Category: RPG-ology

RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense

This is RPG-ology #35:  Believable Nonsense, for October 2020.

This article is named for the lost Game Ideas Unlimited:  Believable Nonsense, whose original ideas are recalled here.

Years ago I assisted two of my sons in burying a beloved cat, somewhere along the outside of the fence around our yard.  That event inspired the original thoughts for a number of articles, most recently Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  However, the aftermath of that event inspired an entirely different line of thought.

On my way back into the house I left the spade on the deck by the front door.  I should have known better, merely because it’s the kind of thing my wife would consider unsightly and inappropriate—you don’t leave garden tools lying by the front door.  It wasn’t long before she saw it and objected—but her objection completely surprised me.  Didn’t I know, she said, that it was bad luck to track dirt from a grave through the front door of the house?  Did I not know that this was why whenever you returned from a funeral you entered the house through the back door?

In fact I did not know any of that.  Dirt is dirt, and its origin is not particularly interesting to me most of the time.  Perhaps it would be different were I a geologist or a forensic scientist, but these things are of only general interest to me.  When I return home from anywhere I always use whatever door is most convenient for me, which is usually the front.  I can usually fathom the origins of most superstitions—walking under ladders has a chance of dislodging tools from above or knocking someone over, breaking mirrors in dressing rooms where you’re likely to use them probably means slivers of broken glass which will be in the floor boards for a long time before vacuum cleaners are invented, and black cats are easy to overlook particularly in the dark.  I’m afraid, though, that I don’t grasp the danger in grave dirt.

What intrigued me at the time, though, was the realization that the world is filled with superstitions, every culture having developed its own.  I wondered, how do you bring these into the game?  How do you create believable nonsense for your non-player characters, taboos some fully believe and others claim not to believe but are still wary about?

It strikes me that many of these would have a forgotten origin story—someone got sick eating a melon on the new moon, and so now it’s bad luck to eat melons on the new moon; someone was fishing from Long Point at high tide and got swept away, so it’s bad luck to fish from Long Point at high tide.  Or reverse it:  the only crewman to survive the wreck of the Sarsaparilla was also the only one wearing a blue shirt, so it’s good luck to wear blue shirts aboard ships.

Of course, if you can keep your wits about you you can slip these into non-player character interactions, even invent them on the fly:  “Don’t do that!  Don’t you know it’s bad luck to…”  It’s more difficult if you want it to be a superstition of a player character race, because you have to give these summary versions to the player and discuss to what degree his character believes them—fully, or only in that incomplete way in which they make us nervous, or truly not at all?

That then leads to the tougher question:  how many of them are true?  What happens if the player characters ignore the seemingly nonsensical superstitious wisdom of the locals?  There might be something to the local belief that you shouldn’t touch the rock at the end of the village, or drink from the fountain on the side of the mountain.  Superstitious nonsense might be true; there might be hidden dangers in the claptrap spoken in the village.

Anyway, it can make for a good story.

Previous article:  Invisible Coins.
Next article:  Phionics.

RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins

This is RPG-ology #34:  Invisible Coins, for September 2020.

This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Invisible Coins on July 27, 2001.  It is only slightly edited for republication here.

You’ve probably heard the line about our strange and beautiful relationship—in which I’m beautiful, and you’re… well, I’ll assume you’ve heard it.  My relationship with Multiverser creator E. R. Jones was, from the beginning, strange on both sides.  There were many things about us that appeared similar (to the point that we were mistaken for brothers, and sometimes still people aren’t certain which of us the bearded dark-haired bespectacled faces in artist Jim Denaxas’ sketches depict).  But the more we got to know each other, the more it appeared that we did many of the same things for very different reasons.

He wore a beard because shaving was inconvenient.  I wore one because I didn’t like the feel of the sweat and oils on my face after shaving.

We both put ice in our coffee.  I did it because I’m not very patient about beverages, and would certainly burn myself on it before it cooled.  He, on the other hand, preferred his coffee cold, a throwback to his army days when that’s the only way he could get it.  (And he was the cook.)

We were both highly respected for our skills at running Dungeons & Dragons, both of us having begun some time in 1980.  My reputation was that I was closer to the book rules than just about anyone else.  He, on the other hand, built his entire game on that phrase in the preface, “the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game,” regarding the rest of the system optional.  We learned much from each other in the process of playing together, but our games were never the same, perhaps in some sense not even remotely similar.

And both of us had the habit of periodically tossing an invisible coin into the air and catching it, slapping it on our wrists ostensibly to see whether it was heads or tails, when someone asked a question which required thought. Read more

RPG-ology #33: Flirting

This is RPG-ology #33:  Flirting, for August 2020.

There was a Game Ideas Unlimited article of this title that addressed these ideas (not, it should be noted, romance).  That article appears to have been lost, and this is an attempt to address the ideas afresh.

We roleplay for many different reasons.  Ron Edwards has identified three fundamental motivations, ways in which gamers enjoy games, identified as gamism, narrativism, and simulationism, and described at Places to Go, People to Be in the article Theory 101:  Creative Agenda.  It is the third of those, simulationism, which is of interest in this article.

What characterizes simulationism is the love of learning, of exploring what something is like; it is in some ways the broadest.  We explore places, from Narnia to Saturn 5 to post-apocalyptic earth to Toontown.  We explore milieus, from medieval Asia and Europe to the wild west to outer space.  We explore professions, real and unreal, from gunslinger and swordfighter to wizard and starship engineer.  We even explore what it’s like to face death.

Yet I think one of the most interesting, subtle, and overlooked things that we explore is our own identities. Read more

RPG-ology #32: Doing Something

This is RPG-ology #32:  Doing Something, for July 2020.

Although this is actually about a gaming referee technique, I’m starting with an example from a book, my novel Verse Three, Chapter One, freely accessible on the web.  It also begins with magic items, but moves beyond that to objects in other settings and genres.

As the story unfolded I needed to have one character, effectively a support character or non-player character, give one of my main characters a specific small magic object in a magically-shielded bag, but had to do it in a way that would not make it seem obvious that this was my intention.  The easy way to do that was to put several other small magical objects in the same bag, so that the immediately important one would be just one of several.  That’s one trick you should note.  Somewhere in the Harry Potter books, probably in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry enters the Room of Requirement in its guise as the place to hide things so no one can find them, and Rowling mentions several objects as examples of the mass collection of junk.  One of them is a tiara, I think sitting incongruously on the head of a bust of a man, if memory serves.  Then in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, we come to a place where he has to find the Diadem of Ravenclaw, and neither he nor we know where it is–but in fact he and we have seen it already, and just didn’t realize it was important because it was hiding amidst all the other junk.  I had already done the same thing with my important object, dropping it into a bag with four other objects.  My five objects were a paper clip, a coin, a six-sided die, a cat’s eye marble, and an acorn. Read more

RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he changed his map.

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

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

RPG-ology #30: Story-based Mapping

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

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

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

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

Map by Steve Gaudreau

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

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

Map of Kaiden by Michael Tumey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RPG-ology #29: Political Correction

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

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

Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RPG-ology #27: Cures for Dropping Dice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous article:  Monster Design.
Next article:  Character Death.

RPG-ology #26: Monster Design

This is RPG-ology #26:  Monster Design, for January 2020.

Not long ago a member of the Christian Gamers Guild asked for advice in designing monsters.  This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from August, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled “Game Ideas Unlimited:  Monster Design.”

Sometime a couple decades ago, someone I had known over the Internet and met at a convention asked me to be a judge in a contest he was running.  Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was slated to be released in perhaps a couple of months, and there was already a lot of pre-release information about it floating around.  He wanted to have people submit new monsters for use in future D&D games.  Knowing of my somewhat intimate familiarity with the old Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ rules set and acquaintance with at least three of the other versions of the game, he thought I would be able to contribute something to the judging.  He also asked two other people to judge, whose skills and perspectives were very different from mine.

I took the notion very seriously.  Before I looked at the first of the entries, I gave a lot of thought to what made a good monster.  Some of the things I valued were contradictory—that is, it would be very difficult for a creature to score high on every quality I sought.  But I reduced my consideration to eight qualities, eight aspects of creatures which I thought made them, in a general sense, well-designed monsters.

And if you’re designing monsters for your own campaign, or for some Internet contest, or for publication somewhere, you might like to give some thought to these qualities.  You won’t always try to make every creature score high in every category.  But if you’ve thought about the categories, you’ll be making tradeoffs that reach your goals at a reasonable “cost” in terms of what you sacrifice. Read more