Tag: faith in play

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.


A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.


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Faith in Play #26: Fields to Harvest

This is Faith in Play #26:  Fields to Harvest, for January 2020.


Last month I wrote about the impact the Christian Gamers Guild has had on Christians and on gamers.  I noted that there were now many other “geek ministries” trying to make a difference.  In fact, between when I wrote that article and when it appeared I began to wonder whether we had become superfluous.  Role playing games had moved almost entirely from feared activities suspected of cult and occult connections to mainstream entertainment embraced by ordinary people worldwide.  Video games now pull more income than movies, as an industry.  Board games are on the rise.  Even such “fringe” geek activities as anime and cosplay are moving into the mainstream.  Certainly there are still some believers who embrace errors taught decades ago about the evils of such entertainments, but they are a vanishing breed.  I thus wonder if my job, defending hobby games to Christians, has become moot.

Then an odd thing happened.

You may know that I write two article series published here at the Christian Gamers Guild.  This one, Faith in Play, was envisioned as a resurrection of the notions of the Faith and Gaming series originally published in the early aughts and still on our site, looking at the intersection between our faith and our leisure activities.  However, when it was proposed, our webmaster said he hoped it would include material similar to and possibly drawn from the Game Ideas Unlimited series I did weekly for four years at Gaming Outpost, most of it lost when that site died.  (Some of it has been preserved in French translation at the Places to Go, People to Be French site, and indeed I also wrote material for the Australian Places to Go, People to Be, and for RPGnet, RoleplayingTips.com, MysticAgesOnline, and several other role playing game sites, not all of which still exist.)  Not seeing that as part of the faith and play connection, I suggested instead that I do a second series, which eventually was named RPG-ology, strictly about role playing game play, design, and theory.  Thus I contribute two articles each month to the site, aimed at slightly different audience interests.

I was responding to a post on a Facebook role playing gamer group, and the question was something I had addressed in one of the RPG-ology pieces, so I linked the article.  As I recall it was one that had been only slightly edited from a Game Ideas Unlimited original, and so had once appeared nearly the same at Gaming Outpost.  Bryan has somehow cleverly set up the site such that such links are branded:  the image shows the name of the article and the Christian Gamers Guild logo when it appears in preview on social media sites.  Seeing the logo, one of the participants in the Facebook thread commented that he never read articles on Christian web sites.  He said they had a certain “smell” to them.

I don’t know quite how to react to that. Read more

Faith in Play #4: Bad Friends

This is Faith in Play #4: Bad Friends, for March 2018.


This started with a bit of silliness that over the course of a few hours became considerably more serious.

It was a morning drive, and on the radio someone was talking about how Jesus had saved her marriage. She said that now her husband was her “best friend”.

I know it was sincere, and it was undoubtedly truly meaningful, but I’m afraid it is so cliché that I immediately noted to my wife, “You know, no one ever talks about their worst friend.” We laughed. I said that there must be a way I can use that for something, and we pondered how you would identify your “worst friend.”

A few hours later I shared the joke with my youngest son, who did not laugh but instead said that he knew exactly who his worst friend was.

There is something of an attitude in gaming groups that says we must be friends because we’re all gamers who get together to play. It’s like thinking that you must be friends with everyone who goes to the same bowling matches or bridge games or cocktail parties. I have talked about that before, in Faith and Gaming: Friends. I have also written in mark Joseph “young” web log post #93: What is a Friend? about two distinct concepts of friendship. I hold the word to a rather high bar. I think most of the people who think themselves my friends probably are only acquaintances who like playing games with me. That’s fine; it’s good to have acquaintances of that sort. You could even call them friends.

My son’s choice for “worst friend,” though, was enlightening. He named the high school friend who, after serving in Afghanistan, became a homeless drug addict. This boy seems impossible to help—give him shelter and food, and he takes advantage of the situation to steal from the house to buy drugs.

We have a short list of people who are not allowed inside the house. They are welcome to sit on the front deck and talk with people, and we will help them as we can, but the doorway is the boundary. I always explain it to them very simply: People who live here believe that you have stolen from them and that you will do so again. As long as you are never inside the house, no one can accuse you of having stolen anything from inside the house. Thus the rule protects you from being accused. It happens that it also protects them from the temptation of stealing from us. This friend is on that list.

As I considered this, I realized that there have been many people whom we treated as friends over the years who abused that status. More than once we had to discontinue having gaming groups play in our home because someone, never identified, stole things from us, and rebuilding a gaming group after something like that is not simple. If the people we entertain in our home are our friends, we have had some bad friends. What do we do about these people?

Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may become sons of your Father in heaven. For He makes His sun shine on the good and the bad, and gives the blessing of rain to the righteous and the unrighteous.

Let me be clear. I do not mean that you necessarily have to give your bad friends free rein of your home; I do not mean that you do not report theft or other crimes to the police. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is put someone in jail—if indeed you are doing it as the best way to help them. We have had to do that at least once. What is expected, though, is that we continue to love the bad friends, even the worst friend, and to look for the best way to help them. We were never promised that showing love wouldn’t result in pain or injury to ourselves. We were promised that God would recognize His own image in us when we did so.

There is a footnote to this story. This was written about a year before it was published here, and in the intervening months my wife and I were both hospitalized and released with some severe restrictions on our activities. During this time that “worst friend” appeared, clean and sober, and stayed with us for an extended time, cooking and cleaning and otherwise making life possible for us while we were recuperating. No one is irredeemable, and a little love and grace and kindness can go a long way.

So show love to your friends, even the worst friend.


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Next article: Fear.

RPG-ology #1: Near Redundancy

This is RPG-ology #1: Near Redundancy, for December 2017.


If it seems to you like I just launched a new article series two weeks ago, congratulate yourself on your astute observation: Faith in Play #1: Reintroduction just appeared. That series is in a real sense a continuation of the Faith and Gaming series of a decade ago, dealing with the relationship between our leisure activities and our Christian faith. However, it was suggested that that series could also include articles on game theory and game play, drawing on the now lost Game Ideas Unlimited series I wrote for Gaming Outpost around the same time. That to my mind did not really fit the vision of the Faith in Play series, and I discovered that I had more to write for that series than I anticipated, and much more that could be written if these other areas were opened. Thus I suggested that I might write two distinct series of articles, this one covering the aspects of designing and running games that are less directly involved with issues of faith. Of course, as that series observes, everything in our life is related to our faith; it’s just that some parts of life are easier to discuss separately. Thus here is “RPG-ology”, the study of role playing games, presenting aspects of the hobby that are more practical, nuts-and-bolts concepts.

I said two weeks ago that when I introduce a new series I try to explain what the series is about and why I should be qualified to write it. Of course, I just did that for the other series, and a lot of this is redundant, because you can read there about my background as a gamer, my introduction to role playing games, my involvement in writing Multiverser, and my long-time defense of role playing games against critics. Much of that qualifies me for this as well, but there is more. Certainly I have been running role playing games since 1980 and spent the better part of the 90s creating one (and I am not alone in thinking that it is a particularly good one). I also became involved in discussions of role playing game theory and design in around 1997, with such well-known independent game designers as Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker, first at Gaming Outpost and later at The Forge. I have written articles on quite a few role playing web sites including RPGnet and RoleplayingTips.com; my article Applied Theory is at The Forge, I have six articles at Places to Go, People to Be (a series on Law and Enforcement in Imaginary Realms and another on Theory 101). My column at Gaming Outpost ran weekly for four years. Quite a few of these have been translated into French, republished at the French version of Places to Go, People to Be (the editor informs me that there are 18 of my articles translated there to this point) and some in print in Jeu de Rôle Magazine.

I have also corresponded with quite a few of those in the industry. Gary Gygax and I discussed alignment; I have a couple of stories told me by Dave Arneson. I won’t embarrass anyone else (either by inclusion or exclusion) by listing more names. Suffice it that I have a substantial curriculum vitae in the gaming world.

Further, as mentioned, I wrote over two hundred articles on the subject which have vanished with the demise of Gaming Outpost—but I have titles and descriptive blurbs for well over half of them, and memories of some of the others. There is good material in that—tricks to use in scenario design and play, secrets of good game masters, theory behind play, and more. So a lot of that lost material is likely to be recycled here as found new material. That might also be redundant—but as the recent successful run of the republication of Faith and Gaming demonstrates, even material that is still somewhere on the web is unknown to many who would enjoy it, and that would be all the more true of material that has vanished and is being re-written.

So I hope you’ll join me mid-month into the future as we discuss aspects of role playing games that offer ideas for play and design you might not have considered. I look forward to recovering some of these ideas.


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Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website

Over the past eighteen months, our diligent and dedicated webmaster Bryan has been republishing much of the material generated by and for the Christian Gamers Guild over the previous two decades in a new web format which is thought to be more accessible and is certainly better looking.  That has included material from our e-zine The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, a couple of articles from elsewhere, some new material, and of course my own Faith and Gaming series.  The upside of this is that many readers have discovered these articles for the first time.  The downside, from my perspective, is that it became just a bit tougher for me to refer people to the articles—not individually, but as a collection.  The old site had a single “Chaplain’s Corner” index that described and linked the entire series plus quite a few other articles on and off the site, and when people had questions about role playing or other hobby games I could (in addition to addressing the specific questions) refer them to that page for more information than they perhaps would have wanted.  That page still has some valuable links, but Bryan agreed with me that now that the entire series has been relocated there ought to be a page that indexes it all at the new locations.

Several thoughts occurred to me as I undertook this.  One was that there were a few articles I wrote which are excellent pieces not originally part of the Faith and Gaming series, and they should be included here.  The second was that it would seem particularly arrogant of me to index my own contributions and ignore those excellent articles by everyone else, so I am going to attempt in essence to map the entire site—not in the old directory tree mapping style, but in something more useful. Read more