Category: Chaplain’s Corner

The Christian Gamers Guild has many facets to its ministry, as we seek to reclaim the imagination to be conformed to the image of Christ through the use of gaming as a creative art form.

One of those aspects is support for Christians involved in gaming. Much of that support is realized through our interactive e-mail group, as Christians from around the world who are gamers share their thoughts and experiences with each other. But the mission goes beyond that. This section of the web site contains articles and links geared to edify and challenge Christians as they live their faith in their games.

Questions about any of this can be directed to the Christian Gamers Guild Board of Directors; some of the authors of individual articles have also included e-mail addresses in their biographical materials, linked from their articles individually.

RPG-ology #21: Living In the Past

This is RPG-ology #21:  Living In the Past, for August 2019.


All four of my grandparents have died.  I have also lost my father, and both of my wife’s parents are gone.  I had a long list of great uncles and great aunts at one time, but it has dwindled to nothing, and of my uncles and aunts I might still have one.

The five and dime at which I bought candy on my way home from school is gone, and I am one and a half hundred miles from where it once stood.  There’s a long list of good friends with whom I have lost touch—Jay Fedigan, Artie Robins, Jeff Zurheide, Jack Haberer, not to mention Peggy Lisbona, Nancy Codispoti, Ann Hughes, and the girl to whom my mind often returns, on whom I had an impossible crush for two or three years beginning in second grade, Christie Newcomb.  At least two of those people, all within a couple years of my age, are dead; and although I have spoken or corresponded with some within the past decade, I cannot say for certain that any one of them is still alive today.

No one will be surprised that the past is disappearing into—well, into the past.  That’s expected.  Young people will wonder why I even mention it.  You’re living in the past, old man.  Get over it.  Life goes forward, and will leave you behind if you don’t keep up.  I know this; I can sigh and let life leave me behind, or I can keep moving forward.

But I’ve got news for you.

You’re living in the past, too.

That talk you had with your girlfriend yesterday—that’s now in the past.  Get over it; the moment has come and gone.  Whatever you should have said, well, you didn’t, and you’re not going to be able to go back and fix that.

You got beat up last month.  It’s in the past.  It’s over, and fading faster and faster into oblivion.  Ten years and you might not remember his name.  Twenty years and you won’t remember that it happened.  Yes it hurt, and it hurts, and you’re angry and upset about it.  But it’s the past now.  You can’t hold on to it; you might as well let it go.

That A+ you got on your math test (or was it the “letter” you received in varsity football, or the badge you earned in boy scouts, or the award you won for your picture or article)—well, that’s also in the past.  Time is leaving it behind.  You will eventually forget it.  And everyone else will forget it long before you do.

Was breakfast good today?  It’s gone already.

You are living in the past.  Everything you know, everything you remember, everything you’ve ever said—even the thoughts you had when you started reading this article–everything is in the past.  You can’t have it back.

Don’t feel bad about it.  It’s the same for everyone else.  In fact, it’s the same for the world, quite apart from the people.  I’m one of those who are often quoting C. S. Lewis.  There are enough of us out here that there ought to be a DSM-IV classification for us.  So you’ll probably see his name in a lot of these articles if you stay with the series.  This time he comes to mind because of a very simple observation he mentioned more than once:  most people are already dead.

That is, of all the people ever born, only a very few are alive now.

This moment in time is interesting; if you could know everything that is happening at this instant, it would overwhelm you—even if your knowledge was limited to your own town, there would be more happening this instant than you could grasp, enough ideas for a lifetime of stories.  Yet when compared with the past, this instant is no time at all, a desert devoid of interest.  In trying to get readers to think and create, I often focus on now.  Last month’s article, entitled Pay Attention, might at first glance have seemed to have been about the past—but it was actually about capturing the present, living in the moment and learning from what is around you immediately.  Writing it down served to preserve it, certainly; but it also served to force you to notice it.  The present is always a source of ideas.  But the ideas you can get from the present are dwarfed by those you can get from the past.

Assuming you can find them.

My father was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluvan engineer.  He drove a reconditioned Model-T to school, poured fifty-weight oil into the crankcase to keep the worn bearings running smoothly, and had to crank-start it by hand on cold mornings.  He played fourth sax (tenor) in a dance band to help pay for college, and went to work in an electronics lab for Western Union.  When he was head of the lab, he proposed “Young’s Law.”  Accidents occasionally happened in the lab, usually because someone didn’t have the right piece of equipment and so tried to use the wrong piece of equipment on the theory that it really wasn’t different; the results of such experiments were always strange and confusing.  My father’s law reads, “Things that are not the same are different.”  He missed World War II, having been enlisted just as the war ended.  All this, and more, was before my birth.

He later took an interest in computers, and in the late 60’s spent a lot of time nagging the few computer tinkerers at the company to explain things to him.  This led to a few courses, more investigation, and ultimately to his position as head of engineering for Western Union Data Services Corporation, where he designed systems before there were PC’s.  He holds a couple of patents in focusing microwaves, but he says they really aren’t worth much because modern microwave applications rely on reflection rather than refraction.

He met my mother, a New York girl, after he started work in New York; he courted her for a while.  She tried to pair him off with a girl from Virginia, thinking that two slow-moving southerners would be a good match, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

As for her, she got her bachelor’s degree from City College in New York at nineteen.  She had skipped a lot of half-grades in the New York City schools, and excelled in math.  For quite a few years she worked as an efficiency expert for, I think, General Electric.  If you visited her at home, you would see the efficiency expert side of her still maintaining everything in order even now in her nineties as her grandchildren are all adults and she has a couple of great-grandchildren.  She left work to raise a family, and when the youngest was old enough she returned to teaching, mostly math, as a substitute primarily although she got roped into substituting full time for several years at one point.  She has always looked young; the day after her college graduation, an immigrant bought her a lollipop.

When they were courting, they would ride the train together from Freeport Long Island to The City; they sat with an older man who had known my mother for some time.  He did not think that the quiet, slow, polite Mississippi gentleman that was my father was at all right for my fast-paced New York mother.  But one day, as my mother was yacking a mile a minute about nothing of any importance and the other two sat in silence listening, she abruptly stopped, and said, “Oh dear, I forgot what I was going to say.”

Quietly my father replied, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll think of something else.”

Their companion roared with laughter, and accepted my father as the right man for my mother from then on.

So, what did your parents do?  Have you ever asked?  Did they tell you?  Their lives are fading from their memories even as you read this; and they were full of stories.  Life itself is an adventure.  I’d think you’d want to know about them merely because they’re your parents, and thus in some sense your story.  But if not, consider it a source of game, world, and character ideas.

This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited:  Living In the Past, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.


Previous article:  Pay Attention.
Next article:  Snow Day.

Faith in Play #21: Villainy

This is Faith in Play #21: Villainy, for August 2019.


It was a year ago, but I had a stack of articles in the queue when it happened, and decided not to disrupt the plan by answering what appeared to be a question from a Troll posted to our Facebook page (I managed to lose the link to the thread).  It was comprised primarily of the image below, and the question of what we think of it.  I think Facebook is a terrible place to attempt to hold serious discussions, but Bryan pointed him to Faith and Gaming:  Bad Things, about evil in the world, and I suggested Faith and Gaming:  Bad Guys, about playing the wicked character as a way to bring faith into the game.  I did not get a response to that, but I felt that there were valid concerns raised by the picture (I think that calling it a “meme” was wishful thinking on the part of whoever created it), even if it might have been posted by a troll.

If you can’t read the text, above the image it says

I like the villains in all my favorite movies, TV Shows, books, video games, etc.  They’re my favorite, I play the bad guy any chance I get.

The text balloon in the image itself then shows the two-faced person saying

Hi, I spend my free time promoting the opposite of my personal values.  I’m an honest person!

At the bottom it then continues

What do you mean you find it dubious that people would spend their precious free time and hard earned money on things they find morally repugnant?  I’m a really good person, I just love idolizing evil in *ALL* my recreational activities.  There’s no correlation, I promise!

And we are thus faced with the issue of whether someone who plays the villain at every opportunity is reflecting his true values and only pretending to be good in his regular relationships.  In a sense, which version of him is a role, and which is the reality?

This is the more potent a question for me, because as a novelist I am constantly creating the characters on the page, working out what they would do, and I have to understand them–and as I noted decades ago in a journal somewhere, I understand them because I find them inside me, facets of my own personality, my own identity, people I could have been, in a sense could be.  Sure, there is a degree to which I sometimes model characters after people I know, and thus I can ask myself what would Chris do, or John, or Ed, or any of the many other people whose identities contributed something to the composites that are my characters, but this only removes it slightly:  in order to understand Chris or John or Ed well enough to know what they would do, I have to find that part of me that resonates with them, in essence discovering them within myself, knowing what it would be like to be them.  So I am the heroes, but I am the villains, and the ordinary people between the extremes, the background characters, the important mentors and sidekicks, all, everyone, is found as part of who I am somewhere inside.  I have wickedness in me, enough to understand what motivates the wicked.

Arguably, though, I don’t always play the villain–that is, I don’t play the villain exclusively.  Yet I understand the villain, and I understand the appeal of playing him.  I prefer to be the hero, but I know people who usually play the villain, the thief, the rogue, the scoundrel.  (I know people who usually play the hero, as well, but that’s not the issue here.)

As we noted before, there are admirable qualities, lessons to be learned, from playing the rogue.  There are also ways, as discussed in those previously listed articles, to use playing the wicked as a means of throwing light on the truth, of bringing our faith into our games.  Not everyone who plays the villain, even who plays the villain regularly, does so because he is secretly a villain at heart.  It is possible that a particular individual finds that playing the evil character is the best way for him to show his companions just how wicked they are, and how much they need salvation.  There can be good reasons to play the bad guys.

None of which completely addresses the objection.  That is, there might well be players out there who want us to see them, in themselves, as basically good people, but who always love the villains and always play the villains because there is something in them that wants to be the villain.

There is that in all of us, I think.  We are all born sinners, selfish people who by game standards would be evil.  We like being selfish; it makes us feel good to think that there is someone who always puts us first, even if that someone is actually us.  Yet the critic is right.  If we enjoy that in our recreational activities, are we feeding something that we ought to starve in our real lives?  Are we pretending to be what we really want to be, instead of really wanting to be sons and daughters of God?

I think there are good reasons to play bad people.  They include trying to understand how sinners think so we can reach them, trying to show sinners the wickedness in their own lives, creating the contrast between good and evil so that the choice is made clear–there are certainly other good reasons to play the bad character.  The question, though, comes to our motivation:  do we really want to be the bad person, or are we doing this for a good reason?

So examine yourself to see if you are in the faith, and remember that whatever a person sows he will also reap.


Previous article:  The Problem with Protests.
Next article:  Individualism.

RPG-ology #20: Pay Attention

This is RPG-ology #20:  Pay Attention, for July 2019.


When Multiverser was first going to publication, artist Jim Denaxas suggested that from henceforth everything in my life had become tax deductible.

My job today is to create worlds, and to find ways to import worlds to games—my games and the games of referees around the world.  Whatever I do in pursuit of that job is a business expense.

If I go to see a movie, I’m researching plots, stories, and sometimes fantasy or science fiction settings.  If I read a book, it’s the same thing.  The newspaper is a source of world ideas; so, for that matter, is the television.  But those are the obvious things.

I could go on vacation, and justify it as a study of other parts of the world.  How much more realistic could my development of a Greco-Roman culture feel if I’ve walked the Appian Way, or stood before the Parthenon?  Could I write as convincing an Asian setting without visiting China and Japan?  If we’re setting this in the mountains in the summer, a trip to the Poconos is helpful, but wouldn’t it be so greatly enhanced by traveling to the Rockies, the Alps, and perhaps the Himalayas?  I can visit the beach and learn much; I can visit Historic Gloucester, legendary Malibu, and even the black beaches of Hawaii and learn so much more. Read more

Faith in Play #20: The Problem with Protests

This is Faith in Play #20:  The Problem with Protests, for July 2019.


It was brought to my attention that twenty thousand well-meaning wrong-headed religious conservatives have signed a petition asking Netflix not to run a show produced by Amazon exclusively for Amazon Prime subscribers.  The show is a scripting by Neil Gaiman of a book he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett, and centers on an angel and a demon cooperating to prevent the Antichrist from coming to power and bringing the apocalypse.

The most cogent of the objections, I suppose, is that it makes Satanism seem light and acceptable.  That’s not really surprising, given that Pratchett was a brilliant humorist and satirist, and Gaiman is a respected fantasy author; one would expect anything they wrote together to be funny on some level.  Other complaints are just foolish, such as that God is voiced by a woman (God in Genesis clearly embodies all that is masculine and feminine in one being, and so could express Himself as Herself if that suited His/Her purpose), and that the Antichrist is portrayed as a normal child (we know so little about The Antichrist, or even if that’s a proper designation for any individual—the word appears only four times, all in John’s first two letters, and always in ways that suggest a generalized bunch of people who share the title and were active when John wrote).

I’m told that Netflix has agreed not to air the show, which is both funny and sad—sad because I don’t have an Amazon Prime account but I do have a Netflix account, so unless I give in to the pressure from my Patrons and spend the money on Amazon I’m not going to be able to see it, funny because of course Netflix was never going to be offered the opportunity to air it so it’s an empty concession.

And this highlights the first big problem with these Christian protests.  I am one of probably millions who would not have heard about this show but for the news of the petition.  Many will have considered subscribing to Amazon Prime for the opportunity to see it—a Neil Gaiman scripting of a book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett is going to attract a lot of potential viewers, and Amazon could not have asked for better publicity.  When I was a boy, there was a cartoon show about a flying squirrel and his friend, a moose.  (It was originally entitled Rocky and His Friends, after the lead character Rocket J. Squirrel, but the sidekick became so popular he soon got equal billing in Rocky and Bullwinkle and then top billing as it became The Bullwinkle Show.)  At one point they did a story arc about the “search for the Kirward Derby”.  What we kids didn’t know was that at the time there was a successful television personality named Durward Kirby.  Reportedly Kirby threatened to sue, but Rocky producer Jay Adams replied by letter saying, “Please do, we need the publicity.”  That may be the first time anyone recognized that in the entertainment world there is no such thing as bad publicity, and loudly objecting to anything in that field can only make it more popular.  It is said that one of the reasons TSR did not more aggressively attempt to address Christian objections to Dungeons & Dragons back in the 80s was because the young people the game was targeting were more likely to want to know about a game that their parents and the churches condemned.  The probability that Amazon would have pulled the show in response to a petition was negligible, and so the only likely outcome of the petition is exactly what it achieved, advertising the show to many who would not otherwise have been aware of it.

That the petitioners don’t recognize this also makes them look foolish.  Of course, these particular petitioners look the more foolish because they petitioned the wrong network.  That is not only foolish in itself, it makes it blatantly evident that possibly not a single person who signed that petition knew what it was to which they were objecting—they had never seen the show, perhaps not even a trailer for it.  Had they seen it, at least some of them would have realized that it was not on Netflix but on Amazon, and so that ignorance is underscored in this case.  Yet apparently not even the people who started the petition saw the show, because they didn’t know it was on Amazon, either.  I don’t know who started the petition, but even if that person saw the show, for twenty thousand sheep to sign a petition against something about which they know only that one person didn’t like it—well, it reminds me of the Penn and Teller riff where they attend an environmental rally and get people to sign a petition to ban the potentially dangerous chemical di-hydrous oxygen (which is in fact water).  I’m not against anyone protesting for or against anything in which they believe, but I really do think that before you sign your name to a petition you ought to know what it is really protesting.  These people didn’t—and that is so frequently the case with petitions launched by the religious right that such petitions make religious people look more foolish.

Which further means that we become more marginalized.  Objecting to a fantasy television series on a limited access channel does not make us relevant; it makes us laughingstocks.  There go those Christians, once again condemning what they don’t understand.  They did it with rock music; they did it with role playing games; they did it with modern art.  Now once again they’re shooting off their mouths about what’s wrong with something about which they know absolutely nothing, and want us to believe that what they say has any meaning.  There’s no point listening to anything they say, because it’s obvious they don’t know what they’re talking about.  That’s what we’re teaching the world every time we sign another of these foolish counter-productive petitions.  If you’re wondering why no one listens when you preach the gospel, well, it’s because so much else that you said was nonsense that nonsense is what the world expects to hear from you.

I’m sure my request that we give up these petitions will fall on deaf ears.  I only hope that perhaps you might know better than to sign one in the future.  Certainly there are things in the world to which we ought to object, against which we ought to take a stand.  Do so, but only if you are personally informed concerning the object you are protesting and can, yourself, speak intelligently against it without regurgitating lines that you’ve been fed by someone who perhaps knows as little as you.

The title of the show is Good Omens.


Previous article:  Simulationism.
Next article:  Villainy.

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:  The Problem with Protests.

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.

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.