The Way, The Truth & The Dice: Volume 1, Issue 1



Evolution of a Game

by M. Joseph Young


When I asked the members of the Christian Gamers’ Guild mailing list for ideas on what to write for this e-zine, the first one I received asked me to tell a bit about how the Multiverser role-playing game came to be. Multiverser was released in December of 1997, and introduced through the Valdron Inc. web site at http://members.aol.com/NagaWorld/mv.html (which has received several very positive reviews).

Although I am co-author of this relatively new role playing game, even I don’t know its whole story – I was not involved with it at the beginning. E. R. Jones had already created much of it before I came along and tried to translate it to paper. But I know quite a bit about it, and have guessed some of the rest, so I’ll tell you what I do know. I’m surprised at how Multiverser turned out different from what either of us expected. In seeking to turn his ideas into something I could understand and communicate, and something which could be run by anyone using a book of rules, a new game was born.he conception of Multiverser came from the creative mind of E. R. Jones. Mr. Jones is a very private individual who would prefer that I not publish too many details about him. He discovered RPGs back in 1980 while still in high school. He borrowed a copy of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide from a friend, spent a night reading it, and returned it the next day — and then began running games based on what he had read. He began picking up rule books and modules where he could find them, not discriminating between game systems, constructing a game world which was part AD&D and part Gamma World, expanding in unexpected ways as rules, equipment, creatures, and window dressing were added from many different game systems. This world, Valdaronia, was later renamed Valdron.

After a couple of years, he bought his own DMG. Everything technological was banished from Valdron into an adjacent country across impassable mountains from which magic was in turn banished; yet he still felt that there should be a way to integrate magic and technology into the same campaign world.

He played and refereed more games, and began to develop his own. That which would one day become Multiverser began around 1985 as a high-tech “I” game in which a player’s alter ego entered the game by being kidnapped by aliens and drafted to fight in a galactic war. From time to time one of these player characters would fall through a wormhole or otherwise find himself accidentally transported to another universe with different physical laws — but since the characters traveled in spaceships, it was difficult to bring them directly into a swords and sorcery setting. Either they were equipped with powerful technology which would unbalance the game, or they were adrift in space and doomed to float helplessly until they crashed.

At this point, an unnamed material (later named “scriff”) was conceived as a sub-atomic substance which tied all universes together; a character infected with scriff moves from universe to universe in the Multiverser game. “Bias,” the rules which determine what is possible in a universe and whether things are easier or more difficult, also became part of the game. At first there were three bias areas: magic and technology which always opposed each other, and psionics which was treated separately. (For those who wish more detail on these ideas, scriff is introduced in an excerpt from the Multiverser Referee’s Rules at http://members.aol.com/NagaWorld/mvrscriff.html, and discussed further at http://members.aol.com/NagaWorld/scriff.html; bias is similarly presented at http://members.aol.com/NagaWorld/mvrbias.html and http://members.aol.com/NagaWorld/bias.html.)

Mr. Jones had by this time joined the army, and was running games around the world. Although the first uses of scriff were by sophisticated machines that used the substance to navigate between universes, it almost immediately became something that got inside a character and his equipment so that machines were no longer needed to move from world to world — now it happened whenever a character died. Test players contributed a little bit to it here and there—one whom I have never met, Richard Lutz of Florida, named the scriff (and many of the creatures in NagaWorld, the world E. R. Jones created as a starting point for Multiverser characters, or “versers”), and created the idea of occasionally bringing characters into a world through the birth process. Although I met only one of those earliest test players, I felt their stamp on much of the game as it developed.

Mr. Jones was always a bit vague about mechanics. I’ve often thought that the original Multiverser mechanic was that he had players roll dice, he looked at the numbers, and then decided what he wanted to have happen based on that roll. He had established that he wanted to use percentile dice for skill checks, and had created a list of attributes (ability scores) which were to be included and the scale to be used. The structure of the bias system, with fifteen levels positive and negative and with ten intensities per level, was in place, and he used two kinds of attribute checks plus general effects rolls. Some notion of relative success, relative failure, and the chance to botch were already part of the system. He had also reduced weapon damage to damage categories (from “annoying” to “annihilating”), a simplified approach to damage which eliminates the need to look up the damage of a particular weapon. I think he was using damage category bonuses and penalties (increasing and decreasing damage due to skills, protections, and other factors) in a very loose way. But if you asked him how he determined the chance to hit, he was always a bit vague; it involved your skill, your best relevant attribute, your strike value, the bias of the world, the target value of the opponent, modifiers for armor, range, and other situation factors — but if there was a way to put it together to get the same answer every time, only he knew it.

That’s how things were when I met him. It was 1991, and he was introduced to me as a Christian D&D player; he joined my game, then I joined his (he was still running Valdron). I heard a bit about Multiverser from some of the other gamers he knew, and he eventually invited me to play in September of ’92. Within a couple weeks I was nagging him for game mechanic information. I wanted to analyze the system, figure out what weapons were my best options, how things worked. He responded by inviting me to help him put it all to paper. Our collaboration had begun.

I suppose it began at my dining room table while we were playing; but what I remember is sitting in the stairwell outside his fiancee’s apartment with printouts from my Commodore computer, my hand-printed outlines, and his scrawled text and revisions. We struggled with each other’s handwriting and argued about what mechanics were workable. He feared that I was going to give him a game in which the mechanics were so complex that only mathematicians could play; I was concerned about going to press with major holes in the system. For a while he was at my house so much that my kids thought of him as family (and his fiancee regarded me a threat to their relationship); after he got married we were always at his apartment, working on his days off while watching his son. What we expected would be a few months stretched into years. It outlasted the Commodore, and I had to re-type the entire first draft into a new computer. On my dot matrix printer it took several days to print a complete copy, and used up most of a ribbon. The sheer size of it made him nervous, especially printed single-sided in stacks of large-print pages; I’ve got boxes of revised drafts stuffed in corners of the house.

I don’t want to minimize my own contribution to Multiverser; nor do I wish to exaggerate it. Almost immediately I pointed out to him that “technology” had to include all those low-tech things he had allowed to pass without modification — the leverage of a club, the wedge of a knife, the wheels on carts, even the control of fire. There would be worlds in which these things were not known; there might be worlds in which they were impossible. After that, I suggested a fourth bias area, body skills, which would control martial arts, acrobatics, and so much more, skills he had not covered under the bias system. I created the “obliterative” damage category and a single roll hit and damage system (which ties your potential damage to your ability to hit, and reduces the number of die rolls during combat). I dissociated magic from technology so that there could more easily be worlds in which both were high or both were low. I put detail into the mechanics, creating a detailed general effects table, hit location chart, body injury table, and many other special application tables. Given the framework of bias levels and intensities, I outlined for each bias area what kinds of skills fell at which levels, and which skills were at each intensity, and revised it several times over the next few years. But from the beginning it was based on his ideas, his structure, and his framework. I wrote ninety percent of the text, but he wrote the first ten percent, setting the basics for the system. What he had done easily by the seat of his pants for years had to be studied and put to paper. I often told him that I couldn’t teach people how to be him, so I had to provide them with tools which would enable them to do what he did.

We were about as mismatched as two referees could be. Of all the DMs we knew, none was closer to the book than I. If I didn’t have a suitable rule to cover something, I wrote one; I put it to paper, and used it thereafter. The game started when I announced it, and ended at the end of the session; I watched the clock and announced when we entered the last hour. Questions about the scenario which were asked between games were generally answered with, “How would you know that?” Although I spent a great deal of time creating scenarios and preparing for games, the game was the game, and players could not discover game information except when the game was in session. It was known by every player that whatever was behind the next door had been there on paper long before they got there, possibly before they ever came to the table, without regard for who they would be or what would bring them there. It was ultimately fair, because everything that would affect them was decided without reference to them. Even wandering monsters had already been created in detail and placed in random sequence; if the dice called for a wandering monster, you got the next one on the list.

In contrast, no one was less disciplined than he. He rarely consulted books, charts, or tables. He used no maps, no written scenarios. Moving around in his city was magical – directions were filled with odd ritualistic instructions, such as kicking the third trash can in the alley, or knocking on the door to the warehouse, or banging on a drainpipe; and the way there was rarely the way back. Distances to distant places were measured in days on the road, and the speed you traveled didn’t change it. Monsters who attacked would die when the party had taken enough damage. Underground passages were largely invented on the fly; he would check our map before deciding which way the path went next. Time was completely mutable. He would decide which month was next when it was getting close, determine the number of days in the month as it suited him; and he had no problem with the notion that one player could go on a three-month side trip and rejoin the party an hour after he left. The game was always on — if you called him on the phone and asked a question, suddenly he was the DM and you were the character, and the game was afoot. His characters were alive; his NPC’s were driving a hundred different subplots with which none of the players were involved. He infused his games with life, with excitement. He kept the game on the edge: we were always within inches of death, yet came through exhilarated and alive; and he was able to maintain the illusion that we had done it. I once said that he didn’t really run games; he really told stories, and made us feel as if we were in them.

I learned a tremendous amount from him; I believe he learned much from me as well. From that discordant combination sprang a game which neither of us could have created alone. It is intricately structured, yet incredibly flexible. Its rules can cover any reality, and yet you can sometimes play for hours without opening the book. The system is so detailed that some critics have suggested that we missed nothing; yet it is so consistent that everything fits into a few simple mechanics. The background materials in the book run from general relativity to Linnaean classification to philosophy of religion to the metaphysics of time travel, and yet one of our referees is an eighth grader who runs games for friends during his lunch break. Anything the referee can imagine can become part of the game world; any game we’ve ever seen can be integrated with it. It flings its characters beyond the four corners of the universe into countless universes, and gathers them together again in familiar or alien settings, balancing the identity of the character and the identity of the world in a harmony which works easily, and challenging the imaginations of referees and players with the possibilities.

I suppose I need to come to the end of the story. We spent most of a year reading through the completed draft, making such changes as we thought were necessary. By then it was the spring of 1997. For Mr. Jones, it had been over a decade to reach this point, and he did not wish to be involved in the business of selling his own ideas. He left it to me. I made the final revisions to the text and the final selection on the artwork, created Valdron Inc. in September as we had agreed, and invited the last collection of test players to be involved in bringing the game to the world. Several people jumped at the chance, and by the end of December the game was on the market.
It was a long first year, and I made many mistakes, but the game has been well received by critics and a growing number of gamers. Despite criticism of its “religious” content (it describes a supernatural realm in which there is one supreme good Creator who made all of the gods in all imaginable worlds), Multiverser has gotten enough favorable comment that I expect it to be around for many years. The game E. R. Jones ran by the seat of his pants, and which I helped translate to rules anyone could run, has begun to excite gamers around the world.