Tag: Game Ideas Unlimited

RPG-ology #41: Over My Shoulder

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

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

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


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

It’s our anniversary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous article:  Aptrusis.
Next article:  Who?.

RPG-ology #39: My North Wall

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous article:  Polyglot.
Next article:  Aptrusis.

2020 at the Christian Gamers Guild Reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—M. J. Young

Chaplain, Christian Gamers Guild

RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, it can make for a good story.


Previous article:  Invisible Coins.
Next article:  Phionics.

RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

RPG-ology #33: Flirting

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


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

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

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

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

RPG-ology #31: Screen Wrap

This is RPG-ology #31:  Screen Wrap, for June 2020.


This was originally published on June 29, 2001, at Gaming Outpost, as Game Ideas Unlimited:  Screen Wrap.

I usually call it “recursive occlusion”; but that’s because that’s what Peter Davison’s Doctor called it in Castrovalva, and now that I get around to thinking about what that means he must have been referring to the method of construction—that the Master had built a trap for him by creating a world based on a formula in which each element was dependent on all previous elements, resulting in a blockage of all exits.  But that’s not important.  The idea is a lot simpler than that.

Years ago there was a video game called Tank.  Tanks would wander around the screen trying to shoot each other.  Thing was, in the early versions you could shoot off the top of the screen and the bullet would come in at the bottom; or you could shoot off one end and have it come in the other.  In some versions you could actually drive the tank that way, off one side and on the other.  It wasn’t the only game that did that, and it was a simple solution to a basic problem:  what do you do about the boundaries?

But it’s an idea I’ve used many times to mystify and confuse my players—and in more variations than you might have imagined.  But if you’ll come with me for a moment, I’ll try to help you imagine a few.

The first one’s easy.  The characters enter some sort of complex—a section of tunnels in a dungeon, an area of rooms and hallways in a space station.  As they pass a certain point, they are inside the boxThe box is clearly marked on your map—it shows that any exits to the east connect to those to the west, and those in the north run to those in the south.  If a character walks into that last ten-foot section on the edge of the box, he’s immediately teleported to the first ten foot section on the other side, so going out one side means coming in the other.  Only one of the entrances is also an exit.  You will be surprised at how many times the players will redraw the same configuration of tunnels before they realize that something is amiss.

The second variation takes the idea to another level.  I did this to one player once, and I’m not sure he figured it out even after someone explained it to him.  I put the same room in two different places on the map.  I denoted them with subscripts so I could keep them straight.  Because they were the same room, if you entered the room, you were in both places at once; but when you exited the room, you always left from the other one.  They weren’t far apart in this experiment—which actually added to the confusion, as he entered the first, left the second and walked back to the first, and drew it twice, but in the wrong position.  At one point part of the party left the room and came back, and then when they all left together they got split up, because some had entered the first room and some the second, but they all were together whenever they were in the room.

You could use this idea to move characters very long distances—another dungeon, another space station, another planet.  You don’t even really need the rooms—you can just use some innocuous looking door.  Looking through the door, you see another room; step through the door, you’re in a room that looks just like the one you saw, but isn’t it.

These ideas have basically focused on keeping the player character inside the box.  You can as easily turn it on its head, and use the same principles to keep him out of the box.  For example, If you’re walking down corridor A and reach room 210, you next pass through a transfer point that takes you to corridor A outside room 280; if you reverse, the transfer will take you from 280 back to 210.  If the player doesn’t know the room numbers or layout, he won’t realize that he’s been moved—until he completes other sections of the map which go around this blocked area, and discovers that the distance between two points in the A corridor is an awful lot shorter than it should be.  You can make it so that access to that central area is only from a specific entry direction, such as above or below or a particular lesser-used corridor (but it can be exited at any point at which it connects).  Or you can determine a sequence of events or “switches” that must be activated to open the area to the characters, such as finding the key, or deactivating the grid, or realigning the circuits at every entrance.

I used an idea like this for a Minotaur’s labyrinth once.  My players were good; they could map a maze in a minute, comprehend any convoluted corridors I created.  The worst thing about facing a Minotaur isn’t the beast itself; it’s the fact that you’re on it’s turf, and it knows how to get everywhere while you’re wandering lost.  But once you’ve mapped a bit of it, it’s pretty easy to keep from getting lost, and the beast’s advantage is gone.  So what I did was create a layout of halls that frequently ran the same distance in the same direction, but parallel to each other a dozen feet apart. Then I put “transfer points” in the halls such that if you were going one direction you would get bounced to another hall, but if you were coming back nothing happened.  The creature knew its way around, and could use the magic to its own advantage; the players always knew which direction they were headed, but once they got involved in the tunnels they never knew quite where they were or how to get back.

Doctor Who faced a Minotaur-like beast called the Nimon once (I won’t swear to the spelling).  This time it was Tom Baker finding his way through the maze.  The thing that made that maze so difficult was that it constantly changed—he worked out that it was a huge set of switches in a communications and transmat system.  That’s a very difficult thing to do—but I can think of two good ways to make it work.  One would be to draw up maybe four or five distinct maps that were the same size and shape and had a few good fixed internal landmarks; that way at random intervals you could randomly change which map was in effect.  Of course, jumping from map to map could be tricky.  You might try making one map on paper that had the landmarks and a few fixed walls as reference points, and then getting four or five sheets of clear plastic overlay to put on top of the map, on which you would draw (or maybe if you’re really ambitious line with thin strips of black tape) the details of each position.  When the layout changed you would pop the new overlay on top, see where the characters are, and slide the old one out.

Of course, this idea doesn’t actually fit the pattern of the others, the pattern of moving the players from where they think they are to somewhere else.  But it probably makes them feel like it does, and sometimes that’s even better—especially if you’ve used tricks to move them around before.  They’ll leap to the conclusion that you’ve moved them, and begin trying to work out where they are.  You can get this effect with even simpler tricks.  Try making a matched pair of seemingly unique landmarks a short distance from each other in a confusing section of paths.  Players unaware that there are two (and especially those uncertain about their mapping skills) will come to the second and think they’re back at the first.

Something like that happened in one of my games, when the player was exploring the world we call Tristan’s Labyrinth.  (It was not called so when Tristan was exploring it.)  The labyrinth is endless; it is made of an L-shaped section designed to fit together such that all exposed sides are the same length (well, a single and double length) with doors that match up, so that you can build outward from one to as many as you need.  This means the same patterns of rooms appear, but not always in the same directions.  You can get the same effect with any of a number of random-connect dungeon floor plans; somewhere I’ve got a set of squares and rectangles published by TSR a generation ago, although I was never terribly happy with the way they fit together.  Just use the same piece against itself, turned around.  In the one game, the player found himself in a room with an interesting shape and several exits.  Deciding to use this as the base for his explorations, he traced out one of the exits some distance and back again, and then another.  The third tunnel took him off the map piece onto the adjacent piece, and connected to another tunnel which led to that same room on the next piece of map.  Carefully he followed it, reaching that identical room.  He looked at it.  He studied it carefully.  He compared it to what he had already drawn.

And then he changed his map.

If you use these tricks, there will be many times when your players will start erasing what they’ve charted, changing and fixing and trying to figure out where they are and how they got there.  But there is nothing like realizing you have gotten them so confused they are erasing the map when it was right.


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RPG-ology #26: Monster Design

This is RPG-ology #26:  Monster Design, for January 2020.


Not long ago a member of the Christian Gamers Guild asked for advice in designing monsters.  This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from August, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled “Game Ideas Unlimited:  Monster Design.”

Sometime a couple decades ago, someone I had known over the Internet and met at a convention asked me to be a judge in a contest he was running.  Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was slated to be released in perhaps a couple of months, and there was already a lot of pre-release information about it floating around.  He wanted to have people submit new monsters for use in future D&D games.  Knowing of my somewhat intimate familiarity with the old Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ rules set and acquaintance with at least three of the other versions of the game, he thought I would be able to contribute something to the judging.  He also asked two other people to judge, whose skills and perspectives were very different from mine.

I took the notion very seriously.  Before I looked at the first of the entries, I gave a lot of thought to what made a good monster.  Some of the things I valued were contradictory—that is, it would be very difficult for a creature to score high on every quality I sought.  But I reduced my consideration to eight qualities, eight aspects of creatures which I thought made them, in a general sense, well-designed monsters.

And if you’re designing monsters for your own campaign, or for some Internet contest, or for publication somewhere, you might like to give some thought to these qualities.  You won’t always try to make every creature score high in every category.  But if you’ve thought about the categories, you’ll be making tradeoffs that reach your goals at a reasonable “cost” in terms of what you sacrifice. Read more

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

RPG-ology #25: Transmats

This is RPG-ology #25:  Transmats, for December 2019.


This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from June, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled
Game Ideas Unlimited:  Transmats.

Matter transmitters bug me.  In short, I find them incredible in the most basic meaning of that word:  I don’t believe them.

If by some chance you’ve avoided all science fiction, let me explain the matter transmission concept.  A material object, possibly even a living object, is deconstructed particle by particle, and a complete record of the position, motion, and energy of each particle is recorded and transmitted to another location where an exact copy of the original is constructed particle by particle, having the same energy levels and motions and relative positions.  It’s the teleporter of Star Trek, the transmat encountered on Doctor Who.  Larry Niven envisioned such matter transmission booths replacing telephones.  And there’s something about it all that I just don’t believe.

It actually is not the science.  It is pseudo-science, certainly; someone is going to have to find a way around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle if it’s going to work.  But there’s a logic to it that suggests to me it will one day be accomplished.  I don’t know that I will live long enough to have my molecules disintegrated and reintegrated, but I would be surprised if no one ever manages it.

What bothers me is the way in which this technology doesn’t matter in the worlds in which it is prevalent.  To have done this is to have accomplished much more, but generally those aspects are not considered or even worse are discounted for insensible reasons.  So bear with me while I take another look at transmat technology.

In order to build a matter transmitter, you have to be able to disintegrate a target.  This may seem obvious; yet in how many settings do they include matter transmitters and don’t include a simple disintegrating weapon?  If I can find and disintegrate a dozen men on the surface of a planet far beneath me, why doesn’t it work as a weapon?  Since I don’t have to worry about reproducing the object disintegrated, I should be able to destroy buildings, structures, perhaps entire cities.

But that’s just the beginning of my interest in disintegration.  After all, I’m quite aware that if you disassemble a molecule, you convert it to an enormous amount of energy.  The problems inherent in containing and controlling such levels of energy are another question; but why can’t this technology be used to generate power?  Given the amount of energy in a mass the size of a human body, the energy required to initiate the disintegration reaction must be a tiny fraction.  When the dilithium crystals are failing, why don’t we just throw furniture into the transporters and convert it to reserve power?

And the weapon use of such power is staggering.  A moment ago I was talking about a disintegrator; but if you start to take apart the molecules of an object, you initiate nuclear decay on a massive scale.  Every building, every person, every rock is a potential nuclear bomb whose massive energy can be explosively released with a bit of prodding from our disintegration technology.  As it says in Multiverser, “a device which disintegrates without containment is a remote nuclear fission reaction stimulator.”

And that leads me to think about the containment.  If I’ve built a transmat, I’ve found a way to contain the energy of complete nuclear collapse.  I don’t know what those force fields will be like, but somehow I think they’ll be able to deflect or absorb unimaginable amounts of power.  We are casually assuming the presence of a shield that could have easily contained the impact of Hiroshima.  We are tossing those shields around as an everyday tool, without any consideration of their real power.

It’s probably not impossible to design a matter transmitter which reintegrates directly from the disintegration pattern; but it makes more sense to include a memory circuit.  And most of the matter transmitters in most fiction at least imply the existence of such memory banks.  That means that whenever you transfer an object from one point to another you also make a data copy of it; and as long as you have that data copy, all you need to do is add energy to it and you can make another–and another, and another, as many as you need.  You can make a hundred dinners, a thousand starships, a million soldiers.  But this is a largely untapped resource, and the excuses used are complete nonsense.  Not enough energy?  Easily rectified:  throw a few rocks into the disintegrator.  Pattern loss?  This is as foolish as those badly-written spy shows where they are passing around the “only copy” of a computer program.  If making a copy of a program deleted the original, it would make sense–but anyone who understands even a little about computer memory knows that even deleted data is still there until something replaces it.  Keeping the file in memory is easier than losing it.  But is the available memory too small?  The memory circuit really only makes sense if it’s large enough for the entire file.

But writers go to great lengths to make it impossible to copy things, especially people.  We are told that complex DNA molecules are imperfectly replicated such that life forms can’t be copied.  But we know that life forms can be copied, because that’s what happens when we teleport them.  Really, we’ve completely destroyed one body and built another identical to it.  Besides, those “tiny molecular changes” are inconsistent with most of the other replication applications we can conceive.  How many water molecules have to accidentally be mis-linked as hydrogen peroxide before the liquid is not merely bitter but deadly?  How many mistakes can you make in the atomic structure of a metal object before the levels of radioactive decay are measurable?  No, molecular copying has to be perfect for it to be useful at all; it doesn’t have to work substantially better to copy life forms than anything else.

Not only can we copy things, we can modify them.  The applications of this have never been adequately explored.  In fact, the medical applications alone are mind boggling.  Did you break a bone?  We disintegrate you, make an adjustment to the program, and reintegrate you with the bone corrected and fully strengthened.  You can do the same thing with a ruptured spleen, or a hernia, or a defective heart valve.  With a filtering program, you can completely remove every trace of a targeted virus or a chemical poison.  If there’s chemical imbalance, whether insulin or hormones or neurotransmitters, you can adjust to correct levels.  Body temperature can be corrected.  With our growing knowledge of the human genome, we would be able not merely to instantly undo the effects of such genetic disorders as sickle-cell anemia or Chrone’s Disease but to reconfigure the genome itself to remove the cause.  And when it comes to cosmetic surgery, well, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  You want to be taller?  We’ll re-craft your long bones and vertebrae.  Overweight?  We’ll filter out a hundred pounds of fat on one shot.  We can add muscle mass in all the right places, turning a ninety-eight pound weakling to The Incredible Hulk in minutes.  Forget hair dye; we can change the color of your eyes, the pigments in your skin, the length of your fingernails.  Your facial structure can be completely rebuilt.  If we want we can provide you with entirely alien features, or make you look like someone else.  Giving you short blond hair in the morning and long dark hair by dinner is no problem at all.

Let’s consider cooking.  Insert the roast of your choice and enter the program.  We can increase the temperature such that it is fully cooked in seconds.  At the same time, we can screen out gristle and bone while dispersing the ideal amount of fat and moisture for the most tender servings.  And spices can be added not merely to the surface but throughout the meat.  It’s as easy to chill as to heat.  Water can be turned to ice, cream and sugar to ice cream–we can even make Baked Alaska, with the hot cake and meringue surrounding the frozen center.  Spoiled food is no longer a problem, as we can screen toxins from our meat and dairy product far more easily than we could from our bodies and serve them fresh and delicious.

Your wardrobe is as flexible as your imagination.  Oh, there will still be designers; but instead of selling clothes they’ll sell computer files.  And getting dressed won’t take long.  Stumble out of bed in the morning into your transmat and execute the preprogrammed routine.  A few seconds later you arrive at work dressed in a new suit cleaned and pressed, with your hair combed and your teeth clean.  If you like you can even program a shot of caffeine already in your blood, or go one step better and clear those endorphins from your brain.  After work, you enter another program into the transmat and go directly from work to the club; you arrive in a completely different outfit with your makeup redone and even a new hairstyle.

But we don’t have to stop there.  Do you like being thirty-five?  No reason for you to get any older–we’ll just save the pattern of your thirty-five-year-old body and restore you to that physical form with each trip.  Or if you’d prefer being younger, we can probably do that too–maybe not the body you had then, but something very like it.

And of course everything that isn’t true of cloning is true of transmat copies:  they have your personality, your memories, even your fingerprints, and they’re your age.  Today there are people who are highly skilled to the point of indispensable; tomorrow we’ll be able to copy these people so that they can be in several places at once, and if something should happen to one he’s not entirely irreplaceable.

And we could go beyond that:  we could design our own people.  Once we know the basics of the human genome, we can modify it to suit our preferences; and unlike with genetic splicing, we don’t have to wait to see the results of our changes:  we can birth the new person fully grown.  And we don’t have to be limited to people.  We could design and build a faster race horse, a smarter ape.  We could design bodies completely different from anything we’ve seen.  And if we like we can give them human levels of intelligence.

That, of course, leads to a much deeper question.  Why is it that we don’t let our science fiction stories make copies of people?  At least, whenever we do it’s usually an accident, and usually with serious complications.  For television, it may be in part because of the technical problems of having multiple roles played by the same actor.  But there are also moral and theological challenges raised.

As already said, everything that isn’t true about clones is true about transmat duplicates.  At the moment of their creation, they match the pattern exactly.  They will diverge from each other thereafter, as each acquires distinct experiences and memories, but depending on how established their characters are at the time the pattern is made they will always be similar.  Which is the original?  In truth, neither–both are copies, the original having been destroyed in the creation of the pattern.  Neither has any more claim to being that person than the other; each has the same continuity of consciousness up to the moment the original was disintegrated.  And you might argue that it is illegal, immoral, or unethical to make copies of people–but is that going to prevent it from happening, or force it underground?

But there’s a deeper problem, a theological problem which you have to answer before you can use a matter transmitter:  is man merely the sum of his material parts?  Is there nothing more, nothing intangible, what might be called spiritual?  If there is, then when the body is disintegrated it would presumably leave a disembodied spirit; and when it is again reintegrated, some spirit would have to occupy it.  It’s easy to hypothesize some sort of spiritual dimension such that the spirit of the man can travel any distance instantly and so be immediately reunited with the body; but it’s just as easy to imagine that some other disembodied spirit would fight him for that body–one of the dead, perhaps, or something worse.  Also, if a man has one spirit, and you duplicate him, what spirit occupies the other body?

The presence of matter transmission technology in a game world has so many other implications it should be carefully considered before inclusion.  If you’ve got it, you have the basis for uncounted changes to the world from its weapons of warfare to its basic social structure.  You also have some very challenging story ideas from which to build adventures that can be as intellectually compelling as they are exciting.

Technology always changes the world in unanticipated ways.  When you consider the effects it has in your world, make sure you don’t stop with the obvious.

Since the original publication of this article, I have been reliably informed that the property known as quantum non-locality will make it possible to overcome Heisenberg and possibly build a matter transmitter, but probably will not work for the communication system I envisioned in that linked article–although I did give permission to another science fiction author to use it in his work, and it has a plausibility to it.


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