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 #11: Scared

This is RPG-ology #11:  Scared, for October 2018.


Every once in a while I will surprise someone, that is, my abrupt appearance causes them to jump.  Usually they say, “Oh, you scared me.”  I always think, and sometimes say, “No, I startled you.”  I always say that when the situation is reversed, if I jumped and someone says, “I scared you,” correcting them that I was not scared, I was startled.  Although the two are related, there is a difference.

With Halloween on top of us, it might be worth a moment to consider the difference.

Scared is a state, an ongoing condition experienced over time.  We say, “I’m scared,” or “I’m frightened,” and we mean that we have a feeling of foreboding or ill ease.  We can be scared because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our utility bills, or because we are walking down a dark city street at night and do not feel safe, or because we have been threatened by someone who might be able to harm us in some way.  Those are in a sense examples of being scared in reality.  We are also sometimes scared in unreality.  A well written horror story in almost any medium can set a mood that causes us to feel on edge, to anticipate negative events, to expect the worst.  Mood has a lot to do with this, and so does creating a stake for the character (see my web log post #132:  Writing Horror or the French translation Maîtriser l’Horreur, and also more recently Faith in Play #5:  Fear).

It is also very individual.  I once read an entire book of Lovecraft short stories, and the only one which scared me was the one atypical story, unlike everything we normally expect from him.  If you want to make someone fearful, you must know him well enough to understand his fears.  What are you afraid of?  It probably is not the same thing as the person sitting across from you.  Fathoming that is essential to creating fear, to scaring someone.

When someone jumps out from behind a door and yells, “boo”, you’re not scared, you’re startled.  Sure, your heart rate rises and your body tingles for a moment as you catch your breath, but that’s not fear, really.  Of course, if you are already afraid—if you are fearful, if you are anticipating something bad—then that startle has a much greater effect—the reason that you jump when the cat leaps out from behind the curtain in the horror movie.  The startle has more impact because it is fed by the fear.  That’s why so many campfire ghost stories end with someone shouting something after talking quietly for several minutes:  the mood builds the fear, and the startle from the shout is intensified by the fear.

So if you’re running a game for Halloween and you just want to startle someone, well, that’s easy enough to do.  Storytellers have done it around campfires for generations.  If, though, you want to scare them, you’re going to have to give some thought to the matter, and particularly to who they are, what makes them tick, and of what are they afraid.


Previous article:  Labyrinths.
Next article:  Aphorisms.

Faith in Play #11: Halloween

This is Faith in Play #11:  Halloween, for October 2018.


One of the unofficial “traditions” of the Faith and Gaming series was that in October we always talked about something related to magic.  It happened entirely by coincidence (and we have discussed that recently) the first year, and thereafter I looked for topics for October.  That seemed a reasonable tradition to maintain with the new series, so here it is October, and I’m looking for an appropriate subject for the month of Halloween.  It seems, though, that that itself might be one.

Many Christians do not celebrate Halloween.  There is almost a “fear of Halloween” aspect to it, that somehow although we have in some sense redeemed so many of the Pagan holy days—replacing Yule with Christmas and Beltane with Easter, for example—we have not managed to turn Samhain into a God-honoring Christian holiday despite renaming it “Holy Evening” and following it with “All Saints’ Day”.  We just don’t feel like it’s a Christian holiday.

Part of that is undoubtedly because of what Samhain was celebrating, and how it was being celebrated.  Of course, all of that is very sketchy—when Christianity came to the British Isles, the head druids reportedly came to hear the message, listened carefully, and announced that they were putting an end to the practice of their religion because the missionaries had brought the truth.  As a result much of the oral tradition was lost or at best garbled.  However, we have some information suggesting that Samhain was the new year holiday, and that there was this “no time” between sunset and sunrise, the old year ending at sunset and the new beginning at sunrise, or something like that, and during that intervening period of darkness the departed spirits could roam the world.

This was not necessarily entirely bad.  After all, if I did not have assurance she was heaven, I would number my grandmother among those departed spirits who might visit.  Extra place settings were laid to welcome departed family members to dinner.  However, there were other spirits roaming outside, and protections were required to keep them from harrassing the living.  There were things to fear.

At some point our celebrations involved dressing up as those departed spirits, roaming from house to house, and frightening homeowners into parting with treats.  This is the core of the celebration, and so it seems that here is the primary locus of the objection.

That might not be entirely true, of course.  After all, at some point “All Saints Day” got replaced, particularly among Lutherans, with “Reformation Day”.  The Halloween celebrations were likewise replaced with Reformation Day celebrations, and we can probably bet that a good part of that had nothing to do with celebrating Samhain or other Pagan holy days and everything to do with celebrating a day commemorating a lot of people the Roman Catholic Church had designated “Capital-S Saints”, a designation of which the Lutherans and other Protestants were at least skeptical.  Our Protestant forefathers were probably more concerned about the veneration of Christians of previous generations than they were about celebrations of Pagan holy days, the latter not being a significant factor in a largely Christianized Europe.  However, modern Lutherans who celebrate Reformation Day do so with a specific sense that this is an alternative to Halloween, so it is effectively the same position:  don’t celebrate Halloween because of its Pagan roots, celebrate this instead.

Further, if you pursue the objection, you wind up with different reasons for it.

Those who are most adamant in their objection base it on the claim that Samhain is a holy day for witches and Wiccans.  For what it’s worth, that might be true, but it’s not terribly relevant—modern witchcraft and Wicca is an early twentieth century religion, invented in an effort to recreate what someone imagined was the old religion of the Druids and other Pagans.  It has little or no historical roots prior to that, and that means they are co-opting our holiday.  Also, much of the evidence for this comes from people who have been seriously discredited—Mike Warnke was never a Satanist High Priest, and neither was William Schnoebelen, but both of them have influenced many Christians to believe that Halloween was dangerous based on their invented sensational pseudobiographies.  It would be a bit like asking Hugh Laurie for medical advice because he played Dr. Gregory House.

Some people seem to object to the make-believe involved, that children dress up and pretend to be someone else, and adults sanction this.  Children dress up and pretend to be someone else all the time.  What we call “role playing games” they call “make believe”, and they play cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and a wealth of other “let’s pretend” games.  They also raid the old clothes in the attic and dress up to pretend that they’re adults.  These games are part of their exploration of self-identity, ways in which children figure out who they are and grow to become adults.  One special day that sanctions this does not make it more common, and quashing that day would not make it less so.

Yet there is an attitude among some that children should only pretend to be positive pretend persons—princes and princesses, firemen and nurses.  We might debate just exactly what persons are positive.  Would soldiers be positive, or not?  It might depend on whom you ask.  The father who is a marine would probably be proud to have his young son dress the part; the mother who lost a son in the war would likely be upset if her daughter did so.

Yet there is a side of this that such people are missing.  What happens when a child dresses as a vampire, a mummy, a ghost, some kind of monster?  What happens when the child role plays that which he quite reasonably or unreasonably fears?

The answer, according to some psychologists, is that it helps the child come to terms with his own fears.  He is afraid of ghosts, but here for a few hours he is the ghost, and in becoming the ghost discovers that perhaps ghosts are not something to fear.  By pretending to be the monsters, we remove the fear from them.

Take that with however many grains of salt you wish, but accept that there might just be good reasons to embrace the celebration of Halloween, even if you personally find it distasteful.


Some of this appeared a year ago in mark Joseph “young” web log entry #208:  Halloween, in answer to a question on the subject.  The publishing world being the sort of confusing mess that it is, this page was written before that one, but that one might be useful for other reasons.

Previous article:  Goodness.
Next article:  Fiction and Lies.

RPG-ology #10: Labyrinths

This is RPG-ology #10:  Labyrinths, for September 2018.


In game terms, a labyrinth is a geometric puzzle, a system of passable and impassible spaces solved by the discovery of a consecutive path of passable spaces connecting some number of points, commonly the entrance and the exit.  A maze, usually, refers to a type of labyrinth for which there is a unique solution, only one path that connects two points; a labyrinth might instead have many solutions, or no solution.  The distinction is significant in several ways; they are related puzzles, but both the ways in which they are created and the techniques for solving them are different.

Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007. http://www.tonipecoraro.it/labyrinth28.html CC BY 3.0

Labyrinths can occur naturally, when geologic forces crack rocks in seemingly random patterns.  Even mazes can be naturally occurring—if a tunnel system was carved by water which has since mostly evaporated or drained away, it commonly carves one exit point, and then the current follows that path and ignores the others.  Mazes are more commonly created by intelligent action, although sometimes an intelligence will create a labyrinth for any of several reasons.

Labyrinthine road patterns sometimes develop from the process of acretion, as new residents add new housing and thus new streets attached to old ones.  Suburban developments are often labyrinthine by design so that residents familiar with the roads can exit in any of several directions but others will not consider the connected roads a viable short cut between two points outside the development.

The Minotaur was kept in a labyrinth because a maze would have been too easy to solve.

A maze in two dimensions is easier to solve from above than from within; the eye can trace patterns and look for the connecting path, spotting and avoiding dead ends early.  Still, from within a two-dimensional maze you are guaranteed to find the way through if you pick one wall and follow it.  This will take you into many dead ends, but it will take you out ultimately.  A labyrinth with more than one solution cannot necessarily be solved this way, as there is a high probability that you will be caught in a loop.

Three-dimensional mazes are considerably more difficult to solve, because we are not generally accustomed to considering them three-dimensionally.  These are most easily created as multi-level constructions with stairways, ramps, or chutes and ladders connecting them in specific points, often connecting some levels but not accessing intervening levels.

Five level three-dimensional maze, top level to the left, crossbars mark ladders, with markers for up and down. Entrances are on the middle level, center of left and right sides.

One mistake often made in maze design is designing inward only—that is, many mazes are easily solved by working backwards, the tricks and turns and deceptive paths all designed to mislead the one coming in from the front.  This is not as much of a problem in a role playing game maze, because these can often be placed in locations in which the characters will initially approach them from one side.  On the other hand, the designer can take advantage of this by creating the maze backwards, such that characters will easily find their way in but will be confronted by the confusion on the way out.  However, many tabletop gamers become very good at mapping, so the scenario designer might need some particularly complicated tricks to stymie his players.

Fortunately, fantasy and science fiction give us such tricks.  In Dr. Who:  The Horns of Nimon, the space in which the Nimon lived was a giant logic circuit, the walls switches which seemingly randomly switched from “A” to “B” positions making it impossible to have an accurate map created from passing through it.  I have recommended using teleport points, in either fantasy or science fiction settings, by which any character crossing a specific spot on the map in a specific direction is moved to a specific other spot on the map not necessarily facing the same direction, but is not moved back on the return journey, passing the arrival point unaware that it was there.  There are many ways to use this—creating recursive occlusion, as in Dr. Who:  Castrovalva, a section of the map in which there are many entries, but only one exit, all the other exits delivering you to the entry point on the opposite side of the isolated area; creating maze-like labyrinths in which the characters are moved to parallel paths but the occupants know how to use their teleport points to get where they want to be; creating duplicate rooms in which characters who enter one room always leave from the other.  I have used all of these techniques, and have had players trying to resolve their situation for several play sessions.

I have also confused players by using maps with repeating patterns, causing them to believe they had returned to a place they had already been when they were instead in a different place exactly like it.  Nothing is quite the same as watching a player attempt to erase and correct a map that was already right.


Previous article:  Three Doors.
Next article:  Scared.

Faith in Play #10: Goodness

This is Faith in Play #10:  Goodness, for September 2018.


Back in May I introduced the notion that in the original Dungeons & Dragons game, alignment was the True Religion of the game, what the characters ultimately fundamentally believed.  I did not at that time delve into what those religions were, but promised to return to the question in future articles.  This is the first of those, second in the alignment miniseries, dealing with the alignment aspect everyone always mentions first:  what does it mean to be Good, and what does a “Good” person believe?

First, let us be clear that “good”, in game terms, does not mean “obeying the rules” or something like that.  It is not a religion of laws, but a religion of attitude.  It is defined as the belief in promoting the greatest benefit for the greatest number.  The word beneficence is perhaps the best synonym for it.  Javan’s Feast was an example of good in action:  how do I help these poor people who are struggling to survive?  Good King Wenceslas, in initiating the practices of the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, known in England as “Boxing Day” because Christians box up their spare and leftover food and deliver it to the poor), demonstrated the acts of a good-aligned person in giving one poor man food in the depths of winter.  A “good” person (or character) will break the law, if doing so will make the lives of others better.  If indeed Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, his actions were criminal—but decidedly good, which is why his story is so revered.

Good has a good reputation.  Most people, even most “evil” people, want to be perceived as “good”.  It is characteristically compassionate, caring for the needs of others, in a sense putting others before self.  Good people are generally against torture, will probably not perform it themselves, and will only tolerate it if it seems absolutely necesssary to rescue someone else or somehow beneficial to the one being tortured.  They are generally against unjustified killing—to put a sentient creature to death, there must be some evidence that the creature is guilty of some heinous evil and unlikely to be rehabilitated.  Killing orcs just because, hey, they’re orcs, is questionable.  Killing orcs because there is clear evidence that these orcs have committed felonious crimes against nearby human or similar settlements that need to be defended is certainly acceptable.

On the other hand, good people can be misled or misinformed, in essence wrong.  They can genuinely believe that certain actions promote the welfare of the greatest number of people which in fact do not.  At that point the question becomes whether they should have known better—is it that the orcs they killed were not involved in the attacks on the human settlements, but the characters had good reason to believe they were, or is it that orcs attacked the human settlements so humans are attacking random orc settlements?  Understanding good can be tricky, because people often do what we might think bad things for good reasons.  Many slavers genuinely believed that they were taking primitive sub-human creatures out of the poverty of their homeland into a better life as domesticated animals.  Indeed, most domesticated animals live longer than their wild counterparts, and are healthier and more comfortable along the way; why might it not be so for humans?  We abhor such practices—but our characters’ perception of the best possible benefit for the greatest number might well be something we would not perceive as “good” because of our own background.

There is a degree to which “good” is definitive of Christian love.  The game version probably does not need to be held to quite that standard of self-sacrifice and servanthood, but a saint who lives so would definitely be a clear example of the “good” alignment.  I hope that your own alignment is “good”, whatever alignment you prefer for your characters.


Previous article:  Clowns.
Next article:  Halloween.

RPG-ology #9: Three Doors

This is RPG-ology #9:  Three Doors, for August 2018.


Probably over a decade ago now there was a big debate in the community of people who enjoy logic puzzles when Marilyn Vos Savant published her solution to one, and many disagreed with her.  I was belatedly dragged into the argument by my father, who sent me a late and partial version of the question.  Eventually I obtained what I take to have been the original question but concluded that her answer was incorrect.

Now, I might not be as smart as Ms. Savant.  After all, she has the highest tested I.Q. on record.  My Intelligence Quotient has always been at the top of the scale on every test I’ve taken, including the Mensa tests, but I have never taken the Triple Nines test.  I can say that on the Law School Admissions Test, which is comprised entirely of various types of logic puzzles, I scored better than ninety-nine-point-eight percent of those who thought themselves smart enough to be lawyers, which was the highest bracket for the test.  It is not impossible that she is wrong and I am right, as I explain in the third of the three pages I wrote on the subject.

This is not really about that, except to the degree that the issue that Ms. Savant failed to see in that case is the issue I want to address here:  the motivations and objectives of the referee, and how knowing them can make a difference to the way you play the game.

Perhaps you have read the short story The Lady or the Tiger.  If so, you probably already know where I am going—but I suggest that, just as Marilyn was dealing with three doors, we have three possible referee attitudes.

I will begin with the killer referee.  I have had conversations with dungeon masters who are proud of their dungeon designs with the inescapable fatal traps.  This referee considers it his duty to get the upper hand and kill all the player characters, and he expects their players to be very cautious and very perceptive.  He is there to beat you.  He is like the host on the three doors puzzle who only offers you the opportunity to change doors if you in fact already have the right one and he wants to tempt you into giving it away.  If you recognize that you are playing with a killer referee, your play has to be careful, circumspect; you have to watch for traps, expect to retreat from overwhelming enemies, and use defensive strategies and escape plans as a regular part of your play.  That’s not to say that it can’t be fun.  Grig said, “I always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.”  Knowing that your referee is going to pull out all the stops to defeat you makes the victory all the more thrilling, and defeat considerably less embarrassing.  The deck was, after all, stacked against you, so if you lost, that was the way it was dealt, and if you won, you beat the odds.

The door at the other end of the row is perhaps the reverse, the beneficent referee.  This guy is on your side.  He wants to see you win.  You might not know that he fudges dice in your favor, but the fact is he will never throw anything at you he does not honestly believe you can beat.  I don’t mean he’s necessarily a “candy store” game master (although they are usually of this sort), but rather he is one who makes an effort to bring you through to victory.  With this kind of referee, the odds favor winning if you take the chance—he built a scenario you can beat, and if he has created something you can’t beat it’s because it will be quite clear to you that this is there to turn you in a different direction—he puts his tarrasque at the edge of his map so you won’t contemplate going where he isn’t ready for you.  The plan here is to make you look like heroes, to give you battles you can win and come away feeling good about it.  That’s not always as much fun as it sounds—if you come to a place where you think it’s impossible for you to lose, winning loses some of its charm—but knowing that the referee is on your side gives you confidence to take a few more risks than you might otherwise.

There is, of course, a door in the middle.  We spoke previously about Playing Fair a couple months back, and there are referees who let the chips—or the dice—fall where they will.  The scenario has not been stacked against you, but it’s not stacked in your favor, either.  If your referee rolls a lot of dice when you ask him questions, and it seems that the dice are dictating whether it’s a good or bad answer, this might be the type of referee you’re facing.  There is much to be commended about such referees.  They will give you a fair challenge, not making it too easy while at the same time not trying to kill you.  Their scenarios are much less predictable, overall, because it is entirely possible that they have rolled up an encounter that is well beyond your ability, and just as possible that they have created one that will be a cakewalk, and you aren’t going to be able to guess until you’ve walked into it.  This is the guy we think our referee is; he’s also fairly rare.  With this guy the way to play is probably realistically—don’t be overconfident, but don’t believe that everything is a trap.  He has made it as fair as he can, which means you have to be careful, but not paranoid.

So those are three general types of referees—killer, beneficent, and fair—and that’s how you play if you can recognize which one you’ve got.  I wouldn’t bother to ask:  quite a few wouldn’t know the answer, some would be wrong about themselves, and those that do know also know better than to tell you.  But if you can figure out how your referee thinks, you can use that to improve your outcomes in play.


Previous article:  The Illusion of Choice.
Next article:  Labyrinths.

Faith in Play #9: Clowns

This is Faith in Play #9:  Clowns, for August 2018.


When I thought I was reaching the end of the Faith and Gaming series, Christian Gamers Guild member Lynette Cowper (who wrote GURPS Rogues) suggested that I address Archetypes.  It was a challenging suggestion for me—I had never thought about characters in terms of archetypes.  However, I undertook it, and wrote about Warriors, Knights, Rogues, Wizards, and Holy Men before turning my attention to another subject (after all, that was half a year of monthly articles spent on one subject).  I think I might have had a couple other possible archetypes identified in my notes, which as I have previously reported were abruptly lost in a computer crash, but every time I turned my mind back to them, my impression was that I didn’t know any other “archetypes.”

Perhaps it was because I had run so much original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and these really were the major character classes, almost everything else in the game falling into one of these groups.  On the other hand I could see that functionally a medic was a non-religious holy man, most techs were non-magical wizards, and maybe spies and ninjas are distinct from most other rogues, but not enough to warrant another article on the subject at that time.  Really, in my mind, archetypes were pretty much covered.

However, when I was talking about doing this series, webmaster Bryan Ray wrote to me, “I always thought there was a lot of space in the Archetypes sub-series that you hadn’t yet explored.”  That caused me to reconsider my own conception of an “archetype”, to attempt to get out of my own box, as it were, and think about what else might be covered.  I recognized that in stories we often have character types that serve what we would call a story function.  They make the book better, the movie more entertaining.  And as I thought about movies, a few characters came to mind who are what I believe Jack Slater (addressing his boss in The Last Action Hero) called “comic relief.”  I remembered a reviewer complaining about the movie Willow that brownies Franjean and Rool were comic retreads of Star Wars robots C3PO and R2-D2, who were also there for comic relief, like having Abbott and Costello in a serious movie in which someone else is the star and the hero.  So I realized that this, too, was a type of character archetype, inserted to break the tension, to make the story a bit more fun.

I am calling them “clowns,” not just because they are funny.  They often appear at scene changes, breaking the main action with a lighter aside before returning us to the heroes.

I rarely see these in games, and even more rarely do I see players undertake playing them.  Everyone wants to be one of the heroes, one of the serious characters contributing to the victory in the game.  I have had occasion to use non-player characters for the function, but players often regard these a waste of what could be productive game time.  We tend to exclude clowns from many of our games.  Perhaps, though, we do our games a disservice in doing so.

Of course, the story function of clowns in movies and books is to break the tension and delay the resolution.  They are in that sense a bit like the horror movie trope in which we discover that the movement of the curtain is just the cat, and a moment later the monster pops out of the closet.  They take us away from the chase scene or the shootout or the face-off, entertain us for a moment, and then drop us back into the action eager to know what is going to happen next.

Yet as archetypes they are something more, and perhaps something very important.

Clowns remind us that not everything in life is serious, and that the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.

Let me repeat that:  the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.

The time you spend playing games with your friends is probably more important than the time you spend pushing papers or digging ditches or building machines at work.  We tend to confuse that which is most necessary with that which is most important.  The clowns are not necessary.  They do not contribute to the success of the plot (well, R2-D2 does, being a hero who saves the day in almost every Star Wars movie and usually over the comedic objections of C3PO—but someone else could have done it).  Fun is not necessary; we can live without it.  Yet it is important, because it is that which makes life enjoyable, in a sense which gives value (not meaning or purpose, again things which we tend to confuse) to living.  Clowns remind us that we should enjoy life, even in the midst of its seriousness.  C. S. Lewis told us, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”  In a sense, the Christian life is about learning to enjoy, to enjoy our relationships with God and each other.  Game play is part of the enjoyment of those relationships; clowns are a serious reminder that it is not all serious, that we are here to have fun.

Of course, clowns also have their down side.  They are ineffectual; they rarely contribute to our success.  Yet when we realize that those goals, as noble and necessary as they often are, are not the ultimate purpose of our lives, we also recognize that our clowns are trying to remind us of this, and so even in their weakness they are strong, even in their folly they are wise, and they teach us to be weak and foolish so we may be strong and wise.


Previous article:  Redemption Story.
Next article:  Goodness.

RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice

This is RPG-ology #8:  The Illusion of Choice, for July 2018.


Last time we talked a bit about the power of the referee, how it can be abused, and the principles that should prevent that abuse.  This time our focus is on how to use that power in a way that will enhance the game by getting outside our usual expectations.

There is a referee “style” identified as “Illusionism,” one of four identified ways of resolving the issue dubbed The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast:  if the players have complete control over all their character actions, how is it that the referee actually controls the story of the game?  You can read about all four answers at Places to Go:  People to Be, in Theory 101:  The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or in the French edition as Théorie 101 – 2e partie : Le Truc Impossible Avant Le Petit Déj’ if French is easier for you.  Most people condemn Illusionism as unfair to the players, who have no idea that their choices do not matter.  Yet Illusionism is built on the use of some very useful Illusionist techniques, and one of them might be an answer to a problem with certain kinds of play.

Many years ago a referee was bemoaning a disastrous game session.  He had designed a high-rise building in which terrorists had hidden a bomb.  The expectations of the scenario (a Trailblazing design) were that the party would move through the building and along the way collect the information needed to defuse the bomb.  Unfortunately, a few perhaps lucky or unlucky turns put them at the bomb right at the beginning of their adventure, and one of the characters decided that rather than risk letting the time run through its several hours he would attempt to deactivate it now—with a bad roll of the dice detonating it and killing the entire party right at the beginning of the game session.

And I realized that there was a much better way to run a scenario of that sort.  I wrote Game Ideas Unlimited:  Left or Right? (only the French translation, Gauche ou droite ? remains online) to explain my solution, and used it in creating a scenario in a world for Multiverser:  The Third Book of Worlds entitled Why Spy.  That book might never be published, although I run the world regularly at gamer conventions, so if you’re ever playing at my table for such a game let me know that you’ve read this.

What I realized is that such a scenario does not work well as a dungeon design.  It needs to be run like a movie director.

The scenario is about terrorists occupying a fifty-story downtown commercial office and retail building.  There are four maps, each designed so that any one of the four sides can be “north” and all the stairwells, elevators, and utilities ducts will align.  The referee is encouraged to make multiple copies of these so he can write and draw on them.  The players are free to decide how they want to enter the building—ground level entrances on each side (front door, back door, loading dock, parking entrance), roof door, or break through a window at any level.  They know that there is some unknown number of terrorists holding some unknown number of hostages, and that they claim to have a nuclear device which they will detonate if their demands are not met.

Whenever they decide where they are entering, the referee chooses one of the floorplan maps, decides which edge is north, and begins the game.  The only fixed encounter locations are the number of terrorists at each of the doors.  Once the players are inside the building, it doesn’t work that way.  The way it does work is there are nineteen encounters—the first a lone armed terrorist in the hall, the last the bomb itself.  As the player characters move through the building, the referee describes the map, inventing irrelevant details (e.g., opthamologist’s office, photography studio, planter outside the door, mirror on the wall) and decides where the first encounter will occur as they move toward it.  The tools of the game are used to determine whether the players and/or the terrorists are surprised, and the players take whatever actions they wish to resolve the encounter.  Assuming they survive, the game continues.  If the players move to a different floor, the referee repeats the process of selecting a floorplan and orienting it, and continues putting the encounters in their path as they progress.  Players can avoid encounters if they wish, provided they have seen the encounter before it has noticed them, but they will find each in the order it is listed.  Encounters include finding an office worker in hiding, finding a door with a bomb on it, encountering terrorists with and without hostages, coming to an open area visible from above or below where terrorists might be, learning that a strike team has been sent to find them, the team getting split, part of the team rescuing the other part, finding the leader with a remote detonator, and finding the bomb.

What the technique in essence does is deprive the players of control over the order in which encounters occur—that is, they can’t go directly to the terrorist leader without passing through the other events.  In doing this, it creates the fun.  You could, of course, design a dungeon crawl with only one direction through, forcing the players to face the encounters in the order you’ve decided.  This “directorial” technique accomplishes the same result, but with the feeling that they can go any direction they wish.  Indeed, they can—it’s just that which direction they go is completely unimportant to what happens next.  They can’t derail the scenario, save only by deciding to retreat from the building.

You don’t necessarily need a map to do this, if you can keep track of where everything is in your head.  There are ways to do that, too, which we will discuss in the future.


Previous article:  Playing Fair.
Next article:  Three Doors.

Faith in Play #8: Redemption Story

This is Faith in Play #8:  Redemption Story, for July 2018.


Years ago I wrote Faith and Gaming:  Redemption, which was republished last spring.  In it I made the distinction between the “Prodigal Stories” that we sometimes call stories of redemption and the real “Redemption Story”, the story of how the price was paid, how we were saved.  I then addressed whether prodigal stories were inherently and specifically Christian, although I admit that the answer was a bit inconclusive—after all, even its creator says that Star Wars is about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader—you knew that, forget I mentioned it), but he would never claim it to be a Christian story.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Yet it never occurred to me to consider the other side of that, the actual redemption story, and whether that might be included in our games and stories.  Further, I’m embarrassed to say, I find that it has been included in a number of stories with which I am familiar, so apparently it can be done.

Maybe.

The glaringly obvious example is the one I mentioned in that other article:  the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of The Chronicles of Narnia.  The redemption in that particular telling is very individual:  Aslan dies to save Edmund, although there is a hint of more in the statement that when the innocent dies for the guilty, the ancient magic would cause death to work backwards.  It is one of the best pictures of the Redemption Story in fiction.

It is not alone, though.  J. K. Rowling ultimately explained that she never wanted to tell anyone that the Harry Potter series was a Christian story because she believed that one fact would be the spoiler that gave away the ending.  In the end, Harry voluntarily sacrifices his own life to save everyone at Hogwarts—and because of magic Voldemort never realized he had cast, Harry’s death becomes Voldemort’s defeat, and Harry returns to life to finish the dark wizard.  We thus have the chosen one defeating evil by dying and returning to life.

I was further reminded, by the piece we wrote decades ago on The Problem with Pokémon, that in the Pokémon movie Ash also gives his life to save his friends, and is brought back to life.  It has been a long time since I saw that movie, but it again appears that the self-sacrifice of a lead character was a redemptive act.

I don’t want to stretch this too far.  Many stories include the hero sacrificing his own life; not all of them are redemption stories, and I’m not even completely certain all of these necessarily are.  Yet they suggest that a redemption story is possible in a fictional setting.  It is something that can be done in a book—I won’t say easily, but with care and skill successfully.

The much more difficult question is whether it can be done in a game, and if so how it would be done.

The critical problem is, who plays the redeemer?  When Mel Gibson directed The Passion of Christ he cast himself in one on-screen role:  his hands drove the nails.  If I am the referee in such a game, is the most important character in the story, the central character who pays the redemptive price, one of my non-player characters?  Or if it is one of the player characters, how do I make that work?  I am all in favor of player characters making dramatic sacrificial deaths—Multiverser encourages them, because the death of a player character becomes the tool that moves him to another world, another story, so the player can both let the character die and and have him survive.  However, how do I arrange the sacrificial death that leads to the redemptive resurrection?  Does the player have to be in cahoots with me on that, or do I have to keep it a secret, hope he will make the sacrifice, and surprise him with the outcome?  What if he balks at the sacrifice?

And after all that, would it be a necessarily Christian story?

That is a difficult question to answer.  I don’t know whether the Pokémon movie was intended as a Christian story, or how many people recognized it as such, despite the fact that Pikachu won the big fight by repeatedly turning the other cheek until his attacker collapsed from exhaustion just before Ash made his sacrificial move.  I do know that there are people who have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and probably more who have seen the movie, who do not know it is a Christian story by a Christian author.  It may again be one of those stories that you can tell, but without someone to call attention to it some will never recognize.

If any of you know of a game in which it was done, I would love to hear the story.


Previous article:  Coincidence.
Next article:  Clowns.

RPG-ology #7: Playing Fair

This is RPG-ology #7:  Playing Fair, for June 2018.


I was corresponding, electronically, with someone I introduced to role playing games over the Internet, and since I introduced him to them, his first game and still his favorite is my game, Multiverser.  Of course, as all players, he was expressing the opinion that I didn’t run the game the way he would, citing another excellent referee of the game with whom we are both acquainted.  It happens that I have issues with the way he runs the game, but I figure once I hand it to a referee, it’s his game.  Still, I think some of my complaints are valid, and reflected in this discussion.

One of the points my correspondent made was that if a game referee can’t kill any player character he wants whenever he wants, he’s not a very capable referee.  That’s not as vicious a notion in Multiverser as it would be in, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons:  as Ron Edwards noted, we have solved the problem of character death by turning it into a means of advancing the story, since the character who is killed immediately finds himself in another universe continuing his adventures.  Further, there is certainly a point there.  The referee has access to characters and monsters with godlike powers (Dungeon Masters use to joke about attacking character parties with three of their tarrasques—a joke, because the books specify that this nearly invulnerable killing machine is unique in the world), along with complete control of the scene such that such adversaries could be found just behind the next door, or could be waiting on the path of retreat—and could be in whichever of those places the player chooses to go.  So indeed, referees have the ability to target and kill player characters on a whim.

I was arguing against that, but I don’t think I was making my point very clearly at the time.  Those social networking message threads have advantages, but they are also very limiting.  So let me take a step back and explain why I think that is not really true.  It has to do with fairness.

Decades ago, before I knew anything about Ed’s work on Multiverser, our small county had few enough Dungeon Masters in it that we usually heard stories about each other.  There was one long-time referee who ran a regular game at the local donut shop (yes, the county was small enough that at that time it had one donut shop, and it was not part of a chain).  It was said that he was a moody sort of fellow, and on nights when he was in a bad mood almost all the characters died and had to be resurrected, but when he was in a good mood they got treasure and magic items and empowerments hand over fist.  It was as if the gods were bipolar.

I perceived even then that this was not the way to run a game; but I’d already been running them for over a decade, and was known as the most by-the-book Dungeon Master in the county.  (Ed was known as the most imaginative.)  What struck me was that the donut shop game was entirely unfair, because the referee abused his power.

In my games, I designed dungeons and encounter situations in advance—usually months and sometimes years in advance, working out the details.  One of the most useful realizations I had was that random encounters were not the less random rolled years beforehand, so I had my wandering monsters pre-made and detailed long before I needed them.  If you walked your character into a room in my game, you knew that whatever was in that room, I was not thinking about your character when I put it there.  I was trying to design a scenario that made some kind of sense from some perspective, hoping that whatever players explored it would be up to the challenges and interested in the discoveries.  Your character might be killed—that was always a risk—but he would never be targeted.  That is still my rule in my OAD&D games.

It has also bled over to my other games.  Multiverser is a special case, because of course worlds are customized for the players, and often created on the fly.  I have on occasion thrown something at a player character which I knew had a very high chance of killing him—such as a rigged grenade trap on a door for a player who never checks for traps.  Yet the sense of fairness remains paramount:  it was never something you could not have anticipated, unless it was something that was an inherent surprise in that world.  That is, you might unexpectedly discover that the annual sacrifices in the mountains are actually being fed to a giant snake, but only because no one had ever seen it and survived so everyone assumed the priests just killed the victim and left the body somewhere to rot.  I didn’t decide abruptly that a giant snake would be the perfect surprise for this situation because it would probably kill you; I decided at some point that a giant snake would be a good “deity” to which the sacrifices would be made, and I foreshadowed it along the way if you were paying attention (see the end of Verse Three, Chapter One for how that played out), and if you were surprised, well, hopefully you were ready to be surprised.

That is why I don’t believe that a good referee can kill any character he wants any time he wants:  I believe that the referee is bound by an unwritten code of fairness, that he has to treat the players, and that means their characters, in a way that always gives them a fair chance to win, to survive, to come through victorious.  They won’t always win; they won’t always survive.  They should always feel that they might have done had they played it a bit differently or had better luck with the dice.

So to my player, and any other player, who thinks that a referee can kill a player character anytime and anywhere, I think you’ve failed to grasp what it is to be a referee—an impartial judge who determines outcomes in the game and applies the rules as he understands them.  Your players should never be able to say, “That’s not fair,” without you being able to explain why it is fair, and that it is not merely because you decided it.


Previous article:  Name Ideas Unlimited.
Next article:  The Illusion of Choice.

Faith in Play #7: Coincidence

This is Faith in Play #7: Coincidence, for June 2018.


If you follow this series, odds are fairly good that you followed, or at least were aware of, the previous series, Faith and Gaming. It originally ran monthly, as this one is scheduled to do, beginning in April of 2001 and ending in that same month in 2005. The series was always popular, was compiled with several other articles on the subject and released in printed form twice, and then in May of 2016 the Christian Gamers Guild decided to republish it as part of a website overhaul. My contribution to that reposting process amounted to giving permission for it and sometimes finding free artwork that fit with upcoming articles, if I managed to get to that before our efficient webmaster.

I mention this because something happened in that process that got me thinking, and since I had already committed to writing this series I made a note of it for this article. What happened was, in the very literal sense, a co-incidence: two events occurring simultaneously without an identifiable causal connection between them. I mentioned it then, but did not pursue it, and it’s worth taking a moment to discuss it now.

Bryan Ray, our diligent webmaster, had begun posting the Faith and Gaming series, as I mentioned, on May 10th, 2016. It was a Tuesday. At that point he had quite a volume of material to post, given the years for which the Guild had been publishing material and the people willing to contribute, so he was posting material every Tuesday and Thursday, and an installment of Faith and Gaming hit the web every week, on Tuesday. He ran through the first seventeen of the forty-nine original series articles at that rate, along with materials by quite a few other contributors and one other of mine, and then on September 1st realized that he was going to exhaust the stores faster than new material would replace it, so he cut back to posting on Tuesday only. Faith and Gaming appeared every other week thereafter.

The coincidence is that the twenty-ninth article in the series appeared on February 14th, 2017. At the time it was decided to post on Tuesdays and not Thursdays, no one was aware that Valentine’s Day would fall on a Tuesday, nor gave it much thought. Nor did anyone ever count out what article would appear when, other than calculating when the series would end so we could know when to start this one. However, the twenty-ninth article, which by this string of unrelated unconsidered causes happened to fall on that particular romantic holiday, is Faith and Gaming: Sex, discussing the propriety of sexual relationships within our role playing game worlds.

It was unexpectedly appropriate. Yet, as I hope I have persuaded you, none of us took any specific steps to make that happen. I did not realize it was happening until I saw it that morning.

These “coincidences” are interesting because they happen. I worked in Christian radio for a time, and there were stories of “mistakes” that were exactly what was needed. One that came to me was that the disk jockey had started a prerecorded program that came to us on a vinyl disk, and had left the studio to get his lunch; he had half an hour, he figured, so he took his time. A few minutes into the program, the record started skipping. Meanwhile, someone was listening. He was in his car, headed for the Delaware Memorial Bridge with the notion that he would get around the safeguards and jump into the Delaware River below. He flipped the station on his car radio and somehow hit us, where he heard the record skipping—a man saying, “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus…Jesus” for perhaps twenty minutes before the DJ caught it. Once the station identifier played, the man found a phone and called; he did not jump into the river.

I’ve written a book under the title Why I Believe which discusses the evidences for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus, and one of those evidences is something Carl Jung called synchronicity and Wolfgang Pauli attempted to explain. It is about coincidences that defy the odds to the point that it is thought they must have an “a-causal connection”, that is, that two events regularly occur together without either causing the other or being effects of the same cause. Their occurrence strongly suggests the existence of something like a god, pulling the strings behind the scenes. How many fictional detectives have said, “I don’t believe in coincidences”? Whenever two events seem suspiciously connected, we always assume that someone had a hand in them. I recently heard a quote from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

It can be argued, but then, in our role playing games we actually have someone like a god pulling the strings behind the screens. In Multiverser we call him the referee, but his original title was Dungeon Master, and he has been called Game Master, Storyteller, and many other titles over the years. That means that those incredible coincidences can happen precisely because someone manipulated events behind the scenes—and if a referee is going to “play god” in his game, what better way to do so than to create exactly the kinds of events that look like someone up there likes someone down here, or conversely does not like them much?

Of course, you couldn’t do it all the time; you couldn’t really do it very often, probably, or it would seem contrived. However, you could do it in critical moments. You probably already do—you fudge dice, decide that the reinforcements for the player characters arrive in the nick of time or those for the villains are too late. You just aren’t sure of the justification for it. In Multiverser we included a “General Effects Roll” system, by which when the referee was not sure what was going to happen a die roll would guide him as to whether the outcome was generally good (from the character’s perspective) or generally bad, and the extreme rolls called for the one-in-a-thousand outcomes, good or bad. That kept it controlled, and balanced—but it doesn’t need to be so rigorous.

The point is, inexplicable coincidences happen, just as if someone were causing them, and there’s no particular reason why you, as referee, can’t be that someone.


Previous article: True Religion.
Next article: Redemption Story.