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.

Faith in Play #32: Zealots

This is Faith in Play #32:  Zealots, for July 2020.


Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime.  They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these.  They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.

Simon the Zealot by Reubens

After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment.  One player objected.  His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.

My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?

This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value.  In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism.  We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment.  But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.

And it matters pointedly.  Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals.  The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish.  This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.

For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments.  We’ll get to that.


Previous article:  Magic Roads.
Next article:  Psionics.

RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

This is RPG-ology #31:  Screen Wrap, for June 2020.


This was originally published on June 29, 2001, at Gaming Outpost, as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Screen Wrap.

I usually call it “recursive occlusion”; but that’s because that’s what Peter Davison’s Doctor called it in Castrovalva, and now that I get around to thinking about what that means he must have been referring to the method of construction—that the Master had built a trap for him by creating a world based on a formula in which each element was dependent on all previous elements, resulting in a blockage of all exits.  But that’s not important.  The idea is a lot simpler than that.

Years ago there was a video game called Tank.  Tanks would wander around the screen trying to shoot each other.  Thing was, in the early versions you could shoot off the top of the screen and the bullet would come in at the bottom; or you could shoot off one end and have it come in the other.  In some versions you could actually drive the tank that way, off one side and on the other.  It wasn’t the only game that did that, and it was a simple solution to a basic problem:  what do you do about the boundaries?

But it’s an idea I’ve used many times to mystify and confuse my players—and in more variations than you might have imagined.  But if you’ll come with me for a moment, I’ll try to help you imagine a few.

The first one’s easy.  The characters enter some sort of complex—a section of tunnels in a dungeon, an area of rooms and hallways in a space station.  As they pass a certain point, they are inside the boxThe box is clearly marked on your map—it shows that any exits to the east connect to those to the west, and those in the north run to those in the south.  If a character walks into that last ten-foot section on the edge of the box, he’s immediately teleported to the first ten foot section on the other side, so going out one side means coming in the other.  Only one of the entrances is also an exit.  You will be surprised at how many times the players will redraw the same configuration of tunnels before they realize that something is amiss.

The second variation takes the idea to another level.  I did this to one player once, and I’m not sure he figured it out even after someone explained it to him.  I put the same room in two different places on the map.  I denoted them with subscripts so I could keep them straight.  Because they were the same room, if you entered the room, you were in both places at once; but when you exited the room, you always left from the other one.  They weren’t far apart in this experiment—which actually added to the confusion, as he entered the first, left the second and walked back to the first, and drew it twice, but in the wrong position.  At one point part of the party left the room and came back, and then when they all left together they got split up, because some had entered the first room and some the second, but they all were together whenever they were in the room.

You could use this idea to move characters very long distances—another dungeon, another space station, another planet.  You don’t even really need the rooms—you can just use some innocuous looking door.  Looking through the door, you see another room; step through the door, you’re in a room that looks just like the one you saw, but isn’t it.

These ideas have basically focused on keeping the player character inside the box.  You can as easily turn it on its head, and use the same principles to keep him out of the box.  For example, If you’re walking down corridor A and reach room 210, you next pass through a transfer point that takes you to corridor A outside room 280; if you reverse, the transfer will take you from 280 back to 210.  If the player doesn’t know the room numbers or layout, he won’t realize that he’s been moved—until he completes other sections of the map which go around this blocked area, and discovers that the distance between two points in the A corridor is an awful lot shorter than it should be.  You can make it so that access to that central area is only from a specific entry direction, such as above or below or a particular lesser-used corridor (but it can be exited at any point at which it connects).  Or you can determine a sequence of events or “switches” that must be activated to open the area to the characters, such as finding the key, or deactivating the grid, or realigning the circuits at every entrance.

I used an idea like this for a Minotaur’s labyrinth once.  My players were good; they could map a maze in a minute, comprehend any convoluted corridors I created.  The worst thing about facing a Minotaur isn’t the beast itself; it’s the fact that you’re on it’s turf, and it knows how to get everywhere while you’re wandering lost.  But once you’ve mapped a bit of it, it’s pretty easy to keep from getting lost, and the beast’s advantage is gone.  So what I did was create a layout of halls that frequently ran the same distance in the same direction, but parallel to each other a dozen feet apart. Then I put “transfer points” in the halls such that if you were going one direction you would get bounced to another hall, but if you were coming back nothing happened.  The creature knew its way around, and could use the magic to its own advantage; the players always knew which direction they were headed, but once they got involved in the tunnels they never knew quite where they were or how to get back.

Doctor Who faced a Minotaur-like beast called the Nimon once (I won’t swear to the spelling).  This time it was Tom Baker finding his way through the maze.  The thing that made that maze so difficult was that it constantly changed—he worked out that it was a huge set of switches in a communications and transmat system.  That’s a very difficult thing to do—but I can think of two good ways to make it work.  One would be to draw up maybe four or five distinct maps that were the same size and shape and had a few good fixed internal landmarks; that way at random intervals you could randomly change which map was in effect.  Of course, jumping from map to map could be tricky.  You might try making one map on paper that had the landmarks and a few fixed walls as reference points, and then getting four or five sheets of clear plastic overlay to put on top of the map, on which you would draw (or maybe if you’re really ambitious line with thin strips of black tape) the details of each position.  When the layout changed you would pop the new overlay on top, see where the characters are, and slide the old one out.

Of course, this idea doesn’t actually fit the pattern of the others, the pattern of moving the players from where they think they are to somewhere else.  But it probably makes them feel like it does, and sometimes that’s even better—especially if you’ve used tricks to move them around before.  They’ll leap to the conclusion that you’ve moved them, and begin trying to work out where they are.  You can get this effect with even simpler tricks.  Try making a matched pair of seemingly unique landmarks a short distance from each other in a confusing section of paths.  Players unaware that there are two (and especially those uncertain about their mapping skills) will come to the second and think they’re back at the first.

Something like that happened in one of my games, when the player was exploring the world we call Tristan’s Labyrinth.  (It was not called so when Tristan was exploring it.)  The labyrinth is endless; it is made of an L-shaped section designed to fit together such that all exposed sides are the same length (well, a single and double length) with doors that match up, so that you can build outward from one to as many as you need.  This means the same patterns of rooms appear, but not always in the same directions.  You can get the same effect with any of a number of random-connect dungeon floor plans; somewhere I’ve got a set of squares and rectangles published by TSR a generation ago, although I was never terribly happy with the way they fit together.  Just use the same piece against itself, turned around.  In the one game, the player found himself in a room with an interesting shape and several exits.  Deciding to use this as the base for his explorations, he traced out one of the exits some distance and back again, and then another.  The third tunnel took him off the map piece onto the adjacent piece, and connected to another tunnel which led to that same room on the next piece of map.  Carefully he followed it, reaching that identical room.  He looked at it.  He studied it carefully.  He compared it to what he had already drawn.

And then he changed his map.

If you use these tricks, there will be many times when your players will start erasing what they’ve charted, changing and fixing and trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.  But there is nothing like realizing you have gotten them so confused they are erasing the map when it was right.


Previous article:  Story-based Mapping.
Next article:  Doing Something.

Faith in Play #31: Magic Roads

This is Faith in Play #31:  Magic Roads, for June 2020.


Some years back I was playing in a game in which the city was ruled by chaotic gods who objected to anything being orderly or sensible.  This was particularly noticeable in connection with the roads:  it was impossible to make a map.  I secretly believed that this was because the referee didn’t want to make one himself and so thought it was easier just to pretend that he knew where everything was and how to get there, and make it up as needed.  In play, though, if you wanted to get somewhere in the city, you asked for directions from a non-player character who knew, and you followed them precisely.  These directions were as much ritual as geography–you might have to go around a block and find yourself on a different road when you returned to your starting point, or go halfway down a road or into a cul-de-sac and then return before continuing, or walk under an arch or between the columns on the front of a temple.  If you missed your turn, you hoped you could get back to wherever you began and try again.

I was reminded of this last night as I was driving home and came to the intersection pictured in that satelite view (courtesy Google Maps) pictured to the right.  Coming down route 109 from the west northwest (top left corner) you bear left when 109 curves right into Cape May (The Lobster House, one of the best seafood restaurants in the state, is right below the map) and come to a traffic light.  This is the onramp for exit zero on the Garden State Parkway, which runs off to the north northeast.  There is a conspicuous sign there that says No Turns, so you continue straight across the intersection onto that loop that goes around and returns you to the same traffic signal, where again you go straight to merge with traffic coming over the bridge on 109 from Cape May to get on the Parkway northbound, which begins here and goes off the top right corner of the map.

I’m sure that the intersection is designed that way because during the day, and particularly during the summer, traffic is crazy and someone trying to make a left turn would just hold everything up.  As I sat there around midnight on a late February night with no other cars in sight waiting for the light to change, an odd thought struck me.  It wasn’t that there would be no harm in simply making the left turn and cutting out the loop.  It was wondering about a road where if you made that left turn instead of taking the loop it would take you somewhere else.

I sometimes use my Global Positioning System to direct me to places I already know how to find.  I do it partly because I am interested in whether Google thinks there’s a better way to go than the way I know, but also partly because I know that the system is updated in real time for things like traffic jams and accidents, and have more than once had it send me by a different route than it usually does because the usually longer route will be quicker.

All of this comes to me now as illustrative of divine guidance and intervention.

Like most people, I am often annoyed when a traffic signal turns red as I am approaching.  I am annoyed enough that I often watch the pedestrian signals–at least here in New Jersey they’ve begun installing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs with countdowns which turn to “Don’t Walk” when they reach zero and usually also change the green light to yellow at the same time, so I can estimate whether I’m going to make the light.  When I don’t, though, I sometimes remind myself that God might be stalling me to avoid a potential accident or incident ahead.  My father often said “Don’t be there when the accident happens,” and it may be that our Father takes these little steps to prevent such events–obviously not always, but sometimes.  There is somewhere a book of stories about people who called out of work or were delayed on the way to their offices in the World Trade Center on that fateful day in which so many died.

And so I wonder about our path through life, and whether God sometimes takes us to the place we always expected to go by the route that we never could have foreseen, because it was the best way to get us there.  It might even be that “straight down Main Street and make a right on Broad Street” won’t actually get you to number seven South Broad Street, because that address won’t be there unless you go a block down thirteenth and come back up fourteenth before continuing.  Like the home of Sirius Black, if you don’t take the right steps to get there the destination can’t be found.


Previous article:  Conflict.
Next article:  Zealots.

RPG-ology #30: Story-based Mapping

This is RPG-ology #30:  Story-based Mapping, for May 2020.


I have mentioned before that I belong to a role playing game mapping group on Facebook.  Every day people post beautiful world maps similar to the ones pictured here and ask for feedback.

I am not a cartographer; I am not an artist.  When aspiring young artists send their work to me for my opinion I send it to my art director, because my opinion isn’t worth the price of a cup of coffee on free coffee day.  If they want to know whether it’s beautiful, well, as I often say, a thing of beauty was made by someone else, and they look nice enough to me.  If they want to know if the maps make sense geologically and geographically, I can point out problems (such as those we’ve covered in previous RPG-ology articles including #5:  Country Roads, #10:  Labyrinths, #13:  Cities, and #18:  Waterways).

But if they want to know if the maps are useful, it always makes me feel like that’s not really a good question.  I can’t imagine ever having a use for them—but it took me a while to understand why.

Map by Steve Gaudreau

When I start a map, I begin with the question, Where are my characters right now?  Unless I have a good reason to think otherwise, that is the middle of the piece of paper that’s going to be my map.  (Even when I make maps on a computer I generally have a “virtual piece of paper”, boundaries of the image file and a graph paper grid covering most of it.)  This probably includes a vague notion of Where is the rest of the world?, but as Max Smart once said, “I’m not saying that the rest of the world isn’t lost, 99.”  I need a vague notion of how the characters got here which contains some information about the rest of the world, but since they’re not going to live that part in the story I don’t really need details.

What I do need is the answer to two essential questions.  The first is What is around them that they are going to want to examine?  If they are in a village, I need an inn, stables, tradesmen and craftsmen, probably a constabulary, homes of those who live in town, and probably at least one place of worship.  If it’s a city, I’ve given myself a lot more work, because there are a lot of places someone can go in a city.  In most cases I don’t really have to know how far it is from London to Paris, but I do need to know how far it is from the rooming house to the grocery store.

Map of Kaiden by Michael Tumey

The second question is Where are they likely to go from here?  Not Paris, we hope, or at least not yet.  The first place they’re likely to go is whatever place I have planned for them to have their first adventure.  That might be a dungeon, or a ruin, or an office building, or a spaceship, but whatever it is, I now have to expand my maps to show how to get from here to there, and what they will find when they get there.

There will be other places where they will go.  If they acquire valuable objects, whether jewelry or magic items or tapestries or computers, they probably need to take them somewhere to sell.  That means I need a place where people buy such things, and I need to map the road between here and there and treat that place much as the starting point, creating what they are likely to see when they arrive.  But I didn’t need any of that when the story started; I only needed to have a vague notion of where it was and what was there, so I could put the time into creating the map later.

I’ve called this Story-based Mapping because it is fundamentally about creating the world to meet the needs of the story.  I’ll give kudos to Seth Ben-Ezra’s Legends of Alyria for using this concept.  His world, Alyria, has a handful of significant landmarks—a major city, a huge library, that sort of thing.  When the game starts no one has given a thought to where they are, and there is no map.  When someone says they want to go to one of these places, the plot and the dice dictate how far it is, how difficult it will be to get there, and from that point forward we know where that particular landmark is relative to where we started.  In fact, we might have established where two such landmarks are relative to our starting point but not yet know where they are relative to each other—the plot may at some point dictate that they are adjacent to each other, or that they are miles apart in opposite directions, or that there is an impassible mountain range or waterway or chasm separating them.

This is why those huge world maps don’t interest me.  When I’m running a game or writing a story I need the map to form to what I’m writing.  If I already have a complete map of the world and suddenly I need a pirate base somewhere near my port city, I have to scour the map to find an appropriate location for such a base.  If I’m working with a story-based map, I simply have to expand the map to include the cove or island or port that provides my pirates with a safe haven, and it can be perfect for their needs and pretty much anywhere I want it to be that the characters have not already investigated.

I don’t think those huge maps are useless.  If you are creating a world for other people to use in their games, such as Krynn for the Dragonlance Adventures, having a map that shows where all the countries are located will help those other people run games in them.  But I think that something like the map of Middle Earth, while it might have been drawn from Tolkien’s mind before he started writing, arose organically from the story he wanted to tell:  I need hobbits to start in a quiet remote part of the world and travel a very long way through a lot of dangers but also a few safe spots and ultimately reach a distant dangerous place where they can destroy the Maguffin. Let’s outline what those dangerous and safe places are and where they are located, and then we can create the story to connect the dots.  So if I know what the entire story is before I start writing, I can create the entire map to fit it—but I never know the whole story, not when I’m writing it and certainly not when I’m “playing bass” for a bunch of players who are going to create the story.  I need to be able to create the world as the story needs it, not be locked into land masses and cities and waterways that were created in the hope that they would make a good place for a story.

I’ll probably be thrown out of the RPG Mapping group for this, but I hope it helps some of you understand how to approach making useful maps for your adventures.

Thanks to artist cartographers Steve Gaudreau of Map Alchemists and Michael Tumey for the use of their world maps.


Previous article:  Political Correction.
Next article:  Screen Wrap.

Faith in Play #30: Conflict

This is Faith in Play #30:  Conflict, for May 2020.


A few years back my band Collision left its equipment set up in a church in which we had been practicing.  The drummer had gotten our logo made as a drum head cover, so there was this picture of the earth crashing into a giant cross and exploding.  (I don’t know whether you can see that in the picture, but that’s what it is.)  The youth pastor saw this and complained to the pastor about it; the pastor replied, “Are you kidding?  That’s what it’s really all about.”

My Multiverser co-author E. R. Jones was at a church service somewhere and the pastor asked the congregation how they would define Christianity in one word.  Several other people gave the kinds of responses one expects, and then he gave his:  War.  Our religion is, on one level, about a major spiritual battle between God and all that would oppose Him; we are soldiers in that battle.

When I first read about Dungeons & Dragons™ back in 1980, I was drawn to it because it sounded like this was finally a game that could actually reproduce the kinds of adventures we read about in Tolkien and Lewis and other fantasy authors.  Once I started playing it, though, I realized that it went much deeper than that.  Its use of magic and demons, of good and evil alignments, of spiritual forces, made it a wonderful metaphor for the real battle in which we are all immersed, whether or not we are aware of it.  It reminds us that only spiritual weapons can be used against spiritual adversaries, and that our enemy often is not flesh and blood, even when it uses people as its weapons.

There is some reason to think, and some believers do think, that the ritual of bread and wine was never intended to be a special moment overseen by a priest, but was supposed to force us to take our everyday meals as a reminder of what Christ did, that every time we opened a meal with a bite of food and closed it with a final drink that this would remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, of the body and blood given for us.  Our faith is filled with images and objects whose purpose is to remind us, to cause us to think in terms of our faith.  How wonderful would it be if we played a game that also reminded us, that we are in a spiritual battle fighting on God’s side against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

That’s where we are, what we are called to do.

Fight the good fight.


Previous article:  Victims.
Next article:  Magic Roads.

RPG-ology #29: Political Correction

This is RPG-ology #29:  Political Correction, for April 2020.


The phrase has been around long enough that I cannot imagine anyone in the English-speaking world does not know what “politically correct” means.  In the short form it means never saying anything that might offend any member of any minority group, whether or not such a person is present.  I bring it up here, though, because just recently someone in a role playing group asked whether the concept had any impact on our games.

Ray Bradbury

I hope that my readers are all literate enough to have read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and intelligent enough to have grasped its message.  I have elsewhere cited it in relation to Freedom of Expression, and consider it one of the most important statements on the subject, perhaps second only to the famous dissenting opinion by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (also excerpted at that link).  It is entirely un-American to censor speech; beyond that, it is dangerous for reasons discussed in that article.

The issue here, though, is about censoring the content of our games.  My answer is similar, but with some additional thought.

Someone (I think perhaps the Reverend Paul Cardwell of the CARPGa) once gave me the expression in relation to role playing games the great thought experiment, and I find that to be an extremely apropos description.  In many ways, games are about expressing and exploring ideas, creating characters who either share our beliefs or offer other beliefs, and pursuing where these beliefs lead through the conduct of the characters who hold them.

In my Faith in Play series I have been running an intermittent miniseries on alignment in Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and I discussed what “chaos” means in the entry Faith in Play #22:  Individualism.  I mentioned having played an attorney in one game, and the fact that this lawyer was not lawful but chaotic:  he very much stood for the principles of the ACLU, the fact that everyone has the right to be and do whatever he wishes within the parameters that in so doing he does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same.  I am not a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and they sometimes support cases I would oppose–but I have a lot of respect for their defense of the First Amendment.  Further, playing that attorney in that game allowed me to explore to what degree I agreed with them, believed that the rights of individuals needed to be defended as against the preferences of society at large.

In fact, it seems to me that this entire issue of “political correctness” is precisely about this:  do individuals have the right to believe and say things that are offensive to other individuals?  Do my freedoms include the right to be protected against anything I find offensive?

In my case, at least, they probably don’t.  If you want to call me a dirty WOP, or a stupid Christian, or a narrowminded WASP, I have no recourse.  I object that those are perjorative insults, but you are free to use them.  But what about the game?

In one of my games, a half-orc player character insulted one of my non-player dwarfs.  The dwarf took it in stride and responded, “Did your mother like orcs?”  That certainly would have been politically incorrect if our rules applied to that world, but it was entirely appropriate within the context–and that is the key.  Our worlds, be they fantasy, futuristic, historic, or something else, are filled with people whose views and prejudices are part of their time and place.  In literature we use science fiction and fantasy to explore real-life issues.  Enemy Mine is very much about overcoming racial prejudice, despite the fact that the tension is between humans and aliens.  Captain Kirk says in Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country, “I’ve always hated Klingons,” again exploring racial tensions.  If you’ve never seen the classic movie Tick, Tick, Tick, you’ve missed a story that is very much about southern blacks and whites overcoming their differences.  We use art, and particularly fiction, to explore these kinds of concepts.  The characters within the stories are intentionally politically incorrect, because that is the only way we can convey our message.

There is a caveat here.  We are gathered at the gaming table to have fun, to enjoy ourselves.  Every one of us has limits, lines we do not want to cross.  How graphic is the violence, or the sex?  Are there particular abberations which bother someone at the table?  Some won’t want to play a game that explores rape, or abortion, or–well, there are many aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable individually, and when we get together to play a game we should know what those lines are and not cross them, not make our fellow players uncomfortable.

I don’t believe in being politically correct.  I also don’t believe in being impolite to people.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t have rude characters in my games or my books or my stories.  That political incorrectness is sometimes necessary to explore ideas and beliefs that are different from our own, and so come to understand each other better.


Previous article:  Character Death.
Next article:  Story-based Mapping.

Faith in Play #29: Victims

This is Faith in Play #29:  Victims, for April 2020.


One of the early superhero role playing games gave us the concept of the “DNPC”, the “Dependent Non-Player Character”, the person who is in the story because the hero needs to save someone.  Superman has Lois Lane (pictured) and Jimmy Olsen; Spiderman has Mary Jane and Aunt May.  Within the mechanics of the game system, these people are identified as “weaknesses”, points at which an otherwise powerful hero can be attacked.  If you want to cripple Superman, either you find some kryptonite or you kidnap Lois and Jimmy.

When I asked readers to suggest archetypes, someone suggested these, calling them victims.  Indeed, within the sweep of the story there are these characters, and they are often important to the story.  They create something at stake for the hero.  You can create the threatened child or damsel in distress, but the threat is more potent if it is to a character who is more than two-dimensional, who is a friend of the hero.

Of course, no one particularly wants to play the victim, as necessary as the victim is.  As popular as they are in television and movies, we don’t usually have party members whose primary function is to get in trouble and need to be rescued.  I think if I sat down to group character creation for a campaign and one of the players said, “I want to be the guy the other characters are always having to save,” I would be stunned, and would suggest that he play something that contributed to the party in other ways, at least so that they would have a reason to want to save him.  For most players, if they find their character caught or trapped or imprisoned, their first hope is usually that they will find a way to free themselves, not that their friends would come for them.  Victim is unlikely to be a popular player character class.

Yet I think this reflects an important point for our real lives.

Paul wrote to the Philippians (Philippians 1:21ff) to the effect that he was confident that he would remain alive as long as they needed him.  He wrote this from prison, at a time when it was entirely possible that any day the government would decide to decapitate him.  Yet he was right:  he was released from that prison and continued his ministry to Philippi and so many other places.  We can take confidence from that that we, too, will remain alive as long as we are needed.

I’ll caveat first that neither we nor our loved ones are likely to be the best judges of when we are no longer needed.  It seems to us that many husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, siblings and friends, die when we thought they were still needed.  God knows whether we are needed, or whether His plan would be better served by our departure.  This is not a promise of invulnerability nor even of longevity.  It is a promise that our deaths will not leave our loved ones bereft of something necessary only we could have provided.

But it is the other side of that which matters to me here.  Our world is also filled with the dependent–the infirm aged, the terminally ill, the severely disabled.  We look at some of these and think that their caretakers would be better off were they to die.  They might have contributed much to others during their productive lives, or they might never have done so, but in their present state they contribute nothing and consume much.  Why does God keep these people alive?  If Paul is right, that we will remain alive as long as needed and then go home to God, why are these seemingly useless people still here?

The answer is difficult, but it is that we need these people.  We need people who need what we can give them and can give nothing back.  It is those people who teach us how to love, how to put our love into action, how to do things that matter.  If there were no people with needs, we could do nothing to meet those needs.

Once we understand that, there is one more step we must take:  at some point in our lives we will probably be one of those people, one of those dependent non-player characters who need to be rescued by the hero, one of those needy people who can do nothing for themselves and nothing for those who help them.  Those people are necessary to God’s plan for our lives, and we might one day be those people.  Indeed, some of us might be those people already, wondering why God has us still alive given how much of a burden we are on others and how little we can contribute.  The answer is that we contribute precisely by being a burden, by giving others the opportunity to help us.

So we learn this valuable lesson from the victim archetype:  dependent people are a necessary part of God’s plan for us, and sometimes it is necessary for us to be those dependent people.


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Next article:  Conflict.

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.


A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.


Previous article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.
Next article:  Political Correction.

Faith in Play #28: Vampires

This is Faith in Play #28:  Vampires, for March 2020.


When Tim Brown suggested I explore the subject of the undead, I was, I think the word is, nonplussed.  Maybe that’s too strong a word–but I’ve never really been a fan of the undead generally, and I find that they are very popular in popular culture in forms I don’t find particularly appealing.

Part of that, though, is that they’ve lost their original significance.  The undead are metaphors for humanity against God.  Our modern world has found godless scientific explanations for them–zombies, for example, are living people infected with a virus or a drug.  The metaphor is if not gone at least buried, altered drastically.  This is particularly true for the vampire.

I’ve seen a few vampire movies, and always been disappointed.  I enjoyed Stoker’s book mostly for the writing style, the use of diaries and letters and newspaper articles to tell the story, interspersed with only occasional narrative.  But the vampire is a metaphor for a life turned against God–perhaps the reason why some of the best modern vampire stories claim that the original vampire was not Vlad Dracula but Judas Iscariot, or Cain son of Eve.  It gets its powers from the devil, from its devotion to evil.

Take the silly notion that a vampire could go out in the sun if he wore Ultraviolet Protection Factor 100 sunscreen–as if it were the ultraviolet light that mattered.  God created the light, and divided it from the darkness, and called the light day and the darkness night.  He made the sun to rule the day, the time when the world is filled with light.  Vampires cannot go out in the day because they are creatures of darkness, and the sun who rules the day would destroy them with the light.

Gary Gygax got it right.  In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ Monster Manual he wrote

Vampires recoil from strong garlic, the face of a mirror, or a cross (or several other holy symbols of lawful good).

It is perhaps peculiar that even in a universe in which Christianity did not exist its prime symbol was still potent against vampires, because they are ultimately creatures of evil.  Interestingly one way to kill a vampire is to baptize it–to immerse it in cold running water, the method of baptism recommended in The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, second century record of church practice).  It is the power of God and of trust, faith, belief in God that destroys creatures of evil, and vampires are a wonderful metaphor for this.

I admit that I don’t much care for undead as they are portrayed in modern movies and television and books (what’s with that sparkling?)  However, I use them in my fantasy games, largely because they make decent enemies for my player characters and they fit in scenarios involving tombs, catacombs, crypts, or graveyards.  However, in writing Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel I used vampires as the enemy for one of my protagonists, and brought her back to that world to face vampires again in Old Verses New and finally in For Better or Verse.  Her stand against the vampires showcased her faith in a powerful way, both in the action of the story and in the literary presentation of it.  Vampires, used rightly, can be a powerful tool for highlighting the power of God.

So I’m recommending the use of the undead in your games, as metaphors for the godless and those who have turned against God.  One of the most potent aspects of fantasy role playing games is their ability to pit the players against the powers of darkness and force their characters to rely on the power of the divine.


Previous article:  Believing Balance.
Next article:  Victims.

RPG-ology #27: Cures for Dropping Dice

This is RPG-ology #27:  Cures for Dropping Dice, for February 2020.


If you play real role playing games, the dice can be a bit of a problem.  No matter how careful you are, sometimes they roll off the table–and players are not always terribly careful.  My first role playing game–Basic Dungeons & Dragons first edition, what they call the “Holmes Edition”–did not have dice in the box, but came with chits.  Chits were probably 3/8″ plastic squares with numbers printed on one side, and you put them in a cup and then drew from the cup.  If you’ve never played with chits, it is an experience you don’t need.  On the other hand, if you’re ever trying to run a game and somehow forgot your dice, but you do have paper, scissors, and a pen, you can make your own chits, and let’s just say that will be a game you remember.  We promptly went out and bought dice.

In the earliest days, if a die rolled off the table, the person who rolled it got down and searched for it.  We actually were friends–we had been playing other games together before we discovered role playing games, and still played pinochle and board games–so if the die wasn’t found immediately we generally all got involved in looking.  This, though, took time away from play, and we needed a better solution.

The first solution was simple:  buy more dice.  If a die hit the floor, just take another and roll it.  Hopefully we’ll find the dropped dice during post-game clean-up, or if it rolled under the fish tank stand or the hutch or something we would get it when we did more serious house cleaning (right).  This was adequate for a group of older, calmer players who only occasionally dropped a die on the floor.  My second group, mostly teenagers, made it a bit more problematic.

I have in the years since heard house rules used to discourage reckless dice throwing.  Perhaps the most dramatic is that any die that falls on the floor is presumed to be the worst possible roll.  Although that appeals to me, my experience with my first group tells me that dice are unpredictable, and careful rolls sometimes wind up going over the edge.  It may be a harsh punishment for an unavoidable infraction.  Still, in-game penalties for dropped dice might discourage the wild throws.

A better solution was found by my second group.  One of the players was an amateur woodworker who put together something–well, I often say “A thing of beauty was made by someone else,” and this was a thing of beauty.  We called it a dice box, but since at one time I kept all my dice in a metal Band-Aid® box, that really understates what this was.

Let’s start with the base.  I’m guessing, but it must have been about fifteen by twelve inches.  It was partitioned into two sections which, allowing for the thickness of the edges and the partition, were probably about ten inches square and three by ten.  (As I say, I’m working from memory to give the approximations.)  It was all stained hardwood, but the sections were floored with dark blue velvet.  The larger section had sides about two inches or so high, and the smaller was probably about one inch.  The function of this section was that you put the dice in the side section and rolled them in the larger section.  Rolls rarely if ever went over the sides.

As I say, that was only one part.  There was also a separate square piece designed to slide into the large section and to stick above it perhaps half an inch.  This had a sliding removeable lid and wooden crosspieces that interlocked to create nine compartments inside.  When the game was over, the dice got sorted into those compartments, the lid secured, and the case inserted into the base.  It was a beautiful and effective solution to a lot of problems.  (Let me credit Bill Friant for this.)

I have more recently been told of something identified as a “dice tower”.  The person who described it said he only ever used it with Shadowrun™, but doesn’t know if it is actually associated with that game.  The tower sits on the table and the player doesn’t roll the die but drops it in the top, whence it tumbles out the bottom to display the result.  I have never seen one, but it sounds like an elegant solution.

The problem recurs.  With advancing technology I found myself rolling dice at my office desk more and more frequently–that would be the very cluttered desk in my very cluttered office.  I was once again dropping dice and not always able to find them easily.  Crawling on the floor was not really a good option.

One solution was the use of a stopwatch.  Someone with even a bit of geek math can fairly easily convert seconds or hundredths into standard die rolls.  When my last electronic watch died, one of my online players sent me an electronic stopwatch which survived several years before I wore out the buttons (thanks here to John Cross).  To guard against it becoming lost, I set its alarm for eleven at night, and I still hear it somewhere in the office at around ten-forty.

When I have to do massive identical rolls, such as creating a horde of goblins, I usually use the “random” function in an Excel® spreadsheet.  This has proven quite useful to create creatures with hit points, weapon choice, and pocket change all at once.

For most things, though, I still prefer to roll dice, and I have found a solution that keeps the dice contained and the rolls random.  I call it a “dice cube”, and it probably owes something to the Pop-O-Matic Bubble® of decades back.  I obtained a clear, or mostly clear, food container, such as a one pound deli container.  My current one came with dark chocolate covered almonds, which I dutifully ate.  Into the container goes one of each die type needed for play, and extras of those for which I am frequently rolling more than one.  When it’s time to roll, I flip it upright and then put it down on the lid; the dice fall onto the flat interior of the lid, and I can read them through the upturned bottom and sides.  For those die types that have multiple representatives, I usually just use the first one I find, although sometimes I name what the die looks like before rolling.  Obviously they never leave the box, so I never have to find them on the floor.  I am currently considering creating a similar box for the players, although the temptation to cheat by selecting the best roll from among the dice would probably be pretty strong.

I hope some of these ideas help you solve your fallen dice problem, and if you have other solutions, please offer them in the comments section below.


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Next article:  Character Death.