Category: RPG-ology

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.


Previous article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.
Next article:  Political Correction.

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

2019 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

Last December we published Thirteen Months in Review, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous thirteen months–the time from when our previous index, Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website, had been published.  I am now attempting once again to summarize, this time a calendar year of material, for those who missed something or want to find something they remember. Read more

RPG-ology #25: Transmats

This is RPG-ology #25:  Transmats, for December 2019.


This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from June, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled
Game Ideas Unlimited:  Transmats.

Matter transmitters bug me.  In short, I find them incredible in the most basic meaning of that word:  I don’t believe them.

If by some chance you’ve avoided all science fiction, let me explain the matter transmission concept.  A material object, possibly even a living object, is deconstructed particle by particle, and a complete record of the position, motion, and energy of each particle is recorded and transmitted to another location where an exact copy of the original is constructed particle by particle, having the same energy levels and motions and relative positions.  It’s the teleporter of Star Trek, the transmat encountered on Doctor Who.  Larry Niven envisioned such matter transmission booths replacing telephones.  And there’s something about it all that I just don’t believe.

It actually is not the science.  It is pseudo-science, certainly; someone is going to have to find a way around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle if it’s going to work.  But there’s a logic to it that suggests to me it will one day be accomplished.  I don’t know that I will live long enough to have my molecules disintegrated and reintegrated, but I would be surprised if no one ever manages it.

What bothers me is the way in which this technology doesn’t matter in the worlds in which it is prevalent.  To have done this is to have accomplished much more, but generally those aspects are not considered or even worse are discounted for insensible reasons.  So bear with me while I take another look at transmat technology.

In order to build a matter transmitter, you have to be able to disintegrate a target.  This may seem obvious; yet in how many settings do they include matter transmitters and don’t include a simple disintegrating weapon?  If I can find and disintegrate a dozen men on the surface of a planet far beneath me, why doesn’t it work as a weapon?  Since I don’t have to worry about reproducing the object disintegrated, I should be able to destroy buildings, structures, perhaps entire cities.

But that’s just the beginning of my interest in disintegration.  After all, I’m quite aware that if you disassemble a molecule, you convert it to an enormous amount of energy.  The problems inherent in containing and controlling such levels of energy are another question; but why can’t this technology be used to generate power?  Given the amount of energy in a mass the size of a human body, the energy required to initiate the disintegration reaction must be a tiny fraction.  When the dilithium crystals are failing, why don’t we just throw furniture into the transporters and convert it to reserve power?

And the weapon use of such power is staggering.  A moment ago I was talking about a disintegrator; but if you start to take apart the molecules of an object, you initiate nuclear decay on a massive scale.  Every building, every person, every rock is a potential nuclear bomb whose massive energy can be explosively released with a bit of prodding from our disintegration technology.  As it says in Multiverser, “a device which disintegrates without containment is a remote nuclear fission reaction stimulator.”

And that leads me to think about the containment.  If I’ve built a transmat, I’ve found a way to contain the energy of complete nuclear collapse.  I don’t know what those force fields will be like, but somehow I think they’ll be able to deflect or absorb unimaginable amounts of power.  We are casually assuming the presence of a shield that could have easily contained the impact of Hiroshima.  We are tossing those shields around as an everyday tool, without any consideration of their real power.

It’s probably not impossible to design a matter transmitter which reintegrates directly from the disintegration pattern; but it makes more sense to include a memory circuit.  And most of the matter transmitters in most fiction at least imply the existence of such memory banks.  That means that whenever you transfer an object from one point to another you also make a data copy of it; and as long as you have that data copy, all you need to do is add energy to it and you can make another–and another, and another, as many as you need.  You can make a hundred dinners, a thousand starships, a million soldiers.  But this is a largely untapped resource, and the excuses used are complete nonsense.  Not enough energy?  Easily rectified:  throw a few rocks into the disintegrator.  Pattern loss?  This is as foolish as those badly-written spy shows where they are passing around the “only copy” of a computer program.  If making a copy of a program deleted the original, it would make sense–but anyone who understands even a little about computer memory knows that even deleted data is still there until something replaces it.  Keeping the file in memory is easier than losing it.  But is the available memory too small?  The memory circuit really only makes sense if it’s large enough for the entire file.

But writers go to great lengths to make it impossible to copy things, especially people.  We are told that complex DNA molecules are imperfectly replicated such that life forms can’t be copied.  But we know that life forms can be copied, because that’s what happens when we teleport them.  Really, we’ve completely destroyed one body and built another identical to it.  Besides, those “tiny molecular changes” are inconsistent with most of the other replication applications we can conceive.  How many water molecules have to accidentally be mis-linked as hydrogen peroxide before the liquid is not merely bitter but deadly?  How many mistakes can you make in the atomic structure of a metal object before the levels of radioactive decay are measurable?  No, molecular copying has to be perfect for it to be useful at all; it doesn’t have to work substantially better to copy life forms than anything else.

Not only can we copy things, we can modify them.  The applications of this have never been adequately explored.  In fact, the medical applications alone are mind boggling.  Did you break a bone?  We disintegrate you, make an adjustment to the program, and reintegrate you with the bone corrected and fully strengthened.  You can do the same thing with a ruptured spleen, or a hernia, or a defective heart valve.  With a filtering program, you can completely remove every trace of a targeted virus or a chemical poison.  If there’s chemical imbalance, whether insulin or hormones or neurotransmitters, you can adjust to correct levels.  Body temperature can be corrected.  With our growing knowledge of the human genome, we would be able not merely to instantly undo the effects of such genetic disorders as sickle-cell anemia or Chrone’s Disease but to reconfigure the genome itself to remove the cause.  And when it comes to cosmetic surgery, well, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  You want to be taller?  We’ll re-craft your long bones and vertebrae.  Overweight?  We’ll filter out a hundred pounds of fat on one shot.  We can add muscle mass in all the right places, turning a ninety-eight pound weakling to The Incredible Hulk in minutes.  Forget hair dye; we can change the color of your eyes, the pigments in your skin, the length of your fingernails.  Your facial structure can be completely rebuilt.  If we want we can provide you with entirely alien features, or make you look like someone else.  Giving you short blond hair in the morning and long dark hair by dinner is no problem at all.

Let’s consider cooking.  Insert the roast of your choice and enter the program.  We can increase the temperature such that it is fully cooked in seconds.  At the same time, we can screen out gristle and bone while dispersing the ideal amount of fat and moisture for the most tender servings.  And spices can be added not merely to the surface but throughout the meat.  It’s as easy to chill as to heat.  Water can be turned to ice, cream and sugar to ice cream–we can even make Baked Alaska, with the hot cake and meringue surrounding the frozen center.  Spoiled food is no longer a problem, as we can screen toxins from our meat and dairy product far more easily than we could from our bodies and serve them fresh and delicious.

Your wardrobe is as flexible as your imagination.  Oh, there will still be designers; but instead of selling clothes they’ll sell computer files.  And getting dressed won’t take long.  Stumble out of bed in the morning into your transmat and execute the preprogrammed routine.  A few seconds later you arrive at work dressed in a new suit cleaned and pressed, with your hair combed and your teeth clean.  If you like you can even program a shot of caffeine already in your blood, or go one step better and clear those endorphins from your brain.  After work, you enter another program into the transmat and go directly from work to the club; you arrive in a completely different outfit with your makeup redone and even a new hairstyle.

But we don’t have to stop there.  Do you like being thirty-five?  No reason for you to get any older–we’ll just save the pattern of your thirty-five-year-old body and restore you to that physical form with each trip.  Or if you’d prefer being younger, we can probably do that too–maybe not the body you had then, but something very like it.

And of course everything that isn’t true of cloning is true of transmat copies:  they have your personality, your memories, even your fingerprints, and they’re your age.  Today there are people who are highly skilled to the point of indispensable; tomorrow we’ll be able to copy these people so that they can be in several places at once, and if something should happen to one he’s not entirely irreplaceable.

And we could go beyond that:  we could design our own people.  Once we know the basics of the human genome, we can modify it to suit our preferences; and unlike with genetic splicing, we don’t have to wait to see the results of our changes:  we can birth the new person fully grown.  And we don’t have to be limited to people.  We could design and build a faster race horse, a smarter ape.  We could design bodies completely different from anything we’ve seen.  And if we like we can give them human levels of intelligence.

That, of course, leads to a much deeper question.  Why is it that we don’t let our science fiction stories make copies of people?  At least, whenever we do it’s usually an accident, and usually with serious complications.  For television, it may be in part because of the technical problems of having multiple roles played by the same actor.  But there are also moral and theological challenges raised.

As already said, everything that isn’t true about clones is true about transmat duplicates.  At the moment of their creation, they match the pattern exactly.  They will diverge from each other thereafter, as each acquires distinct experiences and memories, but depending on how established their characters are at the time the pattern is made they will always be similar.  Which is the original?  In truth, neither–both are copies, the original having been destroyed in the creation of the pattern.  Neither has any more claim to being that person than the other; each has the same continuity of consciousness up to the moment the original was disintegrated.  And you might argue that it is illegal, immoral, or unethical to make copies of people–but is that going to prevent it from happening, or force it underground?

But there’s a deeper problem, a theological problem which you have to answer before you can use a matter transmitter:  is man merely the sum of his material parts?  Is there nothing more, nothing intangible, what might be called spiritual?  If there is, then when the body is disintegrated it would presumably leave a disembodied spirit; and when it is again reintegrated, some spirit would have to occupy it.  It’s easy to hypothesize some sort of spiritual dimension such that the spirit of the man can travel any distance instantly and so be immediately reunited with the body; but it’s just as easy to imagine that some other disembodied spirit would fight him for that body–one of the dead, perhaps, or something worse.  Also, if a man has one spirit, and you duplicate him, what spirit occupies the other body?

The presence of matter transmission technology in a game world has so many other implications it should be carefully considered before inclusion.  If you’ve got it, you have the basis for uncounted changes to the world from its weapons of warfare to its basic social structure.  You also have some very challenging story ideas from which to build adventures that can be as intellectually compelling as they are exciting.

Technology always changes the world in unanticipated ways.  When you consider the effects it has in your world, make sure you don’t stop with the obvious.

Since the original publication of this article, I have been reliably informed that the property known as quantum non-locality will make it possible to overcome Heisenberg and possibly build a matter transmitter, but probably will not work for the communication system I envisioned in that linked article–although I did give permission to another science fiction author to use it in his work, and it has a plausibility to it.


Previous article:  An Amusing Dungeon.
Next article:  Monster Design.

RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon

This is RPG-ology #24:  An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.


On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan.  The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title
Game Ideas Unlimited:  An Amusing Dungeon.

Photo by flickr user Waldo Jacquith under Creative Commons 2.0 license, no changes were made.

  Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players.  After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me.  I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting.  But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one.  One of those was that dungeons had to make sense:  there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built.  And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.

  The story I invented was fairly simple.  Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren.  It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction.  The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy.  The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.

  The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others.  The newcomers made changes, making this their homes.  Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.

  Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers.  They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts.  A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes.  One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age.  Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.

  And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries.  For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.

  It was an amusement park.

  It wasn’t difficult to design.  I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion.  There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs.  Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.

  Some of these were very straightforward.  There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display.  Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear.  A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one.  A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat.  And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked.  I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin.  But there was so much more.

  The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive.  The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi.  The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level.  The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters.  And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.

  My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl.  The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south.  The room had a thirty foot ceiling.  There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front.  The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall.  A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning.  As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall.  Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them.  This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall.  But then the truly terrifying happened:  the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below.  They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun.  Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop.  One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon.  Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth.  But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.

  But their favorite was probably the roller coaster.  This began as a bench at the end of a hall.  If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall.  I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them.  But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant.  Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them.  The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another.  I think one of the players may actually have screamed.  I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.

  I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember.  They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried.  Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had.  Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.

  I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work.  It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map.  Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war.  This was just part of the show.  What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.

  A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined.  This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon.  I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality.  I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions.  The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical.  By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.


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Next article:  Transmats.

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.


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Next article:  An Amusing Dungeon.