige and to further his rise in the Church hierarchy. A displaced lady and her brother, allies to the prior, seek to restore their noble family’s fortune and honor. All of the main characters have very real and deep reasons for their actions. PCs with such long-term goals greatly aid the DM and also bring a great deal of satisfaction to the players.

As a rough guide, I encourage my players to have at least one long-term goal—one that the PC hopes to fulfill before the campaign ends. One player in my monthly game runs a cleric of St. Cuthbert, and he hopes someday to establish his own monastery. Another PC is an assassin who vowed to bring down a rival noble family that cheated and destroyed the PC’s family. When each player has such a long-term goal, it is easy for the DM to create plot hooks that allow the PC to come closer to reaching his goal. For example, the cleric desiring to create a monastery might first need to gain the attention of his superiors. He might volunteer to undertake a special quest for them, and success would bring him good standing in their eyes. Later, his superiors might relay that they need coin to begin construction of a planned monastery. They may task the cleric with raising these funds, either through donations or through adventure. Still later, they may learn that certain resources are required for the construction, and the cleric may be asked to obtain the resources or to deal with some problem that is interfering with the delivery of those resources. Later still, the cleric might find that a monster has settled in the construction area or that a neighboring lord now claims the site for his own. You get the idea. Just one good long-term goal can keep a character motivated for years in the game. Of course, the campaign may not focus on a single PC’s goal (then again, it may!), but whatever main plot develops, the DM can weave the various PC threads together into the main one.

Poster art for the film Romancing the Stone
Romancing the Stone (1984): Treasure as a means to an end

Of course, not all goals are life-long ambitions. Short-term goals are useful too. At our table, I define a short-term goal as one that may require an entire adventure to attain. Goals that can be achieved faster than that have limited usefulness as motivators. When thinking of an example for a short-term goal, my mind went to a fun adventure movie called Romancing the Stone. The leading male character, Jack T. Colton, seems to be a wandering fortune-seeker with no strong loyalties. His primary goal is to buy a large sailboat and to sail around the world. Nothing too deep there, but it works. You clearly know what motivates him, at least during the movie. At the end, he gets his sailboat (and the girl). Like movie audiences, players also need some gratification within a reasonable time frame. One adventure is just long enough to make players appreciate the payoff at the end. Short-term goals should be significant enough to bring gratification, but not so grand that they would prompt any normal human into retirement. A sailboat is a nice payoff (at least for one that greatly desires one), but the new owner would not be independently wealthy. There is still much that he might want or need, and the DM could arrange for many problems to befall him and his new boat.

I refrain from trying to produce a list of possible goals. It would take up too much space, would not be as comprehensive as I would like, and probably isn’t necessary anyway. Suffice to say that goals (long-term or short-term) could somehow involve wealth, fame/reputation, power, religious belief, family, or profession. Just use your imagination. If you get stuck, tap any popular TV series. In recent years, certain cable companies and streaming services have become exceptionally good at producing dramatic series. Just a few that come to mind (personal favorites) include Deadwood, Rome, Game of Thrones, Pillars of the Earth, The Borgias, Stranger Things, Cobra Kai, etc. There are probably dozens more.


This was perhaps the first customization that I’ve used in my games, and it predates my seeing Unearthed Arcana (2004). I simply asked each player to create one weakness for his or her PC. I wasn’t worried about game balance or giving a mechanical reward in exchange for such a weakness. I was more interested in good story telling, and good characters have a weakness. They’re human (usually). Even the greatest heroes—those that seem invincible, like the ancient Greek hero, Achilles—have a weakness that enters the story at some important point. It adds to the drama.

Now, I imagine that a gamer might object to adding something to his character that will only prove detrimental at the worst possible moment. I have heard such objections many times over the years. Though there is no right or wrong here, I strongly dislike the video-game mentality in gaming, in which all story falls by the wayside as players fixate on ‘winning’. I tend to see it as immature, but that’s just me. For players with that mindset, I would say that PC weaknesses simply make winning all the more gratifying, much as starting at 1st-level makes reaching ‘name level’ more gratifying. Objections to PC weaknesses also tend to come from gamers that play by the motto ‘Don’t help the DM’. For any DM dealing with those players, I suggest establishing more trust between himself and his players, for that trust will enable players to let down their guards and try new and exciting things without fear of terrible DM retribution. In turn, the atmosphere at the table will likely become less adversarial, and the stories will likely become more dramatic and entertaining.

In any case, weaknesses need not be crippling. We’re not talking Kryptonite here. I would never ask a player to create a character with a weakness that prevents “normal” gameplay (though I would not stop a player from doing so if the player had given it adequate thought). I ask my players to create weaknesses that are inconvenient and those which lend themselves to plot hooks. A PC that cannot properly digest vegetables has no substantial weakness, as eating vegetables seldom enters game play for most. However, a PC that drinks too much alcohol works well, as this can lead to disadvantages in the game (being drunk during battle or being drunk while on guard duty, for example). It also provides flavor, for the other players will get a clear idea of what the character is like. This weakness is also very easy for the player to role-play—not that he has to act drunk, but he can easily find opportunities for his character to drink too much (in the tavern, on the road, at the campfire, etc.). Though I don’t worry about offsetting penalties with bonuses when it comes to weaknesses, I do apply bonuses when they seem obvious. For example, our drunkard PC might actually get a few temporary hit points when drunk (he’s feeling no pain). He might also seem a bit more charming (at least until the third or fourth drink).

If players need some guidance as to their options, I usually describe two different types of weaknesses—fears and vices. Fears seem obvious. However, I know from experience that simply listing a fear on a character sheet can be inadequate when a situation arises during a game. I ask my players to jot down a conditional statement with regard to the fear. For example, a player whose PC has a fear of spiders might write “If I see a normal spider, I back away 5’. If I were to see a giant spider, I’d either freeze for one round or run out of the room”. It needn’t be more than that. That level of detail is usually enough to guide the player through whatever situation later arises. What you don’t want in gameplay is this:

The DM describes the giant spider that emerges from under the rotting bed. The player, whose PC has arachnophobia, is unfazed and has his PC attack the spider.

DM: “Aren’t you afraid of spiders?”

Player: “I guess. Maybe that’s why I attacked it.”

DM: “I don’t think you would attack it. You’re afraid if it.”

Player: “I’m overcoming my fear.”

DM: “I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy.”

Player: “You can’t tell me how to run my character.”

If players resist the suggestion to take a weakness for their PCs, point them toward several movies in which the hero has a real fear that interferes with his quest. There are several good examples. One of the most popular in modern movie history is Chief Martin Brody’s fear of water in Jaws. His fear doesn’t keep him from accompanying Captain Quint in hunting the white shark. It also leads to a lot of fun complaining on the boat, which lightens the mood until the author needs to ramp up the tension again. Brody’s fear seems to grow as the hunt drags on and as things go from bad to worse. He goes from being out on the water (where he doesn’t want to be) in a small boat to being unable to return to shore or to call for help. Later, the small boat starts to sink! Like walls closing in, the fear seems ready to crush him. Yet, the need to survive prevails, forcing Brody to face his fear. Given that fear, Brody seems like a virtual superhero by the end of that movie.

Screen capture from Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Why did it have to be snakes?

For another famous example, consider Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Why did it have to be snakes” is so popular that it’s in common parlance today. Yet, after spotting the snakes in the newly discovered Well of Souls, Indy doesn’t plug up the hole and go home. He grits his teeth and climbs down a rope into a room filled with poisonous asps. An average person would be terrified to enter such a room, but Indy’s fear of snakes makes him seem even more heroic for doing so.

In both cases, the character’s willingness to face his fear sends a clear signal to the audience. By getting on the boat, Brody clearly and wordlessly reveals to the audience his professionalism and his psychological need to eliminate that shark. Indy’s descent into the Well of Souls wordlessly shows the audience how badly he wants the Ark. DMs and players alike would be wise to adopt such storytelling tricks, for everyone wins when characters (PCs and NPCs) are robust and easy to picture, yet no one wants to read long character histories or to hear long character monologues. PC fears help us to develop a character—not just their weaknesses, but their values and desires as well. These become obvious by how a PC reacts to his fear under certain circumstances.

If a player does not wish to give his PC a fear, I suggest a vice instead. Again, there seem to be dozens of possibilities, but alcohol, gambling, and the opposite sex are common and easily playable. Realize that the last choice can be highbrow as well as lowbrow. A PC need not visit whorehouses in every town to demonstrate a weakness for the opposite sex. One veteran player in my group made a character that was a hopeless romantic, a swashbuckling figure that would stop in the middle of a fight to give a rose to a beautiful lady. You can keep it clean. Like fears, vices can cause problems in combat (we already mentioned a drunken character). They also make for easy plot hooks. Many books and movies feature a desperate character with outstanding gambling debts. A few years back, my players took good notes on rumors circulating around a keep and thereby learned of several NPC weaknesses, which they later used to good effect. They learned that one of the sergeants was addicted to a certain drug, and when they later needed information, they leaned on him, threatening to reveal his addiction to his lord. They also learned that the arrogant knight that served as the porter of the keep was an alcoholic with a taste for honey mead. They took to bribing him whenever they visited, and his incessant bullying suddenly ceased.

Though I seldom worry about offsetting weaknesses with bonuses, I am open to the idea of giving a few experience points to a PC when he faces his fears in a meaningful way. Thus, a character that descends into a pit filled with spiders to retrieve a fallen comrade would earn not only the thanks of his comrade but also a few extra xps. I have no particular amount in mind, but my typical award for making game-changing kills, casting game-changing spells, solving tough riddles, or disarming dangerous traps is 100 xps per level. I don’t imagine giving out such awards often, but why not reward a player that role-plays his fear and then has his character face danger in overcoming it. This is easy for fears. Vice may require a slightly different approach. I doubt that I’d assign xps per bottle of mead consumed or per drunken stupor. However, I might award xps if the player engages in battle while drunk, risking life and limb while at a disadvantage. Perhaps I’d reward a PC that has a gambling habit every time that he enters a high-stakes game, as I could connect several plot hooks to such games. The reward need not be great. It’s more a token of appreciation—recognition that the player is bringing desirable flavor to the game, usually at a distinct disadvantage to himself.

Ability Triggers

I am pretty sure that I first saw this idea in Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #621. First, look at your PC and identify one or two of his extraordinary ability scores (high ones or low ones—it doesn’t matter). I have no definition for high and low here, but perhaps a good guide is a score that brings at least a mechanical bonus or penalty. Second, for each such score, ask yourself when the PC first realized that he was superior or inferior in this regard. Third, create a conditional statement that involves this ability.

An example will illustrate this. Consider Fleetwood the fighter, who has a 17 strength and a mere 07 Charisma. The 17 is obviously high and the 07 obviously low. The player might determine that Fleetwood first realized that he was stronger than most when he won the local wrestling competition at age 14. He first realized how socially awkward he was about five minutes after his wrestling victory. When a local girl flirted with him, he stumbled horribly over his words and actually offended her. Finally, the player would create two conditional statements—one for each ability, as follows.

(1) Whenever Fleetwood sees someone boasting of physical strength, he is likely to join the activity to test his strength (if the player cannot decide, it’s a 50% chance).

(2) Whenever a pretty girl flirts with him or gives him a compliment, he responds with a flowery, memorized, over-the-top compliment. This is his attempt to avoid stumbling over his words, but he is far from smooth, and it never goes well.

This highlights the PC’s extraordinary features (good or bad). Furthermore, it gives the character at least two in-character stories to tell, either to PCs or to NPCs. Moreover, it provides the player with specific triggers that lead directly to action. The action is important because it urges the player to show the others what his PC is like instead of telling them. These triggers also help the DM to create scenarios that are likely to engage the various characters. With such triggers in place, a DM is far less likely to have players simply ignore certain encounters (wow is that frustrating!).

Special Characteristics

This idea began when I was designing pre-generated characters for a stand-alone adventure. I love giving players as much choice as possible, and though pre-generated characters were going to work best for this adventure, I felt guilty in taking away some of the players’ choice regarding character creation. Thus, I thought of two possible adjectives that might describe each character. Then I devised a simple modifier or two that seemed to make sense with each adjective. Finally, I wrote instructions on the sheet for the player to select one of the adjectives. That was my way of giving a small degree of choice back to the player that was about to run a pre-generated character. Here follow two choices as they would appear on the character sheet:

Special Characteristic:
Weapon Affinity: He has a natural affinity for most weapons, meaning that his weapon proficiency penalty is reduced by 1 (i.e., a penalty of -2 becomes -1).
Special Characteristic:
Keen-Eyed: He gets a bonus of +2 (or 10%) to any chance of spotting something. He also gets a bonus of +1 to attacks with his bow.

It wasn’t long before I wanted to use this idea with my two regular monthly groups. Those players all have their own PCs, but why not allow each to have a special characteristic? This led me to come up with a list of choices. As these were not pre-generated characters, I would not give each player a choice between only two characteristics. I would allow them to select off a list.

First, I compiled those characteristics that I had previously devised for pre-generated characters. Then I looked for a list of other characteristics that I might use to round out my list. Somewhere, I ran across two lists—one of ‘Knacks’ and another of ‘Quirks’. The knacks were all positive, and the quirks were all negative. I cannot recall where I found these lists, but both seemed only half finished. For example, some simply gave a mechanical modifier (for example, ‘+1 to saving throws v. poison’) while others had no modifier at all (‘allergic to bees’). I pulled what I could from this list and created my own list of special characteristics. It isn’t comprehensive, but it’s sufficiently diverse for my current group. I can always add more.

My last development with this list was to make two variations for each adjective, one slightly better than the other. Players love to roll dice, and I like the idea of there being some uncertainty when making characters (which is just one reason why I like rolling for ability scores instead of using a point-buy system). Anyway, I decided to allow my players to select a special characteristic from the list, but they would then roll to see if they receive the minor version or the major version. An example:

Special Characteristic:
Quick-Fingered (minor): He gains +5% to pick pocket attempts. If not a thief, he has a 20% chance.
Quick-Fingered (major): He gains +10% to pick pocket attempts. If not a thief, he has a 30% chance.

For the record, my list is still in development. A few of my special characteristics do not yet have a major and minor variation. I’m sure I can also add more special characteristics to my list. Perhaps I’ll publish the list separately and get your feedback so we can make it better.

Hollywood Actors

This last idea has absolutely nothing to do with mechanics, but I’ve found that it makes a character almost unique in the eyes of the group. Consider which famous Hollywood actor you would want to play the character in a film-version of your campaign. Note this somewhere and then see if you can find a decent picture of the actor. Try to get the picture to be as close to the desired look as possible. If the setting and genre of the cited movie has no resemblance to your campaign, then crop the picture tightly. If, however, the cited movie is from a similar genre, then use the picture as is, showing some of the actor’s clothing and such. For our monthly campaign, we have the pictures of the PCs and party NPCs hanging on the wall for easy reference.


There are probably two dozen additional ways to customize player characters. The above ideas are but a few that work for our group. If they work for you, feel free to use one or more in your own games. After all, why not? Who benefits from having cookie cutter characters?

If you have additional ideas for customizing player characters, what are they? Let us know! I would certainly like to add to this list. AD&D is a fantastic game (which is why I still play it), but any decades-old game can always use some spice to keep it fresh. This applies to other vintage RPGs as well.

RPG-ology #43: Muscle Memory

This is RPG-ology #43:  Muscle Memory, for June 2021.

We are interrupting our restoration of the Game Ideas Unlimited series for this new game and story idea.

I was tying my shoe—something many of us do every day without really thinking about it, but for no reason I paid attention as my left hand looped the one string around the thumb of my right hand, and my right hand passed around the bight that I had created, and together they pulled to tighten the knot.  This, too, was something I don’t really think about but which I do constantly.  I am doing it right now as I type this.  I will do it again in a few minutes when I stand up and walk out of my office.

Many of the knots I learned to tie as a scout I still tie without thinking more than that I need to tie a knot and this is the right one; some of them I have to think about how to tie because I don’t use them often enough to remember them.  Yet obviously this doesn’t just apply to knot tying.  Already I hinted at touch typing, that I don’t really think about where the keys are on the keyboard, nor indeed what letter I need next, but simply let my fingers produce the words that are in my mind.  I also mentioned walking, an extremely complex collection of muscle movements in which we shift everything from our toes to our spine to our arms to balance our weight as we move it from one foot to the other and back.  We learned to chew and swallow food, our tongues performing the important task of shifting chunks between our teeth to be broken into more digestible bits, then moving the prepared mash down our throat.  There are things almost every one of us does every day that we do without thinking how we do it, because our muscles know what to do.  This is called muscle memory, that parts of our body have been trained to know the pattern of the task we want to accomplish so we need not think about it.

Most of these may seem like fairly ordinary tasks, but the ability goes into specialization.  It once was that people would be able to dial frequently called phone numbers that they could not so easily recite without imagining the dial.  That has mostly vanished from the world—but those with password patterns on their phones do much the same thing when they sign into them.  When I cook, many of the “simple” things I do, from stirring salads to flipping burgers, are done largely with muscle memory, and the same applies to washing dishes and scrubbing pots.  Moving far beyond that, it is obvious that many combat skills are largely trained muscle memory, from Oriental weaponless fighting to S.E.A.L. team snipers.

The list could easily be expanded.  Acrobats are an obvious example, but lock picking shows clear signs of involving muscle memory, along with other “thief skills” such as stalking.  Operating a small boat alone or in concert with others clearly falls into this category, but also many of the skills involved in operating a larger one.

How, though, does this matter to your game, or your writing?  The thing is, nearly any physical activity can become a muscle memory skill, something you can do without thinking; it can certainly be done by careful consideration of the steps involved (think of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes planning each movement in his attack run before he attacks), but it is not as easy to do that way.  This is why Daniel-san paints the fence, waxes the car, and buffs the floor in The Karate Kid:  muscle memory is created by repetition, practice.  What the character does repeatedly over time becomes more natural, not just because the muscles are strengthened but because they learn how to move in sequence to achieve the desired result.

It’s too easy to say that that can be applied to almost anything, from turning pages in a book to operating an M1 Abrams tank.  The truth is, it is difficult to imagine any skill to which it can’t apply.  Thus if you want your character to become better at something, demonstrate that he does it frequently, and if your character appears to be doing something repeatedly, show that he gets better at it.  The fiction takes on more of a sense of reality if there is a connection between repeated use of a skill and improvement in it.

And that sense of reality is what makes fiction work.

Previous article:  Who.
Next article:  Left Hand.

Roll For Teaching 3: Gimmicks, Whistles and Bells

Hi class, I hope you’re all enjoying the new year!

I’ve had the opportunity to test out two new games since our last class.  One is a reworking of the Visit of the Magi and another is a Kingdom Building Game that I’ve wanted to try out a long time before (and have said so in previous articles).

Running both of them I noticed something.  It might not specifically be a “gaming with kids” thing, but it was very noticeable that in the two games the gimmicks and props I used were so successful!  They were the things that were enjoyable.  I think there are a few lessons there, specifically when gaming with kids.

Lesson 1: Visualize

Rules in games of make believe are sometimes quite hard to understand, especially for kids, but simple, visual things are not.

In the kingdom building game the kids gave me decisions for their kingdoms at the end of each class and then I parsed them at home (which proved way more work than I anticipated).  The next class I gave them the results and options back in an envelope which had their ruler’s name on it, addressed in flowery words and script.  One of the 10-11 year olds said: “Whoah! This really makes me feel like royalty!”  They had also gotten a map, which they started annotating and taking notes on, completely unprompted!  They loved it.

The other game had simple rules which were turned into a simple character sheet with simple symbols on them–a head for thinking, hands for doing and a heart for feeling.  They could write their score in the symbol and that made it easy to find, discuss and explain things.

Lesson 2: Input and Randomness

In the Visit of the Magi game I included random tables to come up with situations in set scenes of the story.  Instead of filling in the tables myself for each scene, I left them empty and each scene of the story the kids had to give me nouns or verbs or jobs or habits etc… which filled in the random tables on which I then had to roll to see what happened.  It kept a very railroaded story still filled with a lot of surprising events.  And also, the kids loved it.  Once they got that their words could define what happened next it was a very chaotic shouting match that happened each scene.  It was very fun.

In the kingdom game the kids didn’t know which rulers were which kids, especially since I played it in two schools at once!  They did not know which ruler was which kid, if they were from this school or the other, or if they were one of the three NPC rulers in the game.  This made them use the precious little actions they had, mainly for writing notes to each other.  Also, the behind the scenes rules had me rolling dice for actions they took and just to see if something special should happen.  This had some interesting results.  One ruler found strange eggs which he ignored as he built his golden villa in a volcano.  As I rolled a very bad result for a random events roll the egg hatched a dragon that burned down the kingdom and flew away, being a menace on the other players as well!


Kids don’t really care about the rules all that much unless they need them.  There are exceptions of course, but generally, as you the teacher play the GM you are generally considered, being a teacher, to be fair and honest.  Abstracted thought is hard for younger children and even young teens might struggle with it.  Making things visual helps a lot.  Having props is also a great deal of fun.  It makes things tactile.

Having some amount of input that will be immediately noticeable is also a great way to have them engaged.  It’s the same rush as sending in a drawing to a television show to have the possibility that it is shown on TV.  Being able to have an impact on the game like this is very fun.  It is a great tool.  And whether or not your rules are finished (as with the Magi game) or being made as you play (as with the Kingdom Building Game) it doesn’t really matter.  The experience is fun.  And that’s why we play games, right?

Homework Question:  What gimmicks have you used in games and did they work?  Why?

Faith in Play #43: Slavery

This is Faith in Play #43:  Slavery, for June 2021.

On September 16, 2019, then five-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez was apparently kidnapped from a playground in Bridgeton, New Jersey.  Ongoing investigations have revealed nothing but a sketch of one unidentified person in the area.  A seventy-five thousand dollar reward has been offered for her return.  Contact the FBI, New Jersey State Police, or Bridgeton police department with information.

I have opened with this because I often find myself arguing that slavery in Dungeons & Dragons™ alignment terms is a law/chaos issue, about how society is structured versus the rights and freedoms of individuals.  The Bible gives us clear instructions for someone choosing to be a slave, and considers that a viable working system within the social structures of ancient Israel.

The Alavez case is, of course, different.

We don’t know what has happened to young Dulce.  Investigators are fairly certain that she is still alive, and that she has not been taken by family despite the possibility of a custody dispute.  She was left unattended at the park, with her younger brother, for what is thought to be a few minutes, and so the snatching is thought to have been a crime of opportunity, that someone who likes watching children became aware that the girl was unattended and rushed her into a vehicle (someone has said a red van, but that has not been confirmed) while the mother was helping another child with homework perhaps thirty yards away sitting in a car.  However, whatever the circumstances, whatever the motivation, it appears that the kidnapper considers the child his property; she is effectively a slave, wherever she is.

In the Biblical model, slavery is permitted as a means of settling unpaid debt, the debtor being sentenced to a fixed period of years of service to the creditor.  This is effectively the same as incarceration for theft (lest we somehow think it unfair by our modern standards), with the benefits that the government doesn’t have to pay to keep the prisoner and the one holding the prisoner gets compensated in the form of labor.  The Biblical model then permits that if the person so enslaved decides that being the slave of this creditor is a better life than trying to make it on his own, he can choose to continue as a slave for the remainder of his life.  It is in that sense voluntary servitude, chosen by the slave.  The viability of that as a social system might not be obvious to us, but someone who cannot manage his own life could well discover that his life is better with someone else managing it.

Slavery in what we might call the modern world, from as far back as the Ivory Coast slave trade to Dulce Maria Alavez, is entirely different.  Persons are taken from their homes, families, towns, lives, and forced into servitude.

Over the millennia, people have become slaves in many ways.  Some were prisoners of war, prizes of conquest.  Some were kidnapped and sold, as the East Africans did to the West Africans to provide slaves for the European and American markets.  Some entered into servitude voluntarily.

We don’t know what has happened to Dulce Maria Alavez.  We do know that she has been taken against her will, and against that of her family.  We extrapolate that she has been enslaved, wherever she is, whoever has claimed ownership of her.  That is the part of slavery that is wrong, the “up front” aspect that asks how this person came to be a slave.  Good and evil are involved there.  Good and evil also apply to the question of how slaves are treated, and Saint Paul accepted slavery as a legitimate part of the Roman social order in which Christians of the time lived—as long as masters and slaves treated each other well.

As you build your fictional social structures, bear in mind what makes slavery wrong and under what circumstances it might be morally acceptable.  It was not always a violation of the rights of individuals; sometimes it was an option for a viable way of life.  In our fictional worlds it can be that.  In the real world, we are more likely to have cases like Dulce Maria Alavez.

Previous article:  Lucifer.
Next article:  An Alignment Grid.

Considering Monotheism for a Game Setting

Monotheism seems to be fairly uncommon in most campaign settings, but it is far more playable than one might think.  I once thought that such a system would equate to boredom because it seemed to eliminate a few fantasy staples, such as friction between the gods, religious wars, and even non-violent religious rivalry—all of which generate a lot of interesting drama.  Upon closer inspection, this is not the case at all.

Asmodeus: King of the Hells
Monster Manual, TSR, 1977

For starters, a monotheistic world can still have rebellious spiritual beings.  Of course, Christianity has its Devil, popularly known as Lucifer or Satan, in addition to its fallen angels and/or demons.  Islam has Iblis, sometimes called ash-Shaitan, in addition to its afarit (or efreet in popular gaming parlance).  Judaism has its shedim (sometimes translated as demons, though they are not as prominent as in Christian writings).  Thus, spiritual warfare in the Heavens or on the Prime Material Plane is still an option in a monotheistic setting.  Indeed, most monotheistic religions today (at least the Abrahamic ones) paint the One God as the source of all good, meaning that any rebellious spirits are necessarily evil.  Even if this were the only religious variance in your campaign setting, such a setting would still have the classic contest of good versus evil.  PCs could spend their careers battling the influence of Asmodeus, Demogorgon, Orcus, and myriad others.  If you wish to put your own twist on things, you could make up your own archdevil or demon lord.  There are plenty of ideas to mix and match.  Such a wicked spirit can give spells to evil clerics, acting as a deity in all but name.  Some DMs might decide that even a powerful, rebellious spirit does not have the ability to bestow the highest-level spells, but others might reasonably decide that powerful angels and other such creatures (rebellious or not) can indeed grant all listed spells.

If you allow for more than one significant rebellious spirit, you’ll have several types of evil clerics running around in the campaign world.  The DM may not wish his players to run evil characters, but at least these evil sects would provide variety among the PCs’ opponents.  It is common to describe demons and devils as fighting against each other and/or amongst each other, so a wily DM can get creative in pitting evil NPC groups (followers of these wicked spirits) against one another.

In a monotheistic setting, religious wars are still possible too, perhaps against a vibrant and advanced civilization, located across the sea or on the far side of a desert or mountain range.  The Crusades provide the most obvious example.  From 1095 to 1291, Christians high and low were obsessed with driving the Muslims from Palestine.  The two-century-long struggle was incredibly brutal, and for many Christians the outcome was disappointing, but from a story-telling point of view, the period was indescribably rich.  Though the Crusaders proved themselves to be relentless, cunning, and often fearless warriors, they often found themselves outclassed in terms of manpower, logistics, and technology/engineering.  How might this apply to a game setting?  If a PC’s homeland is locked in an intense struggle against an advanced civilization—especially one unified by an opposing religion—dozens of plot hooks arise for the DM.  A critical mind may question if such religious wars fit under the heading of monotheism, for the Crusades seem to be a contest between opposing gods.  However, both Christian and Muslim writers at times described their opponents as deceived by a devil or demon.  In a game setting, this can certainly be the case.  There are other alternatives too.  The enemy civilization’s clerics may not be ‘clerics’ in game terms.  Whatever their class, they may study arcane magic instead, or they may not wield magic at all, decrying its use as the blackest of witchcraft.

Devil-worshipping Savages Make Creepy Enemies
(The Barbarian from
Unearthed Arcana,
TSR, 1985)

In a monotheistic setting, religious warfare is also possible against savage heathens on the frontier.  The Northern Crusades serve as a possible example here (taking of course the Christian point of view).  In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Roman Catholic armies, spearheaded by German crusaders, conquered the heathen tribes of northern Europe, forcibly settling Prussia and parts of the Baltic states.  Crusading knights often raided deep into the gloomy trackless wilderness, sometimes becoming lost, and sometimes going mad from ‘forest cafard’.  In rare cases, the heathens tied captured knights to trees and roasted them alive in their armor as sacrifices to their heathen gods.  Indeed, some scholars have dubbed the Teutonic Knights’ forest campaigns in Prussia and Lithuania to be the most brutal wars in all of medieval history (which is really saying something, given the violence of the period).  If you borrow this aspect for your game, the danger to the PCs lies in the barbarity of the enemy and the isolated geography of the frontier.  With regard to religion, the savages in the game setting could easily worship devils/demons, thereby providing creepy foes.

Though it seems counter-intuitive, a monotheistic setting can also have great variety within the religion itself.  First, a religion can have different sects, such as Christianity’s Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and later Protestantism.  Of course, Islam has the long-standing split between the Sunni majority and the Shi’a minority.  Judaism, at least in the last few centuries, features Orthodox Judaism, Reformed Judaism, and Conservative Judaism.  Historically, at least in the case of Christianity and Islam, these sects often came to blows.  This provides yet another variant on religious warfare: a crusade against cultured heretics in the heartland of your civilization.

Perhaps the best example related to Christianity is the ruinous Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), in which Roman Catholic armies attacked their Eastern Orthodox cousins and sacked Constantinople itself, considered for centuries to be the bastion of Christendom.  How did it get to that?  A host of doctrinal issues and regional rivalry led to the Great Schism of 1054.  In the century that followed, each side became bitterly disappointed with the other’s actions during the Crusades.  The friction culminated in the desecration of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom.  Meanwhile, we find another interesting example in the heartland of Western Christendom, where orthodox Roman Catholic armies launched the Albigensian Crusade, invading southern France to destroy the growing Cathar heresy there (1209-1229).  The question of orthodoxy certainly took center stage, but politics, regional rivalries, and greed also played a role in the brutal campaign.  For yet more examples, look to the emergence of Protestant Christianity in the sixteenth century, when accusations of heresy raged like a wildfire across Western Europe.  Warfare and persecution between Catholics and Protestants reached a fever pitch, and entire kingdoms took sides.  In just one example, King Philip II of Spain famously launched his vast armada in 1588 to bring all of Protestant England back into the fold (he failed).

Islam certainly suffered from sectional violence as well.  Division arose immediately upon the death of the Prophet in 632, when rival camps claimed the leadership of the Faithful.  Though the majority of Muslims (Sunni) hailed the first four successors (caliphs) as ‘Rightly-Guided’, the minority (Shi’a) rejected three of them, supporting only Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad.  Rejection first turned to bloodshed in 656 when Shi’a rebels assassinated the third caliph, paving the way for Ali.  His ascension brought unity, but it lasted only a few years.  In 661, Sunni assassins cut down Ali, and into the power vacuum stepped the wealthy Umayyad family of Syria.  To maintain power, Umayyad agents supposedly poisoned Ali’s eldest son in 670, while a few thousand Umayyad soldiers slaughtered Ali’s second son and his followers in 680 at the Battle of Karbala.

The Sunni-Shi’a division only worsened in time and eventually had geopolitical ramifications.  The unified caliphate vanished circa 750, when Shi’a rebellion brought an end to Umayyad rule in all but Iberia.  Their victory was short-lived, for the Abbasid dynasty renounced Shi’a Islam after seizing power.  However, the Shi’a later led a successful rebellion in North Africa and in 973 established a rival caliphate in Egypt, based in Cairo.  The Crusaders’ initial success during the First Crusade (sometimes called the Princes’ Crusade) was as much due to Islamic division as Christian zeal and heavy cavalry.  Much later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Turks ruled a vast empire from Constantinople (renamed Istanbul), while the Mughals ruled much of India.  Both were primarily Sunni, while the Shi’a Safavids, wedged between these two empires, ruled all of Persia.  They fought for centuries.  There is certainly no shortage of warfare and political infighting in a monotheistic setting.

In discussing disputes between sects of the same religion, one must wonder how that could work in a fantasy game, in which daily spells seem to be obvious proof of orthodoxy.  There are several possible explanations, but the overriding theme is that divine affairs are not always clear to humans, even when there is indeed one clear and absolute truth.  We have a way of being blind to that truth.  We have a tendency to interpret things as we wish.  One possible explanation for spells wielded by opposing sides within the same faith is that God grants spells to all of his clerics, even those that are off-track.  Of course, the DM has certain ways to warn PC clerics of their deviance, even without taking away spells.  There could be a chance of spell failure.  Alternatively, spells might work every time but lack some potency.  Alternatively, spells may work consistently and fully, but a cleric may not receive all of his allotted spells.  While most PC clerics would quickly notice the above omens, NPC clerics may not, or, even if they do, they may not interpret the spell failure as an indication of their own deviance.  In short, there are a many ways to explain wayward teachings of NPC clerics, so spellcasting ability should not be seen as a truth meter that would eliminate disputes.

One can also take a similar approach to divination spells, such as commune.  The forthcoming answers, if they come at all, may not be as clear as clerics would like.  The histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are filled with examples of leaders bickering over details that God never sees fit to clarify—at least not in the manner and to the degree that they desire.  Remember too that most clerics will not have access to a spell like commune, which is 5th-level (at least in AD&D).  Leaders certainly will, and it seems likely that they would use such spells to answer important theological questions, but God does not always agree on the importance of our questions or the timeliness with which He must answer.  Besides, however irritating it may be in life, mystery is a good thing in a game.

Despite the previous examples of religious violence, actual warfare between factions need not be the case in your monotheistic campaign setting.  Perhaps things have not escalated to that point yet, or perhaps the warlike days within the faith are now over (for now).  If politics is your thing, the non-violent friction between sects can be a driving force in your campaign.  Religious leaders can vie for power and influence, using non-violent means.  Such leaders might want to gain control of sacred scriptures, build the greatest temple in the known world, reduce the influence of rival leaders (religious or secular), and/or have their own rules and interpretations enforced.  For historical inspiration here, one might look to the leading Christian cities of the first few centuries.  The bishops of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople all vied for influence in those early years.  Alexandria and Antioch developed rival catechetical schools, sparring over theological issues well into the fifth century.  Meanwhile, after Constantinople became the seat of the Empire in 330, the bishops of Constantinople began to challenge the traditional leadership of the bishops of Rome.

Though PC clerics are unlikely to debate theology, it is possible.  A creative DM could identify one or two interesting topics that cause endless debate within the PC cleric’s religion.  Rather than debating the precise nature of God, clerics in a fantasy world might argue over something of much greater interest to players, such as resurrection.  Perhaps one school teaches that resurrection is indeed possible and praiseworthy, allowing God’s most favored servants to continue his work.  An opposing school might teach that the faithfully departed rest forever in the arms of God, thereby denouncing resurrection magic and decrying any resurrected person to be a devil in disguise.  Another interesting issue might be the faith’s stance on healing unbelievers.  Is it charitable and laudable or wasteful and offensive?  Whatever the controversy, the DM can decide that the issue is unresolved, allowing for either comical or tense debates between PCs and NPCs.  Alternatively, one school might prevail and declare the opposing view to be heresy, forcing the PC cleric to choose a position.  Such controversies are ripe for role-playing, and one can add them to a traditional fantasy game without placing undue emphasis on storytelling.

Resurrecting the Dead by David Sutherland
Players Handbook,
TSR, 1979)

Even within a single religious sect, you can provide great variety by using different branches.  The Roman Catholic Church is again a good example.  First you have the divide between the secular clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) and the regular clergy (monks, friars, and nuns).  For any that may be unfamiliar with the terms, the secular clergy (the term seems like an oxymoron) serves the needs of lay people, or secular people.  The regular clergy developed a bit later, when devout people willingly adopted a highly regulated lifestyle (regular here meaning ‘regulated’ as compared to ‘normal’).  The friction between these two branches was palpable in the thirteenth century, with the secular clerics accusing the various regular orders of insubordination and the regular clerics denouncing the worldliness of the hierarchy.  In light of all that, why must a fantasy religion have only one category of clerics?  Perhaps the Faith has evolved a more complicated hierarchy, composed of two or more branches, each with its own purpose.  At least in the games that I’ve seen, clerics seem to do very little pastoral care.  That always made me wonder.  If God’s chosen clerics provided little to nothing, would the masses remain faithful?  It seems unlikely.  At the very least, reclaim some reality for your game by having branches of NPC clerics that see to the mundane needs of the faithful and to the administration of the temples.  Perhaps a majority of clerics in your world, low-level and armed with only a few spells, spend much of their time and most of their spells caring for the flock.  Certainly, throughout Western Europe, a constant stream of sick and infirm pilgrims visited churches to receive blessings and healing.  Clerical branches in your world need not mirror those of the Roman Church (secular and regular) but adopting such a division does give you a very rich model.

Diving even deeper, we find great variety in the regular clergy itself.  This arose organically, as specific needs led to the creation of different religious orders.  For example, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the various religious-military orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, etc.) sprang up to safeguard Christian pilgrims and to defend the Crusader states in Outremer.  In the thirteenth century, several mendicant (begging) orders arose as a reaction against the perceived worldliness in the monasteries, and even these new mendicant orders had their special niches.  For example, the Roman Church created the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans or ‘Gray Friars’) largely to contain popular mysticism, for many were dangerously close to heresy, and the order gave such men an outlet that was still within the pale of orthodoxy.  The Order of Preachers (Dominicans or ‘Black Friars’) specialized in theology and preaching, which explains why its members increasingly staffed the Holy Office of the Inquisition, designed to combat heresy.  In the sixteenth century, when the existing orders seemed powerless to stop the perceived Protestant heresy, the Roman Church developed the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), providing the Pope with highly educated ‘stormtroopers’, whose very name soon became a byword for loyalty to Rome (at least until the twentieth century).

Even regular orders that had no official specialty eventually gravitated towards one.  Consider the contemplative Benedictine monks (‘Black Monks’), who were by far the most common type of monk in Western Europe for several centuries.  Those affiliated with the abbey at Cluny in France, at the height of their influence in the twelfth century, became known for their vast agricultural estates (which gave them political independence) and their utter devotion to liturgy.  These ‘soldiers of Christ’ waged a spiritual battle for the salvation of their souls and those of their patrons, performing almost constant prayer at Cluny Abbey.  To a degree, their militant rhetoric paved the way for the true military orders, whose members fought with swords rather than psalters.  We see another example of specialization among Benedictines in the twelfth century.  The monks at Citeaux Abbey in France began a reform movement that stressed strict discipline and hard labor.  These Cistercians (‘White Monks’) often sought isolation on remote estates in the mountains or on the moors, and yet their industry and hard work gave them a reputation as pioneers.

Think of how easily one could use this basic framework to create a dozen fantasy religious orders within a single sect, each with its own focus, domain spells, unique spells, and mission statement.  You might have one or more military orders, an order that focuses on prayer, one that focuses on healing and administering hospitals (hospitallers), one that focuses on preserving books, another that focuses on missionary work, another that excels at taming the wilderness, and yet another that is renowned for its orthodoxy and its skill in ferreting out heretics.  The sky’s the limit.  If you wish to capture the flavor of an old and sprawling religion, create significant overlap between orders and set them up as rivals (in most hierarchies, overlap usually occurs when new groups form and take on the role of older ones, without actually eliminating them).

Pax Vobiscum
by Jim Holloway
(Dragon magazine 52, TSR, August 1981)

It’s fun to present the PCs with two lawful good groups that despise each other.  For an historical example, consider the petty War of St. Sabbas (1256-1270), in which rival Italian cities fought each other near Acre.  Events drew Templars and Hospitallers into the conflict, and their long-standing rivalry (they both filled the same niche), may have actually come to blows.  Even Gary Gygax inserted this strange dynamic into his games when he created the first gods for his home-brew campaign.  When his players demanded gods for their clerics to worship, he eventually gave them two rival lawful good religions, pitting the followers of St. Cuthbert against those of Pholtus of the Blinding Light.  Followers of St. Cuthbert were fond of thumping dissenting fools on their heads with clubs, while clerics of Pholtus had a tendency to blind infidels with a light spell between the eyes.  Even a simple arrangement like that makes for wonderful non-lethal drama.

So, what’s not to love about monotheism in a game setting?  History provides myriad examples of classic spiritual warfare (‘good versus evil’), religious warfare, factional rivalry, and non-violent competition even within a single religion.  Despite its viability, I don’t really expect DMs to adopt a monotheistic setting, but perhaps some of the above ideas may help you to flesh out a few of the main religions in your existing campaign setting.  Variety is always nice, and, strangely, we can get more of it by borrowing from monotheistic organizations.

RPG-ology #42: Who?

This is RPG-ology #42:  Who?, for May 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 originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Who?, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].

There is something about role playing games I find at least a tad unrealistic.  It has to do with character generation.  And it doesn’t generally matter whether character generation is done by randomized rolls, point purchases, or decide what you want and run it by the referee.  They all seem to have one thing in common:  the player knows everything that matters about the character; the character knows everything about himself.

That is not the way my life has been.  I somehow doubt that your life has been that way, either.  I have spent a lifetime working out my strengths and my weaknesses, and even today the list is tentative.  I would say that I am intelligent, articulate, creative; that I have strong innate skills in music, and strong abilities in math.  On the other hand, I have little skill in the visual arts; I don’t have the hands for drawing, and dance is a completely opaque medium to me.  And my business skills are terrible.  I’m a poor salesman, can’t run a budget, and am too disorganized to keep reliable records.  For years I’ve been cataloguing in my own mind what things I do well and in which I should defer to the expertise of others.  But it is far from a complete list.  Each year I find things I thought I did well at which I am not so talented as I believed; each year I discover new things to add to my strengths.  I expect—I hope—this is also your experience.

Yet it has rarely been the experience of any of my role playing game characters.  From the moment play begins, they know their strengths and their weaknesses; and if they gain new skills during play, or improve old ones, they know how good they are at these with far more precision than you or I could even imagine for ourselves.  In Dungeons & Dragons they can compare an 18(73) Strength against an 18(74) Strength, or a 30% chance of picking locks (level one thief with +5 racial or dexterity bonus) against a 29% chance at the same skill (level two thief with no bonus).  In Multiverser, too, we know that the character with the 1@6 strength is just a bit stronger than the one with a 1@5 strength, that all other things being equal the 2@3 skill is better than the 2@2, and that a one-point difference in chance to hit can make or break a character on that critical attack.  And with that one percent difference, we can decide which character should attempt the shot; we know that, however infinitesimally, he is better.  The precision with which we understand our characters is unavoidably transferred to the precision with which they know themselves—they know when they are good, and they know how good they are, in very specifically definable terms.  (And if you don’t think this is true, take a look at my material on ADR’s and Surv’s, a system for accurately determining the best attack forms and the most durable characters in a[n Original A]D&D party, to see just how well some game systems lend themselves to such analysis.)

To some degree this is unavoidable.  Game system characters must comport to game systems.  Their abilities must be in some sense quantified (and just because the scale lacks numbers doesn’t mean it isn’t quantified).  And many things must be agreed before they become necessary, or the session degenerates to an argument about what the character can or cannot do instead of proceeding as an exciting game experience.

Yet there are certainly ways to give characters at least a little mystery.  And if done right, they can enhance the game experience without interfering with the flow.

I’m going to save a lot of space here by referring you to a page I have about mystery options.  This was not my idea; it was something developed by E. R. Jones before we met.  But I provide it as a sort of player option in my AD&D games.  The short version is that when the character is created, the player is permitted (not required) to roll for things he does not know about his character, things which the character does not know about himself.  Such things serve as plot hooks and premise devices during the game, but they also make the characters something extra, people who find that their own lives are stories, not just characters who try to become part of the stories.

But that’s only one way to do this.

In most games, if your character learns a new skill he has learned it at the lowest level of ability possible.  Multiverser gives a bit of leeway to this—a player character can on a good roll learn a skill at a slightly higher ability.  This edge, however slight, makes it seem that the character had a knack for something, and so picked it up more easily than most people would have done.  It’s almost entirely random—but there’s no reason why it has to be.  The referee could easily determine for each character that there are certain things at which that character would excel were he to put his hand to them, and keep that list secreted away in his notes.  When the character attempts to learn the skill, success could be automatic, or at least heavily bonused.  The player would get the sense of “I’m good at this,” and the character would have discovered something about himself that was unexpected.

You could push this further, giving the character low-level skills he doesn’t know he has.  Not credible, you think?  Well, think again.

When I was knee high to a grasshopper, my parents would occasionally take me to this farm where they would put kids on the back of a horse and walk the horse once around a paddock.  I never learned to ride.  Years later friends put me on a horse, and although I was not entirely comfortable they agreed that I had a “natural seat.”  I had learned a bit of a skill I didn’t know I knew.  You can find a way to give characters these hidden skills, either by listing them secretly when play begins or by adding them at moments during the game.

This might seem fairly straightforward stuff, and many of you have undoubtedly used variations of this—secret character papers on which the true abilities are listed, character background stories which include mysteries to be unraveled and revealed during play.  But it might have escaped your notice that there are two distinct ideas at work here.  How you use this very much reflects the way you think about your games and what is important to them; and learning to use them the other way could significantly expand your horizons.

What to most of you will be the obvious concept is the way in which these past secrets affect the character’s abilities in the present.  The player who discovers that his character can already tie a knot or climb a cliff or fly a speeder has an in-game advantage, an edge related to play.  So does the one who has an affinity for a specific weapon he tries to use, or a facility for computer use.  These types of secrets make for stronger characters in the competitive sense—they have a better chance of succeeding in the long run.

But past secrets can also affect the character’s relation to the plot.  The one who can open the magic door because he has the blood of the trusted general of the ancient king is not just in the story; he’s part of the story.  The same is true of the one whose ID tattoo contains the activation code for the interface, or whose family heirloom holds the secret to the location of the lost treasure.  When this is well done, the characters are the story.  Sure it can be fun to be an adventurer seeking a lost treasure Indiana Jones style, just lucky enough to be the one who got to it first.  But it’s so much better a story if you are seeking your treasure, fulfilling your destiny, and not just out on a lark with some friends.  By carefully crafting these unknown aspects of your player characters you make them stronger in a story sense, in the sense that the world would not be the same without them, that they aren’t just another interchangeable set of explorers.

If you’ve watched the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, consider Dawn.  She was abruptly introduced one season, and everyone—including her—accepted that she had always been Buffy’s sister who somehow hadn’t been around (staying with Dad, perhaps?)  But gradually we learned that Buffy never had a sister.  Dawn was some incredible secret power sought by a powerful supernatural being that the gods had chosen to hide by disguising it as a person and connecting that person to others who would protect her.  She became the focus of many stories and much emotion, as one by one everyone figured it out.

Now imagine that you thought of that, and that one of your player characters is Dawn.  No one knows that but you.  The clues will be dropped along the way, and slowly everyone will realize that Dawn’s explanation for herself doesn’t add up quite right.  They will suspect her of deceiving them; she will be confused and uncertain.  Meanwhile, there’s the villain out there searching for her, not knowing what form the power took.  Maybe the player characters become aware of this, but don’t know that they have it.  The regular adventures of your game continue—but beneath, behind, and around them all is this other aspect, the revelation of the truth about Dawn.  You have given depth and drive and distinction to your game which will pull it all together as a string of unrelated adventures under a meta-story which slowly grows in importance.

Like I said, there really is no reason why any player should know as much about his character as the referee does.  As God knows me better than I will ever know myself, so I feel obliged to know many secrets about my player characters that they have yet to discover.

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