Author: M. J. Young, Chaplain

In addition to being the Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild for almost two decades, M. J. is co-creator of the Multiverser game system and its supplements, and a local musician in the southern New Jersey Christian music scene. More of his writing is found in many places, but especially at M. J. Young Net and the mark Joseph "young" web log.

RPG-ology #39: My North Wall

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

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

We have skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; the second and third, An Amusing Dungeon and Transmats, have already appeared.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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous article:  Polyglot.
Next article:  Aptrusis.

Faith in Play #39: Of Aliens and Elves

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

RPG-ology #38: Polyglot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Faith in Play #38: Places of Worship

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


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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #37: It’s Greek to Me

This is RPG-ology #37:  It’s Greek to Me, for December 2020.


Decades ago I was running original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for a burgeoning group that included a number of experienced players.  Experienced players of course bring knowledge from their other games, their other Dungeon Masters.  I have twice had the complication that one of the players at the table was familiar with a module I had decided to run, and multiple times had them recognize a magic item from the books—but that’s a different problem.

Magic items in the game can be rather complicated.  Find one, but you probably don’t know what it does or how to make it do that.  Swords and weapons seem simple, but often have hidden powers that can be activated with the right command word or the right combat situation.  Of course, such objects often have inscriptions or decorations, something that might hint or outright tell the new owner what to do with it.  On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the old owner didn’t write something misleading.

In any case, my players began asking for just about every object they found, from the leather armor worn by the orc chieftain to the platinum statue of a horse in the dragon’s treasure horde, whether there was something written on it.

Well, I’m the sort of Dungeon Master who thinks that for something to be fair it should be consistent, and therefore there should be a rule.  I figured a roll of the dice could determine whether there were any markings on the object, and if so what if any significance they had.  You’ll find that table here  You’ll also find a second table.  Call me lazy, but when I roll up magic devices in random treasure hoards I don’t usually take the time to figure out the command words—for one thing, the characters might never find the thing, or might not recognize its significance.  So maybe my system is a bit complicated, but I identified different kinds of words that might be used by a wizard making such a device, divided them into categories player characters might guess, and gave a probability of success guessing the right word if they’re in the right category.  That seemed to me a lot simpler than having the players trying to guess a randomly chosen word out of the dictionary.  Pick a category, a type of word, and we’ll assume you ran a hundred or so words like that, and roll the dice to see whether you got the right one.

O.K., that’s pretty rough; maybe you don’t want to be so hard on your players.  But I did something else, too.  Sometimes my chart said there was something written on the object—but when did you ever hear of a magic item with an inscription in the common tongue?  Well, it does happen, I suppose, but I figured it wouldn’t be that often, so I combed through the books and found every language that was listed as something spoken by any creature.  After all, if I were a chaotic magician trying to create a device that I didn’t want my enemies to use, wouldn’t Slaad be an excellent choice for the language required to activate it?  But since I wasn’t writing backstories for these gadgets, I again created a table, weighted to favor more common languages.

I don’t expect many of you will find these tables all that useful—it’s the ideas behind them that I think matter.  Your magic items can have decorations and inscriptions that mean something, or that mean nothing, or that will mean everything if only the characters can figure out what language that is, or that will send them down the rabbit hole looking for an answer that isn’t there.

And of course, remember that just as an object that’s magical doesn’t necessarily have to have a decoration or inscription, so too an object with an inscription or decoration doesn’t have to be magical.

Merry Christmas, or whatever gift-giving holiday you’re celebrating this time of year.


Previous article:  Phionics.
Next article:  Polyglot.

Faith in Play #37: Balancing on the Corner

This is Faith in Play #37:  Balancing on the Corner, for December 2020.


When “balance” is mentioned in connection with Dungeons & Dragons™ alignment, thoughts immediately leap to neutrality, and of course neutrality is frequently about balance—but not always.  As we noted in connection with the side alignments neutrality can often mean simply ignoring one axis in favor of the other.  Thus a character who is neutral in one axis can be religiously devoted to one value, whether Good, or Evil, or Law, or Chaos.

Yet there is another aspect of alignment in which balance is happening constantly, and players seldom recognize it.

When I was talking about the side alignments, I told the story of a Neutral Good cleric/fighter who tortured a criminal suspect in an effort to obtain a confession.  When I penalized him for violating his alignment, he said that he was “only” Neutral Good, and he could justify a penalty if he were Lawful Good.  What does a Neutral Good stand for, I asked, if not Good?

He might have been able to make an argument that torturing that particular acolyte ultimately would benefit the greatest number of people; he did not.  On the other hand, at least one of the characters who participated in this, who was also penalized, was Lawful Good, and he could have made a more cogent argument:  the preservation of order in the settlement demanded the solving of the murder, and so justified the use of torture to obtain critical information from one of the key suspects.  That is, in this particular situation my commitment to Law outweighs my commitment to Good.

That is the balancing act of the corner alignments.  If I am Chaotic Evil, in this particular situation do I stand by my commitment to individual freedoms or pursue my own selfishness?  Sometimes it looks simple.  When Chaotic Good Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor, he is fighting against an oppressive system that takes the rights—and the money—from the peasants by restoring it to the peasants.  When Lawful Evil Darth Vader kills people on behalf of the Emperor, he is both maintaining the rule of his master and securing his own position.  Yet when Lawful Good Ivanhoe comes to the aid of the Jewess Rebecca, it is because he has decided that Good—the benefit of Rebecca and her family and her people—is more important than Law—the authority of the Paladin who would demand her servitude.  Yet even as he takes this more chaotic stand, he does so in as lawful a manner as he can.

It is, I find, the characters on the corner alignments who make the toughest choices in following their faith.  Law does not always align with Good, nor Chaos with Evil.  Someone once pointed out to me that an American Soldier had to be Neutral Good, because usually for the sake of protecting people he became part of a very structured and orderly organization to maintain another social structure which was primarily built on Chaos, that is, on preserving the rights of individuals.  He of course still had to make difficult choices for his neutrality, but could more easily justify them.  Those who have chosen to commit to two separate values, one moral and one ethical, face the most difficult choices in balancing their distinct commitments.

That, it strikes me, is very like us, as we find ourselves committed to more than one value and have to make choices between them.


Previous article:  Thanks.
Next article:  Places of Worship.

RPG-ology #36: Phionics

This is RPG-ology #36:  Phionics, for November 2020.


I was conversing with someone via messaging and he misspelled a word.  I recognized what he meant, so I overlooked it—but it got me thinking.

The word he wanted was psionics, which had just been mentioned in our conversation, but he misspelled it phionics, which is probably more intriguing to me than to most of you because I do a bit of study in Greek, and I know that psionics comes, indirectly, from the Greek word psychos, which has several meanings but we usually take to mean soul, and it begins with the letter psi.  We get a lot of words connected to the inner person from that, including psychology, psychiatry, psychic, and of course psionic.  But in my mind he had replaced the psi with a phi, a different greek letter and the first letter in the word physis, which literally means natural but which is connected into our language with things that are physical, including physics and things that have to do with the body, like getting a physical or engaging in physical fitness.

So why not a category of special powers called phionics?

My first thought was the D.C. Comics joke hero Super Elastic Plastic Man, who could stretch his body in all kinds of crazy ways—and you could certainly go there if you wished.  Yet we all know people who can bend and stretch in ways we find unthinkable.  One of my sons from an early age would sit on the floor, lie forward, and put his chest and face against the rug between his legs and go to sleep like that.  Now full grown and taller than my six feet he still sometimes puts his feet behind his head and walks on his knees.  In terms of what people do, though, that’s out there.  Do a Google images search for contortionist and you will see bodies that look as if they must have been sawn apart and glued back together.

And while these are certainly due to special talents and plenty of exercise, they are obviously all within the realm of humanly possible.

As with psionics, you can parcel these out in small doses—Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon 2 can dislocate his shoulder to escape from a straitjacket.  The titular character in Kick-Ass feels no pain and so enhances his ability to take damage.  You could go beyond these, with physical powers that seem supernatural such as the Iron Fist, or those which actually are impossible, such as the aforementioned rubber body.

In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, psionics were rare gifts with which some characters were born (or perhaps otherwise accidentally obtained prior to the beginning of the game).  In 2nd edition they became primarily techniques taught by masters in which individuals were schooled, working from the simpler, less potent, to the more powerful.  With phionics, you could do either—or both.  Just create a list of incredible through impossible body skills, and rank them from the simple to the amazing.

So here’s a short list to get you started:

  1. Hyper-flexibility:  the character can bend and stretch in surprising ways, such as putting his feet behind his head, and so can fit through narrow spaces and such.
  2. Double jointed:  Some of the character’s joints bend in unusual ways.
  3. Hardened musculature:  the character can cause muscles in some part or parts of his body to become excessively hard, such that they can withstand blows or deal significant damage.
  4. Adrenal control:  the character can give himself a brief boost of strength and/or speed.
  5. Disconnecting joints:  one or more of the character’s joints can be disconnected, permitting the body to take a different possibly useful altered shape.
  6. Reduced pain response:  the character’s ability to feel pain has been reduced or eliminated such that although he can be injured he does not feel it.
  7. Expanding ligaments:  the character can stretch his arms and legs by expanding the joints while holding them together with stretched ligaments.
  8. Rubber body:  the character can stretch and reshape his body in nearly any imaginable way without reference to bones.

Call it one more tool to enhance your game without using magic.


Previous article:  Believable Nonsense.
Next article:  It’s Greek to Me.

Faith in Play #36: Thanks

This is Faith in Play #36:  Thanks, for November 2020.


Later this month Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving, a secular holiday established for religious people to give thanks to God.  Canadians did the same in the middle of last month.  Most cultures and nations historically have had a harvest festival celebration to express gratitude for the food; indeed, Pentecost was originally such a celebration.

I’m not going to ask why we don’t have these in our games; as holidays go, this is an obvious one, and I’d wager many of my readers have had an in-game harvest celebration at some point in their gaming calendars.  Nor does it make much sense to discuss cultural details, as feasting and frolicking are the obvious choices.  Rather, I would raise the fundamental point and address gratitude.

Years ago we ran a miniseries on Faith and Gaming about how to express faith within the game; it began with playing the Good Guys and ran through quite a few very different ideas over the course of eight articles.  To those perhaps we can add having your character express gratitude to his deity for good things, from food on his plate to the outcomes of battles or adventures.  Such thankfulness ought to be natural in those who believe that a god is involved in their lives, and a natural expression of it within the game world makes perfect sense.

Further, as we said of a number of those other ways to express faith in the game, what is true of your character ought also to be true of you.  Express your real-world gratitude in real-world ways.  Let your fellow players recognize that you are grateful to God for the good things that come, and that you know that all things which come to you come from God and are good.

I trust you all will have, or have had, a happy Thanksgiving filled with gratitude for all God’s good gifts.

On a related subject, let me express our gratitude to you for reading, encouraging, and supporting this ministry.  Some of you have promoted our efforts by purchasing what our webmaster calls “swag” from our Christian Gamers Guild store.*  Many of you have registered for and attended our worship services at various conventions.  Apart from support of the guild, I would thank those of you who have supported me (I may be chaplain of the guild, but I am a volunteer in all I do here) both by encouraging posts and by support through Patreon or PayPal.me.  These contributions keep me online and writing, and are greatly appreciated.

So thank you.


*Editor’s note, for the purposes of transparency: The purpose of the store is to provide branded materials to members in order to advertise the Guild. Most items are priced at just a little bit over cost. We do make a small amount on each purchase, but so far the account hasn’t earned enough for Cafe Press to send us a check.


Previous article:  Seekers.
Next article:  Balancing on the Corner.

RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, it can make for a good story.


Previous article:  Invisible Coins.
Next article:  Phionics.