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We have skipped the first, which is primarily an outdated introduction to the author; the second and third, An Amusing Dungeon and Transmats, have already appeared.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.