Tag Archives: Magic

#153: What Are Ghosts?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #153, on the subject of What Are Ghosts?

I do believe in ghosts, I do believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I do….

Thus spoke the Cowardly Lion (in The Wizard of Oz, of course)–but that which caused him to believe in ghosts was not a ghost, but a meddling witch.  This came back to me as I listened to a syndicated radio host (The Wally Show) saying that he did not believe in ghosts, but if he was in the real estate market and someone told him that a particular house was haunted, he would not buy it.  We will get back to that.  He also admitted that as Christians we believe in some kind of spirit realm–but that the idea of ghosts was still not something he could accept.

I’m going to say that I believe in ghosts in the sense that I believe there are real phenomena which have not been materialistically explained which at least appear to be manifestations of spirits.


That said, though, just because I believe in “ghosts” does not mean I have any clue as to exactly what they are.  That might be overstating it–I have many clues, but nothing sufficient to achieve certainty.  Thus in the interest of making it clear just how unclear the matter actually is, here are a few of the possibilities, as I understand them.

  • It is certainly not impossible that these are spirits of the dead, people whose inner selves have been separated from their bodies who somehow are maintaining an earthly existence.  Most Christians don’t like this, because we are told that it is appointed to men to die once, and after this comes judgment, and from this we conclude that immediately upon dying we are consigned to heaven or hell for eternity.  (There are some who believe in something called “purgatory”, a place for souls who are in the process of being saved but are not yet pure enough for heaven; it is based on texts that are controversial, not accepted as canon by Protestants because they are not so recognized by Jews.  It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the essence of it.  Besides, having one more place for the afterlife does not release spirits to be here.)  However, we debate exactly how that happens, because our heavenly afterlife is intimately connected with the resurrection of the body.  Thus some think that we go to heaven as “unclothed” spirits and there await the resurrection, and some that we experience (or do not experience) “soul sleep”, such that we know nothing until the return of Christ revives us.  Other possible solutions to this include that we immediately receive resurrection bodies which, unlike Christ’s, are not dependent upon our natural bodies, or that we leap across time to eternity such that at the moment of our death we are at the moment of the resurrection.

    Given that we are in disagreement (I won’t say uncertain, because some of us are quite certain of one position or another as the “obvious” one), it is entirely possible that spirits of at least some of the dead manifest in the mortal realm.  We have the account of Saul visiting the witch at Endor and asking to speak with the departed spirit of the prophet Samuel, in which we are given the rather clear understanding that that spirit responded (and rebuked him for calling).  Some argue that this is because it was before the resurrection of Christ, but we are never told this, and so we just simply don’t know and cannot say that this answer is impossible.

    However, neither is it certain–which is the point here.

  • Many theologians who believe that there are such spirit manifestations believe that these are manifestations of what we might call opportunistic spirits.  They would use the words “demons” and “devils”, but I find that our understandings of those words, as our understanding of “angels”, seems very narrow and simultaneously inconsistent with some of what we know from the Bible.  One would think from what is said that the God who has made more kinds of insects than most of us can imagine could only make one kind of spirit being which divided itself into two parties.  I suspect that there are more kinds of spirit beings than there are kinds of lifeforms in the world–but that’s a digression.  What matters is that it is entirely possible that these spirits have almost nothing to do with the departed, but know enough about them to masquerade as them, possibly just to frighten people, possibly to cause them to doubt their understanding of spiritual matters, possibly to deliver deceptive messages.  The problem here is that we have no way to test this.  Houdini, for example, agreed with his wife on a secret password that he would use if he were ever contacted by a medium and she was present, to prove that it was him.  Although many mediums claimed to have contacted him, none were able to produce the password–but had they done so, would it have proved that this was indeed Houdini, or merely that spirits who masquerade as people might have been privy to many of their intimate secrets in life?  My problem with distinguishing departed spirits from opportunistic spirits is similar to my problem with other gods:  we are ill-equipped to know what is really happening in the spirit realm, and cannot know the origins or motivations of any particular spirit we might encounter.

  • Some people looking for an answer that is almost naturalistic speak of psychic residue, that people suffering particularly traumatic events project mental energy into the surrounding objects which can be sensed by others.  I have elsewhere written (Faith and Gaming:  Mind Powers, at the Christian Gamers Guild) that it seems to me at least reasonably plausible that people could in the future develop mental powers we do not presently have, and indeed it is a small step from that to suggesting that we might have mental powers of which we are unaware.  There is nothing necessarily evil or Satanic about that as a concept.  It might be that stressed brains leave some kind of wave pattern in surrounding matter which can be perceived by other brains attuned to this, and it might be that those patterns manifest as replays of events causing the stress–which would explain why so many claimed ghost sightings are frightening, particularly if the emotion is included in the projection.

  • Most Christians oppose the concept of animism–the idea that there are spirits in inanimate objects.  I am less persuaded.  There is sound scriptural support for the notion that animals, at least, have spirits, and it does not take much to extend that to cover plants, since the distinctions between these two categories of life forms are more scientific than spiritual.  (That’s bad news for vegans, really.)  I do not think that rocks and planks of dead wood and other non-living objects have spirits–it is, if I understand aright, the spirit that gives life to the body, whether that of a person or an animal or plausibly even a plant.  Therefore I think objects that do not have life in any sense do not have spirits–but I can’t say that I know this.  After all, God doesn’t tell us much that we do not need to know, and so most of what He tells us is about ourselves.  It is not impossible that, contrary to my belief, stones have spirits.  If so, it is possible that the torment of one spirit–that of a person–in the vicinity of another spirit–that of the supposed inanimate object–would leave an impression on that other spirit.  We might then be encountering the spirits of non-living matter reliving the suffering of living spirits that had been there.

  • Many of the stories I have heard of supposed hauntings include the fact that someone died in a particular place, and that this was known to the person who experienced the haunting.  Nurses often believe that certain rooms in hospitals are sometimes haunted by former patients, and will sometimes tell this to incoming nurses.  Ghosts are seen in castles that are famously said to be haunted.  It could be that at least some of these are projections of the expectations of the observer–that is, an unexpected glimmer of light, a stray noise, a chill breeze, and the imagination supposes that for just a moment there was something there.  Our minds are already designed to provide details for many things we see.  If something moves in your peripheral vision and you have every reason to believe it to be a person, your mind tells you it is a person; in fact, if you believe it to be a specific person, your mind will put that person in that position.  Sometimes we are startled because the person we saw was not the person we thought we saw.  There is no particular reason why the mind could not provide the image of a ghost where we were anticipating the possibility that we might see a ghost, and the moreso if that makes us nervous.

From this it is evident that assuming the phenomena to be real there are still a great many plausible explanations for it.  None of these explanations covers every detail of every supposed encounter, but then, none of them is the only possible explanation for any reported encounter.  There might be ghosts; there might be something that tricks us, intentionally or accidentally, into believing that we have seen ghosts.  As with Unidentified Flying Objects, it might be that different explanations apply in different cases, and some of them are real departed spirits, but others are not.

I am not afraid of ghosts, but I have never had an encounter.  I don’t know that I would be uncomfortable living in a supposedly haunted house.  However, there is good reason to be reluctant to buy a house that is said to be haunted:  such rumors will impact its market value.  There are always stories attached to houses, but when the stories have a negative emotional impact–previous home of serial killer, house in which entire family died mysteriously–it makes the property less desirable.  “Haunted” is exactly such a story.  If a house is thought to be haunted, you can probably buy it for very little money, and sell it for less.  It becomes a bad financial decision.  So of course I would be hesitant to buy a house I had been told was haunted, not because I necessarily believe that, but because when the time comes to sell my potential buyers are likely to believe it.

So I do believe that there might be something like ghosts out there, but I don’t believe we either do or can know exactly what they are.  We are not equipped to deal with objects in the spirit realm, or indeed even to know with certainty whether that is what we are encountering.

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#146: Chris and the Teleporting Spaceships

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #146, on the subject of Chris and the Teleporting Spaceships.

I’ve told this story before; indeed, I wrote it up years ago for Dice Tales, and so I was reminded of it recently when I launched the Gazebos in the Wild Pinterest board in commemoration of that more famous Dice Tales story, Eric and the Gazebo.  Alas, Dice Tales is long gone, and although Eric lives on as a meme among gamers, Chris is less familiar.  So I thought it might be time to retell the tale.

I should also say that if any of my players remember any great stories of times in our games that need to be retold, they should drop me a note to remind me of them, and I’ll try to get them posted here.

Spaceship by Mehmet Pinarci
Spaceship by Mehmet Pinarci

It starts with Chris playing Multiverser as one of my original five test players.  I was trying to test a lot of things about the game, like how well it adapted itself to other people’s material (we encourage referees to plagiarize settings and other materials for game play, simply because the game can devour world ideas and the books, movies, television shows, games, and other sources are free for you to use in your own home games), so I decided to have a “gather”, bringing the player characters together, in an old game I always loved, Metamorphosis Alpha.  I had brought Chris there, and he had gathered a couple of followers by then, so he was something of a team.

It occurs to me that Tristan, at that time the youngest person ever to have played the game (I believe he was seven or eight), was one of the other original test players, and his character had attached himself to Chris’s.  Since Multiverser is an “I game”, the characters and players have the same names; I’ll try to keep them straight for you.

The basic concept of Metamorphosis Alpha was that earth had sent a huge colony ship out toward what they hoped would be a suitable colony world.  There were millions of people aboard, and facilities that imitated outdoor parks, huge apartment complexes, and much more.  At some point the ship passed through an unanticipated cloud of an unknown type of radiation, killing millions of people and mutating many more, and the ship, now with only computer guidance, continued its trip through space, passing the original destination with no one at the helm.  However, there were generations of humans, mutant humans, animals, mutant animals, plants, and mutant plants aboard, unaware that they were on a ship, forming new ecologies.  If it sounds familiar, yes, Metamorphoses Alpha was the precursor to Gamma World, the original post-apocalyptic game, and introduced many of the concepts and mechanics that were found in early editions of that game.  It was into this that I dropped my players.

Chris had also by this point learned and created a number of psionic skills, and was always looking to devise new ones.  He was known to be a bit reckless sometimes in that regard, but the other players often gave him reason to exercise some caution.

I had decided to put an expiration date on the world, of sorts, or perhaps to create a problem that would require their ingenuity to solve.  There was, at the top of the ship, an observation deck from which one could see space and some of the exterior of the ship, which would for the player characters explain where they were.  To make it interesting, I positioned the ship (Starship Warden) in a place where it was headed directly toward one star, and near enough that it would be evident that they were on a collision course.  They would have to figure out how to avoid this.  Chris and Tristan were the players who reached the observation deck first, and Chris immediately recognized the problem and started considering how he might solve it.  Not wanting to be rash, he decided to go away and come back the next day to try his idea once he had considered it.

What Chris wanted to do was teleport “the ship” forward to the other side of the star, so that it would bypass it completely.  He wasn’t stupid about it, though–he decided to run a test.  Taking his team, including Tristan, to the top deck, he prepared to test his idea by teleporting the ship forward ten feet.  Tiny Tristan wrapped himself around tall Chris’ leg (he did this whenever Chris announced he was going to try something crazy and dangerous hoping to avoid being separated from him), and with a successful roll on the dice Chris moved the ship ten feet forward.  It worked exactly as described:  the ship shifted forward ten feet, but everything and everyone on it that was not part of it or securely attached to it was now ten feet aft of their previous positions.  It was obvious that were he to teleport the ship to the other side of the star this way, he would leave himself and everyone else adrift in space here.  It was time to return to the drawing board.  It wasn’t a useless skill, and it was added to his character sheet, but it wasn’t the solution he needed here.

He came back the next day with a different idea.  As Tristan again clung to his leg, he opened a huge portal in front of the ship (it really was huge–the Warden was, if I recall correctly, twenty-five miles in diameter and football shaped) with an exit portal ten feet beyond it.  The ship began to pass into the portal and, as if it were a wormhole, to pass out ten feet away; everything and everyone aboard was similarly carried into the portal and out the other side, so it worked perfectly.  He had his solution, and it was added to his character sheet.

The next day he implemented it.

Chris never asked–I’m not sure he has ever asked even since–but I wasn’t really cruel.  I had figured that if anyone had taken sightings and done the math they would have figured out that they had a year before they would actually crash into the star–a year during which the ship would have gained momentum as gravity pulled it ever closer.  He had no idea how far from the star he was, so when he said he wanted the portal to open on the other side, I asked for some notion of where on the other side, and the answer he gave led me to understand that it was not really, in astronomical terms, far at all–maybe inside one astronomical unit.  So I let him teleport the ship to the other side of the star, but then informed him that he was really a lot closer to the star than he had been, and that gravity was slowing the ship’s forward momentum.  In a panic, he teleported the ship again, a short hop, and then again, and then on the third attempt to move away from the star he botched and teleported the entire ship into the core of a planet.  Everyone was dead, which of course in Multiverser means that all the player characters “verse out” and wind up in some other world.  I don’t remember where he went, but he had some other wild adventures, and then I tested something else.

I had put a lot of time into pirating Blake’s 7, and figuring out how to put a verser into the episodes and remove Blake.  I used this for two of my original test players, and Chris was one of them; he might have been the first one.  He did very well for quite a while, until we got to an episode which seems to have something very like magic in it, a world in which there are ghosts on a planet who are tasked with teaching people lessons about fighting.  It has a difficult set-up–I had to use three fast Federation ships under the command of Commander Travis to corner Chris with his back to this planet, and I had succeeded.  In a moment I expected it would come to a direct combat confrontation, the ghosts would intervene, and Chris and Travis would find themselves on the planet being told by the ghosts what was expected of them.  But Chris had not yet given up.  He grabbed his character sheet, and said, “I know what I’m going to do.  I know what I’m going to do.”  He thumbed through to the psionic teleport skills, pointed to one of them, and said, “I’m going to do this.”

I may have cocked an eyebrow Spock-like; I do that sometimes.  I asked if he was sure that’s what he wanted, and he was very confident.  I asked him to describe the teleport target spot to me, and he gave me a position just to the other side of the three ships that had him trapped.  I had him roll the dice.

“You succeeded,” I said.

“Yes!” he exclaimed.

“…and,” I continued, “you can see your ship adrift in space on the other side of the three Federation ships just before the vacuum of space kills you and all the members of your crew, and you leave for another world.

It was the wrong teleport spell, of course, but it was one of the most memorable moments in our games, and we have laughed about it for decades since then.  I hope you enjoyed the story as much as we did.

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#38: Multiverser Magic

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #38, on the subject of Multiverser Magic.

In a thread on Facebook on a completely different issue (an article I encountered on an effective non-lethal weapon) posters made some comments about the complexity of the Multiverser game system.  I don’t happen to think it that complex, really, but they did tackle two of the more complicated areas:  the spell system and the way to calculate cover value for armor.  I promised to provide answers, and since I no longer have the Gaming Outpost forum for such things, the answers are going to land here.  This entry will deal with the magic.

From Multiverser: The Game: Referee's Rules, (c)Valdron Inc, by Jim Denaxas

Harry Lambrianou (wow–I spelled that correctly on the first try without looking) raised the issue, and said in significant part:

My biggest problem – and the thing I houseruled away most frequently – is that MV’s magic system, as written, insists that /any change/ no matter how minute results in a completely new spell.

So if I have a “Battle Blessing” spell that normally takes 1 minute to cast, and I decide that today I need to rush it and cast my “Battle Blessing” in 10 seconds… normally you would think that this is my normal “Battle Blessing” spell, albeit with a skill penalty for rushing, right? That’s intuitive… No, it’s an /entirely new/, but /otherwise identical in every way/ spell… that does not inherit the Skill Ability Level for the spell its based on. So if I was 2@8 on the original Battle Blessing… maybe I’m 1@3 on the /identical/ rushed version…. and both need to be leveled up separately.

At one point I think my actual Verser self had something upwards of four different copies of this same spell, the only difference being one was a shorter casting time, or one affected three people instead of five, or something like that. It got out of hand very quickly.

I hated this from the first time I saw it happen, and consequently have never enforced it on the handful of players I ever ran for.

It’s a valid point:  if you know how to perform some kind of magic, shouldn’t you be able to perform it more quickly if you’re in a situation in which you need to get it done fast?  However, I have two answers for this.

The first has to do with “game balance” in mechanics.  That was always a big deal before Vincent Baker’s Lumpley Principle and Ron Edward’s Model, and it’s still a big deal in complex game design.  It means, among other things, that every power has limits so that it won’t dominate the game.

Magic, in Multiverser, has essentially two limits.  One is the same limit that applies to technology, psionics, and even to body skills:  bias, which determines what is possible or impossible in a given universe, and how difficult it is to do.  It’s a relatively simple system given the complexity of issues it addresses, but it’s not at issue here.  For any given magic outcome, either it is or is not possible in the present world, and it can be more or less difficult.

The other limitation is the one at issue.  In Multiverser, you can design your own magic skills.  You can say that you want to achieve this result–create fire or lightning, charm an enemy, pass unnoticed through the midst of a crowd, fly–and that you are going to take these steps to achieve it.  The simple form of the rule is that the power you get from a “spell” is proportional to the effort you put into it.  That effort can take the form of sacrificing objects of greater or lesser value, speaking loudly or gesticulating wildly in ways that call attention to yourself, saying words that broadcast what you are attempting to do so the target can take countermeasures, and, almost always, how much time it takes to cast it.  The battle blessing in particular is significant in this regard:  a two-minute spell to enhance your combat abilities means that for two minutes you have to stay out of the fray, which might not even be possible; the same spell in twelve seconds is going to be very nearly something you can do while drawing your weapon.  Obviously, though, if we assume that the battle blessing does exactly the same thing to the same degree at the same probability of success, no character in his right mind would take two minutes of valuable combat time to cast a spell he can cast in twelve seconds.  Thus part of the solution to prevent that is that the probability of success on the twelve-second version is considerably lower than that on the two-minute version.  Assuming everything else to be the same, the longer spell is probably about thirty percentage points more likely to be successful than the short one.  That can impact whether or not it works, of course, and also because of Multiverser’s relative success rules it can also impact how well it works, because a higher successful roll normally delivers a better outcome.

Understand, too, that I believe in running an equitable game.  If when you create this spell you get this bonus for shouting, everyone should get that bonus for including “shouting” in any spell design; it becomes the “shouting bonus”.  I have a list of standard bonuses for standard “spell components”, and when someone comes up with some new component I had not previously considered I compare it to my list and then attempt to make note of what I decided so that if they do it again, or someone else at the table does it, I will treat it consistently.  When you create a spell, I look at everything you’re investing in success, and crunch the numbers, and I give you a number, a “situation modifier”, to record with the spell description that says that this spell is this percentage more or less likely to work than the baseline.  You get that bonus–or penalty–whenever you use that specific spell.  But if you modify that spell in any way, you’ve changed the bonus or penalty.

Of course, I could let you change the spell for a specific casting–but that means that when you do that, I have to recalculate the chance of success anyway.  And in doing so, I’m probably going to have to look up the baseline for the spell, figure out what elements you are using and what value I gave each of them originally, and work out the new chance of success pretty much as if it were a new spell–and seriously, how much of a two-minute ritual can you cram into a twelve-second rush casting?  And does it make sense to say that because you have done this two-minute ritual before a couple times you will be just as good at doing the same ritual in twelve seconds?  I think of the fast talker competition, where someone holds the record for the fastest delivery of a particular Shakespearean sililoquy (I cannot now recall whether it is from Hamlet or MacBeth).  Does the fact that you recited that sililoquy a couple times mean you can now challenge the record?  You can deliver such a speech at a reasonable pace and allow yourself time to think of the next line without looking as if you don’t know what you’re doing; you can’t spit it out at record time if you have to think of the words.  Believe me, I’ve sung a few songs that have incredibly rapid-fire lyrics, and you had better know them cold if you expect them to make it to your lips.  So I have to recalculate, and I probably don’t have the original calculation handy (why clutter your character paper with the detailed numbers, particularly when that’s not character knowledge?) so I’m starting from scratch.

And if you’re forcing me to start from scratch to recalculate your chance of success for what is necessarily a different ritual (because it runs a different length of time) that feels to me like you’re doing a completely different spell, and I want it on your sheet for the next time you decide you want to do it in twelve seconds instead of two minutes.  It really is not the same spell just because it has the same outcome, any more than striking a match, using a cigarette lighter, and rubbing two sticks together are the same skill even though they all produce fire.  You are attempting to achieve the same outcome a different way, and the simple fact that you want it to happen more quickly proves that this is the case.

Of course, it does make sense that if you’ve done the same skill enough times you would be able to do it in less time.  That’s true when I cook, certainly, as once I know the recipe I’m not stopping at each step to check it.  And that leads to the second answer.  It’s built into the system that when you have used or practiced a skill long enough/enough times to be good at it, your “skill ability level” crosses the line from amateur to professional, and whenever you perform that skill you do it in half the time.  Your two minute skill takes only sixty seconds.  Continue at it and eventually you will be an expert at that skill, and it will take only one third as long as it took when you were an amateur–in this case, forty seconds.  No, that’s not twelve seconds; but if your ritual requires singing four verses of Onward, Christian Soldiers at thirty seconds per verse (sorry, Harry, it was the first decent example that came to mind), you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting it as fast as ten seconds per verse.  So “faster” is built into the system, but only after a lot of practice.  If you want the same outcome in less time, you really are trying to figure out a “faster” way to do it.  There is a saying in business, something like “Fast, good, cheap, pick two.” If you’re trying to get fast, you have to trade something for it–you’re doing it a different way, and a different way means a different skill, even if it’s a choice between the American Crawl and the Breast Stroke.  Keep doing it the same way and you get better at it; change the skill, and you’re learning more skills.

There’s nothing wrong with learning more skills–if one fails, you can use another.  In fact, if you botch on a skill you’re not permitted to retry it again immediately, but you are permitted to try a different skill that does the same thing, so having multiple versions of a skill can be useful in a pinch.

Anyway, that’s how it works and why.  I know it frustrated you; it frustrated me that you couldn’t see that to be the same skill it had to be done the same way.

Eric does all of this by the seat of his pants, and you can do it that way.  I don’t, because I am not good enough to keep the playing field level if I don’t keep track of the rules–but Eric is more like Ed in that regard, and doesn’t much care whether the playing field is level as long as it tells a good story.  It’s harder for a good player to play in a world like that, though, because things are not predictable–a spell that should be easy winds up being hard, because the same standards aren’t maintained from one to the next.  Part of play is learning what works, and what makes it work better.  If the standards shift, you can’t learn that.  It can still be fun, but it’s not quite the game we designed.

I also sympathize with your feeling, Harry, that you were trapped in the same world for a long time.  It’s not entirely my fault–people who stay with the ship take risks of being versed out in a lot of ways, and people who settle into city life, even taking a job with the city watch and starting a fire department, are not taking the same risks.  My second world was a modern vampire setting, and before long Ed was becoming frustrated trying to find ways to get me out of it, because I kept playing smart enough to beat his killer monsters.  Eventually he stopped running the game, and I was never really out of there; two other referees tried to pick it up, but they couldn’t see how to get me out, either, and both gave up on it.  Kyler was stuck in NagaWorld so long that he had to dream up something plausible but truly dangerous to try to get himself out of there.  Being stuck in a world in Multiverser seems to be proof that you’re a good careful player who knows how to stay alive.  It’s a compliment.  Reckless players jump from universe to universe.  You were never that.

I’ll address the cover value thing in a couple days, probably.

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