Category Archives: Personal Musings

Ultima VII, sixteen years late

Well, I’ve finally gone and done it. After years of being pestered nagged lovingly encouraged by a friend to play through the Greatest Computer RPG of All Time, I finally broke down. Using Exult to get it working properly on my non-DOS operating system, I finally installed and started playing Ultima 7: The Black Gate.

U7 is widely regarded as one of the high points in computer RPG history. (My personal pick for best computer RPG is Planescape: Torment—we’ll see if that opinion changes after getting through U7.) I can’t speak yet about U7‘s quality as a game, but I will testify that I have long considered it to have the coolest game box cover of all time:


According to rumor, Ultimas 8 and 9 were originally intended to have matching covers in red and blue. Would that they had. Clean, simple, classy: this box art told the sophisticated gamer of 1992 that he was dealing with an RPG considerably classier than the luridly-illustrated competition:


I might also note that U7‘s cover was significantly classier than at least one previous Ultima cover, which was sufficiently demonic-looking to cause my parents to refuse to purchase it for me (and the mention of “astrological influences” on the back cover of the game box didn’t help):


But I digress. What of U7? I’ve only put a few hours into it, but thus far it’s quite good. The graphics and interface are extremely clunky, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to that when the game itself is really good—try playing the original Doom sometime and you’ll see what I mean. For the first ten minutes you’ll be marveling at the crude graphics; by the fifteen-minute mark you’re as hooked as you were back in 1993 when you first played it.

If there was a point to this post beyond aimless jabbering, I’ve lost sight of it. Excuse me; I’ve got Ultima 7 to fire up.

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Random thoughts on Christians, culture, and Dungeons & Dragons

This is a response to an excellent post over at the ThinkChristian blog (where I post as well) about D&D and the Christian response to it in the 1980s. As a Christian who struggled, back in the day, with whether or not my favorite hobby was satanic, this topic is one that really interests me. Here are a few semi-random thoughts in response to the post.

Great post, Chris. Hsu’s post has a lot of good insights.

This is a subject that’s near and dear to me, since I played D&D and similar games a lot when I was younger (I still play them, actually, as Peter and KDC note) and heard/read a lot from well-intentioned Christians who thought it was satanic.

Looking back at the Christian response to D&D, it strikes me as a good example of how not to respond to a questionable piece of culture. A few random observations about how Christians mishandled the D&D thing:

  • If you were a D&D player reading a typical Christian critique of the game in the 80s, it was clear to you that most of the Christians condemning the game had only a marginal understanding of it, and had apparently done no research beyond skimming a rulebook looking for occult-sounding terms. Many of the more extreme concerns (that D&D caused suicide, that it was an occult recruitment tool) would have been put to rest by spending 3 hours sitting in on an actual D&D game, but you rarely got the sense that the Christian critics had even done that minimal level of research. Obviously you don’t have to know every nuance of something to critique it, but it didn’t seem like Christians were trying very hard to understand the game before condemning it. Also, despite the fact that there were (and are) Christians working in the game hobby, nobody thought to seek them out and ask for their perspective.
  • As Hsu points out very eloquently in his post, this was a classic case of Christians condemning something without offering any better alternative. Nor did Christians spend much time asking why the game appealed so much to kids. Here was a whole new social/relational activity that was meeting a genuine need in the lives of kids like myself, and the only thing Christians had to say about it was to tell people they shouldn’t do it. Instead of helping people to pursue the roleplaying hobby (which was certainly not evil, even if you thought D&D was) in a way consistent with their faith, Christians just indulged in a knee-jerk rejection of it all, baby and bathwater alike.
  • As PCG points out, those few Christians who tried to offer up alternatives mostly just ended up aping D&D in the same way that some types of CCM just ape mainstream music. I don’t mean to trash all Christian attempts at making Christian RPGs, because some of them were interesting; but a lot of them could be summed up as “Like D&D, but less fun.” And even these attempts were condemned by some Christians.

The result of all this was essentially to drive away people who might otherwise have listened to a Christian perspective. Christians sabotaged any chance of participating meaningfully in this particular discussion by failing to approach D&D, D&D players, and the whole issue of roleplaying in a respectful and intelligent manner. Ridiculous stories about D&D being an occult recruitment tool may have scared a few nervous Christian teenagers into giving up the game, but most gamers I know (Christian and otherwise) just decided that Christians had absolutely nothing useful to say about gaming, and ignored them. The “it’s satanic!” reaction just made D&D more popular by turning it into a Forbidden Fruit, and it’s now quite entrenched in popular culture, even if you don’t hear about it as much these days. So even if you believe Christians were right to condemn the game, the way they went about doing so must be seen as a complete failure, because it had the opposite of its intended effect.

This failure was particularly unfortunate because there really were spiritual issues surrounding some popular RPGs (some of the games that followed D&D went much farther in depicting violence, occultism, and other unpleasant stuff than D&D ever did), but by that time, nobody was paying any attention to what Christians were saying about it.

Wow, this whole topic—D&D and the Satanic Panic—seems so silly in retrospect. But at the time, I (and other Christians) took it very seriously. That’s what 20 years of hindsight perspective will get you, I suppose.

Just my $.02, as a Christian who played D&D back in the day.

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I live!

No, I’m not dead, although posting’s been light lately. What have I been up to lately? Here’s a brief summary of my gaming life over the last few weeks; some of these items might merit full posts when I get some spare time.

  • I finally purchased a mount for my main Warcraft character. It’s a bit embarrassing to have taken so long to finally buy a mount–I’ve been playing for well over a year now–but mounts are really expensive, and not until very recently had I bothered to really work the in-game auction house for spending money. At any rate, now that I’ve got my mount I can finally hang with the cool crowd. And start saving up for an epic mount…
  • And speaking of Warcraft, I got suckered into buying a starter set for the new World of Warcraft CCG. With a baby on the way, the last thing I need is another game upon which to spend money. Hopefully my wife will intervene if things get too ugly.
  • I played the Hackmaster roleplaying game, and loved it! I loved it enough, in fact, to go out and pick up the core rulebook myself, and I’m already scheduling a summertime Hackmaster game with my wife and a friend. What a unique game; I’ll try to post further thoughts about that this week.
  • On a bit of a lark, I installed and fired up the classic computer RPG Baldur’s Gate. I am a big fan of the computer RPGs created by Black Isle (the BG games, Fallout, Planescape: Torment); seized by nostalgia, I decided to try playing through Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 back-to-back. So far, so good; we’ll see if I make it all the way through both of them this summer. It is actually taking me some time to adjust to a non-Warcraft RPG. It’s a fun change of pace.

That’s the quick update. Hope you’ve had as much gaming fun lately as I have!

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The way to a man's heart is through his character sheet

Real Life Excitement(tm) has been forcing games to take the backseat over the last few weeks, but rest assured that my twenty-sided die is never far from my thoughts.

The main thing currently distracting me from the wonderful world of games is the fact that my wife, it turns out, is newly pregnant with our first child (and future gamer)! I’m already giving some thought as to when it will be appropriate to introduce said child to the joys of roleplaying–I was playing Rolemaster with my friends by late junior high and high school, but I’m not sure if I want to saddle any child with that social-life-killing burden at such a young and delicate age. On the other hand, Rolemaster kept me far away from the ever-present perils of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, none of which were present my parents’ basement where we played… so maybe it’s a useful tool in the parental arsenal after all. Ah well, I’ve got several years to ponder how and when to introduce Baby to daddy’s well-worn copy of Arms Law.

For Valentine’s Day, my wife even crafted me a hand-made Valentine card written up to look like a D&D character sheet. I’m sorely tempted to scan it and present it here, but it’s sort of mushy in a very geeky way, and I don’t want things to get too awkward for you, my dear readers.

To sum up: thanks for your patience, and I’ll be back shortly with some initial thoughts about the epic wargame Federation & Empire, to which I was introduced earlier this week.

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Violence and bloodshed and videogames, oh my

Good and thorough thoughts on video games and real-life violence over at the Empires of Steel developer’s diary. (A week or two ago, I was privileged to discuss this very topic with Mr. EoS Developer over a cup of coffee.) He’s tracked down some statistics about murder and other violent crime rates since Doom and its ilk kicked off the “violent video game” genre–go check it out. As they say, it’s hard to argue with the facts.

Video game violence and its relationship to real-world violence is a topic I feel strongly about, but I’ve resisted the urge to get on the soapbox here about it. This is a topic where I genuinely feel that people on both sides of the argument have something worthwhile to say–the relationship between game violence and real-life violence is correlative at best, but on the other hand there really is some disturbingly anti-social behavior depicted in games and I find it hard to believe that doesn’t affect our cultural soul, if not our crime rates.

But for over a decade now, the entire debate has been mired in the increasingly ridiculous debate over whether games “cause” real-life violence. Until we can get past this overly-simple idea, we’ll never have a meaningful discussion about the questions we should be asking, and which have a hope of leading to productive answers.

Why does gaming culture purchase and sometimes even celebrate games with extreme violence and anti-social content? Why does the gaming media often promote and review ultra-violent games without asking serious questions about their social value? What can the game community do to draw more attention to the many, many non-disturbingly-violent games out there? Can, and should, the game industry/community encourage developers to consider the social value of their games before making them? If gamers are willing to buy ultra-violent games, does mean that it’s morally acceptable to make those games, since developers are just meeting market demand? If parents are seemingly failing to perform due diligance when it comes to the violent video games their kids are playing, is it reasonable to ask the government to intervene? If violent video games do not cause crime, do they have any other negative societal impact?

Those are questions I’d like to see asked. But in the public/political sphere, at least, everybody seems to be content to have the same old “Video games turn your kids into killers!” “No they don’t!” “Yes they do!” argument. Wake me up in twenty years, when video games are either illegal, or we’ve progressed past this pointless bickering.

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Pay it forward

Things were looking grim for my undead warlock in World of Warcraft. I was out of spell components and thus could not summon the familiar upon whom I depended for protection. I was far, far away from the nearest friendly Horde outpost, and had inadvertently stumbled upon an enemy Alliance encampment. In the course of escaping from it, I was spotted by guards and flagged as “player vs. player”–which meant that any Alliance player who spotted me (and deep in Alliance territory as I was, there were plenty of them roaming around) could attack and kill me.

I was not pleased.

I began to travel back in the direction of “home,” trying my best to stay hidden behind trees and to keep off the main roads. If an Alliance player spotted me out here I was dead meat.

Seconds later, an Alliance player appeared atop the hill in front of me. Many levels higher than me, riding a mount that could outrun me without breaking a sweat, and covered from head to toe in gleaming red battle armor. He saw me, dismounted, and sprinted towards me.

I knew I had a zero chance of survival in a fight. I began to run away, then stopped and turned to face my soon-to-be killer. If I was going to get killed in one blow, at least I would take it like a man, not spend my final undignified moments scrabbling futilely to escape.

The Alliance player approached, stepped into combat range. I waited for it. He moved right up to me.

And gave me a hug.

And then he was gone. I stood for a moment, half-expecting the killing blow to come after all. When it didn’t… I turned and ran for home.

Anonymous Alliance player… thank you. In your honor, I swear I will show mercy to the next Alliance player I catch in similar circumstances.

[Yes, there’s a ‘hug’ command in World of Warcraft.]

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Don't take away my turn!

Over the holidays I played a number of different boardgames with friends and relatives, and in the course of doing so I had a personal revelation of sorts:

I really don’t like it when a game makes you “lose a turn” as a gameplay penalty or obstacle.

This realization came to me after I played in several games where being forced to lose a turn was a routine penalty for unlucky dice rolls or falling afoul of other players. Used sparingly, it’s not a big deal to skip a turn every now and then (and in some games it is a logical gameplay element), but in one game I lost four turns in a row due entirely to bad luck–that’s about twenty minutes of sitting and watching other people play the game you showed up to participate in.

So yes, I’m bitter about that experience, but I would prefer that games try to find some other way of penalizing you than basically making you sit in the corner for a turn. An in-game penalty should make winning more difficult; it doesn’t need to take away the fun of actually playing the game. Take away my game tokens, make me go back to Start, lower my score, make me lose a few cards… but please, don’t make me stop playing!

(On a similar note, I’m a big fan of games that make sure that every player gets to “do something,” however minor, during every other player’s turn; even if all you’re doing is drawing a card or rolling a die while the other player takes their turn, it’s more fun than waiting for five minutes for your turn to roll around again. But I’ll save that rant for another day.)

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Some miscellanea: kung-fu fighters and not-so-scary government conspiracies

I was in Chicago last week for a conference–and while the conference was reasonably fun, my annual trip to Games Plus was even more so. Each year, as a reward for surviving several days’ worth of networking and schmoozing at the conference, I travel to Games Plus to browse the aisles of that gaming Mecca.

My acquisition this year was Weapons of the Gods, a wuxia martial-arts game set in mythic China (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). This is one of those games I purchased at least partly so that I can boast that my gaming library includes it–my game bookshelf (OK, make that bookshelves) contains RPGs covering most every genre known to man–fantasy, sci-fi, horror, western, pulp, samurai, and various combinations thereof), but nothing that would be of much help should a group of angry gamers burst into my living room and demand that I run a mythic China RPG right now. (Hey, it could happen!)

Of course, I had brought along some RPG reading material to the conference to help me survive through the several days until my Games Plus trip. My evening reading this year consisted of Conspiracy X and the new d20 version of Dark*Matter, both of them set in the government/alien/conspiracy genre and quite clearly based heavily on The X-Files.

Both are great games, but is it just me or is the whole government-conspiracy angle decidedly less compelling than it was a decade ago? Back in the early 1990s, it was perhaps shocking to learn, when confronted with a mysterious event or sinister cover-up, that The Government was responsible. Imagine, our own government doing something shady behind the scenes! These days, I’m so jaded that I’d be shocked to hear that the government isn’t responsible for a given sinister conspiracy. Whether or not the government-conspiracy angle is still scary, I may soon find out–both CX and D*M are on the list as potential candidates for my annual Halloween Game Day.

In the meantime, I’ll try and hark back to the day when “trust no one” wasn’t a perfectly reasonable way to approach politics, government, and everyday life…

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Sometimes you can go back

Over the last few years, I’ve slowly forced myself to accept the fact that the Good Old Days of Roleplaying are more or less over for me. I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever again game with quite the frequency and intensity that marked my roleplaying game sessions in high school. And that’s OK, really; being married and having a job offer certain perks that 24/7 D&D marathons do not.

But last week, I came pretty darn close to temporarily reliving those halcyon days of gaming–it wasn’t quite as crazy as a typical high school game session was, but it came close enough that the ghost of my high-school self, smiling down from on high, must have been pleased.

The game was Warhammer Fantasy Role-play (the relatively recent Green Ronin edition), the player was my friend Mark from high school, and the campaign was (a shortened version of) “Ashes of Middenheim.” We played for much of Friday night, most of Saturday, and a good chunk of Sunday afternoon–pretty impressive for a couple of married adults with actual responsibilities that they should’ve been dealing with instead of sitting in the basement pretending to be dwarves and elves.

It was a blast, and there were plenty of opportunities to reminisce about the days of yore:

  • Something about mapping out battle scenes in a windowless basement and being periodically interrupted by a female calling down to remind us to eat really took me back to the good old days… when we gamed in the basement and were periodically reminded to eat by mom.
  • Warhammer has gory critical hit tables… just like good ol’ MERP and Rolemaster! Warhammer‘s tables are much smaller than the sprawling, many-page combat tables in the Rolemaster rulebook, but do outdo the competition in one respect: one of the critical hit results instructs the player to just make up a gruesome critical hit description himself. I don’t know what this says about Mark, but this invariably resulted in his enemy’s decapitation.
  • There was even one of those Great Gaming Moments–the kind where you call everybody to witness your die roll so that you won’t be accused of making it up. In a truly amazing series of die rolls, Mark–while confronting the Final Bad Guy, who was scarily tough–scored the mother of all critical hits. In Warhammer, if you roll a ’10’ (the maximum result) on a damage roll after hitting your opponent, there is a chance that you can roll another d10 and add the result to the first die roll. You repeat this until you roll something other than a ’10’. Four ’10’s later, Mark had accumulated enough damage to insta-kill the big bad guy that I’d carefully crafted to present an epic challenge for his character. That had us both grinning like… well, like nerdy kids playing D&D in their parents’ basement.

All in all, it was a lot of fun to be able to devote the better part of a weekend to a roleplaying game. Among other things, it let us play out a longer story to conclusion, rather than being forced by time constraints to run a short one-shot with little in the way of character development or storyline complications. There’s already been talk about making this an annual event. All I have to do now is make it through another long year of work and real-life responsibility…

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Drawing moral lines in wargaming

One of the first events I attended at Origins this summer was a small roundtable discussing the topic of ethics in gaming. How should one approach dark, evil, or morally ambiguous themes in a roleplaying game? Of the three forum participants, I recognized two as having written game material that would have, back in the Old Days of gaming, sent Jack Chick into an apoplectic frenzy; so naturally I was interested.

It was, indeed, an intriguing discussion that showed me a few new ways to think about the topic. While I’m not usually one to explore Dark and Mature Themes in my roleplaying games (no matter how hard I try, my Call of Cthulhu games usually end up as pulpy, tongue-in-cheek affairs), it is heartening to see that behind the surface-level shock value of, say, a game supplement about satanism, there is an author who is fully aware of the ethical territory into which he’s ventured, and who is determined to handle the topic responsibly. Of course, not all game authors approach gray moral issues with such care, but I have renewed respect for those who do.

One of the most interesting points brought up during the discussion, however, was that ethical issues can crop up even in types of games we don’t normally think of as dark or controversial. One of the presenters–Ken Hite, I believe–pointed out that players can run into moral quandaries even in a area of gaming like historical wargames–a genre I’d generally perceived as so clinical in its approach to its subject matter as to leave little room for shades of gray. Hite mentioned a wargaming friend who refused to play the side of the Confederacy in any wargame (presumably because of its support for slavery, although I don’t think Hite specified). For this player, no matter how historical, detached, or neutral the game’s approach, taking on the role of the Confederacy was a moral line he was unwilling to cross.

Normally I might not have given this point much consideration. I enjoy historical strategy and wargames, but I’ve rarely thought of them as having an ethical edge–I’ve never seen anyone object to playing the Germans in Axis and Alies, and wargames that deal more closely with ethically-blurry conflicts (such as wargames about the Arab-Israeli wars or the German-Russian front in World War II) are careful to focus purely on the clash of military forces, avoiding the atrocities and war crimes that sometimes accompanied them.

All that to say, I’m not accustomed to viewing the hobby of wargaming as an activity with serious ethical elements. But the very next day at Origins, I was surprised to find myself catching a glimpse of that moral line–in Advanced Squad Leader, of all things. The final game I played in the small Origins ASL tournament was a scenario called “Mila 18”–depicting a Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. One person controls the poorly-armed but determined Jewish fighters, while the other player controls the SS troops sent into the Ghetto to crush the revolt by killing and rebels and “mopping up” the Ghetto’s buildings.

Now, I suspect that the Mila 18 scenario is intended as a salute to the bravery of the Jewish fighters who rose up to fight the Nazis against overwhelming odds. (It certainly isn’t any sort of glorification of the SS.) But it felt vaguely uncomfortable to control the German troops–and not just generic “German troops,” but a specific historical SS unit–sweeping through the Ghetto carrying out a mission that was evil by any objective standard.

Why did it make me uncomfortable? Under ordinary circumstances, I have no moral qualms about simulating historical military actions on the board of a wargame, however brutal those battles were in real life; but the looming shadow of the Holocaust cast this scenario in an entirely different light. Although I played out the scenario to the end (the Germans lost), I didn’t like pushing those little SS markers around on the gameboard. Does a scenario like Mila 18 cheapen the memory of the real-life sacrifice and murder that took place there–and if so, why does it prompt moral discomfort when a scenario about, say, the Normandy invasion does not? Or is this scenario an important, maybe even critical, reminder that no matter how far we try to distance ourselves from the real horror of the wars we clinically simulate, there remains a serious ethical element to wargaming?

In the end, it’s a game and a hobby, and I probably won’t lose sleep over it. But I think it’s healthy to periodically stop and consider where our ethical boundaries lie, even for something like gaming. And I’m always up for a good game of Advanced Squad Leader, but next time I think I’ll stick to more uplifting parts of the war–like the Eastern Front, or the Pacific War, or… ah, never mind.

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