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.
The following is a stand-alone holiday-themed 1st edition AD&D adventure for five to six characters level 5-6. Because this is an entire adventure module, it’s substantially longer than our usual fare.
A small group of adventurers stumble through a portal and find themselves in a snow-blanketed land of forested mountains. They find shelter in a tiny village, but they also find the villagers to be cursed and in desperate need of help. The PCs can assist the villagers in one of two possible ways in return for the knowledge of how to get home. Or they can venture into the wilderness to obtain this knowledge from a centuries-old crone.
Spreading Yuletide Fear
A Dark Holiday-Themed Adventure by Michael Garcia (2020)
The scents of pine needles, wood embers, and roasted boar fill the air, but the pleasant aromas do not match the mood in the room. Mingled with the clinking of earthenware tankards, hushed voices fill the darkened great hall with anxious whispers. The thick oaken doors, barred against the many evils of the night, give the illusion of safety. You and your companions huddle together around a worn oaken table, not far from a great stone hearth. The roaring fire within it crackles and pops, causing shadows to dance eerily in the corners of the room. The reddish glow of the firelight reveals the nervous faces of your fellows. They look uneasily at each other, painfully aware that dozens of dour villagers, seated in the darkened recesses of the hall, send hardened stares in your direction. They are awaiting your answer.
How have you come to this god-forsaken place? Twelve hours ago, you were skulking about in a mysterious dungeon outside of your hometown. One or two wrong turns, and you found yourselves outdoors, stumbling through a snow-covered wilderness of rocky forests and rolling moors. Unable to find your way back, you made a long trek through the deep snow to this tiny village. Stunned, exhausted, and seeking answers, you found instead only fear and mystery.
The fretful villagers told you that winter snows had already blocked the mountain passes until spring. Worse, they claimed that the power of the old gods had returned in recent years to haunt this secluded valley. To wit, a company of spectral horsemen supposedly gallops nightly through the snow-filled sky, sweeping across the moors and across the very treetops, killing all in its path. Moreover, in the tangled forests that envelop this tiny settlement, malicious elves prey on anyone foolish enough to enter their dark realm. Pondering all this, you begin to understand the villagers’ distrustful stares.
After much debate, your friend beside you clearly lays out your options. The villagers claim to know your way home, but their price for this information is your help in breaking a curse on their village. Another way to get their aid is merely to protect them against the Wild Hunt and other terrifying night creatures while they complete their year-end rituals, needed to drive away darkness and to bring good fortune in the spring. If you spurn the villagers, your only other option seems to lie in the goodwill of a monstrous crone, who dwells alone in the trackless forest nearby. Said to be a powerful enchantress, half-woman and half-demon, this crone seems little better than the dreaded Huntsman and his spectral company.
Disgusted by your predicament, you are tempted to do none of the above! Let them figure it out! Vengeful curses, heathen rites, and evil ghosts are none of our business! Yet the grim stares coming from all corners of the darkened hall make it clear that you will find no shelter here if you refuse their pleas for aid.
Outside, the wind moans loudly and rattles the oiled parchment that covers the nearby window. Forceful drafts, like icy fingers, seem to seek you out, creeping beneath the barred doors and around window coverings. Standing abruptly and pushing the oiled parchment aside with your finger, you gaze outside. Wind-driven snow swirls frantically in the pale light of the full moon. An icy blast causes you to shiver, and you back away from the window. It is time to decide.
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:
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.
Double jointed: Some of the character’s joints bend in unusual ways.
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.
Adrenal control: the character can give himself a brief boost of strength and/or speed.
Disconnecting joints: one or more of the character’s joints can be disconnected, permitting the body to take a different possibly useful altered shape.
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.
Expanding ligaments: the character can stretch his arms and legs by expanding the joints while holding them together with stretched ligaments.
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.
This is Faith in Play #32: Zealots, for July 2020.
Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime. They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these. They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.
After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment. One player objected. His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.
My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?
This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value. In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism. We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment. But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.
And it matters pointedly. Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals. The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish. This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.
For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments. We’ll get to that.
This is Faith in Play #27: Believing Balance, for February 2020.
Over a year ago we began a series on the notion that in the Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® game system alignment was the True Religion, what characters actually believed. We have since examined those beliefs in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism, the four sides of the alignment grid. However, the game also included a center, a middle ground between each pair of creeds, which it called Neutral, and a character could be neutral in regard to law and chaos or in regard to good and evil, taking the middle ground.
There are actually four distinct ways in which neutrality can be achieved in play; the book puts a lot of focus on the third, and connects it to druidism, but for the many applications of neutrality in the game it is important to recognize these concepts. I label the four choices pragmatic, oblivious, druidic, and cross-principled. Let’s start with a brief tutorial. Remember, a character can be neutral in either axis, that is, a “neutral good” character is neutral in regard to law and chaos but committed to good as against evil, and a “lawful neutral” character is committed to the maintenance of order without regard for whether good or evil is the outcome.
The pragmatic neutral has a strong belief in that in which he is not neutral, but regards the other axis as tools to achieve this. A pragmatic neutral evil character seeks his own benefit, and accepts that sometimes that is achieved by supporting the social order and sometimes by opposing it in the name of liberty. He thus uses law and chaos as means to the end of his own gain.
The oblivious neutral does not recognize these as real values. A chaotic oblivious neutral believes in liberty at any cost, and when people say that law is required to protect people and bring benefit to the greater number, he replies that this is so much sophistry, that the difference between helping one person and helping many is an illusion, and the many are just as selfish as the one. To him, the concepts of good and evil simply do not exist; what matters is the struggle between law and liberty.
The druidic neutral is in some ways the most difficult. The assumption is that the character will balance the good he does with a like amount of evil, and the chaos he causes with a like amount of law. Thus in combat he kills a man, and then in another place he heals one who is dying; he steals from an enemy but then gives to the poor. In this sense he is relatively unpredictable. Most who play this alignment try to keep their actions contained, never doing anything too good or too bad, too structured or too anarchistic. On the other hand, this alignment is open to some rather drastic conceptualization, such as a character who heals everyone in a village and then in the next village flame strikes a children’s playground. For the druid, the concept is that good and evil, law and chaos, must remain balanced in the world, and they must not put it out of balance by supporting one against another.
One solution to this seemingly erratic approach is the fourth option, the cross-principled neutral. This approach recognizes that the side alignments, while in a sense coherent approaches to reality, can be divided into distinct issues. A character who is neutral on the law/chaos axis might support the monarchy absolutely, but completely oppose legal slavery in the realm (a lawful structure in many societies). A cleric neutral on the good/evil axis might feel it his obligation to heal the poor of their diseases but at the same time take whatever valuables they might have for himself.
By the book, a druid has to be druidic neutral in both axes; however, that can be achieved by being cross-principled. Any character who is not a druid but is true neutral (“neutral neutral”) can be druidic in one axis and something else in the other, and those who are “side neutrals”–neutral good, chaotic neutral–can be any kind of neutral in the neutral axis. A true neutral fighter could be pragmatic to the ethical axis and druidic to the moral, that is, believing that law and chaos are tools to maintain the balance between good and evil; or he could be druidic in the ethical and oblivious in the moral, believing that talk of good and evil is all nonsense and what matters is maintaining the balance between order and liberty.
It should be evident at this point that the neutral alignments represent a plethora of belief systems, even within the concept of druidism. The druid, of course, believes in maintaining the balance of four beliefs, although he has several ways of achieving that. The “side alignment” neutrals are perhaps more complicated, and we will return to them in a future article.
This is Faith in Play #25: Impact, for December 2019.
Back in maybe 1981 when I first started explaining on contemporary Christian radio station WNNN-FM that Dungeons & Dragons™ was not some evil cult activity but a very Christian game, I was as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. In 1997 when I first posted Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons(TM) Addict, Webcrawler (the original search engine) and Yahoo! (at the time a directory maintained by people reading and indexing web pages) between them had a dozen pages on Christianity and role playing games—half of them against. So sparse was the defense of gaming against the assaults of well-meaning misguided Christians that within days of my posting that page Reverend Jim Aubuchon knew it was there and invited me to join his newly-formed Christian Role Playing Game Association, which within two years would become the Christian Gamers Guild.
I’d like to say that I immediately saw the benefit of joining my ministry with that of others. That is not how it happened—but I have told that story elsewhere. Suffice it that God saw the benefit of putting me on their team.
Today the voices that rage against the evils of role playing games have been isolated to pockets of cranks, and most of the world knows that Dungeons & Dragons™ is not a cult but just a game, and a good game at that. Meanwhile, there are so many people who in an organized way are involved in some kind of ministry involving gaming that there is a Facebook group specifically for such groups, and even though I am one of the moderators of that group and I have more than once read the article on this site naming many of them, Our Friends and Allies—August 2019 by Bryan Ray, I have no idea who they all are or what they all do.
Did we start something?
I can’t make any grand claims for the Christian Gamers Guild. When Reverend Paul Cardwell joined us for a while, he was already working with The Committee for the Advancement of Role Playing Games. I don’t know when Bill Walton launched The Escapist, but he has never been a member of our group to the best of my knowledge. Michael Stackpole and Tracy Hickman were working on rebutting anti-D&D arguments independently of me for as long as I had been doing it.
On the other hand, I know that at least a few of those currently part of that group of game and hobby ministers were at one point members of the Guild now using their talents in other ways. Further, I know that we had an impact beyond them. Just recently (now a few months ago, but only days as I draft this) someone found me on Facebook and reported that two of the articles I wrote in the late 90s (the aforementioned Confessions and the recently unburied and republished Morality and Consequences: Overlooked Roleplay Essentials) had had a positive impact on his life and marriage, as they helped persuade his wife that his gaming interest was not something evil. That was someone I helped twenty years ago of whom I only just became aware. They use to say in media that you will hear from one out of a hundred listeners or readers. That suggests there were a lot more that I helped whom I will never know were helped.
So what, am I patting myself on the back and giving praise to the organization of which I am so visible a member?
That is not my intention.
I wrote that first article because I saw a wrong that needed to be addressed. In fact, I drafted the original sometime in the mid eighties, based on notes from the arguments I’d made on the radio prior to that. I did it because I saw a need. It made it to the web in large part because I had it already largely drafted and needed material for a web site that would draw attention to the game I had just published. I had no intentions nor expectations of becoming a recognized defender of hobby games—that was God’s decision. What I want to convey to you is that if you do what God has put in front of you, if you right the wrongs you see at hand in the ways you see to do so, you will ultimately have far more impact than you imagine. You will change lives simply by becoming involved in them.
There is a local pastor whose church is not more than five miles from my house; I know him because his mother and I attend the same church. One particularly cold night he found a homeless man trying to shelter himself on the front steps of his church. He took care of that man that night—but he thought he, and his church, ought to be doing more for the many homeless on the streets of their small city. One had recently died trying to take shelter in or obtain clothes from a clothing donation box. He started opening the church sanctuary on cold or stormy winter nights for homeless people to sleep on the pews. He worked with other churches in the city and with city officials and police, establishing a program called Code Blue to identify potentially harsh weather, and soon managed to set up places where such people could sleep on such nights, not only in his city but in the two other major urban centers in our county. This was not enough; creating something called the M25 Initiative (for Matthew chapter 25), he got people working on finding and fixing abandoned houses and moving homeless families into them. They are approaching a hundred families so helped—and with their initiative, the State has passed legislation supporting such efforts in every county, and local businesses including the major hospital chain have helped fund and manage the program. (The hospital says that putting people in homes reduces the numbers coming to the Emergency Room for shelter on such nights.) Reverend Robin Weinstein has, I think, had far more impact on people’s lives than I have had, but it began because he insisted on giving a homeless man shelter on a cold night.
People always say, “Let yourself be used by God.” Yet the hearers often respond, at least within themselves, “How?” The answer is right here: do what you see in front of you to help people and correct wrongs, and God will use you in that, and open more in front of you.
This is RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.
On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan. The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title Game Ideas Unlimited: An Amusing Dungeon.
Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players. After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me. I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting. But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one. One of those was that dungeons had to make sense: there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built. And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.
The story I invented was fairly simple. Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren. It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction. The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy. The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.
The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others. The newcomers made changes, making this their homes. Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.
Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers. They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts. A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes. One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age. Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.
And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries. For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.
It was an amusement park.
It wasn’t difficult to design. I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion. There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs. Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.
Some of these were very straightforward. There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display. Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear. A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one. A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat. And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked. I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin. But there was so much more.
The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive. The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi. The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level. The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters. And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.
My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl. The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south. The room had a thirty foot ceiling. There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front. The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall. A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning. As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall. Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them. This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall. But then the truly terrifying happened: the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below. They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun. Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop. One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon. Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth. But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.
But their favorite was probably the roller coaster. This began as a bench at the end of a hall. If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall. I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them. But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant. Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them. The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another. I think one of the players may actually have screamed. I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.
I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember. They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried. Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had. Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.
I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work. It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map. Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war. This was just part of the show. What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.
A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined. This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon. I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality. I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions. The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical. By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.
This is Faith in Play #22: Individualism, for September 2019.
Quite a few years ago now I was playing a character in an experimental Attorney class in a game largely based on original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™. I had just successfully defended a player character (an Antipaladin) on a murder and robbery charge, and the player said to me, “Boy, your character must be really lawful.”
I answered, “No, he’s Chaotic Neutral.”
And that illustrates just why it is that the Chaos side of the alignment graph is so badly misunderstood and so poorly handled. My attorney was Chaotic in the best traditions of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): he firmly believed that every person (character) had the right to be and to do whatever he wanted, as long as in doing so he did not unfairly infringe on the right of any other character to do or be what he wanted. Although anarchy can be the consequence of chaos pushed to the extreme, chaos is not about anarchy, but about liberty. It is the alignment expressed in the Bill of Rights, espoused by the Libertarian Party, and represented by Democracy. Read more
This is RPG-ology #19: Treasure Auction, for June 2019.
A recent article by Michael Garcia, Treasure Division: A Case Study From Northumbria, got me remembering treasure division from the past. I was in quite a few games, and we had quite a few ways of doing it. In more than one group, the party leader decided who got what, and tried to keep everyone happy while ensuring that useful objects went to the party members who could most benefit the party with them. One of the groups tried a method recommended in one of the Original Dungeons & Dragons™ rulebooks that involved rolling dice, with higher level characters rolling more dice and henchmen rolling fewer, which one of the groups tried once or twice at least; I might have modified it for their use. At least one party regarded every object property of the party, and it wasn’t given to you but put in your care for you to use for the benefit of the party, to be returned if you left the party or died. These are all interesting and useful methods, but with one party I needed a very different method–and as party leader, I found one, which some of the players loved and others hated.
First, the party situation should be backgrounded. My character was hired to go on a mission, promised a few thousand gold coins and permission to keep anything we obtained along the way other than the object we were to retrieve. I hired seven people of different races, classes, and alignments to be part of that mission, promising each of them a specific share of what we obtained–two of them, whom I hired to be my lieutenants, were to receive larger shares than the others. The mission took more than a week but less than two, if I recall correctly, and we recovered the object and a few thousand in cash, plus something approaching two hundred objects some of which were obviously useful for some characters (e.g., swords and other weapons) and others of which might be either worthless or strange magic artifacts. It fell to me to find a way to divide these fairly, and there were a few items that certain characters particularly wanted. I also faced the fact that once the treasure was divided the characters would also divide, and if there were another mission it would fall on someone, probably me, to hire a team for it, and up to them whether to accept my offer.
My solution was to hold an auction.
Because there was no loyalty and my character did not use magic, it was stated up front that no one was permitted to use any magic such as detect spells on any of the objects prior to distribution. Just because the wizard says something is not magical does not mean he isn’t intending to buy it cheap and sell it to someone else. Only hired members of the party were permitted to bid, or to be present during the bidding.
I organized the items in what I thought made sense as the least to most valuable, given what could be told by looking at them. I then divided the cash between the party members according to their promised portions, and put the first item on the table. I had prepared myself by jotting down for each object what my character would give as the opening bid (and if no one else bid, it defaulted to me for that amount), and how high I was willing to bid for objects I particularly wanted. Everyone else could then bid in an open auction until there was a highest bid no one would overcall. That person then paid the amount into the pot and received the item, and we moved to the next.
As auctioneer and party leader, I would periodically decide that the pot had grown large enough that I should divide it according to the proportions promised each party member, partly so that they would have cash to keep bidding. I knew (but had not anticipated) that several of them had borrowed money from non-player characters so they could bid high on objects they particularly wanted, so the pots got rather large sometimes.
The logic of the system is that every object we obtained went to whatever character placed the highest value on it, or at least within the bounds of their funds, and for at least the value of the person who put the second highest value on it. Objects thus went to the people who thought them most valuable, and everyone was compensated for the value of every object, having tacitly agreed that it was not worth more than that. The people who love the system love it for that reason.
Of course, auctioning almost two hundred objects among eight players was an extended bit of roleplaying. With interruptions for the shenanigans of some of the player characters, it took most of three game sessions to complete, and people who don’t like the system generally remember that “waste of time” and the tensions of trying to bid high enough to get the objects they really wanted.
I swear by it, and whenever I’m the party leader I use it; I’ve been in games where others from that game or even others who heard about that game think that the auction is the best way to divide treasure objects. I’ve also known at least one gamer who won’t play in a game if the auction system is going to be used, but I’m not sure his absence is all that much of a loss.
I would be interested in how your parties divide treasure.
This is RPG-ology #17: With the Odds, for April 2019.
A few years ago I launched the mark Joseph “young” web log with post #1: Probabilities and Solitaire, which talked about how to improve your success at that and other card games by considering the odds of any particular lay of the cards. I do use those rules when I play the game, and this evening (by now probably a year ago) as I played I was in a situation in which the two black queens (with other cards descending from them) were atop the two right-hand piles, one atop five cards and the other atop four. A red king appeared to the left, and I had to choose which queen to move.
Recalling the rule, I moved the queen from atop five cards, and continued play as the cards which were freed were one after another moved into other positions. The fifth, the bottom card, was the other red king, and I immediately shifted the other black queen to open the other pile. As I did so the phrase against the odds came to mind, which was in a sense true, as it was improbable that the red king would have been on the bottom of that pile given all the places it might have been—but my mind immediately corrected me that this was with the odds: I had recognized that the red king was more likely to be in the pile with more concealed cards than the pile with fewer, and it in fact was.
Of course, it might not have been, but Damon Runyon said, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” If you know the odds, and you want to win, you act in accordance with your best chance of success. Bridge players learn the odds of cards being one way or another, and play to the best chance to win. Knowing the odds of success, and knowing how to make them better, is the best tool for winning in most games.
It’s different with sports and casino betting. The house sets the odds according to the probability of success, such that although you will probably lose betting on a longshot, if you win you get a better return on the bet. That helps lure gamblers into “sucker bets” so they will lose a lot of money in small wagers on long odds, and the big payouts are a small portion of the total take and an incentive to others to take the chance. It also helps cover the winners who bet on the favorite, as if it’s obvious who is going to win and he does win, there will be a lot of winning bets to cover.
Having recognized this many years ago, I devised ADR’s and Surv’s—calculations of the average damage per round an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ character could deliver and the number of attacks he could survive as comparative numbers. It enabled my characters and the others in my party to identify which were their best attack forms in various situations, and let us build strategies on who could deliver the most damage and who could survive the longest in a fight. I still use a spreadsheet version of the program today when I play or run that game, and while the calculation itself doesn’t port well even to other editions of the game, the factors may well help you recognize the strengths of your own characters in other games.
Even if you don’t care to stretch your math skills to calculating odds, you should try to get a genuine feel for them, to know when things are likely to fall in your favor, and when they are likely to fall against you. If the odds favor a particular course of action, that’s the way to play; if the odds are against you, it’s time to retreat.
That seems obvious. What is not quite so obvious is that in life we have to guess quite a bit about odds involving factors outside our knowledge. In a game, we can quantify enough of the information to do the math, quite literally, and know the probable outcome. Of course, probable outcomes are not guaranteed, but they are always more likely than improbable ones.