Category: RPG-ology

RPG-ology #41: Over My Shoulder

This is RPG-ology #41:  Over My Shoulder, for April 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.

We are skipping another which has already been published, but since this thirteenth entry is itself an index of the first twelve, all but one of which have been republished here, we will go directly to it.  A few editorial notes will be [bracketed].


I doubt any of you have been counting, but this is the thirteenth article in our Game Ideas Unlimited series.  I’m not superstitious (in that sense of the word).  The number thirteen doesn’t mean anything frightening to me.  But if you’re adept at calendar math, you know that thirteen weeks (and not twelve) is three months, a quarter of a year.

It’s our anniversary.

I’m a believer in holidays that look back at the past, to see whence we came in an effort to know whither we are going.  There are a dozen columns behind us, each one different.  If you haven’t read them all, perhaps now would be a good time to see what ideas you missed; and if you have, it won’t hurt to jolt them back to your mind.  But we’ll also take a moment to look at looking back.

I introduced myself and the series with a column appropriately called Introduction [not included in our republications but now available as mark Joseph “young” web log entry #384:  Game Ideas Unlimited Introduction].  In it we promised that these columns would include many and varied ideas, sometimes giving you something you could use directly in your games, but more importantly trying to teach you how to be creative, where to find ideas.  It also contained links to several other articles I’ve written, as a way both of introducing myself and of providing game ideas to you.

The second idea, An Amusing Dungeon, was primarily for fantasy gamers.  It sketched out an adventure in which standard medieval fantasy characters found themselves in a magical amusement park, terrified of the rides and confused by the rest.  More basically it was about devising challenging and creative settings by taking something familiar and putting it in the wrong place.

Transmats, the third entry, took us solidly into science fiction.  If you run a sci-fi game and have matter transmission technology, you probably added a lot of things to your world after reading that one.  Even if that’s not you, the challenge behind it was to look at the technology in your worlds and make sure you consider all the implications.

By the time we looked at My North Wall in the fourth article, we were looking for world ideas and finding them in very mundane places.  There was a brief side trip into misdirection as a story tool and a chance to look for the leprechaun in the painting on my wall, but overall we were finding ways to draw ideas from the things around us.

The fifth article, Screen Wrap, talked about ways to use teleportation to create maze-like challenges.  It was presented in a practical, nuts-and-bolts sort of way that works with both fantasy and science fiction, and included some ideas on getting a very similar effect without moving the characters at all.

If you’re carrying a notebook around just so you can write down something you see each day, it might be because you took my advice seriously in Pay Attention.  This sixth column suggested things to include in such a volume, and how they might be useful in the future.

I told you a little bit about my family in number seven, and asked you about yours.  I said we were all Living in the Past, and that there were far more story, world, and character ideas in the past than in the present, worth exploring.  And from some of the mail I received, I’d say that many of you began exploring those ideas, finding out about your parents’ lives.

We went for a walk in a blizzard in Snow Day.  I wanted you to move your mind out of where you were into another world, and experience it vividly enough that you could bring your friends into it with you.  If we did that, the eighth entry succeeded, and may have helped you develop some tools for better presentation of your setting.  And if it’s a hot day today, maybe you’d like to go back there for a moment and cool off a bit.

Number nine was in some ways controversial.  I told you about Invisible Coins, and how to use these to control the direction of your game.  Many of you are probably afraid of this idea, as I was; but sometimes the importance of the die roll isn’t what it is but what you wanted it to be.

Maybe we got a little heady with Empiricism [republished under the title Creatures], discussing the philosophy of David Hume.  But the tenth article had a practical side, too, as it made us consider the limitations of communication, and examine the degree to which our descriptions need to convey impressions rather than information.  It also had a clever sketch from Dimitrios “Jim” Denaxas “illustrating” the idea.

I unscrambled the word Aptrusis in column eleven.  In doing so, I looked at my own approach to solving a puzzle, and the place of puzzles in games.

Although column twelve was called Monster Design, I didn’t design a monster.  Instead, I presented a set of ideas which to my mind were important in creating a good monster—not game mechanics, but the nature of the beast itself and the way it is presented within the game world.

The value in looking back lies in looking forward.  [Thirteen] weeks ago, I said I was going to give you ideas, but go beyond that to help you learn to find your own ideas.  I promised that our column would turn in every direction, sometimes practical and sometimes esoteric, sometimes fantasy and sometimes science fiction, sometimes design and sometimes presentation.  So far we’ve been there and done that—not in a tired way, I think, but in a way that suggests successes on which to build.

But my opinion is not the important one here.  What matters is whether you think we’re achieving the objectives.  More to the point, what of all this did you find useful?  Of what that we’ve done would you like more?  And is there anything you expected that you’ve not yet seen but would still like?  Have we gone too far?  Have we gone far enough?  It’s not that I’ve run out of ideas—I might never run out of ideas.  It’s that not all ideas are equally valued, and there are many directions which could be explored in the next quarter.  I’m thinking about developing character background, looking again at how people think, maybe examining superstition.  Which ideas will we pursue?  In part that’s up to you.  By the time you read this, I’ll be several weeks ahead in writing them; but your thoughts on what is worthwhile will certainly affect the future of the series at some point.

So roll some of those invisible dice, and as they clatter on the table [write a forum post leave a comment] to tell me what it is that you really want them to say.

Previous article:  Aptrusis.
Next article:  Who?.

RPG-ology #40: Aptrusis

This is RPG-ology #40: Aptrusis, for March 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.

We skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; and already ran the second and third, so that last month featured the fourth in the series, linked below. This is number eleven, as we ran quite a few out of sequence already. For the sake of history, we ran number five Screen Wrap almost two years ago in June, six through eight, Pay Attention, Living in the Past, and Snow Day in sequence the summer before because they connected to each other, and number nine Invisible Coins last September. The tenth, originally entitled Empiricism, was rerun under the title Creatures two years ago.


I really don’t like certain kinds of puzzles. People think it’s strange. After all, aren’t I one of those super-intelligent people, and since I am, wouldn’t I enjoy games for the super-intelligent? Bah. I don’t like those mathematical magic squares. Finding the next one in the sequence doesn’t excite me.

And these: Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cook and Mr. Baker met on the street. “It’s funny,” said Mr. Baker to the man who was the carpenter, “that each of us is named for a trade, and although between us we represent all three of the trades of our names, not one of us has the job that matches his name.” So which one is the carpenter, which is the cook, and which is the baker? The Law School Admission Test—L.S.A.T. for those of you more familiar with test abbreviations—has those, in varying levels of complexity, as about a quarter of the questions.

I hate those, too.

And I don’t unscramble words.

It isn’t that I don’t think I can do these. On the contrary, the problem is that as soon as I see the problem, I know that I can solve it, given enough time and effort. It generally becomes clear fairly quickly that if you shift the information around sufficiently, eventually the answer will appear. It is inevitable.

And that reduces the entire exercise to busy work.

I don’t like these puzzles because they are exactly like having to do homework. The answers are attainable, often without much that could be considered cleverness or even thought. You just have to plug away at it until you find it. I’ll show you what I mean.

My youngest was handed an assignment in which all the adverbs had been “scrambled” and he had to unscramble them to answer the questions. I’m supposed to help him with his work (this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me—I can do his work easily, and don’t see how that helps him learn, but I don’t have the patience to listen to him whine some days about how hard it is and how he can’t do it), and I’m supposed to check it when it’s done. So I read the paragraph, and all the words quickly revealed themselves, but for one.

  • aptrusis

So I have no idea what this is. I note that it contains the word “apt,” and that the “usis” ending is worth considering. But as yet I don’t see a whole word. So I change things around, at first keeping the two halves isolated.

  • partsuis

I like the way the first four letters work; they seem to have a lot of possibilities. The last four don’t, though, and I’m already thinking of pulling one of the “s”‘s to the front, as there are an awful lot of words that begin with “s,” and “sp,” “st,” “str,” and “spr” are very common starts. But before I do that, I try another twist.

  • tarpiuss

It’s not working. It’s time to shuffle things in a larger way, move letters between the front and the back.

  • utripass

Understand that in the back of my mind I’m already aware that I could systematically examine every combination—start by switching the last two, then shuffling the last three, the last four, as if testing permutations in a Mastermind game. I’m also quite aware that it can take a very long time to do that, even with the aid of a computer. I wonder if there’s a scrambled word cruncher on the net, like the “convert your phone number to words” site I once saw. But I’m working on the assumption that poking at this inductively will eventually give me a letter combination I recognize. In fact, I get such a letter combination when I bring the “s” up to the front.

  • straispu

However, it’s too much. I’ve got a five letter run that looks good, but the rest can’t be made into the end of any word I can see.

And this is supposed to be third grade work. Did I mention that I don’t like scrambled words?

  • spartius

A classic movie comes to mind; but this is supposed to be a time or place.

  • aspurtis

This actually sounds like a word; I pause to see if I can find the word—no, it would be a cute pun in a way, but probably very few would get it. Keep going.

  • spraitus

Well, I’d tried the “str” opening, I had to try the “spr.” This is so far from inspiring that I drop it.

  • parssuit

I’m beginning the think again about whether I can have the computer print them all to a text file. Then I could open it in Word, and the spellchecker would choke, but maybe find for me the one word that is not misspelled.

  • pastusir

Um… no.

  • upstasir

And suddenly I can see it; it’s right there. I have enough of it that the rest falls into place. I have unscrambled the word.

Did I mention that I really don’t like scrambled words?

I’m sure some of you knew what Aptrusis was almost as soon as you saw it in the title; your mind is geared to unscramble words more quickly than mine. Others have not yet made the final step to finish the process. Don’t worry about that—we all process information a bit differently. But more than a few of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with game ideas.

Quite a bit, actually.

I just took you for a walk through a mental process. This, in a perhaps abbreviated form, is the way I thought about this problem. In some ways it should have seemed familiar to you, like I was doing something you might have done; in some ways it should have seemed surprising, like I turned left where you would have climbed the ladder. That means that there are similarities between the way you and I think, but we don’t think quite the same way. What looks easy to you, what is easy to you, might stump me, at least for a moment; and I might breeze through something that would confuse you.

Years ago, before people were talking about drama, karma, and fortune mechanics, or about narrativist, gamist, and simulationist goals, or about actor and author (and more recently director) stances in role playing games, someone tried to divide players up into categories of what they wanted to do. Some, it was said, were there for the action, fighting monsters and escaping with treasure. Others were there for the characters, the creation of story and the development of their world. But there was a third category about which I don’t hear much anymore: some play for the puzzles. They like solving them. Whether it’s a riddle, or a logic problem, or a scrambled word, the moment that the story stops and the players have to put their minds to cracking a problem is the moment this player shines. And in fact, I am that player. I like solving puzzles as the way to the solution of the mystery in the game. It’s just that there are some puzzles which don’t seem to me like puzzles at all. They seem like homework. I never liked homework (and left too substantial a share of it unfinished over the years). I want puzzles, but I don’t want homework.

And because we know that each of us thinks a little differently about everything, it follows that the puzzles that appeal to you might not appeal to me. So if you’re creating the situation, you need to think of puzzles that will appeal to the players, particularly to the players who are going to be the ones to tackle and enjoy them. If they like wordplay and don’t like numbers, they aren’t going to enjoy a numerical puzzle so much as a linguistic one. And probably they’re going to have trouble with some puzzles, to the point of frustration. The last thing you want to do is give them a puzzle that they aren’t going to like and will frustrate them. After all, they’re here to have fun. The puzzle should be challenging and fun.

This was a lot of words to say that, if that was all I was going to say. Why did we bother to go through that look at how I solve scrambled words? It was supposed to bring into focus the fact that everyone approaches puzzles a bit differently (at least, of those that bother to approach them at all). Everyone likes different types of puzzles, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in puzzle solving. So you can’t assume that because a puzzle looks too easy to you that they’re going to get it right away. You need to have a grasp of what puzzles entertain your players, what kinds of puzzles they enjoy and which ones provide the right level of challenge, if you’re going to use them, and gear things for that. The puzzles that appear in your adventures must entertain and challenge without frustrating.

Did I mention I hate scrambled words?

The word was “upstairs.” I have since been given the URL for AnagramFun.com, which would indeed unscramble any collection of letters you insert into whatever word or words can be derived from them.

Mr. Baker says that he is not the baker, and that the carpenter is not Mr. Carpenter; but since Mr. Baker is talking to the carpenter, he is not the carpenter either. (I don’t know—they don’t allow that Mr. Baker might be mistaken; and they don’t allow that he might talk to himself. But I suppose in logic puzzles things have to be logical, even if they aren’t realistic.) He must therefore be the cook. Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Cook are therefore the baker and the carpenter, but since Mr. Carpenter is not the carpenter he must be the baker, and thus the carpenter is Mr. Cook. But perhaps the answer is as confusing as the question.

Previous article: My North Wall.
Next article: Over My Shoulder.

RPG-ology #39: My North Wall

This is RPG-ology #39:  My North Wall, for February 2021.

Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.  This was not one of them, but the unearthing of about two thirds of the articles complete plus other partials has led to the decision to run as many of the series as we can in as close to the original sequence as possible.

We have skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; the second and third, An Amusing Dungeon and Transmats, have already appeared.  This was the fourth in the series.  Others which have already been republished will be noted but skipped.


I’m looking for world ideas.  I’m always coming back to that.  I’ve got books to write, games to run.  For every idea someone promises to prepare for publication, I need another one lined up in case it doesn’t come through.  So I’m looking for world ideas much of the time.

Right now I happen to be looking for them in my office.  But they’re here—you just have to know how to look.

The room is a mess.  I’d like to tell you that it’s because I’m still moving in, and I could get away with that as it is true.  For the last couple of years I’ve had office materials in two places, and everything from one of them is here—but the other houses two file cabinets and many boxes of books and papers which will have to find a place here.  But the truth is that I’m a messy sort of person, and have been so since I was very young.  I read an article thirty years ago that mentioned that creative people preferred a degree of clutter, and I’ve armed myself with that as a defense ever since.  I’ve a pretty good idea in which of these piles to look for anything from world maps to bank statements.  Still, I should put some of this away.

Across the room I see four mugs on top of a cabinet.  The cabinet will eventually house some of those books and papers.  I’ve never done a world about corporations and businesses; but who would want to play in such a place?  The mugs are of more interest to me.  The first was a Christmas present from one of my kids; it’s one of those Coca-cola™ mugs with the playful polar bears on it.  I’ve done an ice age world; it should be published soon.  My second son has written a sketch of a world with intelligent animals and dumb humans—not really an original idea; Jonathan Swift did a good job with that, but it has potential.  I don’t see combining the two ideas, at least not at present.  And those bears would make for a bit of comic relief, but not a world.

The second mug has been mine for a long time.  I’ve had my coffee in it at late night games for as long as I can remember, took it with me when I was teaching cub scouts, and keep it in my room so that no one will break it.  I’m surprised it’s lasted so long.  It’s got a Magellan age map on it, and says Captain.  I don’t think I’ve done a good swashbuckler yet—a merchant sailing adventure of that period, yes, but I could do something on the order of Captain Blood, where the pirates are the misunderstood heroes.

The third mug was another gift, an “I love you” mug from one of my younger sons.  It’s really very Valentines and Lace.  I remember playing in a game in which my character fell in love with a non-player character; and I remember running a game in which one of the players went actively seeking a wife.  Come to think of it, there have been a lot of romantic interludes over the years, from the time Marsonian rescued Lemunda the Lovely to the time Chris married Olivia in The Dancing Princess and Bill asked Blake’s 7‘s Cali to be his bride.  But I’ve never tried to do a setting in which romance was the focus.  I’ll have to give that more thought.

The fourth mug is navy blue, almost black, slightly marbled.  I bought this one for myself, because I really liked the color.  From here, it’s just a dark mug on top of the cabinet—hardly a fount of inspiration.  Yet it immediately reminds me of Tristan’s Labyrinth, an underground maze with no exits and no lights.  Darkness can be an important element in a setting.  A world entirely in darkness presents its own challenges.  Of course, as with the labyrinth, the creatures who are native to that world would not rely on sight, or at least not in the same sense as we do.  It would only be interesting if the player characters come from another world, one in which light is abundant, and have to negotiate the darkness.  In Tristan’s Labyrinth there were walls, and if you had no light you could navigate by feel through the darkness.  Perhaps I could do darkness again, this time without walls.

There is a window fan tossed up on the cabinet behind the mugs.  I just finished an underground world with giant exhaust fans providing circulation, so that’s the first thing it brings to mind.  Is there something else I can do with fans?  I vaguely recall some underwater science fiction piece in which huge impellers drew water into conduits.  An underwater setting has special problems, although you can do it sort of like the Mars of Total Recall, limited biosphere containments on the ocean floor.

The TV is next to the cabinet; it’s on top of my son’s dresser, which is in here until I can get the extra hardware to put his bunk bed together in his room.  The dresser itself has an almost colonial look to it, suggesting a foray into an historic game.  The juxtaposition with the television and VCR stacked on top creates an impression of an eclectic technology, a world in which the old and the new coexist; and I wonder whether they do so in harmony or tension.

There is a painting tossed up on the wall behind the TV, partly obscured.  It landed here because it had to go somewhere, and there was a nail in the wall there.  It was a wedding gift from the artist, Bernice Wurst; I’m told she is one of New Jersey’s outstanding artists today, but I still think of her as the lady who lived around the corner and had coffee with my mother once in a while.  And I always remember the Halloween night when she came to the door convincingly made up as a Chinese waiter.  (At ten years old, I did not recognize her; but my mother didn’t either, and thought she was a boy, so it was a convincing disguise.)  But none of that is in the picture, as useful as it might be.

The painting is a still life, flowers in a vase.  I’m not a florist, but they look to me like mums, mostly in orange and yellow, with a splash of red and leaves in several shades of green down to almost brown.  It’s the sort of painting style which is somewhere between realism and impressionism—I see carnations, but if I look more carefully I realize that there are no petals in the puffs, just splashed on highlights and paint texturing.  In another context some of them would be popcorn balls or cotton candy.  And there is something very strange about this picture.  It hung on our walls for years; and then one day my wife asked if that leprechaun had always been sitting in the middle of it.  I looked and looked, and finally I saw the profile of a pink and white face, the brown hair and sideburns, the green-suited body with arms and legs, seated on one of the flowers as on an ottoman.  I had never seen him before; but now he is the first thing that catches my eye whenever I see the picture.  I suspect that you would not see him the first time you looked at the picture; but that if once you saw him he would be obvious.

As I think about that hidden leprechaun, it reminds me that you can often hide things in plain sight; misdirection is one of the best tools for building suspense.

I once ran some early episodes of Blake’s 7 as a Multiverser game.  One of them has a wonderful piece of misdirection that worked like a charm.  The crew boards a spaceship that seems to be in distress, finds the crew drugged and the pilot dead.  They begin sorting through the disorder, and find that the pilot scrawled something with his blood on a piece of panel.  In preparing for the game, I carefully etched the awkward wavy lines to a blank sheet of unlined paper.  This became my piece of panel.  I pulled it out and looked at it, and in character read off the squiggles as a number while handing it to the player, asking his character whether that meant anything to him.  It did not.  The adventure continues, the player has that sheet of paper with that number on it the entire time, and he tries to solve the mystery—who killed the pilot and placed the gas in the ventilation system?  Why did they do it?

But those squiggles aren’t numbers; they’re letters.  They spell the name of the killer.  As soon as someone points that out, it’s obvious—but because I told him what number it was, the player only saw the number, no matter how many times he looked at it. He was trying to figure out what the number meant, not what the squiggles meant.

There’s a speaker in the corner, part of the last bit of musical equipment I ever bought, a P.A. system. I had my computer running through it a while ago, and the audio feed from the VCR still does.  There are a lot of good stories you can do in the music world, but you have to start with a character who is a musician.  In Sliders, Rembrandt Brown was in a world where his other self was a huge success (and in an irony that probably rang deeply with a lot more than musicians, his success was credited to the fact that he went left where our Rembrandt went right).  My Multiverser player character also met a self who had become a star.  Not every character, not every player, is right for such a story.  But it reminds me that some of the best stories are built on the lives of the players, the “might have beens” that they missed, and an exploration of what that could have meant.

I’ve finished one wall.  There were quite a few ideas there, if you knew how to see them.  I’ve got three more walls I could do, and more things in the middle of the room.  The house has seven rooms and a hall upstairs, three or four (depending on how you count them) downstairs, so I could find many more ideas here.  I could keep going.

But I think I’ll let you look at your walls instead.

Previous article:  Polyglot.
Next article:  Aptrusis.

RPG-ology #38: Polyglot

This is RPG-ology #38:  Polyglot, for January 2021.


I was going to call this article I Speak Jive, but it just happens that earlier this week I was chatting with someone about movies and he suggested that a movie could not get away with that joke today.  Given the recent clime (I am writing this the summer before it publishes, because I like to stay ahead of schedule on my deadlines) I decided that maybe I could mention it, but I couldn’t use it for the title.

It is important to mention, though, because it illustrates the problem being addressed here.  How do you communicate in a world in which many languages are spoken?  Last month I wrote about inscriptions, and gave a link to a table of one hundred sixty-nine identifiable recognized languages in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I won’t swear I got them all.  At any moment a character’s life might depend on his ability to talk to someone, or something, that doesn’t happen to speak the same language.  What are the options?  Complicating it further, even people who speak the same language can have trouble understanding each other.  There are jokes about Scotsman, Irishmen, and Welshmen speaking English to Englishmen, and when you mix in Yorkshire, Liverpool, and the East End of London, you wind up with the beginnings of a new Tower of Babel.  Indeed, Chinese may be the same written language, but those who speak the various dialects from different parts of the country are incomprehensible to each other.

The “common language” of the Dungeons & Dragons world is not so absurd as we might think.  The Greeks conquered a substantial part of eastern Europe and the Middle East, and when the Romans took over that territory, the Greek language became established as the language of trade throughout what they called the civilized world.  Still, although most even modestly educated people were at least trilingual (their native language, the commercial language Greek, and law language Latin), there were many who spoke only the local tongue, and as with Americans traveling in Europe you might suddenly find yourself faced with someone who doesn’t have a clue how to speak English, and doesn’t understand even when you speak it loudly and slowly.  Not everyone speaks common.

Star Trek resolved the issue by giving everyone “universal translators,” implanted in the ears, which automatically converted anything anyone said to the language of the listener.  Of course, from time to time the travelers encountered people whose language was too alien for the translator to render, and Spock had to do a computer analysis of the new language and reprogram the devices to handle it.  Not everyone speaks a language the device can translate.

Historically the solution has been to find interpreters, persons who speak more than one language and can translate what each party says to the language of the other.  This is tricky.  My high school French teacher commented once that she could get around Paris quite comfortably, but if her car broke down she would be clueless concerning how to talk about the distributor.

There’s a joke about gangsters questioning a foreigner about the location of some loot they had stolen.  They found a translator, who put the question to the prisoner.  “I don’t want to die,” he said.  “It’s not worth it.  The million dollars is in a suitcase behind the basement furnace at 1212 Delancy Street.”  The interpreter turned to the gangsters and said, “He says, you can kill me if you want, I’m never going to tell you what you want to know.”  Interpreters are not always reliable.

My sister speaks three languages—English, French, and Chinese—well enough that she worked as a United Nations translator for a while, but she sometimes gets thrown by words that are apparently not uncommon.  Still, multi-lingual interpreters are the go-to for communication between those who don’t speak a common language.

Even when they do, sometimes an interpreter or two is needed to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that arise when neither party speaks the shared language well.


Previous article:  It’s Greek to Me.
Next article:  My North Wall.

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #37: It’s Greek to Me

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous article:  Phionics.
Next article:  Polyglot.

RPG-ology #36: Phionics

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


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

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

So why not a category of special powers called phionics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, it can make for a good story.


Previous article:  Invisible Coins.
Next article:  Phionics.

RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

RPG-ology #33: Flirting

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


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

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

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

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