Category: RPG-ology

RPG-ology #23: Nonrandom Thought

This is RPG-ology #23:  Nonrandom Thought, for October 2019.


A long time back in Faith and Gaming:  Mechanics we talked about Fortune, one of three methods of resolving outcomes in our games:  the use of dice, cards, and other randomizers to create unpredictable random outcomes.  We discussed then the question of how Christian faith relates to randomness.

Of course, the randomizers we use in our games are not entirely random.  That’s what we’re talking about now.

17th Security Forces Squadron Police Officer, John Hernandez, practices approaching the scene of an active shooter during the tactical driving course at the shoot house on Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 27, 2019. Individuals practiced engaging targets while operating a vehicle and navigating through multiple advanced driving courses. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Seraiah Hines/Released)

As I was musing on probabilities, I read a headline that stated that there was a drive-by shooting in a nearby town.  I’m sure that the town would like to think of itself as a city—it happens to have the largest geographical area of any municipality in the state, and I am told that police in our county seat jokingly refer to their law enforcement division as “the real police,” but it is largely rural space save for a long developed commercial district along three or four crossing roads.  The headline surprised me, and got me wondering about the probabilities of being killed in a drive-by shooting.  It appears that there are hundreds every year in the United States, so the probability of someone being killed in such a shooting on any given day is near one hundred percent—but the probability that it would be any specific individual is negligible, something that could not reasonably be anticipated.

Still, I doubt anyone would argue if I suggested that the probability of being killed in a drive-by shooting is significantly higher in sections of Chicago than it is in the rural counties of New Jersey.  Such shootings may seem in one sense completely random, but they aren’t completely random.

That is our objective when we design fortune mechanics for our games:  attempt to reflect the probabilities of any particular outcome.  It is not particularly likely that a character would be killed in a drive-by shooting, but if we have that in our games we want it to be something that might happen in our cities and probably won’t happen in our towns.  On our “wandering monster” tables, dragons are very rare and orcs rather common, because we envision our fantasy worlds as overrun by orcs but containing relatively few reclusive dragons.  In some situations we achieve that by “curves”—the roll of three six-sided dice to generate character abilities in most versions of Dungeons & Dragons is a solid example.  One character in two hundred sixteen will roll a natural 18 strength; a like number will roll a 3.  One out of seventy-two will roll a 17, and a similar number a 4.  Most characters will roll more or less ordinary strength, between 8 and 13, just as most people have average strength.  The “randomness” is structured.

So, too, in combat, in most games there is a value that hits and a value that misses, and a range of values between the two for which how good the two combatants are, one at offense and the other at defense, determines which ones hit and which ones miss.  There is randomness—you can always roll a miss no matter who you are—but it is controlled.

So how do you do that?  This column can barely begin to scratch the surface of such discussions.  The primer in Appendix 3:  Basic Dicing Curves in Multiverser:  Referee’s Rules is eleven pages long.  There are a lot of ways to use dice to create different kinds of outcomes, and some of them are considerably more difficult to calculate than others.  However, the calculation process is part of the game design process:  you need to work out how your probabilities are falling.  This will at least get you asking the right questions, and in today’s world once you’ve asked the question you can find the answer somewhere.

Probably.


Previous article:  Snow Day.
Next article:  An Amusing Dungeon.

RPG-ology #22: Snow Day

This is RPG-ology #22:  Snow Day, for September 2019.


As I write this, it’s snowing; snow is sticking to the ground, and we’re probably going to be snowed in.  At least, the boys are hoping there will be no school tomorrow.

That makes no sense to most of you as you read this.  By the time it reaches print (or the electronic equivalent) it will be summer.  I am writing this well in advance of the anticipated publication date.  Here we recently saw the tips of crocuses before the snow buried them, and were worried about some of the other early flowers blooming too soon.  Spring will have passed here when this is published, and all thoughts of snow and ice will be forgotten.

No, I talked about the past slipping away last month.  This month, something different.

I want you to remember the last time it snowed wherever you are.  For some of you this might be an impossible task.  For that I apologize.  Most of my readers are experiencing summer, and winter is just a memory; some are experiencing winter, and need imagine little.  If you’re one of those unfortunate enough to have always lived without snow, this experiment won’t be so much help for you.  Maybe you can use it for something else—focus on what it feels like to be an excluded minority, and write an article about injustice and discrimination.  (See, you can take anything and use it for ideas—you just have to keep turning it over until you find a side you hadn’t seen before.) Read more

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.

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

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.

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.

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.


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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:

Empiricism

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

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.


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RPG-ology #14: Shock

This is RPG-ology #14:  Shock, for January 2019.


About a year ago a discussion in the Christian Gamers Guild group reminded me of a couple articles I’d published in the Game Ideas Unlimited series that were lost but worth reviving.  This is a recreation of the first of those.

I’m pretty sure it was 1973.  I was a Boy Scout and a Junior Assistant Scoutmaster in my last year as a scout before continuing as an adult leader.  My father was troop committee chairman and often active in our outings, and Mr. Winkler was the Scoutmaster at the time.  Rick Trover and Bob Hamer, who are both part of this story, were a year or two younger than I, and respectively Junior Assistant Scoutmaster and Senior Patrol Leader.  It was the troop’s first excursion down the Delaware River, although quite a few of us had logged several hundred miles of canoeing through the Adirondacks.  We knew that the river had flooded, and that the day before we arrived on the banks at Skinner’s Falls to begin our trek Cochecton, New York, a short distance upstream, had been under four feet of water.  We did not know that there was a whirlpool under the Narrowsburg Bridge one day south of us.  However, never having seen this part of the river before, we were unaware just how far above flood stage it was.  Still, we sat in camp on the bank for two days waiting for the water to drop before someone decided that if we were actually going to canoe this river in the week we’d planned, maybe we should get moving downstream.

Ricky and Bob took a canoe and headed up above the falls.  I’m not sure whether someone had authorized this.  I first became aware of it when people were shouting and I joined the race to the shore to watch them coming down fast from the waters above the falls into the worst possible spot.

Let me describe what we saw Read more