About Me

Thursday, March 26, 2015


There was a special place I used to go to go for inspiration. There are other places as well. This one I discovered in the Spring of 2003. It's where the Allentown line crosses over NJ Route 206. It's a strip of back woods maybe 200 yards long and of varying width between 30 and 100 or so yards of some tall trees and tangled undergrowth. It is bounded on the South by the railroad tracks and on the North by a bunch of nice middle to upper middle suburbanite houses with large unfenced back yards opening on a field of green grass and the tree line starts in 50-100 yards. The other side of the tracks is zoned for light industrial use, with some light manufacturing and truck yards, and the empty that used to be dominated by a giant steel girder manufacturing shed. I did some aerial photo research, and the last time that place was used for business was in the summer/fall of 1985, thereafter it was abandoned and sat vacant. For a time it was used as an art studio by some wannabe modern sculptor, who was cutting half inch thick steel plate into grotesquely painted giant paper dolls. There was a life-size crucifix with a faceless Savior, and another one standing among the grotesque images of grossly obese people humping each other. I kid you not, there was a demonic feel, if you looked at that studio in the front office section of that hangar sized metal shed with a football-field sized concrete pad to support all the machinery.



Outside that grotesque workshop was a totally different story. It was a vacant lot overgrown with tall grass and dwarf pine trees. The ground was red clay and it was a beautiful stage for sunsets. The lot was bounded to the east by a large automotive junk yard, and the woods on the other side of the tracks had both, nice footpaths, fallen trees to sit on, and Poison Ivy. I would avoid the grotesque sculptures and walk around the area deep in contemplation. Towards the 206 was the backyards for a garden shop nursery, and late in the summer evenings I can sit and hide in the back of the green-houses, and nobody would know I was there. I sat there with a bottle of wine and fell asleep, waking up early in the morning to a humid night chill, and drove the one hour back home in the city to beat the morning  traffic. Things changed, as they inevitably must. The greenhouse and the garden center went first. They built a vacant parking lot instead. No biggie. Then they laid the pipeline and the drainage for some real estate development on the western edge of the back woods, but nothing became of it. I did some research on the vacant lot, couldn't find anything, other than that the junk yard wanted to expand there, and they got the go ahead in 2007, but they had to meet the safety requirement for the fire marshal. I found that out in 2010. In 2014, they finally expanded and cordoned off the entire lot south of the railroad tracks with an electric fence. What do you expect from a salvage yard for the late model car wrecks useful for expensive parts?

And here is the surprise. For a long time I have worked on the problem of presenting a wilderness adventure for D&D play. There is a reason, why there is plenty written about dungeon adventure design, but little of comparable elegance regarding the wilderness exploration. There is a lot written on the so-called Hex-Crawls - 43 square mile hexes, enter one per day, roll for a monster and a possible dungeon encounter. This is an abstract overlay of a dungeon grid over the outdoors adventure. I spent a lifetime hiking in the outdoors, and I am fully aware, that colorful depth, variety and beauty of the outdoor environment is lost in a typical D&D game. Do you draw a detailed map showing every nook and crevice or do you pencil in the area and then have the players walk through the generic "forest" while rolling for encounters? I came upon an elegant solution for vivid outdoors adventures. One of the concepts for wilderness representation is the interplay between the open and closed topography. An open topography is the predominant terrain with uniform descriptive features, across which the players move. The closed topography is delineated by boundaries and concealment, forming enclosed areas. More densely forested areas, thickets; areas bisected by mountains, rivers, highways, bodies of water, islands, have closed topography, similar to rooms in the underground dungeon.

With regards to this sacred growth, before they tore down the structure and enclosed the area, there were footpaths through it, with people going North and South, the back woods were open to human traffic. Once the lot was fenced in, the human traffic stopped, and the area became closed, a dead end back woods with no visitors. The surprise came, when I expected the dead end woods to become more overgrown and wild, for nature to take hold and bloom, but the opposite has happened. Having lost the human traffic (or was it the demonic sculpture shop?) the woods have lost their atmosphere of mystery. Before, there was a sense of the surreal, like you were standing before a painting, near a gateway, and all you had to do was turn the key, and enter it. Once upon a time, I was sitting on the edge of the embankment, concealed by a tree and smoking, waiting for the freight train to go by. There was rain, and all of a sudden there was a lightning strike. There was an echoing boom, like from the artillery. And there was another lightning strike, and another and another, maybe five in all, and they were all hitting that metal structure. Get it? Big metal structure... Lightning hitting it... But the feel was as if something weird was happening, like the artillery barrage from heavens!

Once the area became closed off, just the opposite happened. The atmosphere of the mysterious has left the place. The forest did not blossom either. Maybe it was the winter storm, that uprooted a lot of trees, but the place became more dead and decaying. The dead tree trunks were moist and slick with decay. There are spider webs and thorny brambles everywhere. These back woods have the dead feel of nothingness to them devoid of mystery, and you don't feel like going there. I still do, to walk along the railroad tracks, and the place is still a sea of tranquility, but it's not the same and there are other places that have the mysterious feel to them.


  1. Wow! That is so interesting that the mystery disappeared with the human traffic. Very interesting.... as if humans brought arbitrary to nature because nature didn't know what to expect? This makes me think that instead of drawing a detailed map showing every nook and crevice, instead the better approach may be to draw the area and then have the players roll for encounters. Maybe that is a way to bring in mystery, randomness, arbitrary?

    This was a beautiful description of the area. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

  2. Good to hear from you! My pleasure. When generating wilderness, the important thing to realize is that you are not mapping a landmass, rather you are mapping a narrative. One clue is that you will not find the terrain types typical of D&D in real world geography and topography. Forest, Plains, Swamp, Mountains, and Jungle aren't even categorized in a way that any player of D&D would recognize them. Instead, we need to realize, that terrain types in fantasy affect symbolism, atmosphere, the mood, in which the adventure takes place. A DM has to be a good story teller first.

    So, coming out of all that, you have to take a deep look within and ask yourself: What is it about my fantasy campaign, that really draws me to that world? What really haunts me? Then you proceed with a verbal map of the emotional, if you will, terrain. Say, from my Southwest-themed post apocalyptic Gamma World campaign: The Center of the World (where players start as Native American (mutant) cute animals is their village, among the scrub pines of the foothills in the high desert at the base of the Mountains, running North-South. A short strip of the high desert to the West, then the regular low desert, a week's journey to get across. Go East across the mountains, two days, if you stick to the train, and again, high desert, low desert, except low desert has been used as a practice bombing range by the Air Force in the days of yore, a day's hike and there is the ancient road on the eastern boundary of the bombing range. If you go West of the Center of the World, you will run into another ancient road formerly known as the interstate, and just off it is a ruined town of Quonset huts and a little North across the road is the facility formerly known as a State Prison, now inhabited by humans, who hunt animals. The Players first quest is a Vision Quest - they must journey into the field of rocks on the foot hills and find new petroglyphs left behind by the (true) Ancients, the Mogollon Indians. The Shaman get the player characters to interpret what petroglyphs they find, and then will pronounce judgment upon them.

    That's it. This kind of a narrative map is worth a lot more, than any computer generated topographical map. To start that game, I generated a list of 100 Encounters, Incidents, Weather and Terrain Events, for players to overcome as they are looking for (and will hopefully learn to identify the fields of rocks, where the Petroglyphs can be found). You can see, how you can later expand this map and make it more detailed as you set more stories to take place in it.

    I think that part of it is that us humans expect Wilderness to look safe and cuddly, almost like a natural park, before we feel safe and comfortable and allow ourselves to dream, and when the wilderness gets really wild and nit fit for casual strolls, it kills our mood. Also forest can get sick, and the winter storms can bring down all of the dead trees, destroying the canopy of the old growth forest, ruining it, if you will. Both can have contributed, in this case, as is the loss of the large open space, that is now fenced in.

    But my personal vibe, is that those demonic sculptures and that structure looming over the whole thing had something to do with it. Maybe it really was a gateway of some sort, I just didn't have the key. It felt there, like being inside a painting, and the canvass can rip open, and we can enter a different world.

    1. Awesome! I love it! That is an incredible world! I love your ending:

      Maybe it really was a gateway of some sort, I just didn't have the key. It felt there, like being inside a painting, and the canvas can rip open, and we can enter a different world.

      Have you entered your game in any contests? It sounds like your game could be a real competitor. I think you have a lot of game design wisdom.

  3. Thank you! I been at it for most of my life. I don't think that I can enter either of these into a game contest. One is a pencil and paper campaign for the Gamma World, with a lot of the Aftermath! rules thrown in, and the other is a campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with a lot borrowed from Rune Quest. Not my game.

    The Midlands will become a serious novel beyond the fantasy genre. I don't know about the funny animals. I suppose I can publish either as a campaign source book, but I am more interested in writing books for Game Masters, I have at least one in mind.

    Regarding your assertion to generate a world free of human bias (totally randomly created). This is valid in computer game design, and counterproductive in pencil and paper. In a computer game you DO have to map every nook and cranny, to make it approach the immersive feel of the virtual reality. Keep in mind that the Nook and Cranny can be topographical, or social and cultural and or even text based. If you are writing a tactical war game, then you need topography - elevations, lines of sight, concealment and horizon, etc, but the minute you break into other kinds o games or situations, you break away from the need for topography. Keep in mind, that role-playing is another medium for telling stories. Midlands D&D game and Midlands the novel will feature the same place, events and people, but will focus on different events and people to tell the same story. Same goes for computer games. CRPGS (Computer Role Playing Games), Adventure games and Hidden Object adventure games all are different media for telling a story, and based on what story you want to tell, you pick one genre over another. In the world of paining, the difference will be akin to acrylic, airbrush, or gouache painting. Of course, as far as I am aware, none of these considerations reach the game designers, because of the expense involved in the design, the marketing needs, etc. The failure of the Fallout 3 is the example of that. The Bethesda Opus was made into a glorified first person shooter, to keep with the marketing trends, and breaking away from the first two installments of that game.

    Having said all that, if you want an absolute real rendition of the landscape for any computer game, you need to go no further than develop a mapping data translator to fit your purpose. US Geodesic Survey has mapped out the entire surface of the United States and possibly the world using the satellite imagery, overlaying a system of grid coordinates down to 10 square meters. Also, the maps are digitized, meaning you have a supercomputer sized array of topographic and geographic data to work with. Have you engine convert and render it into outdoors terrain suited for your game.

  4. That's like Google using satellite data to build their 3D maps. It could be used to build games. I'll have to look into the US Geodesic Survey. Thanks for letting me know.

    I created this map for Urutsk: World of Mystery RPG: Kelzyn's Bluff

    I love creating worlds in 3D. However, I realize that there are limitations with computer generated art and there are no limitations to imagination and that is where storytelling begins. I believe paper and pencil old school D&D like RPG can build real skills. That there is something valuable about the tactile nature of playing in that medium.

    You would be good at writing books for Game Masters. Hopefully you pursue that.

  5. Hey, that's a great map! Did you actually get to play in that world?

    Before D&D was published, role playing was used in psychotherapy and to train generals, nowadays role playing is used in clinical practice, but also to train salesmen, soldiers, and police officers. As to the D&D hobby itself, there are fundamentalist Christians claiming that it's very bad, and there are psychological studies claiming that playing D&D is good. From my own experience, there is some validity to what the religious right claims, and there are definite negatives that researchers overlooked.

    One example of a major bad, would be a game I took part in not too long ago, where a crowd of would be artists, writers and producers were acting like a bunch of psychopathic criminals. I know, it's just role-playing, but the real world historic experience from the Balkans and the drug war in Mexico shows the same type of people acting out just like those players, expect in real world with real violence, when the social order collapses and the opportunity presents itself.

    There are limitations in computer role playing gaming, and there are also limitations on human imaginations, especially when people bring their neuroses to the gaming table. Think of the computer game as a non-linear story, magically illuminated with moving images and hyperlinks. You can mess with that text and get the story out. There is no Game Master, no story teller, on the plus side, the computer game is not lazy and it has no emotional problems, so you actually get to the story. Regarding human gaming, a good game is hard to find.

    Playing D&D is a complex social process with a lot occurring below the surface. Too often DM's lack imagination or are terrible story tellers. This reduces the game to Roll Playing and Munchkinism, where the fantasy game is reduced to open the door, kill randomly generated monster and take the randomly generated treasure. There are other reasons for this as well, because playing D&D is a ritual, of which the actual adventure is but one facet, and computer games cut through that haze, but of course, a good D&D game is far better than any computer gaming experience.