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 #19: Treasure Auction

This is RPG-ology #19:  Treasure Auction, for June 2019.

A recent article by Michael Garcia, Treasure Division:  A Case Study From Northumbria, got me remembering treasure division from the past.  I was in quite a few games, and we had quite a few ways of doing it.  In more than one group, the party leader decided who got what, and tried to keep everyone happy while ensuring that useful objects went to the party members who could most benefit the party with them.  One of the groups tried a method recommended in one of the Original Dungeons & Dragons™ rulebooks that involved rolling dice, with higher level characters rolling more dice and henchmen rolling fewer, which one of the groups tried once or twice at least; I might have modified it for their use.  At least one party regarded every object property of the party, and it wasn’t given to you but put in your care for you to use for the benefit of the party, to be returned if you left the party or died.  These are all interesting and useful methods, but with one party I needed a very different method–and as party leader, I found one, which some of the players loved and others hated.

First, the party situation should be backgrounded.  My character was hired to go on a mission, promised a few thousand gold coins and permission to keep anything we obtained along the way other than the object we were to retrieve.  I hired seven people of different races, classes, and alignments to be part of that mission, promising each of them a specific share of what we obtained–two of them, whom I hired to be my lieutenants, were to receive larger shares than the others.  The mission took more than a week but less than two, if I recall correctly, and we recovered the object and a few thousand in cash, plus something approaching two hundred objects some of which were obviously useful for some characters (e.g., swords and other weapons) and others of which might be either worthless or strange magic artifacts.  It fell to me to find a way to divide these fairly, and there were a few items that certain characters particularly wanted.  I also faced the fact that once the treasure was divided the characters would also divide, and if there were another mission it would fall on someone, probably me, to hire a team for it, and up to them whether to accept my offer.

My solution was to hold an auction.

Because there was no loyalty and my character did not use magic, it was stated up front that no one was permitted to use any magic such as detect spells on any of the objects prior to distribution.  Just because the wizard says something is not magical does not mean he isn’t intending to buy it cheap and sell it to someone else.  Only hired members of the party were permitted to bid, or to be present during the bidding.

I organized the items in what I thought made sense as the least to most valuable, given what could be told by looking at them.  I then divided the cash between the party members according to their promised portions, and put the first item on the table.  I had prepared myself by jotting down for each object what my character would give as the opening bid (and if no one else bid, it defaulted to me for that amount), and how high I was willing to bid for objects I particularly wanted.  Everyone else could then bid in an open auction until there was a highest bid no one would overcall.  That person then paid the amount into the pot and received the item, and we moved to the next.

As auctioneer and party leader, I would periodically decide that the pot had grown large enough that I should divide it according to the proportions promised each party member, partly so that they would have cash to keep bidding.  I knew (but had not anticipated) that several of them had borrowed money from non-player characters so they could bid high on objects they particularly wanted, so the pots got rather large sometimes.

The logic of the system is that every object we obtained went to whatever character placed the highest value on it, or at least within the bounds of their funds, and for at least the value of the person who put the second highest value on it.  Objects thus went to the people who thought them most valuable, and everyone was compensated for the value of every object, having tacitly agreed that it was not worth more than that.  The people who love the system love it for that reason.

Of course, auctioning almost two hundred objects among eight players was an extended bit of roleplaying.  With interruptions for the shenanigans of some of the player characters, it took most of three game sessions to complete, and people who don’t like the system generally remember that “waste of time” and the tensions of trying to bid high enough to get the objects they really wanted.

I swear by it, and whenever I’m the party leader I use it; I’ve been in games where others from that game or even others who heard about that game think that the auction is the best way to divide treasure objects.  I’ve also known at least one gamer who won’t play in a game if the auction system is going to be used, but I’m not sure his absence is all that much of a loss.

I would be interested in how your parties divide treasure.

Previous article:  Waterways.
Next article:  Pay Attention.

Faith in Play #19: Simulationism

This is Faith in Play #19:  Simulationism, for June 2019.

One of the complications of discussing whether what’s called “simulationism” in Ron Edwards’ Big Model is that even Ron Edwards has had trouble figuring out what it is.  We have looked at gamism and narrativism, and decided that there are Christian values in those approaches to play, even if there are also pitfalls.  Yet if we’re going to consider simulationism, we’re going to have to understand what it is.

As I covered in the third part of Theory 101 for Places to Go, People to Be some years back, Creative Agenda (or the French translation Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives), simulationism is driven by the desire to learn, to know, to experiment and understand.  That’s why it seems to have so many expressions–from the players who have their characters leap off cliffs because they have calculated that the fall won’t be fatal to those who become involved in the minutiae of combat to those who explore geography and culture.  Simulationism is expressed in other activities, in participating in war reenactments, watching travelogues and cooking shows, even taking college courses as a recreational activity.  For many people, the drive to know is what controls the way they play their games.  It is something of a vicarious experience, the feeling of being there, and so coming away with some notion of what it would be like to be there.

Simulationism is walking a mile in the other man’s shoes.  It is exploring what life would be like in another time or place.  It is learning, gaining knowledge.

I once had a debate with my brother in which he put forward as a premise that knowledge was inherently good, and that it was always good for knowledge to be disseminated to as many people as possible.  I objected to the premise.  Knowledge, I asserted, was a useful tool which could be used for good.  I think that is where this discussion ultimately takes us:  how will we use the knowledge we gain from our play, our experimentation, our vicarious experience?

That doesn’t mean that such play, such motivation, is wrong if we can’t identify the benefit before we play.  Scientists (and there’s a simulationist motivation if ever there was one) speak of the importance of “basic research”, that is, experimenting in directions with no immediate obvious value because when you don’t know what you might learn you can’t predict how it might be useful.  Many of our modern conveniences have their roots in someone simply wanting to know what would happen if, and then asking how that could be used.  Learning has value, even when we don’t always see the value immediately.  The high school student who challenges that he’s never going to need to know the math or science or history lessons he is forced to learn is short-sighted, and life will probably surprise him at some point.  Not everything we learn is useful, but it is often the case that we learn useful things from unexpected sources.

There are pitfalls in this.  Sometimes we want to know some things that it is better not to know.  We have all heard the idea that you “can’t unsee” something, and there are undoubtedly things you wish you’d never learned.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have learned them–only that sometimes what we know is not always an encouragement to us.  We would like to keep our minds always on the good, pure, honorable, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise, but then, we are also to be wise as serpents while being innocent as doves.  Maybe there are things you don’t need to know, that would tear down rather than build up–I am persuaded that I don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of horror movies, although I do need a working knowledge of some of the important ones (Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Alien, Terminator) just to do my job.  Maybe you need to know more; maybe you don’t need to know as much.  Yet learning is valuable, and simulationism is about wanting to learn.

So we find once again that Christians can find value in all three of the “creative agenda” that drive our play.  It’s just a matter of understanding how to do this to the glory of God and the edification of ourselves and others.

Previous article:  Order.
Next article:  Villainy.

RPG-ology #18: Waterways

This is RPG-ology #18:  Waterways, for May 2019.

We mentioned rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water in connection with maps when we talked about Country Roads and again when we were talking about the placement of Cities, but we barely touched on them, more from the perspective of their influence on other aspects of our maps and our worlds.  Maps and worlds, though, are complicated things, in which everything influences everything, and understanding how waterways work will help us put together better maps.

This is difficult for me, because so much of it seems obvious to me so I expect it will be obvious to everyone else.  However, I have the advantage, as I think I mentioned in Shock, of over a thousand miles of long-haul canoeing, so I am perhaps intimately familiar with rivers and lakes and ponds and how they work.  I thus hope that I’m not telling you too many obvious points, and that some of this proves to be practical.  Let’s start with some terms.

A river is pretty much any waterway that flows downhill.  They can be big or small, swift or lazy, shallow or deep, straight or meandering, rocky or clear, in any combination.  Smaller rivers are often called brooks, streams, creeks, and similar diminutive titles, but the only significant difference is the attitude of the people toward the waterway and the probability of it going dry, which rivers rarely do.

Lakes and ponds are usually found as interruptions in rivers, and they are distinct from rivers in a significant way.  A lake or pond is formed in essence when water pours into a natural basin and has to rise to the level of an exit point.  Because of this, the surface of a lake or pond is level, while that of a river is always sloped–if you look at the accompanying photo, you can see that the downstream end is downhill.  In the vernacular, lakes and ponds are generally distinguished by their size, but technically they are distinguished by their depth:  a pond is shallow enough that water plants such as waterlilly pads can root on the bottom and grow on the surface, while a lake has at least some areas in which it is too deep for that.  Lakes and ponds are sometimes created intentionally by the use of dams, built by people or sometimes by animals, most typically beavers.

It is difficult to distinguish a sea from a lake in many cases.  Seas tend to be the terminus of rivers, at least one and often several, but most of them either drain into or are contiguous with the oceans, which are also sometimes called seas but which as a word tends to refer to the vast expanses of water separating the continents.  The two exceptions to the drainage rule are the Dead Sea, which is constantly evaporating and so is too salty to support marine life, and the Mediterranean, which also loses its water to evaporation but is large enough that its salinity, although elevated, is not inimical to such life, and fishing and the like are active there.  (It is easy looking at a map to suppose that the Mediterranean drains into the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibralter, but the water there is mostly flowing very rapidly in the opposite direction, salt water from the Atlantic constantly replenishing the losses in the Mediterranean through what some have called the world’s largest waterfall. There is an undercurrent flowing westward as a small amount of dense saltier water goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but the bulk of the volume is inflow from the Atlantic.)  It is also the case that seas tend to be salty while lakes tend to be fresh, but this is not a hard and fast rule, there being a number of salt lakes in the world.  Part of this is because the distinctions between lakes and seas are not made in all Indo-European languages, and English has often translated words strictly that were used loosely.

A passageway that connects two bodies of water of the same or similar level is usually called a strait (or sometimes straits), usually unlike a river because water flows in and out both ends generally with the shifting tides.  If it is wider or longer, it is often called a channel, but this word also refers to the best path through a river—rivers tend to carve a deeper groove through which most of the water travels, and boats and ships navigate through these deeper sections either with or against the current. In modern times, these channels are marked by buoys, red buoys to the right when traveling upstream (“Red Right Returning”), black buoys marking the other edge.

A bay frequently appears as a brackish (that is, salty but less salty than the ocean) body of water connecting a river to a sea or ocean.  As the tide rises, water from the ocean pours into the bay, often forcing its way upstream reversing the “normal” flow of the river; the Delaware River is brackish as far upstream as Trenton, New Jersey, about eighty miles upstream, about fifty feet above sea level, and this reverse flow is often used by ships to navigate to inland ports upriver.  As the tide ebbs the bay drains into the ocean, and the river into the bay, and fresh water makes its way downstream to wash away the salt.  Because of the backwash, those upstream ports have rising and ebbing tides, but these are out of phase with the coastal tides that drive them, often by as much as six or eight hours, depending on how far upriver you go.  A very small bay-like inlet is usually called a cove; a lagoon generally is a type of coastal pool that fills from ocean spill when the tide rises over its banks, and then slowly evaporates, frequently not completely before being refilled.

A wadi is something like a river, but significantly different.  Common to inland tropics such as Africa, the wadi is a watercourse that floods and dries in a seasonal cycle.  During the “rainy season” water falls in the highlands and flows down very like rivers, working downstream and gradually covering thousands of acres of ground, pooling but flowing, spreading over wide expanses of open space.  Animals are aware of the seasonal cues, and migrate toward the anticipated flood; plants desiccated from drought spring to life and blossom.  For a few months it is a lush wet marshy world, water plentiful, wildlife active.  Then gradually it all evaporates, leaving the dry grassland to wither in the heat, as the animals scatter to places better able to support them during the drought.  The water from a wadi never reaches the seas, soaking into the earth and evaporating into the air long before joining any other watercourse.  Wadis do not support ship traffic or permanent settlements, because the water level is non-existent for a significant part of the year and rarely deep enough for more than the smallest craft.

Swamps, marshes, bayous, and deltas all tend to be areas where a river spreads out to a shallow wide area, usually with a channel passing through it somewhere but often a confusing labyrinth of waterways leading to dead ends and shallow muck.  Wadis do support marshes and swamps during their wet periods; bayous and deltas tend to be at points where the river meets the sea, and are brackish like bays.

Now, this might sound obvious, but water falls from the sky.  Really all of it does.  Water in wells and water coming from springs is water that fell from the sky and soaked into the ground, then collected atop or between layers of rock and either sat waiting to be collected or built up pressure from gravity until it spurted through an exit.  It gets into the sky by evaporation, the vast majority of this from the vast expanses of tropical oceans—if your world does not have vast tropical oceans, you will have a lot less rain, and a lot less fresh water.  Evaporated water, water vapor, is held in greater quantity in denser warmer air; if the air cools or becomes depressurized, it cannot hold as much water and so releases it.  This is why so much precipitation (rain and snow) falls on mountains:  warm moist dense air currents are shifted upward into cooler low pressure altitudes, and can no longer hold as much water.  From there it collects in streams or soaks into the ground.

There is an interesting atmospheric phenomenon at this point.  As water falls, it washes carbons out of the air, turning into mild carbolic acid.  It has always done this; this is not a modern result of air pollution, although air pollution does contribute to it.  Carbolic acid which lands on dirt and soaks into it decays and releases its carbons back into the atmosphere.  That which lands on rock and flows into streams dissolves the rock, creating calcium carbonate which washes downstream into the oceans, burying the carbon for millenia.  That’s not really useful to this discussion, though, so ignore it.

Technically, a well is a hole dug deep enough to hit what is called the water table, the level under the ground where bedrock prevents water from seeping deeper, and so has water refilling it constantly from the surrounding lands.  It is sometimes confused with a cistern, which is a dry hole usually lined with stone designed to catch rain when there is rainfall and keep it deep and cool in the ground during the dry seasons.  The famed Jacob’s Well is actually a cistern.

This is also obvious:  water flows downhill.  Because of this it is constantly “seeking” the lowest point, and that means it collects into fewer larger rivers.  If it pours into a low point—call it a basin—it collects there, rising as a pond or lake until it rises over the lowest edge.  A lake can have several rivers feeding it, or no rivers feeding it if it is fed by a spring or springs below its water line, but rarely does it have more than one draining it—odds are good that there will be one lowest point, and once the water starts pouring through it erosion will make that point lower.  If the lake is filling faster than it is emptying, it might rise high enough to begin spilling from another point.  However, most typically these are near enough each other that the streams soon join creating an island at the head of the river.  If the two streams are headed in different directions, it is most commonly the case that one of the outlets will erode until all the water passes through it, the other becoming dry unless it is fed by other water sources below.

Where the ground is steeper, the water moves faster and generally straighter.  It follows the lowest ground, but in doing so carves the path deeper, sometimes wider, removing the dirt and softest stone.  If it comes into a pocket of harder stone, it will be turned, but the turning will create swirls and eddies which often drill deep spots in the riverbed.  The northern reaches of the Delaware River are frequently shallow enough to wade through, but where it turns sharply at Narrowsburg, New York, there are whirlpools during flooding and the depth at the curve is over a hundred feet deep.  Rocky rapids form where the ground is too hard to erode easily and the slope is steeper, as the river becomes forced into a narrow space often between high banks and spreads over the area to become swift and shallow, the irregular bottom redirecting the current in directions difficult to predict without surveying in advance.

Where the ground is less sloped, the water spreads to cover a wide path and flows more slowly, but still tends to follow the lowest ground and carve a channel.  In older sections of the river these channels are often meandering, and as the water ultimately settles into them they form snake-like slow rivers with very little noticeable current, frequently surrounded by marshy ground, meadows, and flood plains.

As rivers join, they become wider and deeper, and usually become straighter as the land is less able to resist the flow of the water.  These wider deeper rivers which ultimately reach the sea are frequently navigable by ocean-going vessels, and as we noted are also subject to reverse flow when the tides rise, thus brackish but also easier to navigate upstream.  They will carve deep sections particularly at curves and bends in the river, as in Narrowsburg, creating good ports at such curves, considerably more so than along straight paths.  Upstream of a certain point ocean vessels, which have deep drafts to provide stability in rough seas, give way to shallow-draft river boats, able to navigate farther upstream.

The same currents that form harbors on rivers do so where rivers hit the seas, which makes such points doubly convenient for trade, as a port there accesses both the oceans and the river.  Such harbors are also created where the coastline recedes sharply, as ocean currents form eddies which create depths near the shoreline, although if the surrounding ground is low there will probably be a river outlet there, and if not the deep water is likely to be surrounded by cliffs, making for good anchorage but a bad place for a port.

So to summarize, most rivers begin from streams in mountains, flowing downhill and collecting into larger rivers, forming lakes in low spots, rapids over steep rocky ground, meandering courses over flatter softer ground, ultimately becoming large enough to support riverboat trade and then ocean vessels, subject at the downstream end to tidal backflow, emptying into seas and oceans sometimes through intervening bays.  Harbors form where currents have carved significant depths, usually at the mouths of the rivers and at river bends.

Now you have some idea of how to put the waterways on your maps.

I have omitted canals from this discussion.  Men build canals usually where there are two disconnected waterway systems near enough to each other that it would be commercially profitable to be able to run boats or ships between them.  Usually these involve mechanical locks which enable the control of the flow of water between the two systems, particularly if they are not at the same level, and typically because such canals often have to cross ground that is higher than either of the waterways (the reason the waterways haven’t flowed into each other).  Sometimes canals are built to get around sections of a river that are not navigable, if there are navigable sections upstream of falls or rapids.  They are a lot of work to build, operate, and maintain, and if neglected gradually deteriorate.

Previous article:  With the Odds.
Next article:  Treasure Auction.

Faith in Play #18: Order

This is Faith in Play #18:  Order, for May 2019.

A lot of people think that lawful (and specifically lawful good) is The Christian alignment in Dungeons & Dragons™.  They think this because they associate it with keeping the rules, and they think that Christianity is about keeping the rules.  I would disagree on two counts.  First, I don’t think Christianity is primarily about keeping rules—in fact, it might be that keeping rules has almost nothing to do with Christian faith.  Yet at the same time, I don’t think that the law alignment is really quite about keeping rules, either.  It’s fundamentally about something else entirely.

This is a continuation of our series on alignment as the True Religion in the Dungeons & Dragons™ game world, begun a year ago.  Since then we’ve considered Goodness and Wickedness, and I hope discovered that they were not what they are often thought to be.  We are now turning our heads sideways toward the other axis of the alignment graph, looking at law, which is opposed to chaos on the chart.

Somewhere C. S. Lewis contrasted two perceptions of humanity and society.  On the one hand, he said that if it were true that people are born, live a few decades, and die, and that’s the end of the story, they aren’t terribly important as individuals.  Some of them achieve greatness, and perhaps as Churchill said some have greatness thrust upon them, but even great men are small in the total picture.  They matter only to the degree that they serve the larger entity, society, the nation, perhaps the race.

It is this thinking which gives rise to the famous saying attributed to Mister Spock, The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.  In this conception of the universe, I don’t matter, and you don’t matter, but we can hope that humanity matters, that somehow we will as a people survive the planet, survive the sun, populate the universe, possibly become part of the larger society of intelligent creatures scattered among the stars.  It is not the individual that matters, but the collective, the sum of all individuals.

Therefore, by this thinking, the individual exists for the benefit of the society, and the society can sacrifice the individual, use the individual however it believes will best benefit the total.  As Caiaphas says, do you not see that it is better for one person to be killed for the sake of the nation?  People individually do not matter; society is what matters.

That is the core of the lawful alignment.  It expresses itself in many ways, including that there will be structure within the society, rules which bind the members.  It is important that the society function smoothly, that the society itself is healthy and prosperous.  It achieves that by laws, by customs, by taxes, by restrictions and permissions, by castes and privilege, by masters and slaves, employers and employees, and by anything else that keeps the society functioning as a society.

This sounds rather bleak, but it’s not all bad—it’s just not all good.  In fact, it’s neither good nor bad, in itself.  It’s simply a way of seeing the world in which we are more important than I, more important than you, or him, or her.  It is about whether each of us matters within the context of all of us, whether a government should put the whole of society above the needs of individual members.  It has the effect, pushed to the extreme, of making us cogs in a machine, but it can make the machine much better for all the cogs if it’s done right.

Of course, that is, as I cited from Lewis, the one hand.  The other hand is the view that people are at least potentially immortal, that we will outlive the universe.  That gives rise to the other side—but we’ll have to wait for another article to address that.

Previous article:  Narrativism.
Next article:  Simulationism.

An Invitation to Contribute to the CGG Site

Today happens to be the fifth Tuesday of April, and that actually creates a hole in our article schedule.

I write two series, the Faith in Play series that appears on the first Tuesday of every month, and the RPG-ology series that runs the third week.  Other members of the Christian Gamers Guild typically fill the second and fourth weeks, most notably Mike Garcia with his game stories and special rules and setting information, but we’ve also had quite a few contributions from R. C. Brooks and his D20 game setting, guild board member Eric Vandenhende, guild president Reverend Rodney Barnes, and our webmaster Bryan Ray.  They all have real-world jobs, though, so it’s understandable that they don’t keep pace with someone who spends nearly all his time writing and reading things others have written.  It thus sometimes happens that there’s nothing to post.

I’m writing this not merely to fill a slot that would otherwise have been empty, but to recognize—and to get you to recognize—that we welcome contributions from other writers.  We had a wonderful piece at the end of last month from Stephen Taylor, not a member of the guild but head of Games for All in the United Kingdom, about how to launch and run a games or hobby ministry.  We would love to have more perspectives on more related subjects from more Christians, and if you have something to say about faith and leisure activities, and don’t know where to say it, the invitation is extended to you to give us your idea here and we’ll try to slate you into one of our openings.

Probably the easiest way to let us know you’re interested is to post a comment at the bottom of this page; we’ll see that you commented, and follow up somehow.  You can also reach either Bryan or me through Facebook, such as messaging the Christian Gamers Guild’s Facebook page or contacting us personally.

I look forward to reading your thoughts, and I’m sure our many readers do so as well.

RPG-ology #17: With the Odds

This is RPG-ology #17:  With the Odds, for April 2019.

A few years ago I launched the mark Joseph “young” web log with post #1:  Probabilities and Solitaire, which talked about how to improve your success at that and other card games by considering the odds of any particular lay of the cards.  I do use those rules when I play the game, and this evening (by now probably a year ago) as I played I was in a situation in which the two black queens (with other cards descending from them) were atop the two right-hand piles, one atop five cards and the other atop four.  A red king appeared to the left, and I had to choose which queen to move.

Recalling the rule, I moved the queen from atop five cards, and continued play as the cards which were freed were one after another moved into other positions.  The fifth, the bottom card, was the other red king, and I immediately shifted the other black queen to open the other pile.  As I did so the phrase against the odds came to mind, which was in a sense true, as it was improbable that the red king would have been on the bottom of that pile given all the places it might have been—but my mind immediately corrected me that this was with the odds:  I had recognized that the red king was more likely to be in the pile with more concealed cards than the pile with fewer, and it in fact was.

Of course, it might not have been, but Damon Runyon said, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”  If you know the odds, and you want to win, you act in accordance with your best chance of success.  Bridge players learn the odds of cards being one way or another, and play to the best chance to win.  Knowing the odds of success, and knowing how to make them better, is the best tool for winning in most games.

It’s different with sports and casino betting.  The house sets the odds according to the probability of success, such that although you will probably lose betting on a longshot, if you win you get a better return on the bet.  That helps lure gamblers into “sucker bets” so they will lose a lot of money in small wagers on long odds, and the big payouts are a small portion of the total take and an incentive to others to take the chance.  It also helps cover the winners who bet on the favorite, as if it’s obvious who is going to win and he does win, there will be a lot of winning bets to cover.

Having recognized this many years ago, I devised ADR’s and Surv’s—calculations of the average damage per round an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ character could deliver and the number of attacks he could survive as comparative numbers.  It enabled my characters and the others in my party to identify which were their best attack forms in various situations, and let us build strategies on who could deliver the most damage and who could survive the longest in a fight.  I still use a spreadsheet version of the program today when I play or run that game, and while the calculation itself doesn’t port well even to other editions of the game, the factors may well help you recognize the strengths of your own characters in other games.

Even if you don’t care to stretch your math skills to calculating odds, you should try to get a genuine feel for them, to know when things are likely to fall in your favor, and when they are likely to fall against you.  If the odds favor a particular course of action, that’s the way to play; if the odds are against you, it’s time to retreat.

That seems obvious.  What is not quite so obvious is that in life we have to guess quite a bit about odds involving factors outside our knowledge.  In a game, we can quantify enough of the information to do the math, quite literally, and know the probable outcome.  Of course, probable outcomes are not guaranteed, but they are always more likely than improbable ones.

Previous article:  Creatures.
Next article:  Waterways.

Faith in Play #17: Narrativism

This is Faith in Play #17:  Narrativism, for April 2019.

Two months back we started seeking what might be a Christian approach to what is called Creative Agenda, by discussing gamism. Our conclusion was that gamism was not inimical to Christian faith, insofar as it encourages us to be our best and meet the challenges we face.

We did not conclude that it was “The Christian Way” to play; we did not touch on the other two identified agenda, narrativism and simulationism, at all. This month we’ll continue in the order in which they are commonly listed and look at narrativism.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers. 1812 Henry Fuseli

People mistakenly equate narrativist play with storytelling, but the gamist group will tell of the time they rode into the mountains, trapped the dragon in its cave, and after a hard-fought battle killed it, and how is that not a story? What distinguishes narrativism is more the focus of the story. Narrativists thrive on moral and ethical issues, emotional responses, and human relationships and interactions. Did you risk your life because you were in love with the princess? Did the sorceress accompany you because she hoped to tap some of the dragon’s power for herself? Was the dragon a proven danger to the community, or was this done simply because we wanted to be famous as dragonslayers? Stories of love and betrayal, of ambition and greed, of nobility and flaws, plots which could be ripped from the pages of Shakespeare, are the heart of narrativist play. It isn’t that you risked your life but why you risked your life that forms the story.

In that sense, narrativism is about posing life questions and exploring possible answers—and in that sense we discussed this long ago in Faith and Gaming:  Answers, that role playing of this sort allows us to practice making moral, ethical, and personal decisions, in a petri dish environment that allows us to consider the consequences without suffering them. It permits us to communicate about our beliefs and explore alternatives in ways that are non-confrontational.

Anything that facilitates communication about beliefs is a worthwhile pursuit for Christians, both among ourselves and in groups with unbelievers. Narrativism thus has much to commend it as a Christian approach to play.

There are hazards, however. Just as the context of play enables us to express beliefs, it enables others to challenge those beliefs, to explore the weaknesses in what we claim. C. S. Lewis once said that at any given moment the weakest doctrine in Christianity always seemed to be the one he had just successfully defended, because at that moment it seemed that the truth of that doctrine depended entirely upon his own meager abilities to defend it, and not on God. Any time we put our beliefs in front of others, we can expect that they will be attacked, and the weaknesses uncovered. It might well seem that what you believe is not unassailable, as others bring their beliefs against it within the context of play. This, too, though, can be beneficial, as our beliefs are strengthened by our recognition that God, and not we, is the foundation for truth, and our understanding is imperfect but improving. Narrativism gives us this opportunity, if we can grasp it.

So again it appears that narrativism is also an approach to play that is not unchristian.

We’ll look at simulationism in a couple months.

Previous article:  Mourning.
Next article:  Order.

RPG-ology #16: Creatures

This is RPG-ology #16:  Creatures, for March 2019.

In seeking a topic for this month, I kept coming back to one covered in Game Ideas Unlimited, August 3rd, 2001, which discussed envisioning and describing fantastic creatures.  I thought of rewriting the idea for this column, but as I reviewed it I was more and more persuaded that I couldn’t improve on the original.  Thus I offer here a republication of

Game Ideas Unlimited:


Empiricist philosopher David Hume espoused the opinion that we can’t imagine anything we’ve never experienced.

To support his position, he adduced evidence from the descriptions of mythical creatures.  The Gryphon, for instance, has the body and legs of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle.  Pegasus similarly is just a horse with bird wings attached.  This is a small that, that a large this.  Even the dragon proved to be nothing other than a giant lizard or snake with the wings of a bird or bat.

He did concede one point:  he thought it might be possible to imagine a color that was a shade between two other colors.

I don’t want to suggest that I’m smarter than David Hume; let’s say I had the advantage of a century of technological advances.  It seemed to me almost immediately that that exception was a crack in the wall which would ultimately admit the flood.  Read more

Faith in Play #16: Mourning

This is Faith in Play #16:  Mourning, for March 2019.

Dearly beloved, we gather today to mourn the passing of our companion Ralph, a bold adventurer who met his fate defending his friends and companions.  Although we are greatly saddened at this loss, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that Ralph was a non-player character, and his loss of little consequence to the ongoing game as he will be replaced by a new recruit during the party’s next visit to town.

I once commented in Game Ideas Unlimited that game characters often died with very little recognition of their deaths within the game world.  At the time I had just helped my sons bury a family cat, and noted that the life, and the death, of this small animal mattered to them, impacted them.  I wondered that in so many of the games I had played, the deaths of character party members were of less consequence to the other characters in the party.  It was as if death did not matter to them.

I have run many hours of Multiverser, and in that game we have what Ron Edwards said was an excellent answer to character death:  when a player character dies, he starts again in another universe in a new adventure.  However, I have also run many hours of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and played in several other role playing games.  I remember when a beloved Gamma World character was killed I was in such shock that I played the rest of the night from the couch across the room (the living room end of a long living room-dining room), despite the fact that I had two characters in the game and the one who was still alive was the leader of the group.  Even in Multiverser, non-player characters who matter sometimes die.  Yet player characters somehow fail to mourn them.

Mourning is something of a sticky issue in Christendom.  I am at an age at which I sometimes hear that people I have not seen for decades, such as college friends, have died.  My reaction is often that they were always more fortunate than I, and now they get to go home first.  There are churches in which funerals are if not upbeat at least positive.  One woman who had reached the age of one hundred and five and still got someone to transport her from the nursing home to church every weekend commented to her pastor that she’d better die soon or the family was likely to think that she’s not coming.  We speak of the joy of the afterlife, but find ourselves mourning when those we love have entered it.

Of course, the best explanation is that we are not really sad for them, but for ourselves.  I lost my father a few years back, and I still miss him.  Our best man and the girl who sang at our wedding have both succumbed to cancer, and many times I had wished I could see them again.  We have lost opportunities to connect again in this life with people who mattered to us.  We should be glad for them, but still we are sad for ourselves, for our loss.  I am not sorry that they died, really; I am sorry that I have lost them.  For now.

Yet what do our characters believe?  How do they regard the deaths of their comrades and companions and acquaintances?  Do they even have friends, and if so will they miss them when they’re gone?

If so, why is it that I don’t recall ever having a game character attend a funeral?

It seems that our imaginary characters fail to be human in this critical way.  We fail to feel the pain of loss when one of our number dies.  It is a real pain which we feel in our ordinary lives, and to be human in this way, to have our imagined characters care about each other, communicates something about love to others in the game.  It says that we care about them, that people like them matter to us, reflected in the fact that people like their characters matter to our character.  It is a sad moment when someone dies, and it should be so for game characters—even for those non-player characters whose loss doesn’t really impact the players.

Previous article:  Gamism.
Next article:  Narrativism.

RPG-ology #15: Vivid

This is RPG-ology #15:  Vivid, for February 2019.

Last month I told a story of a real-life adventure on a canoe trip from which I have vivid memories.  I promised that this month I would tell of another adventure.

There were six of us.  We had been traveling with a larger group through some underground caves when a collapse separated us from our guides.  However, we had reason to believe that there would be another exit through the caverns, and we had food and water for several days.  We began looking.

Within a couple days we had by process of elimination established that we were going to have to cross a chasm.  It was at least a hundred meters wide, and there was a visible exit from a ledge on the far side.  The good news was that the dim light in the cavern revealed pillars of rock rising to our level, as if carved islands in an ancient river, so we could in theory move from one to another.  The bad news was that this dim light came from a river of magma perhaps a hundred meters below, making the space oppressively hot and promising a swift end to anyone who missed a step.

We went to work, using our equipment and skills to scavenge materials from the caves, building a pair of primitive catwalk bridges and supplementing our ropes with some woven vine-like growths.  We doused ourselves and our gear with most of our remaining water, and lassoed stalactites on the ceiling for safety ropes, also tying ropes around our waists to anchor us as we crossed, and in short hops we moved our selves, our bridges, and our ropes across the open space, only too aware of the danger below.  It was a tense couple of hours, and we lost a rope to a breaking stalactite, caught a man who slipped off a bridge, dropped a bridge into the depths below, and made the last hop swinging Tarzan-style across the final gap.  We collapsed on the ledge, hot, sweaty, breathless, spent, and yet happy that we had gotten all six of us across.

As we had hoped, the passage we had viewed across the canyon led swiftly to an exit, and we were out of the caves.

It is probably obvious to most readers that this is not a real occurrence.  It becomes less real when I mention that I was dralasite, and my companions included a yazarian, a human, two vrusk, and another dralasite, and the caves were underground on a planet known as Volturnus.  The entire adventure occurred in the imaginations of three players and a referee.

Yet some of my memories of that adventure are as vivid in my mind as those of shooting the rapids in Skinner’s Falls at flood stage.  There is some truth to the notion in Total Recall that once you come home from the vacation all you really have is the memories and maybe a few souvenirs whose value lies in their ability to trigger the memories.  Sometimes our role playing games create memories, some of them vivid, some of them tense, some of them funny, and all of them fun.  Whether they are bare knuckles success stories like this one, or hysterical failures like Chris and the Teleporting Spaceships, poignant moments or exciting adventures, they become memories, sometimes vivid memories, transporting us to fantastic worlds not only when we’re playing but years, even decades, later when we remember what we only imagined doing as if we had done it.

That is one of the amazing things about this hobby.  It brings worlds alive, and puts us in them, perhaps in ways no other medium has yet managed.

Previous article:  Shock.
Next article:  Creatures.