Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
Last November marked the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Coincidentally, it was also the 20th anniversary of the first Hero’s Quest (aka Quest for Glory 1) release. One was a world-changing event, and one was “just a game”, but both had personal significance to me.
You see, I was in Germany when the Wall still stood. And I cried with joy when it came down.
There are walls around cities, and the walls we build around ourselves. We spend a lot of time hiding behind walls because we think they will protect us. But we forget that the walls that keep others out also trap us inside.
Taking a Chance
Back in 1971, I had a rare opportunity. My high school (Abington High near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) had an exchange student program affiliated with AFS. Each year one or two students from Abington went to school in a foreign country. I applied and became one of the finalists, but I felt I was outclassed by some of the other candidates.
Then a funny thing happened. Abington broke off its affiliation with AFS and decided to run their own program. Abington had a “sister school” in Berlin, Germany, so chose that for their exchange program. But a wall stood in the way, and that wall was the memory of the Holocaust. Every other top candidate was from a Jewish family. They didn’t trust that their children would be safe in Germany without a major program like AFS behind the exchange. One by one, the parents of each of the other finalists withdrew their children’s applications until I was the last one standing.
I felt as though I had “won by default”, but the selection committee assured me that I was fully qualified and would be a great representative of the school. By the way, my father was also Jewish, but believed that his children should have the chance to follow their dreams. He did not let fear get in the way. Many of the opportunities in my life have worked out that way – A door opens briefly, and you either step through it quickly or watch it shut in front of you. This time I went through the door.
A City Alone
Berlin in the 1970’s was a unique city. By the armistice that ended World War II, Germany was divided among the Soviet and other Allied forces. Berlin, the former capitol, was also divided, but it was in the middle of East Germany. All trade with the West had to pass through Soviet-controlled territory. By 1961, an estimated 3.5 million people took advantage of the open border in Berlin to leave Communist East Germany.
East Germany came up with a unique solution – They began to build barriers, and eventually the actual Wall – all around the Western sectors of Berlin. We’re talking a literal wall, several yards high, with a 100-yard “killing zone” on the East Berlin side. It was like the “Escape from New York” film – a major city completely separated from the rest of its own country and all of its allies.
King Solomon supposedly solved a dispute between two women, both of whom claimed to be the mother of a baby, by proposing that the baby be cut in half, with each woman getting half a baby. In the case of Berlin, the Allies literally did “cut it up”. Fortunately, cities are more resilient than babies, and Berlin survived the surgery. I think this is unprecedented in history. West Berlin became a unique place, cosmopolitan, thriving, yet always isolated and under the shadow of The Wall.
Which Side Are You On?
The building of the Berlin Wall was not the first act to divide the German people. One of my instructors at Kant Gymnasium had been a Lieutenant in the German army during World War II. One day he stopped to talk with me on a stairwell, and he said that he sincerely regretted having supported Hitler’s government, and that many of the soldiers and officers had felt the same way.
I asked him – naively, I suppose – why they hadn’t found some way to protest or resist. He told me that they had no choice. He knew that if he did not follow orders, and ensure that his men followed orders in turn, his family in Berlin would have been hurt or killed. He could see no way to break through the wall of rules and laws that constrained him.
It is never easy to break from the norm, be different, or work to bring about change in a hostile society. Most people, most of the time, go along with the rules we are given. We live our lives according to a pattern and rarely stop to examine whether we could do better by breaking down the walls of habit.
We also create our own mental walls. Once we make up our minds, we have a lot of inertia towards continuing to do what we have been doing. We like to be “right”, and the easiest way to do that is to ignore anything that might force us to change our opinions. It’s ok to be wrong sometimes. We learn far more from our mistakes than when we get things right the first time. Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.
Walls Between People
The destruction of the Berlin Wall was a life and world changing event. It had stood for almost 30 years, dividing friend from friend and family from family. When I visited Berlin in the early 1970’s, the Wall seemed a permanent, unalterable fact of nature. As an American, I could cross over with some slight risk, but to a Berliner, East and West Berlin were two different worlds. One was Democratic, one Communist; one Capitalist and commercial, the other Socialist and relatively impoverished. Germans could not move freely back and forth, and there seemed little common ground beyond the language.
November 1989 changed all that. The Wall began to come down, piece by piece. Families were reunited. Friends old and new found they had much more in common than they could have realized. Less than one year later, the two Germanies became one. And now it’s hard to imagine they were ever separated.
We build walls all the time. Whether the construction materials are political affiliations, gender, social or religious differences, educational background, or standards of hygiene, we make quick decisions about other people and then base our relationships on those first assumptions. Those instincts are often “right”, in that our subconscious minds use a lot of hidden details to make choices. But they aren’t flexible. When evidence comes in that contradicts our initial assumptions, we are usually poor at adapting and adjusting our beliefs. And that builds walls.
If you want to have more friends, or to be more effective in life, you need to learn to tear down some of those walls, or at least find a way to climb them. Learn to role-play, empathize, and understand what drives the people around you. Don’t assume you know what they’re thinking; start a real dialogue and ask them. You can find things in common with almost anyone if you open yourself up and work at it. And if there’s nothing in common, that just means you have an opportunity to learn and perhaps to teach.
Take Down the Walls
We can all benefit from the lessons of the Berlin Wall. Our lives are made poorer by the separation we create between ourselves and others. Our rote day-to-day patterns keep us from seeing the richness that life has to offer. Our “party line” political decisions lock us into an “Us vs. Them” mentality that benefits none of us.
The walls that keep others out also lock us in. Make some new friends, try some new things, and tear down the walls that separate you from other people. You will find a new sense of freedom and joy beyond those walls.
The Fall of the Wall
Wikipedia Creative Commons
Friday, March 20th, 2009
Gather around the fire, my friends, and I shall tell you the tale of the Tower. It is the story of an innocent young man who was seduced by the siren song of the Goddess of Gaming. Risking the scorn of his players, and the acid words of the critics, he dipped his pen into the murky inkwell of Creation to create his own adventure. Yes, this is the story of how I came to write my first dungeon module, The Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, and how it changed my life.
Slay Them All!
I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970’s while working on a computer project in Chicago. Jack Eilrich was the main DM, and ran a “killer game”, with the average life expectancy of a character maybe 3-4 sessions. Jack’s games were full of imagination, excitement, and challenge. We even managed to get in some role-playing, especially during the frequent roll-up-a-character process. One night, I rolled up three consecutive characters within an hour as two of them died before becoming old enough to quest.
Sitting in my hotel room one night, I decided to give DM’ing a try and put together my first full dungeon module. It was a beginning adventure set in a remote tower filled with puzzles and mystery. When I ran our usual group through the scenario, the players made very favorable comments on it. Of course, that might have just been because I didn’t kill any of their characters.
The Tower of What?
The original scenario consisted of the ground floor and the tower rooms and sprang from my head in a single sleepless night. Filling out the details, adding the underground area, and coming up with a title for publication took 5 more months.
I don’t quite remember how I came up with the title, “Tower of Indomitable Circumstance.” Probably it was something that just popped into my head, so I figured I’d use it as a working title until I came up with something better. Eventually I reworked part of the module so that the title made sense… sort of. (In case you didn’t know, “indomitable” means something similar to “indefatigable”.)
Lesson #1: Working titles take on a life of their own. When you try to change them, they fight back. It’s better to get it right the first time.
DM’s Get All the Girls
Since I preferred playing games to working for a living, I decided to turn Tower into a formal game module and become a professional game writer. I submitted it to Judges Guild, the major 3rd party D&D module publisher at the time, and waited.
At this point I was playing or running D&D games about 20 hours a week, as well as working full-time. I was too busy gaming to write any other modules, so my career as a writer began to look doubtful. I did have one major success with Tower, running it at the 1979 WesterCon in San Francisco for a group that included a lovely young lady named Lori. She was sufficiently charmed by my D&D game as to miss some of my other shortcomings. Yes, it’s true – DM’s get all the girls!
Several months later, when I called Judges Guild to ask if they were going to publish my module, they asked, “Oh, you were submitting that for publication? We’ve been playing it for the last few weeks in our in-house campaign. We love it!” Next thing I knew, I had a contract, and in 1981 Tower finally saw print.
Lesson #2: Publishers have a long turn-around time. If you want to make a living as any sort of writer, you need to keep writing while you’re waiting to hear about your first submissions.
Building the Tower
As a D&D player with no dungeon master experience, how did I start writing a module? Obviously I was influenced by the games in which I played. I had also played Adventure and Zork at this point, and had some experience with a real-life quasi-religious cult. Looking back at Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, it has a lot more detail and puzzles than most of the role-playing modules I’ve seen.
Tower was designed to be an interesting adventure for beginning characters, so I based it on problem-solving by the players rather than on their characters’ abilities. I tried to give Tower the flavor of “something interesting in every room”, rather than having a lot of generic rooms full of inappropriate monsters. Many of the rooms of Tower have “On Closer Examination” sections to reward players for actively doing and examining things.
I also wanted a consistent setting. Many early dungeons seemed to be a random collection of traps and monsters. I wanted a “real” place, where everything had a purpose and fit in with the theme of the location and the adventure. For Tower, I accomplished this by creating a tower that was originally designed as an initiation tests for acolytes who aspired to become Priests of Math (the Celtic God of Magic). As a result, the tower is both a series of tests and of instruction in knowledge a Priest should have.
For example, two adjacent rooms have mirrors, one of which shows the viewers as extremely beautiful, the other of which makes them look incredibly ugly. Once the players have looked in both mirrors, a voice intones, “For after all, both beauty and ugliness are ethereal in nature, and the Wizard has both at his command.”
Lesson #3: If you start with an interesting theme, then keep the rest of your writing consistent with it, you will find it much easier to write something fun.
Posing a Passable Puzzle
I have a confession to make. I pretty much suck at “solving” adventure games. I come across a puzzle and say, “Huh? How am I supposed to figure that one out?” It could just be me, but I don’t think so. I think that most puzzle creators try to “beat” the players by coming up with puzzles they won’t be able to solve.
I look at puzzles a different way. I think the purpose of a game designer is to challenge players in a fun way. That means you want them to solve your puzzles – after some thought – not get frustrated by them. I also try to create puzzles that are closely related to the setting and the story. This helps give players the context they need to solve the game.
To create the puzzles in Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, I started out – as I still do today – with a character who has a problem. The demigod Math has seen his temples destroyed and followers persecuted because people distrust magic. He wants students and worshippers, but he can’t just advertise for them. So he creates a challenge that will let qualified adventurers test themselves and learn the principles of his “religion” before making a choice.
Tower introduced a few innovations, such as the then-radical idea that a Priest should actually have a religion. It was also a strongly puzzle-oriented scenario as compared to the mostly hack-and-slash nature of most D&D adventures. Finally, Tower was designed to solve a specific problem – Getting new characters started without killing them off on the way to the dungeon. Our wilderness encounter charts in those days were completely random, so beginning adventurers were as likely to be eaten by Dragons as to fight Kobolds.
Lesson #4: Don’t create puzzles only you can solve. A strong setting will tell you where the puzzles and decisions need to be made.
Belay Those Birkenstocks!
Not all of my puzzles were winners. One of the first ones in Tower involves trying to open a locked door. Near the door is a Japanese-style stand with several pairs of sandals. The players are supposed to figure out that this is a temple, and the priests do not want it soiled, so they should take off their boots and put on sandals before attempting to open the door. I’m not sure any group for which I ran the game actually solved this one. In one case, I noticed on a character sheet that the mage was wearing sandals, so he was able to simply open the door and walk through. It took the rest of the party about an hour.
What happened there? I knew the solution before I posed the problem, but the players could only work with the information I gave them. I needed to add more clues so that the players could “see” the room as I saw it in my mind. “Muddy footprints lead up to the chest, where you find an old pair of boots and several clean pairs of sandals. The area between the chest and the door looks totally clean.” You don’t have to hit the players over the head with this sort of thing, but additional hints can be essential if they’re obviously stuck.
Lesson #5: Shoes Wisely! Don’t assume your players can read your mind.
So there you have it. One lonely night in Chicago, a muse caused me to try something new, and my life changed as a result. Because I wrote Tower, I met my wife. Because I had a published RPG module, Sierra hired us to create Quest for Glory. If my life had gone a different way, I’d probably be a retired, ex-programmer spending my evenings playing World of Warcraft. (Not everything has to change in an alternate future story.)
Lesson #6: Some decisions are more important than others. Some are turning points that alter everything that happens afterwards. These are the most interesting places for puzzles in games, and they’re also the most interesting and meaningful moments in the game of life.
[If you're interested in trying out my first role-playing module, Tower of Indomitable Circumstance has long been out of print, but (being unable to find my own copy) I was able to download a very readable can of the module from RPG Now for $3.00. If you decide to play it, let me know what you think and how well it converts to modern RPG systems and the 21st Century.]