Category: RPG-ology

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

The year 2020 surprised all of us, as we scrambled to make life work under entirely different conditions.  However, the viral impact on our web site was minimal, as although we slowed down a bit we continued providing what we hope are valuable quality articles on gaming and faith.  Last December we published 2019 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous year and so maintaining a continuous index of sorts working back through the previous Thirteen Months in Review covering a bit more than all of 2018 and Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website covering 2016 and most of 2017.  I am now attempting once again to summarize another a calendar year of material, for those who missed something or want to find something they remember.

Again January opened with a new Faith in Play article, and we got a full year from the series:

  1. #26:  Fields to Harvest January 7, 2020, noting that Christian ministries to the “geek” community still have work to do.
  2. #27:  Believing Balance February 4, 2020 continues the miniseries on Dungeons & Dragons alignment with a consideration of neutrality.
  3. #28:  Vampires March 3, 2020 considers the metaphorical value of the undead.
  4. #29:  Victims April 7, 2020, explores what it is to be a dependent character, and the importance of such characters not only in our games but in our lives.
  5. #30:  Conflict May 5, 2020, looks at Dungeons & Dragons as a metaphor for spiritual warfare.
  6. #31:  Magic Roads June 2, 2020 discusses the notion of roads that don’t go where you expect unless you go the right way, and connects it to divine guidance.
  7. #32:  Zealots July 7, 2020 continues the alignment miniseries with a look at the side alignments.
  8. #33:  Psionics August 4, 2020 reopens the issue of mind powers in fiction in response to questions and comments from a reader.
  9. #34:  Guidance and the Machine September 1, 2020 looks at the show Person of Interest as instruction about how God guides us.
  10. #35:  Seekers October 6, 2020 considers what to do about friends who are looking for “real” magic.
  11. #36:  Thanks November 3, 2020 talks about thanksgiving celebration and thanks the readers for their ongoing support and encouragement.
  12. #37:  Balancing on the Corner December 1, 2020, finishes the alignment series with a look at how those with corner alignments have to juggle two values.

Two weeks behind that the RPG-ology series also continued:

  1. #26:  Monster Design January 21, 2020 reprints a Game Ideas Unlimited article about what makes a good monster.
  2. #27:  Cures for Dropping Dice February 18, 2020 gives some practical suggestions for keeping the dice on the table.
  3. #28:  Character Death March 17, 2020 talks about the death of the player character and how to handle it.
  4. #29:  Political Correction April 21, 2020 argues that in fiction and games particularly we need to have freedom of speech.
  5. #30:  Story-based Mapping May 19, 2020 suggests that the best way to start a map for a game is to begin where the characters are and work out as needed.
  6. #31:  Screen Wrap June 16, 2020 reposts the Game Ideas Unlimited article about using teleportation to create confusing map sections.
  7. #32:  Doing Something July 21, 2020 suggests how to use odd objects to enhance story by figuring out what they are later.
  8. #33:  Flirting August 18, 2020 recalls a lost article about using role playing to learn about ourselves.
  9. #34:  Invisible Coins September 15, 2020 reproduces a slightly edited version of the Game Ideas Unlimited article, about a valuable illusionist technique.
  10. #35:  Believable Nonsense October 20, 2020 recalls the ideas from a Game Ideas Unlimited article about superstitions and how to work them into play.
  11. #36:  Phionics November 17, 2020 suggesting a category of special abilities that are neither magical nor mental, but reflect the extraordinary body skills of the contortionist.
  12. #37:  It’s Greek to Me December 15, 2020 talks about inscriptions and decorations on magic items.

Although it hardly counts as an article, I also posted Worship Service at Gen Con 2020 Game Fair, announcing the online virtual event which Dave Mattingly organized and hosted on our behalf.

Michael Garcia opened the year on January 14, 2020, with a wonderfully detailed study of Sewers and Such, everything you could need to know to run an adventure in these urban dungeons.  COVID suspended his gaming, so we didn’t get tales of the adventures for a while.  However, he did give us a four-part tutorial in how to design one-shot adventures:

  1. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 1 on July 14, 2020, in which he explores the basic starting point for the task;
  2. Designing Single-Session Adventures Part 2 on August 11, 2020, in which he talks about detailing the adventure;
  3. Prep for Single-Session Adventures on September 8, 2020, in which he talks about final preparations;
  4. Running the Single-Session Adventure on September 22, 2020, in which he covers actual game play matters.

He followed this with Tough Choices Make for a Good Game, on October 13, with a holiday-themed adventure, Spreading Yuletide Fear:  A Dark Holiday-themed Adventure, on November 24, and some adventure design advice to finish the year in Designing Deeper Adventures.

Matthew Butler returned with Tales of a D&Degenerate: Volume 2, on June 9, 2020, and The First Line of Offense, August 25, 2020, continuing his humorous look at his gaming experience.

We were honored to be permitted to reprint “Geek Preacher” Derek White‘s article from Knights of the Dinner Table, Quiet in the Convention Center, about gaming conventions providing facilities and services for handicapped and autistic attendees.

Grade school religion teacher Nikolaj Bourguignon brings his experience using games in the classroom to a new series, Roll for Teaching, beginning with:

  1. Hi class. Nice to meet you all! on July 28, 2020, in which he introduces himself and a few of the games he finds best for use with grade school students.
  2. Goals on December 8, 2020, in which he discusses why we are playing, and how to keep that in focus.

Guild President Rodney Barnes brought us Complex Firearms for D20 Games on September 29, 2020, followed a month later on October 27 with Starfinder Stuff for Pathfinder Second Edition.

Lance McClintock approached us to introduce a Christian game he was designing, and we invited him to explain to us what makes a game Christian.  He gave us Christian Game-ism in response, published November 10.

Over a decade ago Scott Bennie drafted an article for us entitled Christianity and Role-Playing Games:  Toward Reconciliation, which slipped through the cracks until late this year when our webmaster found it and published it as Christianity and Role-Playing Games, on December 29.

We expect to follow at least some of these authors into the new year.  In fact, already we have Faith and Gaming and RPG-ology articles standing by.

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #37: It’s Greek to Me

This is RPG-ology #37:  It’s Greek to Me, for December 2020.


Decades ago I was running original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for a burgeoning group that included a number of experienced players.  Experienced players of course bring knowledge from their other games, their other Dungeon Masters.  I have twice had the complication that one of the players at the table was familiar with a module I had decided to run, and multiple times had them recognize a magic item from the books—but that’s a different problem.

Magic items in the game can be rather complicated.  Find one, but you probably don’t know what it does or how to make it do that.  Swords and weapons seem simple, but often have hidden powers that can be activated with the right command word or the right combat situation.  Of course, such objects often have inscriptions or decorations, something that might hint or outright tell the new owner what to do with it.  On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the old owner didn’t write something misleading.

In any case, my players began asking for just about every object they found, from the leather armor worn by the orc chieftain to the platinum statue of a horse in the dragon’s treasure horde, whether there was something written on it.

Well, I’m the sort of Dungeon Master who thinks that for something to be fair it should be consistent, and therefore there should be a rule.  I figured a roll of the dice could determine whether there were any markings on the object, and if so what if any significance they had.  You’ll find that table here  You’ll also find a second table.  Call me lazy, but when I roll up magic devices in random treasure hoards I don’t usually take the time to figure out the command words—for one thing, the characters might never find the thing, or might not recognize its significance.  So maybe my system is a bit complicated, but I identified different kinds of words that might be used by a wizard making such a device, divided them into categories player characters might guess, and gave a probability of success guessing the right word if they’re in the right category.  That seemed to me a lot simpler than having the players trying to guess a randomly chosen word out of the dictionary.  Pick a category, a type of word, and we’ll assume you ran a hundred or so words like that, and roll the dice to see whether you got the right one.

O.K., that’s pretty rough; maybe you don’t want to be so hard on your players.  But I did something else, too.  Sometimes my chart said there was something written on the object—but when did you ever hear of a magic item with an inscription in the common tongue?  Well, it does happen, I suppose, but I figured it wouldn’t be that often, so I combed through the books and found every language that was listed as something spoken by any creature.  After all, if I were a chaotic magician trying to create a device that I didn’t want my enemies to use, wouldn’t Slaad be an excellent choice for the language required to activate it?  But since I wasn’t writing backstories for these gadgets, I again created a table, weighted to favor more common languages.

I don’t expect many of you will find these tables all that useful—it’s the ideas behind them that I think matter.  Your magic items can have decorations and inscriptions that mean something, or that mean nothing, or that will mean everything if only the characters can figure out what language that is, or that will send them down the rabbit hole looking for an answer that isn’t there.

And of course, remember that just as an object that’s magical doesn’t necessarily have to have a decoration or inscription, so too an object with an inscription or decoration doesn’t have to be magical.

Merry Christmas, or whatever gift-giving holiday you’re celebrating this time of year.


Previous article:  Phionics.
Next article:  Polyglot.

RPG-ology #36: Phionics

This is RPG-ology #36:  Phionics, for November 2020.


I was conversing with someone via messaging and he misspelled a word.  I recognized what he meant, so I overlooked it—but it got me thinking.

The word he wanted was psionics, which had just been mentioned in our conversation, but he misspelled it phionics, which is probably more intriguing to me than to most of you because I do a bit of study in Greek, and I know that psionics comes, indirectly, from the Greek word psychos, which has several meanings but we usually take to mean soul, and it begins with the letter psi.  We get a lot of words connected to the inner person from that, including psychology, psychiatry, psychic, and of course psionic.  But in my mind he had replaced the psi with a phi, a different greek letter and the first letter in the word physis, which literally means natural but which is connected into our language with things that are physical, including physics and things that have to do with the body, like getting a physical or engaging in physical fitness.

So why not a category of special powers called phionics?

My first thought was the D.C. Comics joke hero Super Elastic Plastic Man, who could stretch his body in all kinds of crazy ways—and you could certainly go there if you wished.  Yet we all know people who can bend and stretch in ways we find unthinkable.  One of my sons from an early age would sit on the floor, lie forward, and put his chest and face against the rug between his legs and go to sleep like that.  Now full grown and taller than my six feet he still sometimes puts his feet behind his head and walks on his knees.  In terms of what people do, though, that’s out there.  Do a Google images search for contortionist and you will see bodies that look as if they must have been sawn apart and glued back together.

And while these are certainly due to special talents and plenty of exercise, they are obviously all within the realm of humanly possible.

As with psionics, you can parcel these out in small doses—Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon 2 can dislocate his shoulder to escape from a straitjacket.  The titular character in Kick-Ass feels no pain and so enhances his ability to take damage.  You could go beyond these, with physical powers that seem supernatural such as the Iron Fist, or those which actually are impossible, such as the aforementioned rubber body.

In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, psionics were rare gifts with which some characters were born (or perhaps otherwise accidentally obtained prior to the beginning of the game).  In 2nd edition they became primarily techniques taught by masters in which individuals were schooled, working from the simpler, less potent, to the more powerful.  With phionics, you could do either—or both.  Just create a list of incredible through impossible body skills, and rank them from the simple to the amazing.

So here’s a short list to get you started:

  1. Hyper-flexibility:  the character can bend and stretch in surprising ways, such as putting his feet behind his head, and so can fit through narrow spaces and such.
  2. Double jointed:  Some of the character’s joints bend in unusual ways.
  3. Hardened musculature:  the character can cause muscles in some part or parts of his body to become excessively hard, such that they can withstand blows or deal significant damage.
  4. Adrenal control:  the character can give himself a brief boost of strength and/or speed.
  5. Disconnecting joints:  one or more of the character’s joints can be disconnected, permitting the body to take a different possibly useful altered shape.
  6. Reduced pain response:  the character’s ability to feel pain has been reduced or eliminated such that although he can be injured he does not feel it.
  7. Expanding ligaments:  the character can stretch his arms and legs by expanding the joints while holding them together with stretched ligaments.
  8. Rubber body:  the character can stretch and reshape his body in nearly any imaginable way without reference to bones.

Call it one more tool to enhance your game without using magic.


Previous article:  Believable Nonsense.
Next article:  It’s Greek to Me.

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.


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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.


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