Category: RPG-ology

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.


Previous article:  The Illusion of Choice.
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.


Previous article:  Name Ideas Unlimited.
Next article:  The Illusion of Choice.

RPG-ology #6: Name Ideas Unlimited

This is RPG-ology #6:  Name Ideas Unlimited, for May 2018.


If you’re going to run a game, if you’re going to write a book, if you’re going to tell a story, you quickly find that your characters need names.

There are a lot of ways around this.  Sometimes a character can exist with only a title—Lieutenant, Reverend, bartender—and not merely incidental characters.  No one knows the name of The Doctor.  E. R. Jones used stock names for essential peripheral characters—that is, all his stablehands were named “Bob”, and he has other names for innkeepers and petty thieves and the wealth of unimportant minor characters populating the world.  When player characters would ask for the name of an incidental character they might never see again, I would often reply, “He tells you his name,” and it was thereafter agreed that if the incidental character’s name ever mattered, the character knew what it was, even though none of us ever did.  However, even with all of these tricks, players are going to need names for their characters, and referees are going to need a lot of names. Read more

RPG-ology #5: Country Roads

This is RPG-ology #5: Country Roads, for April 2018.


Of course, role playing game referees almost always have maps, and many of us make most of our own maps. The fact is that you don’t really necessarily need maps, and we’ll probably eventually talk about running games without them, but for most of the kinds of games most of us play, maps are an important part. I even belong to a Facebook group dedicated entirely to game referees making and sharing their maps. Honestly some of them look more like aerial photography, but that’s useful too. Questions often arise about how to make maps, and having been a Boy Scout and having taught Cub Scouts a few Scout skills over the years, I’m pretty good at maps. So we’ll probably return to them from time to time. One of the questions I often hear, though, is how do you design the roads on your maps. If you don’t understand how roads work, you can do some pretty silly things with them.

This article is going to talk about what we’re dubbing “country roads”, with apologies to John Denver, but we’re including wilderness roads, desert roads, pretty much any road that is outside the confines of a city—the long roads that take you from one major place to another in your adventure setting, the road on which your adventurers set out when they began that took them somewhere else. Some of what we’ll talk about applies to city streets as well, but they have their own complications and issues, so maybe we’ll come back to them in another article. Read more

RPG-ology #4: The Big Game

This is RPG-ology #4: The Big Game, for March 2018.


I’m going to begin by apologizing to the Christian Gamers Guild President, Reverend Rodney Barnes. It seems we often find ourselves arguing opposite ends of a question. Years ago (maybe decades) we both participated in the Magic Symposium in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, and his contribution, Magic as Part of Creation, suggested handling the issue in exactly the way that my contribution, Magic: Essential to Faith, Essential to Fantasy, said was the wrong way. Now a year ago he wrote The Numbers Game, in which he suggested keeping a strict limit on the number of players in your game, and it seems that I am writing to contradict him once again.

Let me say that this is not really my intention, and I do understand his point. When I run Multiverser games, even at conventions, I try to keep the game to four players at a time, and if it stretches beyond six I usually try to get someone at the table to work with me as a second referee to run some of the players. But E. R. Jones and I had the experience of being two of maybe half a dozen known Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ Dungeon Masters in our small county, and when we ran the game the rule was always that anyone who wants to play is welcome at the table as long as someone already there will vouch for him. I sometimes ran thirty players in my living room/dining room; he sometimes ran fifty in cafeterias and snack shops.

So I’m writing to tell you how to do it, or at least how I did it, and what I know of how he did it, having watched him from the player’s seat. Read more

RPG-ology #3: History of Hit Points

This is RPG-ology #3: History of Hit Points, for February 2018.


Some time ago the Christian Gamers Guild republished the excellent article by Charles Franklin, Hitting Them Where It Hurts. Charles Franklin is the nom de plume of a marine who testifies as an expert witness on issues like that, and a long-time gamer. He was not the first to take issue with the notion of “hit points” as a determinant of character survival, but his was the first effort I saw to address it based on real-world combat statistics (back when it was originally published in 1999 in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice). Since that time many systems have devised ways of dealing with damage and death that avoid some of the criticism of hit points, but it is still a popular mechanic used in many games and adopted to computer and console role playing games (properly “CRPGs” but frequently confused as “RPGs”).

The criticism is that it is unrealistic: people do not take so much damage and then die. Some people are killed sometimes instantly by a single hit to a vital organ; others are riddled with bullets or cuts and stabs and bruises but continue fighting or make incredible escapes. The notion that a character can look at the weapon in the hand of an attacker and think, that can’t possibly kill me without him getting several lucky strikes is really not consistent with the reality of mortal combat. It’s only a knife, but in the spleen it will be fatal, and in the jugular very quickly so. Hit points do not represent that at all. Everybody knows it—and indeed, everyone has always known it. So why do we use them?

Part of it is the history of the game. Read more