Category: RPG-ology

RPG-ology #15: Vivid

This is RPG-ology #15:  Vivid, for February 2019.


Last month I told a story of a real-life adventure on a canoe trip from which I have vivid memories.  I promised that this month I would tell of another adventure.

There were six of us.  We had been traveling with a larger group through some underground caves when a collapse separated us from our guides.  However, we had reason to believe that there would be another exit through the caverns, and we had food and water for several days.  We began looking.

Within a couple days we had by process of elimination established that we were going to have to cross a chasm.  It was at least a hundred meters wide, and there was a visible exit from a ledge on the far side.  The good news was that the dim light in the cavern revealed pillars of rock rising to our level, as if carved islands in an ancient river, so we could in theory move from one to another.  The bad news was that this dim light came from a river of magma perhaps a hundred meters below, making the space oppressively hot and promising a swift end to anyone who missed a step.

We went to work, using our equipment and skills to scavenge materials from the caves, building a pair of primitive catwalk bridges and supplementing our ropes with some woven vine-like growths.  We doused ourselves and our gear with most of our remaining water, and lassoed stalactites on the ceiling for safety ropes, also tying ropes around our waists to anchor us as we crossed, and in short hops we moved our selves, our bridges, and our ropes across the open space, only too aware of the danger below.  It was a tense couple of hours, and we lost a rope to a breaking stalactite, caught a man who slipped off a bridge, dropped a bridge into the depths below, and made the last hop swinging Tarzan-style across the final gap.  We collapsed on the ledge, hot, sweaty, breathless, spent, and yet happy that we had gotten all six of us across.

As we had hoped, the passage we had viewed across the canyon led swiftly to an exit, and we were out of the caves.

It is probably obvious to most readers that this is not a real occurrence.  It becomes less real when I mention that I was dralasite, and my companions included a yazarian, a human, two vrusk, and another dralasite, and the caves were underground on a planet known as Volturnus.  The entire adventure occurred in the imaginations of three players and a referee.

Yet some of my memories of that adventure are as vivid in my mind as those of shooting the rapids in Skinner’s Falls at flood stage.  There is some truth to the notion in Total Recall that once you come home from the vacation all you really have is the memories and maybe a few souvenirs whose value lies in their ability to trigger the memories.  Sometimes our role playing games create memories, some of them vivid, some of them tense, some of them funny, and all of them fun.  Whether they are bare knuckles success stories like this one, or hysterical failures like Chris and the Teleporting Spaceships, poignant moments or exciting adventures, they become memories, sometimes vivid memories, transporting us to fantastic worlds not only when we’re playing but years, even decades, later when we remember what we only imagined doing as if we had done it.

That is one of the amazing things about this hobby.  It brings worlds alive, and puts us in them, perhaps in ways no other medium has yet managed.


Previous article:  Shock.
Next article:  Creatures.

RPG-ology #14: Shock

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


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

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

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

Let me describe what we saw Read more

Thirteen Months in Review

Last November we published Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website, in which I attempted to index everything that had been posted to the site in the previous eighteen months–the time from when our capable webmaster Bryan launched the new web log-driven format through the republication of the entire Faith and Gaming series.  It was a lot of material, and a long index.

I decided not to let it run quite so long this time, but to try to index the entire year plus only one extra month, those articles posted in December 2017 after the Overview had been released.  It really was the beginning of this year, because the first articles in the two major monthly series appeared then–that’s right, Faith in Play and RPG-ology have now both been running for thirteen months, a baker’s dozen of each.  There have also been quite a few articles on other subjects and from other authors.  So before we reach an overwhelming amount of material, here’s a look at everything we released in 2018, and a bit earlier.

Let’s start with the first article of December, and put all of that series together this time.  Faith in Play was envisioned as a continuation, thirteen years later, of Faith and Gaming, tackling the same kinds of issues and perhaps expanding from the focus on role playing games to look more broadly at leisure activities of all kinds–without forgetting the role playing games.  The series included:

  1. #1:  Reintroduction December 5, 2017 introduces the new series as a second volume of Faith and Gaming, an exploration of how our Christianity impacts our leisure activities.
  2. #2:  Portals January 2, 2018 looks at how the fantasy and science fiction connections between universes become a metaphor for the reality we experience as God is moving us to the new world.
  3. #3:  Javan’s Feast February 6, 2018 recalls an event in a game in which a character had a positive impact on the players.
  4. #4:  Bad Friends March 6, 2018 discusses the people in life who mistreat us, and how we respond.
  5. #5:  Fear April 3, 2018 looks at the cause of in-game fearlessness and applies it to the rest of our lives.
  6. #6:  True Religion May 1, 2018 begins the alignment miniseries with the focus on what we believe controlling what we do.
  7. #7:  Coincidence June 5, 2018 discusses syncronicity and events which seem almost to have been manipulated.
  8. #8:  Redemption Story July 3, 2018 considers stories which mirror the redeeming act of our salvation, and whether that can be done in a game.
  9. #9:  Clowns August 7, 2018 returns to the archetypes subseries with a look at the importance of comic relief characters.
  10. #10:  Goodness September 4, 2018 continues the alignment series with a consideration of what it means, in game terms, to be Good.
  11. #11:  Halloween October 2, 2018 presents a defense of the celebration of what is essentially a secular holiday.
  12. #12:  Fiction and Lies November 6, 2018 discusses whether telling fictional stories is a “sin of lying”.
  13. #13:  The Evils of Monopoly® December 4, 2018 delves into the dangers the game poses to our theology.

Two weeks later, the RPG-ology series launched.  Discussions about the Faith in Play series suggested that we should also cover subjects from the long-lost Game Ideas Unlimited series that had run at Gaming Outpost–articles about game theory, design, and play–but that this should be distinguished from the other series as its own set.  This series so far has included:

  1. #1:  Near Redundancy December 19, 2017 introduces the other new series as a return to some of the Game Ideas Unlimited topics, ideas for game theory, design, and play.
  2. #2:  Socializing January 16, 2018 explores the fact that those of us who have trouble relating to people have created a game that teaches us how people relate to each other, through a relationship process.
  3. #3:  History of Hit Points February 20, 2018 explains why hit points are still popularly used, and what they contribute to game play.
  4. #4:  The Big Game March 20, 2018 gives instructions for running games with large numbers of players.
  5. #5:  Country Roads April 17, 2018 discusses how to design the main roads connecting places in a fictional world.
  6. #6:  Name Ideas Unlimited May 15, 2018 suggests ways to provide names for everything in the fictional world.
  7. #7:  Playing Fair June 19, 2018 explains why a good referee can’t kill any character any time he wants.
  8. #8:  The Illusion of Choice July 17, 2018 gives the basics of the “directorial” technique of organizing an adventure such that the encounters occur in sequence wherever the characters choose to go.
  9. #9:  Three Doors August 21, 2018 uses the Savant logic problem to introduce the concept of understanding your referee’s motivation and adjusting your play accordingly.
  10. #10:  Labyrinths September 18, 2018 explains the concepts of labyrinths and mazes with design ideas and examples.
  11. #11:  Scared October 16, 2018 discusses what frightens people, and how to use that.
  12. #12:  Aphorisms November 20, 2018 suggests one way to build cultural variety within game worlds.
  13. #13:  Cities December 18, 2018 talks about where cities will appear in the world and why.

R. C. Brooks gave us more of his D20 game, Lands in the Clouds, with:

  • House of Wren (Renewal) by R. C. Brooks, December 12, 2017 presenting a clerical order focusing on stress relief.
  • House of Arocon (Knowledge) by R. C. Brooks, January 9, 2018 presenting a clerical order that deals in knowledge and books.
  • House of Beyan (Earth) by R. C. Brooks, February 13, 2018 presenting a clerical order that deals with all things related to matter, from vegetables to stone.
  • House of Keen (Air), by R. C. Brooks, April 10, 2018, presents the clerical order related to air and gases.
  • House of Sukan (Fire), by R. C. Brooks, June 12, 2018, presents the clerical order related to fire and burns.
  • House of Coursan (War), by R. C. Brooks, July 10, 2018, presents the clerical order related to military defense.
  • House of Curren (Travel), by R. C. Brooks, August 14, 2018, presents a clerical order related to vehicles and mounts and all aspects of travel.
  • House of Foura (Luck), by R. C. Brooks, September 11, 2018, presents a clerical order involved in the manipulation of fortune.
  • House of Wold (Prophecy), by R. C. Brooks, October 9, 2018, presents a clerical order whose task is to warn of impending ill.
  • Multiple Gifts, by R. C. Brooks, November 13, 2018, discusses the possibility of a character having more than one spiritual/magical ability.

And Michael Garcia continued to enthrall us with recountings of adventures in his games, including:

  • Screams in Store by Michael Garcia, December 26, 2017 in which the now familiar Winchester team walks into a trap and discovers that goblins are not easy opponents;
  • Ants in the Darkness by Michael Garcia, February 27, 2018, in which the Beckett group of adventurers on a dungeon crawl encounter serious trouble.
  • Battle on the Beach by Michael Garcia, March 27, 2018, in which the Winchester team pursues a group of robber knights with a hostage, catching them on a beach.
  • Treasure Identification by Michael Garcia, April 24, 2018, in which the Beckett team argues about magical treasure.
  • Bandits Rock by Michael Garcia, May 22, 2018, in which a contingent from the Winchester team gets into serious trouble while spelunking on a scouting mission.
  • Terror in the Tower, part 1, by Michael Garcia, July 24, 2018, in which the Beckett group approaches and enters what they believe is a ruined temple.
  • Terror in the Tower, part 2, by Michael Garcia, September 25, 2018, in which the Beckett group encounters trouble at the entrance to the temple.
  • Terror in the Tower, part 3, by Michael Garcia, November 27, 2018, in which the Beckett group sends an advance team into the tower, and out again.

…and also notes on his world and his special rules, such as:

We had a few insights from Bryan Ray, including:

  • What Does God Think About Hacking?, by Bryan Ray, January 30, 2018, which explored several different meanings of the word and which of those might be sinful.
  • Monkey Business, a Circuit Breakers adventure, by Bryan Ray, May 29, 2018, with a sequel to last year’s Prime Time Adventures play report giving the extended story of a game session.
  • Tales From the Loop, by Bryan Ray, October 30, 2018, a review of a role playing game of that name.
  • Controlled by Fear, by Bryan Ray, December 11, 2018, recalling the benefits that came from running a horror role playing game for a church group.

We also had a few articles giving information about upcoming conventions where chapel services or other Christian opportunities were scheduled:

  • Con Chapel: Beginnings by Eric Van Denhende, January 28, 2018, covering information on February and March as available in late January.
  • CGG Events at Gen Con 2018, by Bryan Ray, July 31, 2018, giving information about the Sunday morning worship service and the Friday afternoon Christianity & Gaming panel.

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #13: Cities

This is RPG-ology #13:  Cities, for December 2018.


When I wrote about Country Roads I promised to return at some point and write about city streets.  However, as I thought about it, I realized that before you can understand city streets, you have to understand cities–why they exist, why they form where they do, and what factors govern their patterns.  So this is a look at cities; we’ll come back to the streets another time.

There are two general categories of reasons for cities to come into existence, which we can identify as commercial and governmental, and a few subcategories of those that have some impact on them.

The primary commercial reason for the appearance of a city is resources.  Chief among these are those related to water, in three distinct ways.

Cities grow at natural harbors, because of shipping.  Thus on oceans, but also on inland seas, huge lakes, and deep rivers, trade begins, shippers move goods in and out, and a city is built around the income from transportation.  Whether it is triremes bringing goods in and out of Greece, galleons carrying gold from Mexico to Spain, steamboats on the Mississippi, or oil tankers running between Kuwait and Perth Amboy, more goods move farther by water than by any other mode of transport, so where there is a convenient place for ships to load and unload, a city will form.

Water is also a necessity of survival.  Great cities don’t generally form spontaneously in arid deserts, unless there is a reliable water source available.  People need water to drink, but also to raise crops and livestock, to wash, and for a wide variety of industrial purposes from making paper to cooling nuclear reactors.

Water is also one of our earliest sources of power after slaves and draft animals.  Water turning wheels drove early mills for grinding grain, and eventually drove machinery that wove cloth and created many other products.  Today, at least part of our electricity is generated from moving water.

Thus if you have a natural harbor, or a river or large lake, or even a spring, it can become a reason for a city to appear.

Of course, water is not the only resource that causes cities to appear.  Mineral wealth, from coal and limestone to gold and diamonds to petroleum and natural gas, invites prospectors to gather forming communities that grow into cities.  Nor are natural resources the only economic inducement.  If there is a city at South Bay Harbor and another at North Lake Port, and one at Eastern Inlet and another at West Mountain Mine, there will be roads connecting these places–but the road from Eastern Inlet to West Mountain Mine will cross the road from South Bay Harbor to North Lake Port, and the traffic through there makes it an ideal spot for commerce, and thus if the problems of food and water can be solved easily, a city will form at the crossroads.

As we said, though, not all cities are begun for commercial reasons; some are started for government reasons.

The most obvious of these are forts, from walled cities more ancient than Jerusalem to medieval castles to cavalry troops posted in the American west.  Governments decide that they need to defend something–land, resources, people, transportation routes–and build a fortress.  People recognize that the existence of the fort means protection from whatever danger is perceived, and so collect near it.

Military forts tend to be extremely well designed for their original purposes; armies tend to be that way about encampments.  Thus within the walls of the fortress housing and facilities and accommodations for food, water, ammunition, supplies, vehicles, animals, and anything else deemed necessary to the local military effort, will have been carefully organized.  The problem is that foresight is not always perfect.  Sometimes the situation at a particular location becomes more contested than anticipated, and troop strength has to be increased, doubling or tripling the population inside the walls.  If this continues intermittently for long enough, the fort might be expanded, but the expanded fort will be less efficient than the original simply because it has to be built around what already exists.  If it is not expanded, it still will be modified, as facilities intended for storage become barracks for troops, new structures are constructed in open spaces to provide protected storage for the displaced goods, and the original plan is altered in uncounted ways.

The placement of forts is frequently sensitive to geography.  High ground is typically advantageous, so mountains and hills are often choice locations.  Often they are intended to control movement, such as passage through a mountain pass or at the mouth of a river, and will be placed above or even in the middle of such a bottleneck.  Artificial hills and even islands have been built to support such forts.  Water is again often a factor, not only because the keep needs a water supply but because rivers and lakes form natural moats which help protect that side of the fort.

Of course, outside the walls the only control the military has over the rising city is the ability to insist that nothing be built within a certain distance of the walls–after all, when the hordes come, whether orcs or Huns or Vikings or Apaches, they will readily use any such structures for cover, so the army will not permit them too close.  Thus other than that clear space, the town will grow haphazardly into a city, unless some government takes control of it.

Military uses are not the only governmental purpose that will create a city.  Sometimes they are created for administrative purposes.  Washington in the District of Columbia is such a city, built to a plan because the nation needed a centrally located seat of government to oversee law and taxes for the thirteen states that was not itself part of one of those states.  The oldest sections of Philadelphia were designed by its founder, a man granted a huge amount of land to establish a colony who had the foresight to recognize that this riverport was going to be a major hub in the development of the surrounding land.  It is thought by some that Emperor Nero set fire to the poor section of Rome (and blamed the Christians) so that he could take the helm in what may have been the world’s first urban redevelopment plan.  Such planned cities appear in places where the governments think them convenient for the purpose–centrally located in the geographical area, or on land with the potential to become a major economic center, or in sparsely populated areas where the government wants to encourage some kind of development, whether agriculture, industry, or tourism.

So these are the major reasons why cities appear where they do, and when you’re designing your world maps you should think about what cities are where and why.  That will then give you the points you need to connect with your country roads, and frame your map.


Previous article:  Aphorisms.
Next article:  Shock.

RPG-ology #12:  Aphorisms

This is RPG-ology #12:  Aphorisms, for November 2018.


One of the hardest aspects of creating worlds is creating cultures.  Different cities, different countries, different peoples all have differences in everything from dress to architecture to courtesy.  The elves of Lothlorien have a different culture from those of Mirkwood.

One article is not going to serve as a complete course in creating culture, but there is one aspect of culture that struck me which I thought might be worth discussing.

In my first novel, I was expressing the viewpoint of one of the characters toward minor injuries he had received, and wrote

Even a small wound infected could be trouble, and an ounce of prevention… he chided himself for relying on aphorisms for wisdom.

My editor had no idea what that meant.  He was an excellent editor, but he was Australian, and therein lies the rub.  The expression is An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and is one of the many witticisms published by Benjamin Franklin writing in Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Americans generally recognize dozens of his sayings, from Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise to his advice to the other members of the Continental Congress as they signed the Declaration of Independence, We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.  Those sayings are considerably less known outside their native country.  All cultures have these.  The British expression A penny’s worth of mirth is worth a pound of sorrow is not even well understood by those who do not recognize that a pound is a unit of currency, not in this case specifically weight.  And so it is evident that each culture will have some expressions unique to itself.

On the other hand, many of the older expressions will cross cultural lines, and the people who know the expression won’t realize it.  Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in a public speech, “Let me quote an old Russian proverb:  Whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.”  He was completely unaware that this was from the Bible until the international press started calling him a “Bible-quoting clown”.  So we see that some expressions cross cultural lines and are adopted by people who don’t know the origin of the aphorism.

So, how do you do this in a game?

Since you’re creating the world, and thus most of the cultures of the world, you’re going to have to invent some of these yourself.  You might want to write half a dozen for each culture in advance, and consider times when non-player characters can use them—or even feed them to players playing characters drawn from those cultures.

Bear in mind that those sayings which become common do so because they relate to things within the culture.  A people for whom most of life is spent digging underground is not going to have sayings about grass on the other side of a fence or when to make hay; a tribe of nomadic herdsmen won’t talk much about places like home; a land-locked nation probably won’t have much to say about oceans or beach sand.  The value of a proverb lies in its ability to use something familiar to its people to make a practical or moral point.  Your diggers will know that gold isn’t the only thing that glitters, your herdsmen will know that the grass only looks greener elsewhere.

Also recognize that witticisms are often contradictory, even in the same culture—too many cooks spoil the broth but two heads are better than one; haste makes waste but a stitch in time saves nine.  There is no reason why your cultures cannot have contradictory aphorisms, and even quote them at each other in discussions.  After all, the digger goes farther following the softer path, but the hardest rocks hold the most precious gems.

That’s a good example, because of course someone from that tribe of herdsmen would have no clue what either of those mean, just as the diggers would be completely baffled by the saying When the mare is in season the stallion can’t be calmed.

Once you have outlined the culture, enlist the aid of your players, at least in connection with their characters’ own cultures.  If you have an elf, or a Bothan, or a Frangian, discuss with them what kinds of things would make good “old sayings” in their culture, and invite them to include some of their own devising.

And don’t be afraid to be absurd.  In the movie America’s Sweethearts, the “Wellness Guide” (played by Alan Arkin) says, as I recall it, “In my country we have an old saying, Mecka lecka halava, beem sala beem.”  Eddie (John Cusack) responds, “Oh.  What’s that mean?”  The answer?  “No one knows.  It’s a very old saying.”

So create a few very old sayings that sound like they contain wisdom, and release them into your game through peoples that would understand them, and see how that helps define your cultures a bit better.


Previous article:  Scared.
Next article:  Cities.

RPG-ology #11: Scared

This is RPG-ology #11:  Scared, for October 2018.


Every once in a while I will surprise someone, that is, my abrupt appearance causes them to jump.  Usually they say, “Oh, you scared me.”  I always think, and sometimes say, “No, I startled you.”  I always say that when the situation is reversed, if I jumped and someone says, “I scared you,” correcting them that I was not scared, I was startled.  Although the two are related, there is a difference.

With Halloween on top of us, it might be worth a moment to consider the difference.

Scared is a state, an ongoing condition experienced over time.  We say, “I’m scared,” or “I’m frightened,” and we mean that we have a feeling of foreboding or ill ease.  We can be scared because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our utility bills, or because we are walking down a dark city street at night and do not feel safe, or because we have been threatened by someone who might be able to harm us in some way.  Those are in a sense examples of being scared in reality.  We are also sometimes scared in unreality.  A well written horror story in almost any medium can set a mood that causes us to feel on edge, to anticipate negative events, to expect the worst.  Mood has a lot to do with this, and so does creating a stake for the character (see my web log post #132:  Writing Horror or the French translation Maîtriser l’Horreur, and also more recently Faith in Play #5:  Fear).

It is also very individual.  I once read an entire book of Lovecraft short stories, and the only one which scared me was the one atypical story, unlike everything we normally expect from him.  If you want to make someone fearful, you must know him well enough to understand his fears.  What are you afraid of?  It probably is not the same thing as the person sitting across from you.  Fathoming that is essential to creating fear, to scaring someone.

When someone jumps out from behind a door and yells, “boo”, you’re not scared, you’re startled.  Sure, your heart rate rises and your body tingles for a moment as you catch your breath, but that’s not fear, really.  Of course, if you are already afraid—if you are fearful, if you are anticipating something bad—then that startle has a much greater effect—the reason that you jump when the cat leaps out from behind the curtain in the horror movie.  The startle has more impact because it is fed by the fear.  That’s why so many campfire ghost stories end with someone shouting something after talking quietly for several minutes:  the mood builds the fear, and the startle from the shout is intensified by the fear.

So if you’re running a game for Halloween and you just want to startle someone, well, that’s easy enough to do.  Storytellers have done it around campfires for generations.  If, though, you want to scare them, you’re going to have to give some thought to the matter, and particularly to who they are, what makes them tick, and of what are they afraid.


Previous article:  Labyrinths.
Next article:  Aphorisms.

RPG-ology #10: Labyrinths

This is RPG-ology #10:  Labyrinths, for September 2018.


In game terms, a labyrinth is a geometric puzzle, a system of passable and impassible spaces solved by the discovery of a consecutive path of passable spaces connecting some number of points, commonly the entrance and the exit.  A maze, usually, refers to a type of labyrinth for which there is a unique solution, only one path that connects two points; a labyrinth might instead have many solutions, or no solution.  The distinction is significant in several ways; they are related puzzles, but both the ways in which they are created and the techniques for solving them are different.

Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007. http://www.tonipecoraro.it/labyrinth28.html CC BY 3.0

Labyrinths can occur naturally, when geologic forces crack rocks in seemingly random patterns.  Even mazes can be naturally occurring—if a tunnel system was carved by water which has since mostly evaporated or drained away, it commonly carves one exit point, and then the current follows that path and ignores the others.  Mazes are more commonly created by intelligent action, although sometimes an intelligence will create a labyrinth for any of several reasons.

Labyrinthine road patterns sometimes develop from the process of acretion, as new residents add new housing and thus new streets attached to old ones.  Suburban developments are often labyrinthine by design so that residents familiar with the roads can exit in any of several directions but others will not consider the connected roads a viable short cut between two points outside the development.

The Minotaur was kept in a labyrinth because a maze would have been too easy to solve.

A maze in two dimensions is easier to solve from above than from within; the eye can trace patterns and look for the connecting path, spotting and avoiding dead ends early.  Still, from within a two-dimensional maze you are guaranteed to find the way through if you pick one wall and follow it.  This will take you into many dead ends, but it will take you out ultimately.  A labyrinth with more than one solution cannot necessarily be solved this way, as there is a high probability that you will be caught in a loop.

Three-dimensional mazes are considerably more difficult to solve, because we are not generally accustomed to considering them three-dimensionally.  These are most easily created as multi-level constructions with stairways, ramps, or chutes and ladders connecting them in specific points, often connecting some levels but not accessing intervening levels.

Five level three-dimensional maze, top level to the left, crossbars mark ladders, with markers for up and down. Entrances are on the middle level, center of left and right sides.

One mistake often made in maze design is designing inward only—that is, many mazes are easily solved by working backwards, the tricks and turns and deceptive paths all designed to mislead the one coming in from the front.  This is not as much of a problem in a role playing game maze, because these can often be placed in locations in which the characters will initially approach them from one side.  On the other hand, the designer can take advantage of this by creating the maze backwards, such that characters will easily find their way in but will be confronted by the confusion on the way out.  However, many tabletop gamers become very good at mapping, so the scenario designer might need some particularly complicated tricks to stymie his players.

Fortunately, fantasy and science fiction give us such tricks.  In Dr. Who:  The Horns of Nimon, the space in which the Nimon lived was a giant logic circuit, the walls switches which seemingly randomly switched from “A” to “B” positions making it impossible to have an accurate map created from passing through it.  I have recommended using teleport points, in either fantasy or science fiction settings, by which any character crossing a specific spot on the map in a specific direction is moved to a specific other spot on the map not necessarily facing the same direction, but is not moved back on the return journey, passing the arrival point unaware that it was there.  There are many ways to use this—creating recursive occlusion, as in Dr. Who:  Castrovalva, a section of the map in which there are many entries, but only one exit, all the other exits delivering you to the entry point on the opposite side of the isolated area; creating maze-like labyrinths in which the characters are moved to parallel paths but the occupants know how to use their teleport points to get where they want to be; creating duplicate rooms in which characters who enter one room always leave from the other.  I have used all of these techniques, and have had players trying to resolve their situation for several play sessions.

I have also confused players by using maps with repeating patterns, causing them to believe they had returned to a place they had already been when they were instead in a different place exactly like it.  Nothing is quite the same as watching a player attempt to erase and correct a map that was already right.


Previous article:  Three Doors.
Next article:  Scared.

RPG-ology #9: Three Doors

This is RPG-ology #9:  Three Doors, for August 2018.


Probably over a decade ago now there was a big debate in the community of people who enjoy logic puzzles when Marilyn Vos Savant published her solution to one, and many disagreed with her.  I was belatedly dragged into the argument by my father, who sent me a late and partial version of the question.  Eventually I obtained what I take to have been the original question but concluded that her answer was incorrect.

Now, I might not be as smart as Ms. Savant.  After all, she has the highest tested I.Q. on record.  My Intelligence Quotient has always been at the top of the scale on every test I’ve taken, including the Mensa tests, but I have never taken the Triple Nines test.  I can say that on the Law School Admissions Test, which is comprised entirely of various types of logic puzzles, I scored better than ninety-nine-point-eight percent of those who thought themselves smart enough to be lawyers, which was the highest bracket for the test.  It is not impossible that she is wrong and I am right, as I explain in the third of the three pages I wrote on the subject.

This is not really about that, except to the degree that the issue that Ms. Savant failed to see in that case is the issue I want to address here:  the motivations and objectives of the referee, and how knowing them can make a difference to the way you play the game.

Perhaps you have read the short story The Lady or the Tiger.  If so, you probably already know where I am going—but I suggest that, just as Marilyn was dealing with three doors, we have three possible referee attitudes.

I will begin with the killer referee.  I have had conversations with dungeon masters who are proud of their dungeon designs with the inescapable fatal traps.  This referee considers it his duty to get the upper hand and kill all the player characters, and he expects their players to be very cautious and very perceptive.  He is there to beat you.  He is like the host on the three doors puzzle who only offers you the opportunity to change doors if you in fact already have the right one and he wants to tempt you into giving it away.  If you recognize that you are playing with a killer referee, your play has to be careful, circumspect; you have to watch for traps, expect to retreat from overwhelming enemies, and use defensive strategies and escape plans as a regular part of your play.  That’s not to say that it can’t be fun.  Grig said, “I always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.”  Knowing that your referee is going to pull out all the stops to defeat you makes the victory all the more thrilling, and defeat considerably less embarrassing.  The deck was, after all, stacked against you, so if you lost, that was the way it was dealt, and if you won, you beat the odds.

The door at the other end of the row is perhaps the reverse, the beneficent referee.  This guy is on your side.  He wants to see you win.  You might not know that he fudges dice in your favor, but the fact is he will never throw anything at you he does not honestly believe you can beat.  I don’t mean he’s necessarily a “candy store” game master (although they are usually of this sort), but rather he is one who makes an effort to bring you through to victory.  With this kind of referee, the odds favor winning if you take the chance—he built a scenario you can beat, and if he has created something you can’t beat it’s because it will be quite clear to you that this is there to turn you in a different direction—he puts his tarrasque at the edge of his map so you won’t contemplate going where he isn’t ready for you.  The plan here is to make you look like heroes, to give you battles you can win and come away feeling good about it.  That’s not always as much fun as it sounds—if you come to a place where you think it’s impossible for you to lose, winning loses some of its charm—but knowing that the referee is on your side gives you confidence to take a few more risks than you might otherwise.

There is, of course, a door in the middle.  We spoke previously about Playing Fair a couple months back, and there are referees who let the chips—or the dice—fall where they will.  The scenario has not been stacked against you, but it’s not stacked in your favor, either.  If your referee rolls a lot of dice when you ask him questions, and it seems that the dice are dictating whether it’s a good or bad answer, this might be the type of referee you’re facing.  There is much to be commended about such referees.  They will give you a fair challenge, not making it too easy while at the same time not trying to kill you.  Their scenarios are much less predictable, overall, because it is entirely possible that they have rolled up an encounter that is well beyond your ability, and just as possible that they have created one that will be a cakewalk, and you aren’t going to be able to guess until you’ve walked into it.  This is the guy we think our referee is; he’s also fairly rare.  With this guy the way to play is probably realistically—don’t be overconfident, but don’t believe that everything is a trap.  He has made it as fair as he can, which means you have to be careful, but not paranoid.

So those are three general types of referees—killer, beneficent, and fair—and that’s how you play if you can recognize which one you’ve got.  I wouldn’t bother to ask:  quite a few wouldn’t know the answer, some would be wrong about themselves, and those that do know also know better than to tell you.  But if you can figure out how your referee thinks, you can use that to improve your outcomes in play.


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Next article:  Labyrinths.

RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice

This is RPG-ology #8:  The Illusion of Choice, for July 2018.


Last time we talked a bit about the power of the referee, how it can be abused, and the principles that should prevent that abuse.  This time our focus is on how to use that power in a way that will enhance the game by getting outside our usual expectations.

There is a referee “style” identified as “Illusionism,” one of four identified ways of resolving the issue dubbed The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast:  if the players have complete control over all their character actions, how is it that the referee actually controls the story of the game?  You can read about all four answers at Places to Go:  People to Be, in Theory 101:  The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or in the French edition as Théorie 101 – 2e partie : Le Truc Impossible Avant Le Petit Déj’ if French is easier for you.  Most people condemn Illusionism as unfair to the players, who have no idea that their choices do not matter.  Yet Illusionism is built on the use of some very useful Illusionist techniques, and one of them might be an answer to a problem with certain kinds of play.

Many years ago a referee was bemoaning a disastrous game session.  He had designed a high-rise building in which terrorists had hidden a bomb.  The expectations of the scenario (a Trailblazing design) were that the party would move through the building and along the way collect the information needed to defuse the bomb.  Unfortunately, a few perhaps lucky or unlucky turns put them at the bomb right at the beginning of their adventure, and one of the characters decided that rather than risk letting the time run through its several hours he would attempt to deactivate it now—with a bad roll of the dice detonating it and killing the entire party right at the beginning of the game session.

And I realized that there was a much better way to run a scenario of that sort.  I wrote Game Ideas Unlimited:  Left or Right? (only the French translation, Gauche ou droite ? remains online) to explain my solution, and used it in creating a scenario in a world for Multiverser:  The Third Book of Worlds entitled Why Spy.  That book might never be published, although I run the world regularly at gamer conventions, so if you’re ever playing at my table for such a game let me know that you’ve read this.

What I realized is that such a scenario does not work well as a dungeon design.  It needs to be run like a movie director.

The scenario is about terrorists occupying a fifty-story downtown commercial office and retail building.  There are four maps, each designed so that any one of the four sides can be “north” and all the stairwells, elevators, and utilities ducts will align.  The referee is encouraged to make multiple copies of these so he can write and draw on them.  The players are free to decide how they want to enter the building—ground level entrances on each side (front door, back door, loading dock, parking entrance), roof door, or break through a window at any level.  They know that there is some unknown number of terrorists holding some unknown number of hostages, and that they claim to have a nuclear device which they will detonate if their demands are not met.

Whenever they decide where they are entering, the referee chooses one of the floorplan maps, decides which edge is north, and begins the game.  The only fixed encounter locations are the number of terrorists at each of the doors.  Once the players are inside the building, it doesn’t work that way.  The way it does work is there are nineteen encounters—the first a lone armed terrorist in the hall, the last the bomb itself.  As the player characters move through the building, the referee describes the map, inventing irrelevant details (e.g., opthamologist’s office, photography studio, planter outside the door, mirror on the wall) and decides where the first encounter will occur as they move toward it.  The tools of the game are used to determine whether the players and/or the terrorists are surprised, and the players take whatever actions they wish to resolve the encounter.  Assuming they survive, the game continues.  If the players move to a different floor, the referee repeats the process of selecting a floorplan and orienting it, and continues putting the encounters in their path as they progress.  Players can avoid encounters if they wish, provided they have seen the encounter before it has noticed them, but they will find each in the order it is listed.  Encounters include finding an office worker in hiding, finding a door with a bomb on it, encountering terrorists with and without hostages, coming to an open area visible from above or below where terrorists might be, learning that a strike team has been sent to find them, the team getting split, part of the team rescuing the other part, finding the leader with a remote detonator, and finding the bomb.

What the technique in essence does is deprive the players of control over the order in which encounters occur—that is, they can’t go directly to the terrorist leader without passing through the other events.  In doing this, it creates the fun.  You could, of course, design a dungeon crawl with only one direction through, forcing the players to face the encounters in the order you’ve decided.  This “directorial” technique accomplishes the same result, but with the feeling that they can go any direction they wish.  Indeed, they can—it’s just that which direction they go is completely unimportant to what happens next.  They can’t derail the scenario, save only by deciding to retreat from the building.

You don’t necessarily need a map to do this, if you can keep track of where everything is in your head.  There are ways to do that, too, which we will discuss in the future.


Previous article:  Playing Fair.
Next article:  Three Doors.

RPG-ology #7: Playing Fair

This is RPG-ology #7:  Playing Fair, for June 2018.


I was corresponding, electronically, with someone I introduced to role playing games over the Internet, and since I introduced him to them, his first game and still his favorite is my game, Multiverser.  Of course, as all players, he was expressing the opinion that I didn’t run the game the way he would, citing another excellent referee of the game with whom we are both acquainted.  It happens that I have issues with the way he runs the game, but I figure once I hand it to a referee, it’s his game.  Still, I think some of my complaints are valid, and reflected in this discussion.

One of the points my correspondent made was that if a game referee can’t kill any player character he wants whenever he wants, he’s not a very capable referee.  That’s not as vicious a notion in Multiverser as it would be in, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons:  as Ron Edwards noted, we have solved the problem of character death by turning it into a means of advancing the story, since the character who is killed immediately finds himself in another universe continuing his adventures.  Further, there is certainly a point there.  The referee has access to characters and monsters with godlike powers (Dungeon Masters use to joke about attacking character parties with three of their tarrasques—a joke, because the books specify that this nearly invulnerable killing machine is unique in the world), along with complete control of the scene such that such adversaries could be found just behind the next door, or could be waiting on the path of retreat—and could be in whichever of those places the player chooses to go.  So indeed, referees have the ability to target and kill player characters on a whim.

I was arguing against that, but I don’t think I was making my point very clearly at the time.  Those social networking message threads have advantages, but they are also very limiting.  So let me take a step back and explain why I think that is not really true.  It has to do with fairness.

Decades ago, before I knew anything about Ed’s work on Multiverser, our small county had few enough Dungeon Masters in it that we usually heard stories about each other.  There was one long-time referee who ran a regular game at the local donut shop (yes, the county was small enough that at that time it had one donut shop, and it was not part of a chain).  It was said that he was a moody sort of fellow, and on nights when he was in a bad mood almost all the characters died and had to be resurrected, but when he was in a good mood they got treasure and magic items and empowerments hand over fist.  It was as if the gods were bipolar.

I perceived even then that this was not the way to run a game; but I’d already been running them for over a decade, and was known as the most by-the-book Dungeon Master in the county.  (Ed was known as the most imaginative.)  What struck me was that the donut shop game was entirely unfair, because the referee abused his power.

In my games, I designed dungeons and encounter situations in advance—usually months and sometimes years in advance, working out the details.  One of the most useful realizations I had was that random encounters were not the less random rolled years beforehand, so I had my wandering monsters pre-made and detailed long before I needed them.  If you walked your character into a room in my game, you knew that whatever was in that room, I was not thinking about your character when I put it there.  I was trying to design a scenario that made some kind of sense from some perspective, hoping that whatever players explored it would be up to the challenges and interested in the discoveries.  Your character might be killed—that was always a risk—but he would never be targeted.  That is still my rule in my OAD&D games.

It has also bled over to my other games.  Multiverser is a special case, because of course worlds are customized for the players, and often created on the fly.  I have on occasion thrown something at a player character which I knew had a very high chance of killing him—such as a rigged grenade trap on a door for a player who never checks for traps.  Yet the sense of fairness remains paramount:  it was never something you could not have anticipated, unless it was something that was an inherent surprise in that world.  That is, you might unexpectedly discover that the annual sacrifices in the mountains are actually being fed to a giant snake, but only because no one had ever seen it and survived so everyone assumed the priests just killed the victim and left the body somewhere to rot.  I didn’t decide abruptly that a giant snake would be the perfect surprise for this situation because it would probably kill you; I decided at some point that a giant snake would be a good “deity” to which the sacrifices would be made, and I foreshadowed it along the way if you were paying attention (see the end of Verse Three, Chapter One for how that played out), and if you were surprised, well, hopefully you were ready to be surprised.

That is why I don’t believe that a good referee can kill any character he wants any time he wants:  I believe that the referee is bound by an unwritten code of fairness, that he has to treat the players, and that means their characters, in a way that always gives them a fair chance to win, to survive, to come through victorious.  They won’t always win; they won’t always survive.  They should always feel that they might have done had they played it a bit differently or had better luck with the dice.

So to my player, and any other player, who thinks that a referee can kill a player character anytime and anywhere, I think you’ve failed to grasp what it is to be a referee—an impartial judge who determines outcomes in the game and applies the rules as he understands them.  Your players should never be able to say, “That’s not fair,” without you being able to explain why it is fair, and that it is not merely because you decided it.


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