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A target of inefficiency: from Dystopian trends to Utopia


post industrial ruins

Image courtesy Freeimages.com/trip fontaine

Some background

Before I can get to the main subject of today’s article, I need to tell a few short real-life stories to set the scene, putting the article into context.

The Story Of Canterbury Road

When I look out my front window, I am confronted by the somewhat depressing site of one of Sydney’s main thoroughfares, Canterbury Road. It’s distressing because of the state of repair that it appears to be in. Last year, as part of a major “improvement”, the bitumen surface was scraped off, leaving the underlying concrete, which was then patched here and there. New surfacing was carried out only at intersections, because the road surface needed to connect to cross-streets that were still paved.

Funding for a road upgrade was set aside by the State Government in 2011, but work didn’t start until 2014. The plan was for the whole road to be resurfaced, but when the surface was stripped back, the underlying damage was found to be worse than expected, needing far more repair than allowed for. Further delays were caused by weather, and the result is that traffic has been running on the under-surface, doing fresh damage that also needs repairs. Changes to traffic flows have produced additional wear and tear, and all that has to be repaired before the resurfacing can proceed, and the repairs aren’t keeping up with the ongoing damage.

As a result, it was named the worst road in Sydney in September 2014 and has only deteriorated since. I’d love to provide an image to show you just how bad it is, but the only ones I could find are subject to copyright. According to this report (which does include images – and these are not selected “worst bits”, they are typical), and according to everything I’ve heard from members of government, work was “expected to be complete” in October 2014. So here we are in July 2015 – and the road still looks as shown in those photos. Either the work never included a planned resurfacing, or the plan had to be abandoned. According to the most recent report I’ve been able to find – a press release dated November 2014 – “resurfacing” with fresh concrete was supposed to happen, and to be complete by now. It hasn’t and isn’t.

Poles and Wires

Telecommunications is another area where there have been long-standing maintenance issues. When I moved to Lakemba something like 25 years ago, it transpired that the phone lines were connected to the exchange via a pit that flooded during rainy weather, causing service disruptions – but the telecommunications carrier that owned the basic infrastructure, and was responsible for maintaining it, didn’t know which one.

Each connection is allocated two connections or ‘pairs’. One is in use, the other is in reserve for use when there is a problem with the first or maintenance is required. The second pair simply didn’t work, but whenever there was a connection problem because of water leaking into the ‘pit’, they would swap to that pair at the exchange and the whole thing would collapse – no phone, no internet. Thankfully, when I was forced to move a couple of years back, I left that particular problem behind, and while I still have the occasional connection drama once a year or so, the overall service has improved immeasurably. I can only sympathize with whoever’s been stuck with the old problems since I moved.

The problem is that maintenance costs have skyrocketed over the last 30 or 40 years, and an attitude of “fix it before it fails and make it last” has been replaced by one of “fix it when it fails, as quickly and cheaply as you can – and if it fails again in six months, fix it again.”

The same problem exists with our electrical network. About 18 months ago, there was an accident on Canterbury Road, caused from all appearances by a driver taking the corner too fast and mounting the curb to strike the power pole. I was watching TV at the time, and heard the crash from about 70m away, through a closed door, and over the top of the program, at the same time that the lights flickered. I summoned emergency services, who dealt with the accident itself, but nothing was done about the damage to the pole, now inclined at roughly a fifteen degree angle to the vertical, and seemingly held upright only by the power lines supplying electricity to residents.

After three days with no sign of repair activities, I contacted the electrical service provider who informed me that no damage to the pole had been reported to them, and who sent a crew out to inspect it. They decided that it was still sufficiently held by the hole in the ground – they do bury the base of those things quite deep – and no repair was needed; so it has been left leaning to one side and over the street. For over a year.

Eventually, the unbalanced strain will be too much for whatever is holding it up, or some other vehicle will hit it, and the result will be crushed vehicles, trapped drivers, and live wires in the street.

The same story gets repeated time and time again. Maintenance is expensive, and it is not profitable to repair things until you absolutely have to – and that’s not until it fails. I’d love to be able to blame someone, or to think that this was strictly a local or even a state issue – but any Google search for “Aging Infrastructure” will quickly show that the problem extends throughout the western world. Such a search produces more than 5 million hits.

It’s clear to me that our infrastructure is breaking down and has been for a long time. There simply hasn’t been enough financial incentive to maintain it, and infrastructure projects in recent years have suffered from financial blowouts that make them white elephants.

The Airport Rail Link Story

In 1990, the then-elected State Government called for private bids to build a rail link to connect Sydney’s airport, both Domestic and International terminals, to the CBD and hence to the rest of the public transport network. The tendering process took until July 1994, when a public-private partnership to build the rail link was announced.

The project involves four kilometers of tunnel through rock and six kilometers through soft ground. Three new suburban railway stations were built, in addition to the stations at the air terminals.

The deal was that a private company would be formed that would cover the costs of building four of these five stations and would receive the right to operate them for five years with the right to impose a surcharge on fares for their use, so generating a profitable return on the investment.

Construction began in February 1995 as part of the infrastructure development for the 2000 Summer Olympics, and the line opened in May 2000, three months prior to the commencement of the Games. It had cost the State Government A$700 million and the private investors A$200 million.

That was when the project really ran into trouble. There were two serious problems: the trains to the air terminals were ordinary suburban rolling stock without dedicated luggage space, and hence those using the service had to compete with ordinary domestic travelers; and the surcharge meant that it was actually cheaper for a lot of travelers to take a taxi to the airport than it was to use the public option. Even after the cancellation of a rival Airport Express bus service, and the imposition of Taxi Surcharges and Expensive airport parking, the Airport Link consistently failed to attract the projected levels of patronage.

In January 2001 it was announced that the private investor had gone into receivership, exposing the government to costs of around A$800 million on top of the A$700 million already spent on the rail link. What’s more, many of the alternatives had been wound up or rendered untenable in the Government’s efforts to drive traffic onto the service if a buyer for the failed private business was not found – and, of course, no-one would buy a failing business, so that sale would be contingent upon renegotiating the operating terms with the government.

The renegotiations took until October 2005 – more than four-and-a-half years – but they made it possible for the failed private business to be sold. Ultimately, the state government agreed to pay an additional A$111 million dollars to the private company and renegotiated the operating parameters of the link, and as a result, a buyer (one of the country’s largest Banks) was found.

Today, the rail link is profitable to both public and private stakeholders, but it took until 2009 to get there. This failure, and a few other high-profile public-private projects that encountered similar problems in becoming profitable due largely to wildly optimistic expectations, diverted much of the government’s capacity for infrastructure investment, and especially for the maintenance of existing assets, and soured private enterprise on the notion of investing in public infrastructure.

Recent Developments

Lately, that attitude has been changing a little; the Cross-Harbor tunnel beneath Sydney Harbor has been such a success that another is planned, the tollways have become far more popular following the introduction of e-tag payment systems and an accompanying decrease in the tolls, and the Airport Rail Link is turning a profit.

A new rail line, the North West Rail Link is currently being constructed for rapid transit between two major suburban centers without the need to transit the CBD. But there are new problems arising from short-term solutions taken despite longer-term cost blowouts – for example, the tunnel is being deliberately bored too small for existing rolling stock, necessitating the purchase of all new trains for the line, trains that are designed for many stops close together and not fewer stops spaced more widely apart as is the case with an express service. There are serious concerns that even if the projected number of passengers desiring to use the service proves accurate, the infrastructure won’t physically or logistically allow that level of service, because of bottlenecks and poor integration with existing services.

In addition, a new state government initiative taken to the polls as part of the last election sees the state government in the process of “leasing” part of the electrical infrastructure to private hands. Part of the reason for selling is that while it is substantially profitable now, rising infrastructure maintenance costs over the next ten years will demolish that profitability and devastate the value. The plan is for the purchaser of the lease to invest heavily in infrastructure improvements and maintenance immediately, which the state government can’t afford to do, so as to delay the date of that decline in value. The promise is that electricity prices will fall as a result – and, in the short term, they might. But this is more robbing of Peter to pay Paul; in the long term, the infrastructure costs will rise as predicted, delayed for a time at best – and prices will have to skyrocket as a result. A government has many options for dealing with such an increase in costs, and does not need to show a profit each and every year; a private “owner” doesn’t have that luxury.

Dystopian and Utopian Futures

All this – and more in the discussion to come – is good news for anyone creating a game set in a Dystopian future, because it all seems to add to the credibility of such a social prediction. It’s not so promising for anyone looking to establish a more Utopian future game setting because it adds to the problems that have to be solved – and if our best political and social minds haven’t been able to solve these problems, what makes you and I think we can do it?

I think I have an answer to the problem. It might not work in real life – I’m not for one minute arrogant enough to think that my little theory is enough to change the world – but it should be plausible enough to get sci-fi GMs and authors past the current dystopian trend.

I’ll get back to that in a little bit. First, I think it worth spelling out all the other challenges that a Utopian future faces.

Dystopian Breakdown

Infrastructure is breaking down because of a change in maintenance policy and rising costs. Social systems have been breaking down, too. The drive to generate profit has seen the gutting of standards of service in most areas, machinery replacing people as wages rose to make the artificial more cost-effective. This affects everything from customer service in Banks to call centers.

Disposable Products

The rising costs of labor have also influenced the products that we buy, producing an engineering ethic in which it is more cost-effective to throw broken products away rather than repairing them, producing unsustainable pressures on our waste disposal systems. (The news is not all bad on this front; a new counter-trend is emerging as a result of environmental consciousness on the part of consumers which priorities recyclable technology).

Distribution Of Wealth

Disparity of incomes has been rising as CEOs and money-spinners earn outrageous salaries while paying less and less, in real terms, to lower-level workers. Extremes of social class are evident now in the western world in a way that rivals or even dwarfs the only other real examples that we have – slave-based economies in the American South and Feudal economies in which Kings and Nobles had the wealth while the peasantry had virtually nothing.

Concentration of wealth has left media control in a relatively small number of hands. While the degree of influence of the modern media barons is a hotly-disputed subject, the potential remains for Kingmakers to control our economic destiny.

Employment

Unemployment is another modern problem, though it is one that may exhibit some relief in future decades; as the baby boomers retire, the workforce will thin at the same time as demand in the aged-care sector and related industries boom. The problem is that the jobs that are likely to be available are not those that most people want or aspire to. In the longer term, this won’t be an issue; as we Baby Boomers die off (I date from the extreme tail end of the social group), and this surge in demand will ease. Automation is a bigger issue; some estimates suggest that as many as 20% of current occupations will be automated out of existence over the next 20 years. Personally, I think that’s a little pessimistic, and fails to account for new jobs being created; but even a 10% rise in unemployment is a serious social issue.

Technological Retreat

At the same time, the world has been going backwards in other ways. With the end of the Concorde, supersonic intercontinental travel became a thing of the past. Modern aircraft move more people at once, more economically than ever before, but we have nevertheless retreated from the cutting edge of what was possible to focus on what is most efficient. At least there’s some positive news in that direction, with a new generation of supersonic passenger jets being announced recently. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have unveiled aircraft concepts, while Airbus is also developing a supersonic aircraft.

At the same time, operational costs and maintenance have been starved of funds by airlines struggling to stay profitable, producing corner-cutting and a deterioration in safety that is being masked by airlines going out of business – a problem that has existed for more than 20 years, but is growing progressively worse.

The Confinement Of Mankind

We first went to the moon in 1969; 5 more missions to the lunar surface followed, and then we stopped. Instead, NASA focused on the space shuttle because it promised to be a more efficient way of getting a payload into orbit, a promise that was never completely fulfilled, due to the expense and complications of the tiles. And now even that has been cast aside in favor of traditional launch vehicles. Surveys have shown that the general American public consistently overestimate the percentage of the US Federal Budget directed to NASA; the average according to the most recent such survey is 25%, a vast difference from the 0.5% that it actually is. This has made it an easy target for budget cuts, which is how they ended up with such a small budget in the first place. Similar surveys have shown that the public estimates NASA’s budget as being up to 75% of the total budget during the period of the moon landings, with 50%-60% the most common estimate, and not the 10% that it was at its’ peak.

It’s symptomatic of a common pattern: putting the short-term ahead of the long-term because the longer into the future you look, the greater the risks that any sort of investment will not pay off.

The Environment

And finally, the environment. Climate change is still a deeply-divisive subject, but my opinion on the subject is one that seems sensible to both myself and a lot of other people: While it may or may not be happening as a result of human agencies, the potential consequences make the subject too important to ignore. Action needs to be taken – but there is little profit in it, and so – for many organizations and industrial concerns – it remains a policy afterthought to pacify a very vocal minority. In effect, we have to assume that once again, the infrastructure is breaking down faster than it can be rebuilt, because excessive conservatism would be totally disastrous if the worst really is happening.

The Aggregate

Put it all together and it paints a pretty grim picture, doesn’t it? Small wonder that our visions of the future are far more dystopian in modern times than they were fifty-odd years ago. Even the banner-waver for an optimistic future, Star Trek, needed a dystopian reboot to remain popular enough to justify its ongoing adventures.

Chicken Little

There was a time when population pressure was seen as the driving force behind total collapse. Then the bogeyman became a shortage of fossil fuels. The first has been solved; the global population is stabilizing, and new methods and agricultural products are slowly solving the problem of feeding the masses. The second remains a problem that will have to be confronted, but doomsday deadline after doomsday deadline have come and gone, and advance after advance slowly pushes future ones farther away.

And yet, things don’t seem to be getting better, as that long list of problems makes clear.

Genesis

I was mulling all of the above over, as I occasionally do, and musing on the need for a new social, political, and economic vision to get things moving in the right direction once again, when I had an idea.

I’m not an economist, so I have no doubt that my idea is as full of holes as a kitchen sieve, but it would seem to hold enough water to at least make a plausible premise for an optimistic future world.

Planned inefficiency.

Sounds crazy, right? But follow my logic, if you dare…

Planned Inefficiency Phase I

We start by making it profitable for organizations to employ more people than they need to have in order to be efficient. This can be achieved by raising the business tax rate, while allowing businesses a tax concession for each employee in excess of a mandated number based on the income of the business. Having more staff thereby becomes tax-deductible, dropping the effective tax rate back to something in the vicinity of what it is now, or even a little less. The balance point would be set so that the cost of the employees would be slightly less than the increased cost of the tax.

More staff means more paychecks which means more tax revenue from income taxes. These can be reduced somewhat even though they are at historic lows in many countries, and still leave more money for essential needs like infrastructure maintenance.

No business will take on extra staff and then have them sit around doing nothing. The challenge for business will cease to be efficiency and will become true productivity – defined as giving those extra staff something to do that benefits their employer. Things like improved customer service, for example, or a shift in engineering objectives to make simple servicing of broken/defective equipment possible with relatively little training.

Can you feel the paradigm shifting?

Planned Inefficiency Phase II

Next, we need to encourage industry to invest in areas that are not profitable, like the construction of new infrastructure and refurbishment of the old, by making them profitable.

We again lift the basic business tax rate, and put in place a new tax deduction: infrastructure constructed to an adequate standard and donated (not sold) to the public, with the Government to have oversight over the buildings etc. Smaller businesses don’t have to try to match the big boys; new investment funds can be set up designed to permit many smaller operators collaborate in funding projects beyond the scope of any singly can both spread the burdens and the risks.

Of course, these new projects will require more employees to build them, and to administer them, and to operate them, so employment goes up again, even as the effective business tax rate again falls.

That means that the government’s bills will start to decline; when something is new and properly cared for, maintenance becomes less expensive. This enables another round of tax cuts for both business and individuals, as well as a boost in support services.

Conclusion

It’s not realistic for all businesses to be measured against the same standards of expected profitability per employee; determining the correct indexing and classifications would be the most complicated part of implementing this new economic approach.

That’s about as far as my thinking has taken me. Would it work? I can’t see why not, but I’m not an expert. But it’s at least plausible enough for an RPG, and it solves almost all of that long line of problems. Go over them all again, if you don’t believe me. And from our Dystopian trends, a more Utopian future can emerge.

It’s certainly food for thought, wouldn’t you agree?

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt I: Beginnings


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Frame: Freeimages.com/Billy Alexander; Image: Freeimages.com/Armin Mechanist; Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

Introduction

A little while back, I was asked by someone what advice I would have for someone’s first attempt at being a Gamesmaster.

Now, that subject takes in an awful lot of ground, but when I sat down and thought about it, I found that I had suggestions to offer – some simple, obvious things that are fundamental to the art of refereeing any roleplaying game, and a few more advanced tricks of the trade that a beginner (or an experienced GM) could quickly pick up and add to their repertoire. I also think that even an experienced GM can lose sight of the basics from time to time, getting so caught up in the artistic rendering of the leaves that we lose sight of the forest.

This is not an exhaustive breakdown of the subject, by any means. Nor can the advice offered be considered comprehensive in any way, shape, or form. It’s a somewhat eclectic starting point, nothing more. Nothing beats experience, learning from your own mistakes, and evolving your own techniques; this is just a starting point. I’ve divided this broad, broad subject into 15 (you heard me!) different subcategories, and given each it’s own Part in this series, in no particular order:

  • Part I: Beginnings
  • Part II: Creations
  • Part III: Preparations
  • Part IV: Players
  • Part V: Characters
  • Part VI: Challenges
  • Part VII: Adventures
  • Part VIII: Depths
  • Part IX: Rewards
  • Part X: Rhythms
  • Part XI: Campaigns
  • Part XII: Relations
  • Part XIII: Surprises
  • Part XIV: Mistakes
  • Part XV: Laughs

I’m not going to be working on these for week after week; I might do a run of two or three, and then take a break for several weeks or even months before resuming the series. I don’t want to overload newcomers to the GM’s screen! So, let’s get started:

Part I: Beginnings

The subject of this first part of the series, now that the preamble is out of the way, is to discuss the skills and expertise that you should have before you first sit in the GMs chair. If you have to GM without one or more of these, don’t panic; I’ll be here to hold your hand as you go forward, despite this handicap.

Because that’s all it is – an extra handicap, not a guarantee of automatic failure.

In the beginning, there should be a player

GMs have to be able to be able to bring multiple different characters to life in a distinctive, memorable, consistent, and identifiable way. If you can’t do that with a single character, as a player, you have no hope of doing it as a GM.

As a rule of thumb: if you can’t convey a conversation between three “people” with an outside observer being able to not only distinguish between each of the speakers but also to gain information about the personality and mood of the speakers, you aren’t yet ready to GM.

Actually, that’s probably not true. When you can do that, you’ll be a GREAT GM. But at the very least, you have to be able to describe the conversation and relay its essential content.

If you want to sharpen your skills in this respect, pick two or three characters from a novel, TV show, or movie that you know really well, and improvise a conversation between them about something. After you’ve become used to doing that, make a note (in writing) of 1 piece of information that you want each of them to convey to the others in a second conversation that you again improvise. After trying that a few times (different characters and pieces of information each time), prepare a sound-byte or snippet of canned dialogue and practice steering the conversation between them in such a way that each gets to segue into those sound-bytes in a natural dialogue; in other words, practice improvising the conversation around those fixed elements in the conversation. Doing this for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, 2 or 3 times a day for a week or two, and you’ll be ready to learn on-the-job.

Know The System

If you don’t know the rules at least as well as the players do, you are asking for trouble, and sooner or later you’ll get it. There are flaws and errors and issues within every game system, and eventually someone will attempt to exploit one or more.

With sufficient goodwill between players and GM, you might get away with limited knowledge for quite a while – perhaps even long enough to learn what you need to know. On the other hand, as the GM you already have more than enough to do – adding the burden of learning the game system is an aggravation you don’t need, as a beginner. At the very least, read the rules – cover to cover.

An experienced GM can draw on that experience to cover a lack of rules knowledge. A beginner can’t. The only exception to that rule of thumb is where the new GM has significant experience as a player with the same game system; if he has been paying attention to how his GM has handled similar problems, he at least has a head start.

If you don’t know the game system this well, don’t panic: all you need to do is practice finding information quickly within the source rules and skimming it. Master this and you can fake it well enough to GM and learn on-the-job.

Here’s an exercise to help you practice: Pick a spell or power, a magic item or gadget, a weapon, a creature or NPC, and a rules section that you know are in the core books because you’ve looked them up. Write these (but not the page numbers or volume names) that they came from on a piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in an unsealed envelope. Do this once a day for ten days while working on other things for the campaign or other GMing skills. Then take a 4-day break from it. At the end of this two weeks, each day thereafter for the next couple of weeks, randomly draw an envelope and time how long it takes you to find these different pieces of information, using only the information on your note. Ideally, it should take you less than a minute in total, but anything under 90 seconds is good enough to GM with.

An alternative, if you have a couple of hours a day to set aside: Generate a character and run a solo campaign for yourself for a week or two. It’s that simple to learn a new game system. And save any villains or NPCs that you create for use in the “real” campaign when the time comes.

Space, Time, and Matter

Be sure that you have everything you need to be a GM. That’s a copy of the rules, a creative streak, the ability to think about a lot of different things at the same time, a space to work in and a space to play in, pens, paper, reference materials, and time. LOTS of time. A player can get away with simply turning up without having done any work between sessions. Occasionally, the GM can, too – but if you can’t devote a lot of time to your campaign, it is doomed to eventual failure.

As a rule of thumb: For every major character (including every PC) in the campaign, you will need between an hour and a day for preparation for a day’s gaming.

  • In a solo campaign, where there is only one player, you can probably get by without drawing up detailed maps, without extensive background and briefing material, and without writing a 5,000 word scenario every session.
  • With two players, there is more than twice as much to keep track of, and you’ll need at least thumbnail sketches and plot summaries to keep things straight.
  • With three or more players, there is more than 6 times as much to keep track of and keep up to date.
  • With more than that, you need every tool and resource and reminder and road map that you can devise. And the level of detail required in everything goes up.

If you don’t have that sort of time to commit, don’t panic!! Here are a couple of articles to help you:

Frequency

Decide how often you want to run the campaign. Once a week is great – but puts added pressure on you to come up with the requirements for next week’s game, each and every week. It’s also a lot harder to maintain consistent attendance; real life has a way of getting in the way from time to time, and everyone enjoys a break every now and then. Less than once a month, and you start running into problems of forgetfulness of past events, decisions, and so on. Players are more likely to find something else to do.

Arguably, once a fortnight is ideal; once a week is next best, one a month is doable. Above all, try and be regular about it!

Really, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration here. How long will it take you to do all the required prep work between sessions? Will expectations rise if you play less often? How often are your players available and willing to play? Are you more comfortable with longer play sessions further apart, or shorter but more frequent sessions?

It doesn’t really matter what the practical limits are on your frequency of play so long as you plan accordingly to accommodate those limits. But aim to get as close to the ideal as you can manage.

Duration

That brings us to the next important consideration. How long are you going to play for?

  • From experience, I can state that less than 3 hours is a waste of time; even weekly, it will take forever for anything to finish.
  • 4 hours is a reasonable minimum, 5 is better.
  • Between 6 and 10 hours is ideal, but you will need at least 1 break of at least 45 minutes for every 4 hours of play.
  • 12 hours is starting to be a strain, but having those extra couple of hours for play up your sleeve can be a lifesaver.
  • Fourteen Hours in one stretch is the normal maximum that I would consider except under unusual circumstances; people start getting tired and fuzzy and making mistakes. And because GMing is more work than playing, you are more likely to make those mistakes – and they can be campaign wreckers.

This actually brings us back to the issue of preparation time. The longer your game sessions, the more work you have to have done in order to fill that time.

At least one referee I know estimates the amount of preparation time between sessions as the number of players times the number of hours of play in a session, between each and every session. Personally, I don’t think it’s quite that rigid; sometimes you’ll need to have done more, other times you’ll need to have done less, and personal style makes a difference.

But so does experience – as a beginner, everything will take longer, and that will be true for months or years.

As with frequency, it doesn’t matter so much how long your gaming sessions are, so long as you know how much time you have to fill with gaming and plan accordingly. Oh, and always try to prep a little bit more than you think you are going to need, if you possibly can; it can save your bacon.

Complexity

Duration has another implicit interpretation in this context as well – how long are the adventures? There’s a lot of difference between a half-hour TV show and a 2-hour movie!

I think of each 4-hour session of play as the equivalent of an hour of TV; if an adventure is to last one session, that’s the equivalent of an episode of a TV series like Star Trek, or a single sherlock Holmes mystery. If it’s to last 4 such sessions, that’s the equivalent of a shortish movie, like Terminator. Six sessions is the equivalent of a long movie or full novel.

Ten sessions, that’s a half-season of a TV series. 20 sessions is an entire season of a TV series, or a major trilogy of novels, or the original Star Wars trilogy. 40 sessions is roughly 5 years of once-a-month play, and that’s the equivalent of a major series like Babylon-5 (all 5 years) or Stargate SG-1.

The longer the “adventure” – actually a plot arc over several adventures when we’re talking about the more extreme examples – the more work there is behind the scenes.

One of the major elements of style in a series is the degree of continuity. Some TV series are “episodic” – effectively, each show has a “reset to where we started from” built in. Star Trek, most police shows – in fact, most television – is handled this way.

But there are series where every episode picks up where the last one left off, where the characters have a significant impact on the world around them. These can be deadly slow – minimizing the changes in any given episode – or they can be deadly quick.

The slower changes occur, the simpler the world, and the less work is involved in keeping things straight – but the harder you will have to work at making things interesting and exciting. The faster things change, the more you have to keep up with, and the harder you will have to work on that.

Here’s a tip: get an exercise book. Label a page for every place the characters go, and every person that they meet of significance. Note the number of days since the campaign started when the players encounter the location or character. If you do this, most of the time you DON”T HAVE TO update everything between each session – when they are about to re-encounter “X”, just look at how many days its been, and then update that item to show the effects of that length of time. Once or twice a real-time year, go through and make a few notes about the consequences on each item of changes brought about elsewhere in the campaign, so that everything is more or less in step. That takes a LOT of work out of the campaign.

That trick works well in fantasy games, not so well in any era or genre with advanced communications, where you may need to update your book far more frequently. That’s better done in some form of online document or wiki.

Realism

Yet another factor to think about is the degree of realism. You can be gritty or idealized or anything in between. But the more realistic, the harder you have to think about making sure everything makes sense. And the less realistic, the more you have to work at being creative.

A lot of early scenarios – especially in the fantasy genre – amount to “There’s a hole in the ground. We find a way in, kill all the nasties, and take all the loot. Next time, we do it all again.” These are not very realistic, and they are fairly episodic.

The more you think about the ecologies and cosmology and philosophy (and so on) of your setting, the more time and detail you have to put into your campaign.

If it’s so much more work, why do it? Because some players like that sort of thing. And because in the long run, it makes your job easier. And because it’s often a lot of fun, or very interesting, or both.

The Fantastic

Almost every campaign has something in it that falls into this category. It might be metaphysical horrors, it might be high technology, it might be wondrous sorcery or flamboyant martial arts or super powers, but almost all of them will have something that falls into this category.

Before you can GM effectively, you have to think carefully about how this stuff works – not in the rules sense, but in the “real world” sense. What effect does its existence have on the world? On the people? On the society? On everyday life? How does it work? What can’t it do? These are all questions of metaphysics and philosophy.

If you don’t think about this issue in advance, you will find that assumptions will be made – by you, by the rules, by the players – and that sometimes these can paint you into a corner, or even worse, have you talking at cross-purposes either with a player or still worse again, with yourself.

Knowledge

If you know everything about everything, you can get by without research. If your adventures are nothing more sophisticated than “there’s a hole in the ground filled with monsters and treasure”, you can also get by without research. For everyone else, there will be an ongoing need to learn many things about many, many subjects.

Think about this for a moment: to be completely original, you have to either get unbelievably lucky or know everything that’s already been done. The secret is to take something that’s not original and put a twist on it. By the time you stack up the sheer number of variables of characters and situations, you can achieve a combination of well-worn elements that is nevertheless original and unique.

The more sophisticated your story-telling techniques and creativity, the more easily you can find the assumptions that haven’t been the subjects of a twist in the past, and do something creative with them. In addition, there will be plot ideas that you will become comfortable refereeing that you would once never have dreamed of. Improvements are made in your skills and experience inch by incremental inch, but they add up over time.

Resources

The problems faced by a Beginner GM aren’t unique. Others have gone through the same trials and tribulations, and unlike many other creative disciplines, gaming is very much a community. We help each other out, and – having received such help – generally feel obligated to help when others in turn come forward with problems.

Once, there was nothing, save the monthly magazines – and the best hope you had was to send a letter and wait months for a response from a seasoned GM. By then, you would usually have found someone local to lean on, or solved the problem yourself, or given up. The internet changed all that, and made the gaming community a global thing.

In the beginning, there was Usenet, and a bulletin-board oriented communication. You had a problem, you asked, and opinions flowed in.

Then came dedicated web pages, specific in topic and content. These were followed by websites that dealt with a range of often-related subject matter. Quite often, you would be able to email the authors of these pages or sites and make contact with a kindred spirit who would help you out when trouble struck, and simply enjoy the virtual company of others who shared your hobby.

There was a time when game discussion boards were everywhere, and you could find a thread devoted to any subject you could think of. One by one, most died, though a few survive – especially those operated by the gaming companies themselves.

After the Bulletin Boards came the Gaming Blogs like Campaign Mastery, and while a few have lasted, many of these have also died in the last year or two. Some people (who really should know better) think that this means that they are also a vanishing breed, but the reality is that there are still new ones being launched all the time. How long these will last is unknown; it takes talent, luck, support, persistence, and a slightly masochistic streak to keep going week after week after week.

There are milestones to watch for. Six months – when those who find it all too much work drop out. A year – long enough for life to change. Two years – when exhaustion begins; get through that and you’ll get a second wind. Five years – that’s the big one. The truism used to be that only the top 1% of the top 1% of websites would survive beyond that; I’m not sure that is completely accurate any more, but if the percentage of survivors that remain active for more than five years is anywhere close to 5% or mote, I will be utterly astonished.

In television, even long-running series have trouble lasting more than 7 seasons, and most movie franchises seem to run out of steam after just two or three entries – which usually take five-to-seven years to achieve..

But all of these are resources, little helpers that can get you out of a pinch. Even those that have vanished may still be found, archived away somewhere. Collect them, treasure them, use meaningful bookmarks that tell you why you saved it.

The first time you discover a helpful resource only to find that it is gone when you return (because you remember they had the very thing that you need right now, at least according to your bookmark), it’s irritating. The second time, it’s distressing. The third time, you realize that if a site has something that’s of value now, or might ever be of value in the future, you had better archive a copy of it, so that it will always be an ace up your sleeve. That’s why every article at Campaign Mastery has a little “print friendly” button at the bottom of the page, which enables you to print a copy of the article, or save it as a PDF. But, if the site doesn’t have that facility, try saving the web page, not just bookmarking it. Collect resources and reference materials like a magpie!

Articles on sites like Campaign Mastery fall into three categories: those that don’t tell you anything you don’t already know; those that are of immediate benefit or value, even if they do nothing more than make you think; and those that are either of no immediate benefit, or that are aimed at GMs with a lot more experience, that you have trouble making any sense of. There have been a number of occasions when I’ve been contacted by a new GM because they don’t understand an article, or because part of it is aimed at GMs with far more experience than they do. My advice is always the same – if you don’t understand something now, save it and look again in a year or so. The number of times something that is totally opaque becomes crystal clear with greater experience will astonish you – and if the words haven’t changed, then the difference must be in the reader.

But you already knew that, because you’re reading this article, right?

A License To Fail

I have one final recommendation to make before closing out this article. Make room for failure, and give yourself permission to try things and fail.

Too many Beginner GMs start by trying to create the game of their dreams with their first time at bat, and end up wasting the strokes of brilliance that they have accumulated through all the years when they weren’t behind the screen.

Instead, make your first campaign something that isn’t intended to last. Limit it in scope. Don’t use your best ideas right away. Learn to crawl before you line up to run the marathon.

Start with one adventure in isolation. Then a second. Then a sequel to one of these two. Experiment a little with genre and game systems and game mechanics. Balance the grim and gritty with the silly and frivolous, and work out for yourself where your strengths lie and where you aren’t as good as you need to be. Only then are you ready to begin work on the campaign that you’ve been dreaming of.

Beginners need all the help they can get, and I’d rather like this series to become a hub for a new GM to find as much advice as he can get, so at the end of each part I’m going to be posting an open call to every other GM out there: If you run a Gaming website and have an article targeting beginners, add a link via the comments. If you don’t run a site but know of such an article, link to it anyway!

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Imperfect Imbalance – Personal Injury Law in RPGs


attribution

Image courtesy FreeImages.com/andrej troha

To really get to grips with your RPG world, you have to understand how the invented environment affects the everyday life of the inhabitants.

That’s more easily said than done.

One technique is to answer a long series of questions, progressing from the simple to the profound, as shown in my first series here at Campaign Mastery, Distilled Cultural Essence, but that series focused specifically on creating societies and cultures, and not on the bigger picture.

I’ve offered other techniques over the years, such as the one in The poetry of meaning: 16 words to synopsize a national identity, but that’s more focused on generating a broad general picture. I talked quite a lot about turning your ideas into concrete campaign elements in the course of the epic 11-part New Beginnings series, and how to create some of those ideas in the first place, but none of that really helps in assessing the impact of those ideas at the small scale of ordinary events. So there’s a gaping, somewhat swiss-cheesy hole in my treatment of the subject here at Campaign Mastery. This article aims to offer one way to plug those holes.

Introduction

If you look at any painting or photograph really close up, you’ll find that it’s not an overall image at all – it’s composed of a few small details:
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Part of the Campaign Mastery logo blown up about 1600 times. What looked like a straight, sharp line at an angle, isn’t it’s jagged and fuzzy, and what looked like texture elements are simply contrasts in color that fool the eye.

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The original Campaign Mastery icon/logo for comparison purposes. The enlarged section is located on the upper left side, where the “C” is at its closest to the hex-side.

 
I talked about this a little in the discussion on Pointillism in Let’s Twist Again, part 2 of my collection of 11 types of plot twist for RPGs (specifically, in twist type 8). In this context, it means that if you really understand enough of the small details, the big picture will emerge of its own accord, shaped and filtered by campaign themes and other such overall campaign elements, because those are how you filter and process those small details. So, how to determine those small details?

Another technique for discovering the impact of the campaign world on everyday life is to live an ordinary day or week of your life and simply pay attention to everything you’re doing, then try to picture how that activity would be transformed by the game environment. Sometimes you need to translate it into some analog activity first, because the cultural, social, and technological milieu doesn’t match that of your contemporary existence.

It sounds simple enough, but it can be difficult in practice; the mental equivalent of blank page syndrome can result from being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of activities that need to be covered, and not really knowing where to start. An alternative approach that helps get you started when this is a problem is to examine one specific but sufficiently-broad aspect of life in detail, breaking it down and thinking about the impact of the campaign reality on as many aspects of the process as you can think of.

One of the best such microcosm representations can be found in, of all places, Personal Injury Law and Compensation.

Personal Injury Law 101 For Amateurs

Personal Injury law exists to provide compensation to injured parties for the harm done by another. If someone is injured in a car accident, that person is entitled to compensation from the person who caused the accident. Because these claims can be very expensive, most vehicle registrations include a requirement for compulsory insurance to cover them. Similarly, home insurance not only protects the policyholder against loss or damage to the home, but also covers compensation claims for visitors injured on the property.

It’s always fair to say that the law lags behind social reality and technology. The admissibility of evidence, the nature and expense of treatment, and the types of injury that can be sustained are always subject to revision as technology changes, and there is always a delay or lag before the law grows to accommodate new technology.

Often, the first attempts at framing such laws are achieved by using the laws applying to another technology, one that is already understood by the legal system, as a foundation; it takes even longer for the legal infrastructure to adjust and modify the laws that seek to regulate and deal with new technology in such a way that its unique properties and characteristics are given due consideration.

A lot of the legal problems arising from recent mergers and activities regarding internet regulation stem from considering the internet to be analogous to telephone communications (and other such services) as opposed to a unique service in its own right. The legal restrictions over what can be said online about someone are rooted in the laws pertaining to print communications and take minimal account of the speed with which modern communications occur – if you invent a rumor about a celebrity and take it down an hour later, after it has been spread far and wide by social media, and publish a retraction in its place, the laws (as they stand) have a hard time dealing with the question of whether or not the celebrity has been damaged, and to what extent.

I got to thinking about this, and how it might impact on RPGs of various types.

A mechanism for redress

The first requirement is that there needs to be a mechanism for redressing injuries in the society. In most Fantasy games, there is virtually no legal protection and no means to obtain compensation other than force, often in the form of a duel. Some fantasy societies incorporate the concept of Champions who can fight on behalf of an injured or challenged party – Sparhawk is “the Queen’s Champion” in the double trilogy by Eddings, for example. Paladins are often described as “righters of wrongs”, so this puts an entirely different spin on that social class.

Or take the legend of Robin Hood – we have a corrupt administration, against which the outlaw fights. The rich, who are considered responsible for the administration that has failed the ordinary citizen, or at the very least have the property of guilt through association, are plundered by Robin Hood and the wealth stolen from them is redistributed to the commons.

In any society, there needs to be some mechanism for the redress of alleged wrongs, and it will usually evolve very quickly into something quite sophisticated and complex. But it’s normal for not everyone to be protected, or to be protected to the same extent. Such egalitarian ideals are a relatively modern invention.

In medieval times, the lower classes had relatively little protection. The Lord to whom they looked offered what safeguards there were towards those from outside his domain, and there was usually a “lower court”, “moot court” or representational system of justice that set compensations to those injured by others of similar social standing, but that was the extent of it. How you were treated by your Lord was entirely up to him – though poor standards of treatment might diminish his character in the eyes of nobles higher placed within the peerage.

Regardless of the time period or the process, the beginning step of any process of redress is the issuance of a complaint by the “plaintiff” against the “respondent” alleging that the plaintiff has been harmed and that the respondent needs to compensate the plaintiff for that harm.

Challenge or Complaint

The form of such a complaint is frequently archaic and hearkens to an earlier period. It is always highly formal. Depending on the time and place, there may be some sort of preliminary hearing or evidentiary standard that must be met, so as to discourage frivolous litigation. There are parallels between practices of different eras that recur time and again.

Before a formal challenge may be issued in a medieval setting, for example, you might need to convince someone else that you have a legitimate grievance before you can even reach the noble against whom you have a complaint in order to issue your challenge, or perhaps it is customary for challenges to be issued through third parties who themselves are put at risk if the challenge is unwarranted. A third alternative is simply the need to convince someone to hear the case; in some fictional societies, civil justice functions by both sides paying the judge for his time and attention. This is a feature of the society in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein – I don’t know where he got the idea from, or if it was completely original to him. The Wikipedia article to which I have linked suggests a similarity to the Viking Althing, but the resemblance is subtle and vague, at least in my eyes.

The point is that there is a filter of some sort that screens trivial and absurd complaints from the process, a hoop that must be jumped through, and that this is wrapped in formality and tradition.

The reasons for that formality are two-fold; the first is to serve as a reminder of the seriousness of the situation, and the second is to begin placing the complaint at arms’ length from those directly involved; once the complaint or challenge is lodged, it becomes part of the society, and the judgment becomes a precedent for subsequent decisions. In any challenge of this sort, there will be a winner and there will be a loser, and this starts the process of preparing both sides for the possibility that it could be them.

It is usually necessary to notify the person alleged to be responsible for the alleged harm directly by “serving notice” to them; you can’t normally simply hand the paperwork to a third party, no matter how closely related to the individual in question they might be. There is an inherent presumption that the individual has the right to a fair opportunity to prepare their defense, and – in truth – they usually have less time than the complainant, who will normally have a fair amount of preparation complete before they even make the allegation.
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“Personal Service” can be a whole new challenge when shape-shifting and other metahuman capabilities are taken into account, or when someone can simply pop into a neighboring plane. In fantasy games, there would need to be a variety of manhunter to pursue miscreants wherever they might flee – or a change in the society that finds some other way of dealing with public liability. The first offers employment opportunities for PCs, or can have one or more PCs being hunted; the other changes the society in a different way. It’s more difficult, and requires a bit more imagination and careful thought; the first option is, quite frankly, the easy option. For most of this article, I’ll assume that the first choice is in effect.

Which means the only opportunity to look at the second choice is right now. The simplest answer is to keep the known arrangements, but to permit penalties to be awarded in absentia – which effectively replaces the “manhunters” with “debt collectors”. There might be a social mechanism similar to that of a bail bondsman who pays the victims and then chases down the parties found liable to recoup their losses, for a percentage of the payout plus a fee paid by the state, or it (more likely) would be for the percentage, from which a licensing fee has to be paid to the state. There might also need to be a legal principle that states that descendants are responsible for this type of debt if it can be shown that the guilty party has died in the meantime – but, in a world with undead and resurrection, that opens a whole new can of worms.

Another approach might be for an increase in taxation, along the lines of a mandatory insurance, in which the state collects an annual fee plus a percentage of each person’s income, holding it in trust to cover the needs of any public liability event. This is the mandatory motor vehicle insurance concept extended to cover the entire populace; failure, or inability, to pay places the noble responsible for the trust, and the wider community, at risk, and so would be treated as a criminal act. Those who fail to pay might be required to discharge that debt through public service or service to the noble. This is a relatively small and subtle change, but domino effects mean that it would ripple through the entire community.

The poor in the middle ages struggled to pay their taxes even without this added burden. It would almost certainly become accepted practice that people had to work a set number of hours on behalf of the community or the lord of the domain through which a traveler passed, but that they could buy off this obligation. This is an unusual form of national service, but it would solve the problem.

Certain occupations would represent a greater risk to the community than others – and “adventuring” would be right up there, in that respect. They would need to pay more, either in service or in cash – in advance. Of course, if they do something that benefits the community, like freeing them from demonic domination or killing the dragon that is preying on the cattle, that would be credited to their accounts in that local community; PCs would be able to pay their obligation in one district by issuing a “cheque” or “bond” indicating that the bearer need only present the claim to the last community they had helped; no cash need change hands. This would generate fame and recognition of their past deeds.

It’s worth pointing out that what’s actually happening here is that the “adventuring” role adopted by most PCs is being integrated into the social and legal fabric of the world, purely as a byproduct of the task in hand…

Superheroic campaigns are a whole different kettle of fish. I thought Marvel Comic’s invention of Damage Control, about an organization that exists purely to clean-up and repair damage from superhero battles, to be a stroke of sheer brilliance, but one that didn’t go far enough. Unless the superheros are somehow affiliated and sanctioned by the government, and subject to the same laws and regulations as their normal police forces or equivalent national organizations, they would be liable for any property damage and injuries that took place as a consequence of their activities – every supervillain fight is a potential financial disaster. If they do receive government sanction, that means that the government is also accepting that liability on behalf of the superheros – the restrictions I mentioned would be aimed at limiting that liability. Once again, the society needs to adapt to the presence of these characters in their midst.

In the current Zenith-3 campaign, I found a variant on the solution. Since this is a world in which the British Empire reigns supreme over virtually half the planet – and the other half is under the control of a mysterious Empire from China named the Mao – and the British have a legendary reputation for tolerating, if not encouraging, eccentricity, I decided to enshrine that into “law”. Registered Eccentrics are subject to less restriction than other citizens in return for the obligation to “entertain the public” with their exploits, and to provide other social services as necessary. The government sanctions their activities and hence their liabilities, and exempts them from some of the legal restrictions and obligations to which others are subject; in return, they gain licensing rights and the capacity to make money from products bearing the likeness of the individual, which raises the funds to cover their liabilities. The PCs are thus required to sign posters and Christmas cards, their headquarters gives daily public tours, they have to make a certain number of public, television, and internet appearances, they have to have a nominated charity for which they do regular work, and so on. All this provides massive opportunities for getting plotlines and PCs to intersect in time and space, and provides an endless opportunity for subplots, which was part of the idea’s appeal. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the “registered eccentrics” law was intended to cover certain celebrities and scientists who were considered Imperial Treasures worth elevating just a little bit above the law in return for funding and encouraging them to continue their services to the community; it was not intended to cover superheros. But stretching an existing law to cover a new situation is a long-standing practice, and it works brilliantly well!)

Once again, this is an example of integrating the activities expected of the PCs into the social and legal fabric of the world – exactly what you would expect to happen.

Investigation

In modern cases, the complaint must be proven with evidence, facts that can be proven to a satisfactory standard. If such evidence is not available, the complaint goes nowhere.

In older times, there was less or no reliance on evidence at all; instead, there was greater reliance on the character of the individuals involved. It was the rise to primacy of science that created the assumption that something could be definitively proven as fact. Prior to that time, there weren’t “facts”, there were “truths”, and truth was ordained by religious authority and tested by scholarly debate. The very meaning of the term “of good character” was subtly different, though many of the constituents remain unchanged – a reputation for honesty and fairness, for example.

In either case, the complaint is followed by some form of investigation. This is either the gathering of evidence or the solicitation of testimony, or both. Some of this evidence/testimony is designed to prove your case, and some is designed to undermine rebuttals by the other side.

In modern major civil lawsuits, the time available for the gathering of such evidence can be months or years; without the same evidentiary standards and obligations, the delay would be days at most. Quite often an entire community would gather for the hearing of complaints and judgments, and so it was a simple matter to ask who would vouch for the character or verify an account of events; “trials” were more like a community meeting, of the sort routinely seen on The Simpsons.

Of course, if justice is determined by a duel, no real investigation is required; but the parry and thrust of sword-fighting or even the acceptance of a duel and its conduct are often referred to as an examination of the character of the participants, so even in this “court of justice” there is some parallel to this phase of proceedings.
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In modern or recent-period settings, this can be the most interesting part of the story, as the longevity of the CSI franchise makes clear – not to mention almost every other police procedural of the last 50 or 60 years that isn’t essentially a courtroom drama. Investigation is basically a detective story, and that can either be the plot in itself or simply a means of getting PCs and plot together.

Futuristic campaigns often struggle to make serviceable plots from this sort of activity, due to the expectation that Forensic Science will continue to evolve. For the Zenith-3 campaign, I decided that Forensic Science had become so sensitive that the meaningful results were buried in the torrent of “noise”, forcing people to adopt more “old-school” techniques most of the time. Testing a crime scene for DNA would produce a list of samples that covered anyone who had been in that location (or even passed it by if the window was open) in the last ten years; eliminating all of them as suspects would take so much legwork that it was impractical, even assuming that you could identify them all. This lets me have my forensic “cake” and eat it too – I can have Forensics provide as much or as little assistance as the plot needs.

Superheroic campaigns, which permit all sorts of action at a distance, pose special challenges to investigators. If the murder weapon was wielded Telekinetically, the killer didn’t even have to be in the same room as the crime. Other paranormal abilities would be needed to solve the crime.

Some abilities can take all the life out of this type of activity, however, and that’s something that needs to be carefully monitored. If you can see the past, or bring it back to life somehow, contemporary mysteries become too easily solved to be viable as plots. Coming to the rescue is the convenient requirement that evidence be “legally admissible”, and the legal doctrine “fruit of the poisonous tree” even prevents cheating by discovering who the guilty party was through such means and then using that knowledge to find proof that would otherwise be admissible. In other words, there is no substitute for working through the plot from beginning to end!

Evidentiary Hearings

Sometimes, it’s necessary for preliminary attendances at court for evidentiary hearings. These are where a judge determines whether certain evidence can be admitted or not, and is especially important where there is the possibility or even likelihood that a witness will not survive long enough to appear at the actual hearing, or for some other reason, may not be available. This stage of personal injury proceedings is new in comparison with the others being discussed.

Mitigating Factors & Contributory Actions

Criminal law is relatively straightforward; someone is either guilty, or they are not. Civil court cases and, in particular, personal injury cases, are far more complicated. There are three “fuzzy factors” that have little or no role in criminal cases, save perhaps in the sentencing phase; these are Mitigating Factors, Contributory Actions, and Shared Liability.

Mitigating Factors

A Mitigating Factor is a circumstance that reduces the level of harm done through outside factors. Negligence is, as a rule, not as bad as deliberate malice; an innocent mistake is not as damaging as willful intent or the circumventing of safeguards for personal gain. Creating a risk is never as bad as having someone actually suffer harm as a result of that risk.

Any form of diminished capacity that is not self-inflicted, say by the consumption of alcohol, is usually a mitigating factor. Some respondents are leery of making any presentation regarding mitigating factors because they feel an implicit acknowledgement of guilt that can weaken their primary position of not being responsible for the harm that was caused. This inevitably leads to dense legalese of the sort that non-lawyers hate: “My client contends that he is not responsible for any harm that has befallen the plaintiff for reasons (a) through (h) in our submission to the court, and that any one of these represents sufficient cause to dismiss the complaint, and further contents that even if responsibility is somehow imputed despite these completely reasonable grounds for the dismissal of the case against him that his responsibility is minimal due to the mitigating factors listed in points (i) through (m) of our response to the submission by the plaintiff, and that in aggregate these reduce his level of responsibility to beyond any reasonable measure or standard of culpability”. Because it is necessary to present these without an admission of guilt, the entire line of argument feels “oily”, the sort of thing that a “slick lawyer” might say. It’s not direct and to the point.

In some modern societies, defendants are given the opportunity to present arguments in mitigation after a verdict of responsibility has been handed down, and the primary part of the case simply establishes that the allegations of responsibility have only proven that the defendant shares some of the blame; this is usually described as the “penalty phase” of a court case. In others, you only get one shot at influencing those rendering the verdict.

Supposedly, the judge is the jury’s guide through this thicket, specifying exactly how they are to take any mitigating factors into account through his instructions – but sometimes these can be even more complicated than the arguments pro and con as a result. Things were (and are) much simpler when such cases don’t go before a jury, because the judge or arbiter then makes these decisions for themselves; but civil cases are still decided by a jury on many occasions to ensure that “community standards” are reflected in the verdict.

Mitigating factors reflect the social beliefs of the time; in the days when slavery was accepted in North America and in other places, the owner was responsible for any harm inflicted by a slave. This was because the slave was considered property and not a person; an injury caused by a slave was the same thing as an injury produced by a horse-and-cart; you can’t sue the horse, you sue the horse’s owner.

One source of disbelief amongst the lay public in modern times is the legal principle that equates a corporation with a person. This notion of responsibility is the source of that principle, because it inherently states that a corporation can be harmed in the same way that a person can be, and that it can inflict harm and bear responsibility in the same way that an individual can. Ultimately, it’s a piece of legal trickery that ensures that corporations and individuals are (theoretically) held to the same legal standards, and furthermore, it prevents complications by having two separate bodies of law to deal with such responsibility. On the face of it, it may seem absurd, but there’s a good reason behind it.

There is a good argument to be made that what a society deems a mitigating factor, and the extent to which it is deemed to mitigate responsibility for certain actions, is a good window into the values of that society.

If there are any mitigating factors, any award, compensation, or “relief” granted to the injured party must take this into account, either as a fixed sum deducted from the payout or as a percentage reduction of the compensation.
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Mitigating factors become a major can of worms in any campaign with any form of mind-control. Unless there is some reliable form of independent testing to prove that an individual was or was not mentally controlled or even influenced, the whole concept of liability except by virtue of negligence goes out the window. Is a telepathic examination legal? Are a telepath’s findings admissible testimony? I somehow doubt it. The courts would probably view any allegation of mental control as an “affirmative defense“, something that the defense must prove if they make the claim; but that virtually guarantees that there will be miscarriages of justice in which someone is mind controlled and doesn’t claim that defense. The only solution that I can see is for state-sanctioned and qualified telepathic “experts” to be legally required to examine any such claims – at who knows what cost to the telepath?

There are lots more legal minefields to traipse through in the name of plot within this umbrella. The makers of a product are liable if reasonable use of the product results in injury or loss; it is up to the courts to define “reasonable use” if the makers disputes a claim rather than settling the matter out of court, or if the settlement offer is deemed unacceptable. So if a being made of liquid attempts to use an electrical appliance, is that “reasonable use” or is product liability reduced to a “caveat emptor” situation? Can the problem be covered by an additional warning label? And how many such warning labels can a product have, anyway? “On page 327 of the product manual, the manual clearly states that elementals and other liquid beings use the product at their own risk”.

If a blender, or a microwave oven, or a mobile phone, or whatever, emits telepathic “noise” that drives a psionic character around the bend, how reasonable is it to hold the maker liable?

In the fantasy arena, how liable is a wizard for a barn that was burnt down while he was driving out a demon? Is employing a fire elemental the same thing as maintaining a public nuisance or a dangerous dog?

Contributory Actions

The other legal principle that is largely unique to civil cases is the idea that the victim can share some measure of responsibility for the harm that was done to him, and that this can diminish the responsibility of others. This is a principle that is rarely held to be inequitable or unfair; if you get hurt because you were doing something silly with a piece of equipment, the culpability of the manufacturer or owner of that equipment is obviously affected, even if they were also participating in the activity.

While the principle is generally accepted as reasonable, its application in any given case is frequently far more contentious. For this reason, police and other public services frequently have an entirely separate system of internal hearings to those of the wider community, and while this can cause friction between differing standards, it is normally a necessity. For example, consider the case of a policeman who is injured rescuing a drunk from a dangerous situation, who is also injured in the process; the policeman can’t normally sue the drunk, and the drunk normally can’t sue the police officer, and it’s not reasonable for things to be any different. A bystander who is also injured in the course of the rescue, on the other hand, has a reasonable case against the drunk and a less reasonable case against the police department, but because the service can afford to pay and a drunk usually can’t, it is not at all uncommon for the department to be sued and not the drunk.

One area where this principle has become important in recent times, for example, is the culpability of police for injuries to third parties resulting from high-speed pursuits. The finding in some jurisdictions that the police were at least partially responsible for such injuries has a disproportionate impact on the ability of the police to perform their mandated social function; at the same time, completely exempting them from such responsibility is a license for them to behave irresponsibly. So there is no simple answer to the question, and the balance between these conflicting points of view swings back and forth over time.

Other social factors can have a strong influence over these questions. It can be argued that a robust and affordable public health system coupled with an appropriate form of insurance can mitigate against the need to allocate responsibility in court in such cases, for example; so if health-care is universally acceptable and the care and wellbeing of an injured party already provided for, there will be fewer cases of litigation against the police, and the need may in fact be so low as to justify an exemption for the police forces. Similarly, a greater emphasis on the personal responsibility of the individual for their own safety shields police forces from such lawsuits.

That means that the concept of Contributory actions is just as responsive to the social mores as Mitigating Factors are, though the relationship is more indirect and changes in community values take longer to become reflected in the legal standards.
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If you’re a superhero and your secret identity’s neighbor, or your girlfriend, knows it, and they get hurt in a superhero fight, how liable are you? If Aunt May needs an operation, could Spider-man sue whoever it was that made the spider radioactive in the first place?

If Uncle Harry becomes an undead zombie, can you sue the Priest who performed the funeral ceremony?

If Superman stops someone from getting killed but injures them in the process, can he be sued? (This was the basis for a highly-entertaining episode of “Lois & Clark”).

Shared Liability

The third of the “Fuzzy Factors” is the potential for one act of harm to have many parents. Again, in criminal law, responsibility is fairly black-and-white, but in civil cases, many people can share responsibility for one outcome. A key decision in any case involving multiple parties who may be held liable in part or in whole for the outcome is whether to conduct these as separate court actions or as one big case; the first takes longer, but doesn’t bet the whole case on one bite of the legal cherry. However, there is a risk that court# one will find that the bulk of the blame should belong to party #2 (not part of that lawsuit), while court#2 finds that the bulk should belong to party #1 (not part of that lawsuit). For this reason, “separation” of the cases is usually thought to favor the respondents over the plaintiff, i.e. the people being sued, and the court will need good reason to go along with any such proposal – and the court gets to decide because the plaintiff will resist the move. (There are other disadvantages, too; for example, one respondent will get a preview of the evidence that the plaintiff has, and their arguments, and will therefore get more time to prepare counterarguments).

Shared Liability can vastly complicate the awarding of damages; the percentage to which one side is held to be liable will reduce the primary damages awarded, but there can be completely separate punitive damages awarded.

Class Actions

Class actions are very nearly a fourth fuzzy factor. They certainly don’t apply to criminal cases, where each act is considered in isolation as a separate offense, but in a civil case, the “plaintiff” may be a whole group of people affected by one action. The problem is that juries can get distracted by the size of the damages being sought by this “plaintiff” and fail to recognize the way in which those will get divided up.

For example, let’s say that 250 people are injured by faulty air bags, something that’s been a hot topic in the news lately. Awarding damages of $5,000,000 might seem like a lot, but the lawyers will often take a sizable percentage of that – up to 70% – because they have effectively just won 250 court cases at the same time. But let’s be more typical and say 40%. That’s the award down to $3,000,000. If all that went to the 250 people, that’s $12,000 each – when they might be facing medical bills in the hundreds of thousands. But the case isn’t limited to those 250; a class action sets up a fund from which anyone who falls into the group of individuals defined by the verdict can claim. If another 300 people come forward after the verdict to claim that they were also injured, that $3,000,000 can be split 550 ways instead of 250 – a total of less than $5500 each. I’m not 100% certain about it, but I think that this is also subject to taxes – so that might end up being only $3000.

So let’s up the scale. Let’s say that each victim is to receive $500,000, of which $200,000 will be consumed by medical expenses (on average) and $300,000 will represent 5 or 10 years of fully- or partially-lost ability to work. $30,000 is not a very big annual wage, these days. $500,000 times the 250 initial victims comes to 125 million dollars.

But if you go into court and ask for $125 million, you’re going to look very greedy. And even if you get it, there will almost certainly be an appeal because of the scale of the payout, so it might be more years before you see a cent. And even if that appeal is lost, there’s no certainty that the corporation will have that sort of money to pay – it may have been a decade since the original incident, and a lot can change in terms of profitability in that sort of timescale. And in all that time, the 250 (and maybe the 300 too) have been partially or completely unable to earn an income – many will have lost everything as a result. So the lawyers for the corporation will offer to settle for maybe $25 million, and everyone will be motivated to accept. That’s 5 times our original example payout – so each victim might end up getting $15,000 at the end of the day.

250 isn’t a very big number of victims. A modern jet can have more than 400 passengers. Millions of defective cars might have been sold. That 300 might be 3000, or 30,000. A huge payout can give each victim a pittance, and that’s the reality of class action lawsuits.

America has a bad reputation for being a litigious society, one in which huge damages get paid out in civil court cases. Class Action lawsuits are the cause, in my opinion; they accustom everyone to telephone numbers in damages, setting a standard that is also used in individual cases, give the impression that the winners get a huge windfall, and that encourages other lawsuits – and it all stems from the practice of awarding, and reporting, those payouts in aggregate rather than per victim. Such a tiny detail, but it can have a huge impact.

All of these “fuzzy factors” are on display in A Civil Action by Jonathon Harr, and in the movie of the same name starring John Travolta, both of which I heartily recommend.

Validation or Refutation of Claim

The claim has been made, the evidence heard, and someone now gets to decide on the case. There are three types of decision-makers in modern law: arbitrators, who negotiate an outcome; judges, who decide an outcome; and juries, who have to agree upon an outcome. Duels are simpler – the winner is either the first person to wound the other, or the survivor. Decisions outside of duels were simpler in older times, too – the winner was the highest ranking noble (unless a higher ranking one overruled him, such as might happen in cases of treason), but the general principle holds. When members were of equal rank, well, that was where duels came in for the peerage – assuming that a complaint to a higher authority would not yield satisfaction. Ordinary people didn’t fight duels; sometimes, the Lord decided; sometimes, an individual appointed by the Lord decided; and sometimes, especially in minor infractions, a jury of the neighbors sat in judgment. This was not a jury appointed to hear a specific case; the same jury handled all matters as part of a regular town “council” that all attended.

It was counted an honor and mark of the respect of your peers to be appointed to the Jury; these were the most honest, trustworthy, and even-handed members of the community, in the judgment of the members of that community. “Who decides” is therefore yet another window into the values of the society. However, it is entirely reasonable for a visitor of “noble rank” or “heroic reputation” to be appointed to a jury for the duration of their stay in a particular location.
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There is an obvious plot opportunity for a fantasy campaign here: PCs stay in an inn, a crime is allegedly committed or an accident occurs, and the PCs – because of their reputation – get added to the jury.

Compensation & Costs

Compensation comes in many forms. The modern form is financial, and is divided into two forms: restitution and punitive damages. Older forms were blood, material goods, or even the life of the guilty. Exile is rare but not unheard of; labor on behalf of the injured party was also acceptable in the past, as was removal of access to civil amenities, and fines to the community. Public apologies or retractions are also valid for some forms of harm. In theory, at least, juries, judges, and arbitrators are limited only by their imaginations as to the form that compensation may take. In cases of unfair dismissal, it’s not uncommon for the court to order that the person be given their position back, and sometimes they can also require that this be made retroactive, taking effect on the date of dismissal – so that the person unfairly dismissed from their position receives back pay.

Restitution

The goal of restitution is to undo the harm done to the maximum reasonable extent that financial recompense is able to achieve. That requires whoever decides the case to put an economic value on the harm done, and then to apply the “fuzzy factors” to determine how much of that burden an individual “person” would be responsible for.

Restitution is sometimes simple and sometimes incredibly messy and – once again – responsive to social attitudes, as well as to the medical capabilities of the society. This is especially true when intangible harm has to be valued, or when the value of a life lost has to be calculated. Despite this, and the notoriety in which some awards for “pain and suffering” are sometimes held by cynical attorneys and members of the public, there generally isn’t a lot of dispute about these awards; there are well-established if blinkered and biased guidelines to follow that are generally accepted by all sides.

Even in medieval times, there was an accepted list of offenses and standardized restitutions; while a jury might vary these awards in unusual cases, this was not common.
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The opportunities for court-ordered restitution can assume an entirely different scale when unusual abilities are available. The Wizard whose unseen servant leaves a bucket where someone can trip over it might be ordered to cast spells to assist the injured, for example. A superhero might be ordered to rebuild a bridge, or fly someone to and from medical treatment for an injury sustained in a superhero battle.

Punitive Damages

These are supposed to rap the guilty party over the figurative knuckles in order to dissuade them – and others – from similar offenses in the future. These days they are normally financial, and sometimes based on a percentage of the annual income of the responsible party, or on their net worth. Until some jurisdictions began legally capping these awards*, the sky used to be the limit when it came to punitive damages. As a result, these are often where the really disputable parts of a verdict can be found.

* at least, that’s been happening here in Australia; I can’t speak for the rest of the world.

In ages past, punitive damages could take a more direct form, and the term “punitive” meant far more literally. Everything from a certain number of lashes in a public flogging to time in the stocks could be ordered. Of course, in a duel situation, the ultimate punitive finding was death.
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In a fantasy environment, it is entirely reasonable for each party in a duel to be required to provide healing to the winner if the duel is to the death, and the rules of dueling would prohibit healing potions during the contest, in fact, magical intervention of any sort would be prohibited.

But there can be thornier issues: what happens if a duel to the death is undone by a resurrection? Or permits the loser to be raised as an undead? Can those subsequently injured by the undead sue the winner of the duel?

New Types Of Injury

This is where things get really interesting. Magic. Psi. Karma. The Soul. Transfigurations and Transformations. Most genres of campaign will incorporate one or more new types of injury, and rules within the existing framework of law and custom will have evolved to accommodate these new kinds of harm. That requires ways of proving that the harm actually occurred, something that I touched on earlier, and some means of establishing the value of the injury.

Being bitten by a Vampire is obviously a criminal assault; but can the family of a victim claim compensation in addition to the criminal penalty? If a man extends his life through “unnatural means,” can his heirs claim that he is denying them their due inheritance?

If a superhero loses the ability to fly because of a supervillain’s device, can he sue the supervillain?

Domino Theory

If capabilities exist that are not recognized by the laws that we’re used to, the laws will have to evolve. Laws are a reflection of the societies that create them – though societies evolve far faster than the law does. The inevitable result is periodic waves of radical change to the law as it suddenly catches up. Sometimes, the law can actually get ahead of, and drive, social change; this is true of the recent ruling regarding same-sex marriage by the US Supreme Court. Being gay has been acceptable within society for some time; but this legal milestone has undoubtedly triggered another such wave of progress.

I was a big fan of the original Law And Order because it wasn’t afraid to tackle big issues, such as Hate Crime Legislation, and the way laws could be manipulated to achieve purposes far removed from their makers’ original intent. Changing a law, or changing a society, has a domino effect; it ends up altering far more than originally thought.

Completely reinventing society to accommodate the conventions and capabilities of your games’ milieu is too much work for one person to do. The best you can hope for is to tip over the first few dominoes and be aware of the issue as events transpire within your campaign. Personal Injury and Compensation law is a great doorway into these changes; it makes an excellent “first domino”.

That domino, or some alternative choice, has to be knocked down; verisimilitude demands it. Your most important task is to ensure that your campaign doesn’t bog down, that you make the choices that add to the entertainment value and the plot options open to you at the same time as satisfying that need. There’s ample scope and opportunity to do so; and that’s what I hope readers will take away from this article.

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Cinematic Combat Part 3 – The Absence Of Mechanics


absence mechanics

Why should the pace of gameplay be held hostage by combat mechanics?

Anything else we can take or leave – we can assume success on any skill roll and get straight to the results. But combat? No – not unless we hand victories to the players on a platter.

In part one of this series, I reduced attack rolls – regardless of game system – to a single d20 roll; and in part two, I showed how to abstract damage mechanics – again, no matter how complex the game system – to a single d10 roll. Between them, these sacrifice granularity and precision of result for speed of play and a focus on gameplay instead of game mechanics when that is particularly beneficial.

I call this sort of thing Cinematic Combat because it’s more focused on drama, action, and pace, than it is on precisely simulating every blow and movement.

Cinematic Combat isn’t my own term; others have used it before, and it has acquired a somewhat negative reputation as a result. Not everyone defines the term to mean the same thing, and some of the applications to which it has been put have been more successful than others. In particular, some people use the term to refer to diceless play, or to combat completely devoid of game mechanics – pure narrative.

Of course, in theory, if more abstract, faster combat mechanics are good, the complete absence of mechanics to interrupt the narrative is even better; but it hardly ever seems to work out that way. See, for example, the comments of Hungry at Ravenous Roleplaying in discussing the first part of this series:

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When someone breaks out the statement, “Let’s play a cinematic game!” I always cringe. This (in my experience) usually equates to, “I want to play a character where the rules don’t apply to me!” *sigh* I know that’s not the case. However, it’s happened to me too many times that the phrase still hurts me. I guess when I try to limit someone’s actions with a reasonable obstacle or circumstance, the player response has been, “I thought this was supposed to be cinematic?” Ugh.

Sans Mechanics

I think the place to start is where I think Hungry – and others – have gone wrong. Going Sans Mechanics doesn’t mean that there are no game mechanics in place and it certainly doesn’t mean that there are no rules; it simply means that the combat situation is such that the game mechanics will hinder more than they will help for this particular battle and have been set aside for that reason. I’ll get into the how of doing that a little later.

Playing the game without combat mechanics simply means that narrative replaces a strict interpretation, and that the Game Master chooses for the players to interface with the game situation without the barrier of mechanics so that both sides can concentrate on what is taking place in-game and the players can remain more deeply in character.

When to go Sans Mechanics

When to go without game mechanics is all tied up in why. There are two reasons why a GM might choose to do so:

  1. The combat situation is so complex that it’s going to take all of everyone’s concentration just to keep track of who’s where doing what; this situation occurs a lot less frequently if miniatures and battlemats can be employed, but even then, the occasional circumstance can demand this option.
  2. The other circumstance that might prompt going Sans Mechanics is when the combat situation is such that the actual battle poses no danger to the PCs taking part, and indeed, would be either boring or would consume lots of game time for no discernible benefit.

When either of these conditions apply, you should at least consider doing without the game mechanics for the battle. But before you can make that decision, there is one final option to consider: Cinematic Combat of the type described in parts one and two. This isn’t something that should be regarded as a compromise between full mechanics and no mechanics; instead, it should be the default option when you choose Cinematic Combat. Going completely Sans Mechanics should be reserved for those rare occasions when even this default option doesn’t go far enough.

There are several reasons for this.

  • The first is that the players need to be completely convinced of the GM’s fairness, and specifically confident that he isn’t making this choice in order to force an outcome that wouldn’t be possible if full mechanics were in place. If this is not the case, the players will feel like the GM is “cheating” to ensure an outcome.
  • The second is that it can be far more difficult for the GM than he is expecting, and if his descriptive skills or detail of imagination falls short, the whole game can collapse.
  • The third is that even the limited mechanics of the Abstract System provide a rules-based foundation for gameplay; players can go over the top or try to achieve too much at once when freed from this constraint, and so can a GM who’s not used to what he’s doing.
  • Fourth, the pace of the game can be too fast for the GM to keep up with, or – occasionally – for the players.
  • The fifth – as if that lot weren’t enough – is that the situation might not be as interesting to the players as the GM expects it to be, and the GM is pinning the entire enjoyment of the game on that entertainment value.
  • Finally, there are some players who derive the bulk of their entertainment from combat, and not from roleplay; those players can feel that the GM is picking on them and deliberately excluding them from enjoying the game. If there are some mechanics, no matter how abbreviated, the player can still focus on the tactical situation and enjoy his part of the adventure.

None of those reasons is sufficient to preclude going Sans Mechanics – but they are all good reasons to think very carefully about the alternatives before doing so, if you really are justified in the choice.

Game Flow Sans Mechanics

A decision that requires serious consideration as soon as the GM decides to go Sans Mechanics is how he is going to handle Game Flow. I’ve listed the two techniques that I normally use in separate sections below, but there may be others that I have not thought of.

Standard Combat Timing

ne alternative that some might consider an option is to employ standard combat timing – which means that you employ the standard initiative or combat sequence mechanics, and let each character have their full allocation of actions. You might think that this at least acknowledges the standard mechanics in a way that would mollify players disgruntled for one of the reasons listed previously.

I can’t advise against this approach strongly enough. Not only does the logic fail to stand up in reality, but it throws away a substantial degree of the benefit of going with combat mechanics. Players who are unhappy about being completely subject to the GMs interpretation of circumstances and attempted actions will still be unhappy, and the endless drag of turn-by-turn actions completely undoes the simplification of the situation or the bypassing of tedium – whichever motivation led to the choice of foregoing mechanics in the first place, it is totally undermined. On top of that, it unevenly divides screen time amongst the players. While there may be other options than those I’ve listed below, as I suggested a moment ago, this isn’t one of them.

N Subplots, Synchronized

Practical Option number one is to consider everything that’s going on to be a series of subplots being conducted virtually simultaneously – it might be one subplot per character, or two or more characters may be involved in a single subplot. It doesn’t matter if they are all taking place in the same location as long as they are doing separate things, or even combating separate opponents.

Go Around The Table

Practical Option number two is similar, but is player-based instead of character-based. You go around the table, giving each player identical screen time as measured in character actions or interactions. The recipe might be two exchanges of dialogue between a PC and an NPC, or one skill action, or a 30′ movement, or casting one spell, or a minute of fighting.

The time frame also needs thought when implementing this choice. Too long an interval and players will lose interest because for every occasion when their characters get to act, there is four times as much dead time while the others are acting. Too short an interval, and people won’t get the chance to do enough to advance their “subplot” significantly.

I recommend a maximum of three minutes, and a minimum of 30 seconds, but I have violated both those limits when the occasion seemed to warrant. Sometimes I’ve used a trigger condition – the conversation continues until “X” point comes out, then each of the other players gets a similar amount of screen time, and then it’s on to the next tour of the table; this means that the length of each circuit may be different, but each tour divides screen time evenly amongst the players.

This can be helped by not following the exact same sequence of players with each tour. You can select the player whose subplot is likely to be the next to reach a decisive moment first, and use that as your yardstick – which shows that one of the key benefits that you gain by leaving out the combat mechanics is flexibility.

Mental Mechanics

What both players and GM have to understand about combat without game mechanics is that the game mechanics still exist within the mind of the GM. He can abstract them as much as necessary, but he still uses them as a guideline to the narrative that he delivers and the interaction that the PCs have with events.

He probably won’t break things down into round-by-round action-by-action specifics, but will deal with such things in a more holistic manner, ascertaining what each PC is trying to do, determining how long it will be before success or failure become apparent, and describing the events and outcomes of each such intention, in exactly the same way that he would if he were GMing a conversation between a PC and an NPC.

When events reach the point at which he must describe an outcome, he determines the result on the informed basis of knowing both the mechanics and the interlocking intentions of both PC and NPC, describes the events in the form of narrative, and then prompts the player for a new intention based on that outcome – and the conflict then continues from that point.

The mechanics are still there – they are simply removed from directly interfacing with the players, leaving them to roleplay without mechanics to hide behind.

Imaginary Rolls

One of my favorite techniques for implementing mental mechanics is to use imaginary die rolls. These don’t specifically relate to attacks or skills or anything else, instead they synopsize the general trend of events for or against the PCs. Nor are they random; instead they follow one of two general trends, modified for PC and NPC intentions. The two general trends are the “Oscillating Trend”, and the “Roll-And-Reverse” Technique.

The Oscillating Trend

When one of the two factions starts out as dominant, and especially when the shape of the intended narrative casts the PCs as the underdogs, the technique to use is “The Oscillating Trend”.

oscillating trend diagram

An example of the Oscillating Trend. Click on the image for a larger version.

At the start of Cinematic Combat (Phase 1), the PCs are underdogs, and everything seems to go their enemy’s way, though little by little things improve for the PCs. In Phase 2, things make a pronounced swing in the PCs’ favor. During Phase 3, the PCs are dominant and look like achieving a hard-won victory against the odds, but in Phase 4, the enemy begin to fight back, striking a serious blow to the PCs’ hopes in Phase 5, and recovering to such an extent that in Phase 6 the outcome is in the balance. In Phase 7, momentum in the battle again shifts in the PCs’ favor until finally victory is achieved.

The number of times the battle swings this way or that, how long it stays to the advantage of one side or another, how quickly things change – these are all up to the GM. It might be that in a different battle, the PCs start out on top, and can reasonably anticipate an easy victory – but things don’t go their way, and the enemy reaches the point of almost total success before the PCs snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, having underestimated their opponents.

There is a narrative structure inherent in both these examples, and the idea is that the success of maneuvers, the success of attacks, the damage done – it is all synopsized by this trend line. Anything and everything that can affect the flow of combat is dictated by the trend, whether it is surprises or luck or the arrival of reinforcements to one side or the revelation of unexpected allies or betrayals or even a falling out between allies.

Intention Interpretation

Of course, these trends are influenced by what the characters on the battlefield are trying to achieve. In particular, characters who try to work with the trend and adjust their immediate goals accordingly – seeking smaller gains when things turn against them and chasing loftier goals when things are going their way – should prosper and eventually succeed. Trying for the spectacular, against-the-odds twist of fate when things are going against you tends to expose you to a higher likelihood of failure, and all you can hope to do is minimize the damage and hold out for the inevitable swing to your advantage.

Of course, the PCs aren’t going to be the only ones with immediate goals to try and achieve; the enemy will also have priorities and things that they want to achieve. The trend is obviously going to be modified by the likelihood of success of these immediate ambitions and actions in combat – attempt something that you would normally achieve easily, and the trend will likely begin to turn in your favor. Best of all is when both the PCs immediate ambitions and those of the enemy can be achieved because they don’t directly conflict; that’s when intentions are a wash and whatever trend there was continues. The tactical situation can be completely transformed without affecting the balance of advantage in the slightest.

The Roll-and-Reverse technique

When there is no obvious superiority between the forces and the circumstances of combat, I employ what I call the “Roll-and-Reverse” technique. This essentially means that for battle action #1, an imaginary die roll that is either at the 1/4 or 3/4 mark – eg 5 or 15 on d20 – dictates the balance of momentum (as described in “Oscillating Trend”, while in the next, the opposite value is used, so that a 5 follows a 15 and vice-versa. This continues until one side or the other establishes a clear superiority, when the “Oscillating Trend” becomes the pattern.

It might seem that this can’t happen if you continue to implement a policy of swapping 5’s and 15’s as the guideline to the action, but that impression fails to take into account intention interpretation. When the advantage is swapping back and forth at great rapidity, pursuing small, strategic, easily-achieved advantages accumulates an advantage with certainty – though a grand gesture when things are going in your favor can be decisive in terms of the initial advantage, too. Once again, it’s the combination of what the different participants try to achieve that eventually produces something decisive.

You might decide that the gain of a small advantage shifts things in the PCs favor by 1 in 20 – not a big improvement, but it means that the 15 becomes a 16, and the 5, a six. Repeat twice more, and it’s 18 and 8, and even when things are going against the PCs, an 8 means that they aren’t losing much ground – so the balance has shifted decisively to the PCs, and the GM can shift to trend oscillation. But, before that happens, if the enemy had tried something big when the trend was in their favor, the opposite could be true.

One point that should be made is that the enemy automatically have an advantage – they are controlled by the GM knows when chance is in their favor. That means that more often than not, the initial advantage will swing in their direction. Balancing against this are two advantages that the PCs have: because they are controlled by multiple players against the one GM, they can think about several different things at once; and secondly, players can be unpredictable at times. Surprise works in their favor. It is that double advantage that keeps the technique fair despite the advantage inherent in being an NPC under the circumstance.

Narrative & Interaction are Paramount

A point that was made earlier but bears both repetition and closer scrutiny is the importance of Narrative and Interaction. Narrative is when the GM is describing things to the players; Interaction is when he (in the role of an NPC) is conversing with a PC. When you forgo combat mechanics, these are what should take their place.

That means that they have to be good enough to justify their prioritization over standard gameplay. You can’t afford to waffle, or be vague, or bland; your delivery has to be rich and full of vivid imagery and character.

I know some people who think that doing away with combat mechanics is a lazy solution for the GM who is pressed for time, because generating mechanics-ready NPCs takes an effort. People who hold that opinion are usually the ones who come a cropper when they attempt Cinematic Combat because – to do it properly – Cinematic Combat, and especially Cinematic Combat Sans Mechanics, requires more prep and not less.

Such prep involves the careful characterization of NPCs, working on ways that characterization can manifest as actions and verbal cues, creating sub-paragraphs of prepared text that can be wrapped in a framing sentence and inserted at appropriate moments, practicing with voices and accents, picturing settings and locations from different positions – anything and everything that you can think of. On top of that, some of this prep can’t be done properly without having constructed the character to a sufficient extent that you could run a combat with full mechanics.

Combat Sans Mechanics

There is no bible to dictate how you should go about running a combat without the supporting game mechanics. Most game rules will, in fact, assume that you will always use the mechanics as written, barring the occasion tweak for unusual conditions. You may get some pointers from LARP-oriented game rulebooks, but that’s just an assumption on my part – I’ve never read one and certainly have never played a LARP, so I can’t speak from experience.

All that being said, I have evolved my own process, which I describe in following sections. I doubt this is the only way to do it, but it’s a technique that I have developed and utilized in campaigns from multiple genres and based on distinctly different game systems. It might not be the only solution, but it is one that works.

Action Rota

Step one is to always know who is going to act next. You have near-infinite flexibility; your guides have to be what works best for the overall narrative flow, and fairness in allocating screen time amongst the players. One of the easiest ways of representing one side or another being on top is to bunch their actions; this almost guarantees that the other side will then get the opportunity to swing the course of events their way.

One thing that you do have to be wary of is the combination of a “Call and response” pattern coupled with the Roll-and-reverse technique. It’s no good alternating “5 and 15″ if the “5” is always one faction and the “15” the other.

I sometimes attempt to second-guess the PCs, thinking at the start of each series of actions about what each character is most likely to want to achieve in the course of that round, based on the existing situation within the battle; then about how likely that is to succeed, and what the overall impact on the course of battle will be in the event of success or failure; and then using those results to decide the sequence that will be most entertaining/interesting for all concerned, and that will follow the intended overall narrative arc that I have in mind.

If the character plays it safe, they will probably succeed in what they are trying to do, but may not get much benefit or reward from it. If they are more ambitious, more interesting, they have a greater risk of failure – but will gain a greater benefit or advantage if they succeed. But there is also going to be some changes in plan as each character reacts to what has gone before, and players are sometimes unpredictable, so you can never be sure when you start what will happen. It takes only seconds for the battle to take on a direction and life of its own. I revise the action rota as I go, based on who is in the best position to react to whatever has just happened, bearing in mind the basic guidelines.

However you do it, the first decision is always who to throw the spotlight on first.

Intention

Once you know who the first character to act is going to be, next you need to decide what they are going to try and accomplish while the spotlight is on them.

What is reasonable?

Once you know what they are trying to accomplish, you can decide whether or not their current share of the spotlight is enough to see that task to the point of resolution, the alternative being for them to start it/continue it and get back to them the next time around. It’s also necessary at this point to start thinking about whether or not what they are attempting is reasonable at all; if it’s not, and I think the character is aware enough to realize that, I will let them start and then inform the player that they may have bitten off more than they can chew, giving them a clear choice to consider before their next spotlight time of whether they want to continue, or want to try something else.

Allowing For Conditions

You always have to make allowance for conditions. Often, the game mechanics serve as a checklist of sorts, a safety net that is no longer available to you; that makes it doubly important that you keep mental track of the combat situation at all times, and factor the current circumstances into your assessment of what is reasonable and what isn’t.

Part of those circumstances is the mental “trend indicator”; when things are going your way, difficult and challenging tasks can seem easy, and when things are going against you, even simple tasks can be too hard.

Unacceptable Narrative

While analyzing the stated intention of the character, I always have part of my attention focused on how I can describe both what is being attempted, what success or failure will “look” like, and what the consequences will be. This is because there’s not much that’s worse than waiting patiently for your turn of the spotlight only for the story to be “You’re still doing [X]” and the GM moving on to the next character. It’s not enough simply to “check in” on the character and signpost a continuing activity; this is unacceptable narrative. Each time you check in on the character, you want to be able to describe in specifics what they have done and what remains to do. You need to advance their “subplot” to a substantial degree before moving on to the next character.

When characters try too hard

Sometimes players will try to be general about what they are doing, either to get a large task done in one “hit” or because they don’t want to bog down in minutia. “I get the Grav-sled running”, or “I take out all the stormtroopers” or “I rescue the hostages”. When this happens, you have to give the player a direct choice – start task X knowing that they won’t get it finished in this “operating round”, or break the task down into a series of smaller bites. If the player chooses the first, and they have not specified how they are going to achieve the task, you can either prompt them for details of how they intend to go about it (unless you already know) or they have to accept your interpretation of how they will go about achieve their goal.

Movement

One thing that can quickly become confused in Cinematic Combat is where everybody is, and this can lead to colossal misjudgments. Not only should the GM make clear anything that the PC needs to know in terms of who is where in the course of a pre-intentions narrative, but he should be particularly vigilant for such errors, and permit sensible changes of intentions where that’s appropriate.

To assist with this, I will sometimes use battlemaps and miniatures to show the situation as it develops, and sometimes use the quick pencil-and-paper maps that I described and demonstrated in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly. Everyone has enough to concentrate on already, so unless the situation is completely straightforward and certain to stay that way these are just as useful in cinematic combat as they are at any other time.

Succeed Or Fail

Once I’ve got my head around what people are trying to do, and what the current circumstances are, I will determine whether or not they succeed or fail based on the relative difficulty of what they are attempting and the current trend indication – unless the task is going to take longer than this slice of spotlight time, in which event I will describe how far they have gotten and any problems or unexpected successes along the way.

  • “You get the first tumbler more easily than you expected, and have moved on to the second, which is proving a little harder; the lock is old and corroded internally, and this one seems rusted into place – either that, or you haven’t hit the sweet spot yet with your lock-picks.”
  • “With a splutter and a cough, the engine roars into life before it again coughs and cuts out. A cloud of thick black smoke erupts from the tailpipe and you smell the scent of gasoline. Running back to the vehicle’s cabin, you advance the choke a little further before returning to the crank and again grasp the handle firmly, preparing for a second attempt.”
  • “You tear pages out of the book five and ten at a time, throwing the sensitive data into the fire. It’s touch-and-go whether or not you’ll be finished before your position is overrun.”
  • “You leap from the second-story landing and reach out for the chandelier, grabbing hold of it firmly and swinging across the room. A creak from the timbers to which it is secured sends shivers down your spine, it’s a long way down. Carefully you check the angle of your swing and begin to adjust it to let you leap onto the fleeing courier before he reaches the door. At the last possible moment, you release your grasp and hurtle through the air! Meanwhile…”

That last “Meanwhile…” is a very important cue; that, and other similar phrases, indicate that the spotlight has moved on, and you’ll get back to the player the next time it’s his character’s turn to act.

Effects & Consequences

The other thing that the above examples also demonstrated was how to present the effects and consequences of the action, complete or not, and of success or failure. There are three possible statuses of a task: Success (so far), Failure (so far), and Continuing, too soon to tell. This status should be made clear by the narrative you provide.

Reactions

Unless they are completely unaware of it, other characters involved in the combat should react to the success or failure, possibly amending their intended but unstated actions as a result.

Next, please

With that character’s action complete for this period of spotlight time, move on to the next. If the outcome of the last action significantly changed the circumstances, those characters who have not yet had their current turn in the spotlight act, but usually not in the order I initially determined; instead, I will rank those eligible according to their capability to react to the changed situation. This often means whoever is closest to the character who has just succeeded, then whoever is next closest, and so on.

Use “Off-camera” to your dramatic advantage

I often think of myself as a television or movie director when running Cinematic Combat, thinking about how best to show the course of events in a suitably dramatic fashion. This prompts me to use “off-camera” strategically.

For example, Character A begins to negotiate with an NPC for his assistance. So far as the player of the character is concerned, this action is unresolved; but before he gets his next action, the NPC with whom he was negotiating appears on the field of combat, the PC in tow. Clearly, the character has succeeded, but rather than actually showing the moment of success, I reveal the result by way of the consequences.

And so the pattern continues until the combat reaches a decisive conclusion.

An Even More Extreme Option

Cinematic Combat doesn’t have to stop there. You can compress events still more by having each PC declare what they are trying to do next all at the same time and then interpreting the trend as an indicator of the group’s overall success/failure; that means that on a more-or-less even value, roughly 50% of what they try will work and 50% won’t, and for every cataclysmic failure thrown in by the GM to liven things up, someone else will have an equally stupendous success.

In many ways, this is the easiest form of cinematic combat, despite the need for some closer attention to prep (as previously described). The conflict is distilled into a straightforward us-vs-them tug-of-war, or at least to something for which that is a metaphor! Things update for everyone all at once, smothering bureaucratic delays. You can even nuance in some acknowledgement that one character has more actions/attacks than others by letting them do a little more – remember, the mechanics are still there, they have simply been hidden behind a curtain that conveniently obscures them, some more than others.

And, to be honest and up-front about it, this is the variant of cinematic combat that I employ most frequently. Simple, robust, and direct – the players tell me what their PCs are trying to do, I decide what the NPCs are trying to do, and we roleplay for a bit. What could be simpler?

Cinematic Combat: The Wrap-up

Cinematic Combat is not something to be apprehensive about; it’s a tool that should be in every GM’s toolkit. When applied sparingly and at appropriate times, it can greatly benefit an adventure and a campaign. This series has hopefully given readers the instruction needed to do so with confidence and success!

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Image courtesy of wilsoninfo.com

This article wraps up the series on Cinematic Combat, but just as importantly, it celebrates the milestone that was announced a couple of weeks ago – Yesterday at about 1:45 PM local time, Campaign Mastery received it’s 1,000,000th page view!

This Blog would not exist without its readers, so on behalf of everyone whose words have been published here, I offer my sincere thanks!! The next milestone: 7th Birthday, 750 posts, and Xmas 2015 – all at about the same time!

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Traditional Interpretations and Rituals Of Culture


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From time to time, I post thoughts on various subjects to twitter using the hashtag “#Musing”.

I did just that a little while back – and then thought some more about what I had written and realized there were game implications/applications.

The tweet said, “Traditions become empty when the meaning behind them is forgotten. We don’t teach enough relevance to create reverence.”

Every culture in an RPG should have traditions, and in most cases, the meaning behind them has been long-forgotten, so it is deemed acceptable to simply create a fictional tradition without regard to its significance – Invent something and move on.

This is incredibly short-sighted, neglecting an opportunity to deliver background and verisimilitude in the one sugar-coating.

The players, too, will be used to empty ceremonies and meaningless rituals – and to ignoring them if they are inconvenient. All it takes is an NPC to take the PCs to task for ignoring the tradition – and then to explain the meaning. If the information subsequently proves relevant (and all the game history that you deliver to the players should be relevant at some point), then you can bet that the players will never take ritual, ceremony, and tradition in your games for granted again.

Instead, these will become recognized as “GM Code” for “relevant briefing material” – all you have to do is describe something as “traditional” and the players will want to look into it, unless they are totally overconfident in their abilities to cope with anything you might throw at them. In other words, they ignore this “GM Code” at their own peril, because you’re offering them a hint.

After all, the GM has done the fair thing and made the essential information available to them; they have chosen to ignore it. He is thus totally justified in taking full advantage of their ignorance – which will only remind them of the lesson in future. That means assuming that the players have taken the hint on-board when balancing the encounter.

So, what do you need to know in order to take advantage of the opportunity this principle offers?

Process Overview

As with a lot of campaign and adventure planning, it’s easier to start at the end result desired and work backwards. In this case, that essentially means deciding on the encounter which will showcase the significance of your tradition, then designing a tradition to be relevant to that encounter, designing a historical significance for the tradition to hold, creating one or more ways of celebrating the tradition, and then applying the gauzy web of confusion and lost history to those practices that obscure the original meaning. Finally, it’s always good to look for other ways that the event being commemorated by the tradition might have influenced the present day. The result is a rich campaign element with immediate relevance. And the best part is that since every society has traditions, this technique can strengthen any campaign, regardless of genre.

A note on modern-day settings
That being said, modern-day settings pose an extra challenge: we all live in the modern world and already know many of the traditions, even if we don’t know the significance.

There are three solutions to this problem:

  • First, apply the technique to cultures and societies other than the one in which the players live, giving you a little additional freedom to play around with things;
  • second, for traditions you are introducing to the society in which everyone lives, make them deliberately limited and local – a great example being the presidential tradition of pardoning the turkey at Thanksgiving – which makes it more obscure and more likely that the players/PCs won’t have come across it, lending it verisimilitude; and
  • third, also for traditions affecting the society your players all know, do some research on obscure and forgotten traditions which you can resurrect and re-purpose. Unfortunately, this may not be as easy as it sounds – I was unable to find a comprehensive website dedicated to the subject, so I suspect that you will need a host of better-targeted searches, or to spend a lot more time on it than I was able to.

Encounter

This isn’t the encounter in which the PCs learn of the tradition or its meaning, this is the encounter when the tradition’s relevance is important. As such, it’s important for there to be some obscure little quirk about the encounter that the tradition can focus on.

I don’t know about you, but I always assume that my players know the Monster Manual (or equivalent) backwards, forwards, and sideways – especially the quirks, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the listed creatures. I usually get around that by importing creatures from other, similar sources, and by adding my own little twists to creatures to create variations and sub-varieties that the players have never heard of.

A great example are the five varieties of Troll in my Fumanor campaign:

  • Common “Green” Trolls – these are as listed in the Monster Manual. Green Trolls only inhabit foothills and lowlands; they have a limited ability to cope with the slightly-lower atmospheric pressures at altitude.
  • Two-headed Trolls – Green trolls reproduce by a process of fission that starts at the head and proceeds through the body. At the same time as the the second head is forming, but before it achieves self-awareness, a second arm sprouts on one side, creating a two-headed, three-armed monstrosity that is twice as strong (+10 to STR) as normal trolls. Because of the fission process, these trolls are somewhat less well-protected than the usual (-5 to AC) but the same process hyper-accelerates their regenerative capabilities (twice as fast) and adds to their vitality (+10 CON, double hit dice) making these the most dangerous trolls of all.
  • Blue Trolls – Trollish regeneration is inhibited by wound cauterization and flame damage. During the Godswar, when certain mages sought to become gods and created new species of life to demonstrate their divinity, one made the mistake of producing an ice-loving flame-retardant variety of troll. Blue Trolls do cold damage with their touch (in addition to the normal); they regenerate more slowly, but are relatively strongly armored, and are almost-totally immune to fire damage. They inhabit snow-topped mountain peaks and other exceptionally cold locations; in winter, they will occasionally roam into inhabited regions. The PCs have never encountered them, but legends of Blue-white trolls made of ice persist and resurface every year. They have become bogeymen with which to scare children, and in some parts, it is now customary to hang a side of beef in the barn, just in case.
  • Black Trolls – A rare variant on the Green Troll with Black Skin, these trolls are smaller than normal and quite intelligent, though filled with malice. Their regenerative capabilities are compromised relative to other Trolls, and they are unable to reproduce alone; they need to capture a Green Troll who is about to divide and “infect” the newly-forming troll with “The Black Trait”. Green Trolls, left to their own devices, would kill the Black Offspring, but when threatened and confined, the mitosis will not mature; the Green Troll diverts physical resources into its own survival/escape. So the Black Troll has to stalk its’ “prey” throughout the gestation period, then overcome a far larger and stronger Troll to rescue the “newborn” Black Troll before it is too late. Black trolls have one other major advantage over Green Trolls; they are not susceptible to the lung weakness of the Green, and in fact prefer mountains as habitats. They cannot abide the cold, and hibernate through winter in the same manner as bears.
  • Gold Trolls – The rarest variety of troll, and the least intelligent of them all. When a troll is killed by a Dragon, and the corpse exposed to Dragon’s Blood, it resurrects into a strange form of Undead. Their skin develops a metallic yellow tone, and their regenerative capabilities are halved – but unlike most types of undead, even after being “destroyed” by turning, they recover, as the lost regenerative ability is directed toward “healing” the effects of being Turned. To date, no-one has discovered a means to permanently kill a Gold Troll. NB: The PCs have never encountered this variety of Troll, as they have not yet come into existence; they are one of the building blocks that have been put in place for a planned sequel campaign to the One Faith and Seeds Of Empire campaigns. Nor have I revealed all of the secrets that I have put into these creatures!

So the first stage is to develop the encounter that will give purpose to the tradition, from the PCs point of view, and you want that encounter to be as interesting and memorable as possible. You’re going to be hanging a lot off it, so it’s worth investing some extra time in getting the details right.

This is also the most critical decision of the whole process. If this choice is poorly made, it undermines the value of the entire encounter; instead of adding depth it will emphasize superficiality. This technique provides a vehicle to convey depth and make the campaign setting and background directly relevant to the daily lives of the PCs; don’t waste it. Choose an encounter that adds depth and meaning to the campaign, or that connects to subjects of significance.

Context

The encounter should have lasting significance. A great example is the Gold Troll mentioned above; the mere discovery of them and their characteristics will pose a serious threat to the future of the campaign world. When first encountered, these will be like Terminators – you can slow them down, you can inconvenience and hinder them, but they will – not – stop. But an equally-valid example was the players’ first encounter with a Black Troll; they were nowhere near as wary of it as they should have been, but it lacked the campaign-changing ultimate significance that the Gold Trolls will have; it simply expanded the scope of the campaign.

The significance doesn’t have to be in the nature of the participants, of course. An encounter can be meaningful for all sorts of reasons; that’s just the easiest one to work with. Last week’s article referred to “The Pandorica Opens“, an episode of the fifth season of the rebooted Dr Who series, and that entire season and the mystery of the Pandorica and the “crack in time” that is a recurring motif within the season is a great example of how to build a significant element into your plots that isn’t about a creature type. We hear about the Pandorica in the first episode, but everyone’s attention was then diverted onto the crack in time, a plot element that became increasingly significant as the season progressed. Only in the aforementioned episode does the Pandorica re-enter the plot, when it is revealed that the crack in time is about to destroy the universe, and the Pandorica is a trap carefully devised for the Doctor, who is blamed for the problem.

As an aside, you may be tempted to read up on how the Doctor solves the problem, if you haven’t seen the series. Don’t bother with the wikipedia page on the final episode of the season; it has about as useless and confusing a synopsis of that final episode as it is possible to imagine. Entirely factual, there’s nothing actually incorrect, its just virtually incoherent unless you’ve just watched the episode. Instead, use the more comprehensive and far more comprehensible plot description at Tardis Data Core if you’re interested.

History

Once you know the events that will make the tradition significant, and you have decided on what that significance is going to be, the next step is to connect the significance to a prior event in the campaign history – preferably one that already exists, but insert one if you have to (provided it doesn’t conflict with what’s already been established, of course).

The Blue Trolls described above are a great example, because of the way they tie in with the Gods’ War and the Hubris of the Mages (if you want to know more about those events in the Campaign History, click on An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3 and search the article for “The Age Of Ambitions”).

But it doesn’t have to be about the origins of a species. It could be about the legendary first appearance of a variety of creature, or the historical motives for something to be built or created, or even how it was that the society of the time had the capability of building that something in the first place. Or it could be about the last time a species demonstrated atypical behavior – if that atypical behavior is what the encounter is all about.

These are the events that are going to inspire the tradition, so it’s important that the historical end of the story is something to commemorate or something to cause an ongoing response that can in time become traditional, the significance forgotten.

A key decision to be made is how much time is needed for the relevance to fade into obscurity; I have to admit to fudging on this quite a lot. Sometimes I have ruled that a century is long enough, other times hundreds of years or millennia are needed. Considerations include the nature of events, the lifespan of the populations involved, and what has happened in between. I’ll use any convenient date that is even marginally plausible if necessary, and suggest that you do the same; but the less you have to assume that things get “conveniently forgotten”, the better. It’s sometimes helpful to think of time in terms of “generations” instead of years:

  • One Generation: Parents have first-hand experience of events, so rarely plausible unless the truth of events can plausibly be held as a state secret.
  • Two Generations: Surviving Grandparents, and Parents who were only children at the time, have first-hand experience of events – so unless intervening events have decimated the population, this is still only marginally plausible.
  • Three Generations: Surviving Great-Grandparents have first-hand experience of events, and so do Grandparents who were young children at the time will do too, and surviving parents and grandparents will have been told first-hand stories. This is on the verge of plausibility, but still pushing it unless intervening events or “state secrets” can be used to enhance the verisimilitude of the proposal.
  • Four Generations: Grandparents would have received first-hand accounts from their Grandparents, but those will probably be getting vague by this point. The very very elderly might have been very young at the time, so first-hand accounts would still be available – but increasingly uncommon. If the events were significant enough or striking enough, the story would still be remembered and commemorated, so this is acceptable for some choices but quite implausible for others.
  • Five Generations: Now begins the slide into legend; sometime between this point and the previous generation mark, the last of those who heard the story first-hand will have died, leaving only second-hand accounts. And anyone who played “Chinese Whispers” (with apologies to anyone who finds the term offensive) as a child will know how reliable they can be. Leaving a buffer to ensure credibility, this marks the point at which im-plausibility begins to end. And, at the usual human rate of 20 years to a generation, this is a century since the event.

Creating The Tradition

It was during a church service that I first began to understand symbolism in a detailed way (it was for a funeral, I think). Unlike every other such service that I had attended, the priest took the time at each stage in the service to explain why people stood, or sat, or knelt, and how it reflected the relationship between worshiper and deity at that particular moment. In other words, he explained the symbolism, and the lesson stuck with me.

Every tradition is, or contains elements that are, symbolically representative of the events being captured or commemorated by the tradition. There is, in other words, a kernel of meaning. The tradition may be directly representative, a metaphor, allegorical, or may simply be suggestive through circumstance.

There’s a fine line to walk; you need the connection between the tradition and its relevance to be obscure, so that players can’t pre-empt the plot, and yet for the relationship to become obvious and completely natural in hindsight once the secret is revealed. You certainly don’t want it to feel tacked on, forced, or artificial in any way, or the players will feel like they are being manipulated and the game is unfair.

Historical Breakdown

The place to start is to break the original event down into key narrative elements. Each should consist of only one specific action by someone; tell the story in bullet-point form. At the same time, you don’t have a huge number of these bullet-points to play with; between three and six, no more. To make this possible, you need to identify the one action that represents the broader picture of what was happening at the time, that symbolizes it.

Most of the time, your historical breakdown will closely resemble a basic pattern that you will have seen time after time without realizing it:

  • Establish the circumstances
  • Establish the villainy of the enemy (Villainous action)
  • Establish the virtue of the heroes (Heroic action)
  • Villainous action (Setback)
  • Heroic action
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

The obvious repetition in the above list makes it obvious how to reduce it to a four-element pattern; you simplify the conflict to one Villainous Action and a Heroic response:

  • Establish the circumstances
  • Establish the villainy of the enemy (Villainous action)
  • Establish the virtue of the heroes (Heroic response)
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

The same pattern can be adapted to traditions that are not conflict-based; instead of “villainous actions” you have “challenges”.

  • Establish the circumstances
  • The challenge
  • The Heroic response
  • Challenge (Setback)
  • Heroic response
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)

Sometimes you can combine heroic action and resolution (the last two items) and/or circumstances and challenge (the first two items), and by skipping the set & heroic action response, you get down to three elements.

  • The challenge (including circumstances)
  • The Heroic response
  • Resolution (result of Heroic Action)
Symbolism

The symbolism of the tradition begins to define the tradition’s interpretation in modern times. You want the original form of the tradition to symbolize the events being commemorated, and even to tell the story of what happened, one symbolic reference at a time. The technique is to translate each individual bullet point into an object (the symbol) and an action. Where possible, objects should be reused.

The more layers of meaning you can incorporate into the object, the better. Color, form, construction material – they are all important. An object made of Maple-wood can symbolize both the source, and the culture, and the object itself (I don’t know about you, but I hear “Maple” and think “Canada”). Your game cultures will probably not have such an immediate correlation in the minds of the players, but you can prepare the ground for your tradition by choosing and establishing national symbols in advance – and this helps establish the unique identity of that culture in the first place.

The action should be symbolic of the action that takes place in the historical anecdote. Something raised overhead can symbolize belligerence, or triumph; something pointed to the left and then the right can symbolize being trapped into a course of action; something being touched to the lips can symbolize love, or commitment, or passion, or loyalty. There are thousands of possibilities.

This is one part of the tradition construction process where blank page syndrome can definitely be a factor. Once you have one idea, many others will usually come to mind in a maelstrom of creativity; but getting that first idea can be harder than choosing between many alternatives. If you get stuck, I have advice on dealing with the problem in part one of my series on writer’s block.

Readers may find these links of use in developing their symbolism:

Here’s a real world example: The Romans believed that Wedding Rings should be worn on the third finger of the left hand, because a vein from that finger runs directly to the heart. Thus, a ring on that finger symbolizes love. If your historical event ends with two lovers being united against the odds, or if that can be symbolic of the victory or achievement, then the placing of a ring on the ring finger of another can represent the success/outcome of the historic story.

Obscurity

At this point you have a ritual involving one or more objects and multiple actions. The next step is to obscure the connection to the original story by compromising the symbolic elements. There are two ways of going about this: the generalization of details, and the rise of alternative interpretations from these generalized elements.

An important principle to bear in mind while obscuring the tradition is that the part can be representative of the whole. What is an elaborate ritual can shed elements until all that remains is an irreducible core of the original. It’s as though you were taking a story told in six bullet points and boiling it down into a single (vastly oversimplified) sentence.

Start by working on a copy of your bullet-points that omits all references to the original events; it should consist of nothing more than the objects and actions. Replace the objects with the most generic form that still permits the actions to take place. Then eliminate any specific details within the actions, leaving only the most general and broad statements except for those in one of the actions. This, more detailed, action will become the centerpiece of future versions and reinterpretations of the tradition.

How do you choose which one? That’s a little trickier; it should be the one that most strongly represents the one-line summary of the historical story (for all we know, there was originally an elaborate ritual that accompanied the placing of a ring on a finger. Those were eroded away, one by one, and others – such as the husband-to-be getting down on one knee to propose – took their place. It’s known to have happened with other traditions and rituals, why should that one be an exception?)

Relevance

Once you have obscured the tradition with layers of generality, the next step is to create as many alternative interpretations of the tradition as you can. One of these should be relevant to the modern society of the campaign, giving a reason for the tradition to have survived into the modern era. The best two or three of the other interpretations should also give rise to related traditions; the connection between them might be obscure or obvious.

For example, there is an obvious connection between the giving of engagement rings and the giving of wedding rings, and both are thematically connected to the concept of commitment – but the Engagement Ring originated relatively recently in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented one to his beloved, Mary of Burgundy. Of course, marriage is full of symbolic representations of commitment, second only to traditions symbolizing purity or wishes for fertility. For example, the “Something blue” in the tradition that starts “Something old, something new” also has this meaning, while the “Something new” from the same verse is supposed to symbolize a commitment to the new life together over the old.

I have been told – but have been unable to verify – that the tradition of West Point awarding their graduates class rings, which started in 1835, was intended to be symbolic of the new Officer’s commitment to the ideals and obligations of Military Service. As a theory, this makes perfect sense to me, and if true, it obviously relates to the tradition of the wedding ring. Certainly discussions on the history of class rings and wedding rings both refer back to the traditions of the ancient Egyptians (who believed that the circle or ring was symbolic of eternity, because it was without end), and to the Roman Empire.

It is even possible that the first wedding ring was actually an Officer’s Ring, and that it was given to the bride as symbolizing her conquest of the officer’s heart – that’s just romanticized speculation on my part, mind you, but it does tie the traditions and histories of both together in a plausible way.

Getting back to the subject at hand, You need these alternative relevancies because you want the players to be introduced to the tradition completely separately to the true relevance being revealed, and these give you a way to do so.

Clarity

The penultimate stage in creating your tradition is to take your traditions (as they now stand) and refine them. Modify and tweak the specifics of the ritual to represent specifically and clearly each of the interpretations. Discard elements that don’t fit that interpretation. You can change any detail, go from generalization to a specific – it doesn’t have to be the specific that you started with; once again, use symbolism to guide you. Most traditions evolve over time, and what you want to do is evolve your tradition from its base in each of the directions you chose in the previous step.

Once you have clarified the rituals, it’s time to put fresh spins on them using your campaign background. There are two ways that the background can apply:

  1. Your tradition can blend with an existing tradition or celebration of an event prior to the incident that sparked it; many of the traditions of Christmas started that way.
  2. Alternatively, a new event may come along and usurp the tradition, creating new connotations and associations.

As a general rule of thumb, one interpretation will be forgotten by all but the best educated and the strongest traditionalists; one will find a new relevance; and one will tap into a broader relevance, becoming just one of several traditions around that theme. Think of all the traditions we associate with weddings – everything from the throwing of rice to the groom being forbidden to see the bride before the ceremony to the wearing of white to the wedding cake, and that’s without any of the things that I’ve mentioned already in this article. Each of these traditions evolved separately, though each may have originated with a specific marriage, and then became a part of the whole, evolving to integrate with the existing traditions that go with the common circumstance.

Introducing The Traditions

Having designed your tradition, and the various forms that it has degenerated into, the next thing that you need to do – if you can – is to introduce one or more of the corrupted traditions to the players, along with part of the story of that tradition, or an explanation of the symbology.

One of the reasons for having three corrupted traditions is to give you flexibility to match an appropriate in-game event to one of them. Of course, if you can manage to insert more than one, so much the better. On top of this, you also need to bring in the uncorrupted tradition, though the significance – as discussed earlier – has been long forgotten. This is all groundwork for when the real story emerges to provide a vital clue to the PCs.

Note that these events don’t have to directly involve a PC, making the task a lot easier. For example, if one of the traditions survives as a funerary ritual, any reason to get the PCs to a funeral is enough to expose them to the ritual; it might be that they need to speak to one of those in attendance, for example, or that someone picks a pocket and then runs through the funeral rites in an attempt to escape – with one or more PCs in hot pursuit.

In fact, as a general rule of thumb, it’s better to underplay the incident as just another random bit of color – just distinctive and significant enough to be memorable without being overly important. You don’t want your players making soup out of these particular bones if you can help it.

Using The Real Tradition

This should be relatively straightforward, because you have built the entire structure around making the real meaning of the tradition relevant to an in-game event. In fact, the hardest part is avoiding the threefold dangers:

  • telegraphing the plot;
  • getting caught up on a plot train; and
  • jumping too quickly or too slowly.

But these are always dangers to be avoided. If that’s the worst that you have to deal with, it should be smooth sailing.

I couldn’t resist one final example:

One of my first articles at Campaign Mastery was A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, in which I advocate answering the big questions during campaign creation – what is life, what is the soul, what is magic, how does the afterlife work, and other such questions. A new “monster” that I have described below gets into the heart of several of these questions, making them of immediate life-and-death relevance to PCs that may encounter them:

Empowered Spirits:
Tradition: Jewelery and other personal property belonging by innocents who suffer violent deaths at the hands of another should be blessed by a cleric and then donated to the church; under no circumstances should they be returned to the families of the slain.

Why: Sometimes the souls of those wrongfully killed burn for revenge and find their way back to the world of the living. Most times, these return as Ghosts of limited power, usually within 3 days of death, but sometimes they get lost along the way. And sometimes those lost souls wander into one of the prime material planes and absorb some of the essence of that plane, gaining power vastly beyond those of ordinary ghosts. This matters little if the vengeful spirits do not eventually find their way to the Prime Material Plane, but the memories of the slain prompted by their personal property serve as beacons to eventually guide those Empowered Spirits home, months or even years later. Empowered Spirits cannot be permanently destroyed or turned so long as the focus that drew them back remains whole; with memories that have faded during their sojourn, they usually lash out at everyone they encounter, though if their wanderings consumed only months, their targets may match the general parameters of their killer in some specific respect. They might all be blond, or all Military Officers, or all tall and lean, or have some behavioral trait in common.

The additional powers possessed by Empowered Spirits vary according to the planes visited; as a rule of thumb, one additional power or additional dice of power per month, with an initial amount of three dice.

  • Earth: Pick up and throw stones at a distance, open pits beneath the feet, no need to breathe, shape earth, earth to rock, pass through walls, meteor swarm.
  • Air: Discorporate and re-incorporate at will, flight, transform air into poisonous gas, create a void in the air, explode lungs with a touch.
  • Fire: Flaming touch, immunity to fire, ability to throw fire, fireball.
  • Water: Drown with a touch, travel from one source of water large enough to contain a human to another eg barrels, shape water into solid limbs, attack from several different places at once, turn any source of water into a weapon.
  • Positive Energy: Shocking Touch, Lightning Bolt, Raise undead, restore healed wounds from the past, posses the living
  • Negative Energy: Wither limbs, Steal healing from those around (regeneration, loss of healing persists for 48 hours). cloud minds, control undead, control higher undead, Confuse enemies.

In addition, Deities of revenge and justice will sometimes shelter and aid Empowered Spirits, granting them clerical spells as though they were a cleric of level equal to their Hit Dice.

All Empowered Spirits also receive the characteristics, benefits and abilities of “standard” Ghosts.

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Cinematic Combat Part 2 – Damage Mechanics


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HDCAM by Julien Boulanger (Bereflex). Unfortunately, the website that provided it no longer has a functioning messaging system that I can use to thank him and advise of the use of this image.

While merging all the tactical and attack mechanics into a single die roll, as described in part one, can greatly speed combat, there’s no reason to stop there. The next part of the combat sequence involves doing damage and may also require recording any losses of characteristics used in the attack if the system tracks endurance consumption.

There are many more variations in damage mechanic than there are attack mechanic.

  • The D&D / Pathfinder mechanic is relatively straightforward: you roll damage according to your weapon type and stats – per successful attack – and taking into account any successful critical hits.
  • Some Systems track an endurance cost for each successful attack.
  • Some Systems subtract an amount from the damage that represents the protection afforded by armor.
  • Some Systems track more than one kind of damage. Most commonly, one type represents Stun or Shock damage, and another represents physical harm.
  • The Hero system tracks all of these, and adds a couple of further wrinkles: damage gets recovered after every turn, which represents a number of actions determined by the characters speed stat; there is a power that reduces the damage taken to a percentage of that inflicted; the two types of damage are not rolled separately, but are based on different ways of counting the same die rolls; there are two different defense scores, one for physical attacks and one for energy attacks. On top of all that, there are attack forms such as Mind Control that bypass all of this, and do no direct damage at all, instead comparing the ratio of damage done to a stat of the target.

That makes it far harder to create a single process that is one-size-fits-all. Not impossible – just harder.

1. Effect

In fact, to make it work, there’s a concept that you need to wrap your head around, which I’ve labeled “Effect”. It doesn’t matter what the significance or nature of the damage roll is, or if it’s multiple dice or just one, or any of the other complications; either I’ll deal with them specifically as part of the process described below, or they get wrapped up in this nice little bundle called “Effect”.

“Effect”, then, could be 2d6+12 (a D&D/Pathfinder damage reference) or 5d6 Ranged Killing attack with Armor Piercing costing 15 Endurance (Hero System) or 12d6 Mind Control costing 24 Endurance (another Hero System reference) or a 16d6 Fireball (another D&D/Pathfinder Reference) or whatever. Effect is the fundamental definition of the “damage” roll, as it exists within the normal game mechanics.

I’m going to use a relatively straightforward Pathfinder example to highlight the process. The base effect is d8+6, representing a Medium-sized target, a +2 Longsword, and a character with 18 Strength (+4 modifier).

I’m further going to assume that we’re talking about a 12th level fighter, who therefore gets three attacks in a combat round.

The Effect is therefore d8+6.

2. The N Factor

The second stage of the process is to assess and analyze “the N factor”. Part of the abbreviation process for attack rolls was combining multiple attacks into one – whether that’s an entire turn’s worth (Hero System) or because the system inherently gives multiple attempts to hit to characters (D&D/Pathfinder, for example). This is where we take that into account by simply multiplying the base Effect by the N factor – but it isn’t the only time that we have to use this value, so jot it down.

Our example character gets three attacks in a round, so the N factor is three. We care not one bit that they have different chances of success – that’s something that would have been taken into account in the Attack Roll stage.

The total effect is therefore 3 x (d8+6) or 3d8+18.

3. Effect Barrier

The Effect Barrier is any defense that has to be deducted from Effect “rolled”, multiplied by the N factor (because the Barrier has to be overcome with each attack, and the net Effect represents multiple attacks when the N factor is anything but 1.

Pathfinder doesn’t subtract defense from damage, it reduces the chances of an attack being effective – and that’s built into the attack stage. So the Effect Barrier in this case is zero.

For the sake of argument, I could suggest that the character possesses a magical shield or something of some sort that absorbs the first four points of damage from an attack, in which case the Effect Barrier would be 4. Just to have a name to hang this benefit from, let’s call it an Absorbency. Taking the N factor of 3 into account, Absorbency would yield an Effect Barrier of 12.

4. Effect Minimum

So: calculate the minimum “effect” that can be achieved after the N factor is taken into account, less the Effect Barrier. This is the minimum effective effect that can actually make a difference.

The lowest that you can roll on a d8 is a 1, so the lowest result on 3d8 is obviously 3. Adding 18 and subtracting the Effect Barrier of zero yields an Effect Minimum for our example of 21.

With the fictional “Absorbency” to take into account, the Effect Minimum would be 3+18-12, or 9.

5. Probable Effect Maximum

The damage-handling compression process that I have devised handles effect levels in two tiers, the upper tier being reserved for critical hit effect levels. This is the lower tier, i.e. the normal-hit effect. So, disregard any potential critical hit and simply calculate the normal maximum effect that the character can achieve, If there is a hit location system built into the game mechanics, identify the highest relevant effect multiplier and apply one-half plus HALF that amount. Then multiply by the N factor, and subtract the Effect Barrier, which should also be adjusted by the same hit location factor if hit location is relevant.

Okay, there’s a lot to demonstrate in this part of the process.

  • The straight Pathfinder “Core Example”: Without any critical hits being involved, the maximum you can get from 3d8+18-0 is 24+18 or 42.
  • With “Absorbency”: Without any critical hits being involved, the maximum from 3d8+18-12 is 24+6=30.
  • If the Pathfinder GM were using a House Rule based on the Hero System hit location chart, the highest modifier would either be 2x damage (if based on the Body Damage results) or 5x damage (if based on the Stun Damage results). That yields a hit-location factor of x(0.5+1)=x1.5 or x(0.5+2.5)=x3. Folding this into the previous results gives:
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 42×1.5=63, -0x1.5 = 63;
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 42×3=126, -0x3 = 126;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 42×1.5=63, -12×1.5 = 63-18 = 45;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 42×3=126, -12×3 = 126-36 = 90.

Note that I don’t recommend either version of this House Rule, this is being used for illustrative purposes only! But if you did like the idea, I strongly recommend that this replace the normal critical hit system.

6. Absolute Effect Maximum

The absolute effect maximum is what happens when you do roll a (confirmed) critical, AND get the maximum benefit from any hit location, AND roll the absolute maximum damage that you can get.

Sticking with the same six examples:

  • Straight Pathfinder: The base damage multiplier for a critical is x2. So that’s 2x(3d8+18)-0, or a maximum of 2x(24+18) or 84.
  • With “Absorbency”: 2x(3d8+18)-12 gives 2×24 + 2×18 – 12 = 48 + 26 – 12 = 74 – 12 = 62.
  • With Hit location:
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 2x 42 x2 = 2x 84 = 168, -0x2 = 168;
    • No “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 2x 42 x5 = 5x 84 = 416, -0x3 = 416;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Body”: 2x 42 x2 = 2x 84 = 168, -12×2 = 168-24 = 144;
    • With “Absorbency”, based on “Stun”: 2x 42 x5 = 2x 210 = 420, -12×5 = 420-60 = 360.

One look at the numbers above should show why I don’t recommend this as a House Rule unless it’s replacing the existing critical hit system!

7. Probable & Absolute Effect Ranges

Damage is therefore defined as falling into one of two ranges: The Probable Effect Range, from Minimum Effect to Probable Effect Maximum, and the Absolute Effect Range, from Probable Effect Maximum to Absolute Effect.

I’m going back to ignoring the Hit Location options in the example, having demonstrated them in previous sections.

  • Straight Pathfinder:
    • Probable Effect Range: 21-42.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 42-84.
  • With “Absorbency”:
    • Probable Effect Range: 9-30.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 30-62.

But these are far more usefully written as a minimum plus a range:

  • Straight Pathfinder:
    • Probable Effect Range: 21 + 0-21.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 42 + 0-42.
  • With “Absorbency”:
    • Probable Effect Range: 9 + 0-21.
    • Absolute Effect Range: 30 + 0-32.

8. Non-Linear Curve Correction

To be practical, we want to map the range of results against a flat probability curve, so that we can apply the results at the greatest possible speed. This means that our simulation of the normal combat mechanics will be inaccurate if a single attack requires multiple dice to be rolled.

The easiest way to adjust for that – and it can be quite significant if there are more than three or four dice of damage per attack that is being simulated – is to adjust the variation of results inward. That means raising the minimum and lowering the range. The question is, by how much?

If you want to be technical, the range should be defined by the most probable 80% or 90%. You could use probability to calculate it, but that sounds too much like work and isn’t the ultra-fast and responsive result that we want. So here’s a rough rule of thumb: for two or three dice, alter the range by 5%. For every dice after the third, and up to the seventh, alter the range by 5%. For the eighth up to the 11th, alter the range by 2%. From the 12th to the 18th, alter the range by 1%. If there are more than 18 dice in each attack – and it happens in the Hero System, especially with high-power characters – alter the range by 1% more.

Here’s a key step: You have to DOUBLE the range adjustment. Otherwise, the increase in the minimum will make up for the reduction in range (except for rounding errors).

In other words:

1 dice = no change.
2 dice = +5% minimum, 90% range.
3 dice = +5% minimum, 90% range.
4 dice = +5% minimum, 90% range.
5 dice = +10% minimum, 80% range.
6 dice = +15% minimum, 70% range.
7 dice = +20% minimum, 60% range.
8 dice = +22% minimum, 56% range.
9 dice = +24% minimum, 52% range.
10 dice = +26% minimum, 48% range.
11 dice = +28% minimum, 44% range.
12 dice = +29% minimum, 42% range.
13 dice = +30% minimum, 40% range.
14 dice = +31% minimum, 38% range.
15 dice = +32% minimum, 36% range.
16 dice = +33% minimum, 34% range.
17 dice = +34% minimum, 32% range.
18+ dice = +35% minimum, 30% range.

Round minimums down and ranges up, UNLESS that gives an odd number for the range, in which case do it the other way around.

In our example, we have three attacks each doing 1d8 plus something, and that has given us ranges of 21 + 0-21 and 42 + 0-42 (ignoring the “Absorbency” option. Let’s double that to three attacks doing 2d8 each, and then assume that all six d8s are from one attack – that still gives us a range of twice that shown, i.e. 42 + 0-42 and 84 + 0-84. Maybe it’s a spell and not a longsword.

6 dice = +15% minimum, 70% range – so the 42 + 0-42 becomes 49 + 0-28, and the 84 + 0-84 becomes 96 + 0-60.

Doing this accurately requires a calculator most of the time. Or you could simply guesstimate it based on the above percentages and keep going – which is what I would do.

9. Absolute Effect Midrange

For reasons that will shortly become clear, it’s required that we define the midpoint of the Absolute Effect Range. This isn’t necessarily the straightforward average; if there are more than one or two factors to take into account, if the ducks all have to line up in a row in order to achieve the absolute maximum, if there is additional damage that only happens on a critical hit, if – in D&D/Pathfinder terms – each critical has to be separately confirmed, the point that is roughly halfway through results by probability is going to be less than the simple average.

I don’t count simply rolling maximum on the damage dice; that’s what the damage abbreviation system is there to calculate.

The Bias Ratio Sum

As a general rule, the more things that have to go right, the smaller the fraction of the distance between the low point of the range and the high point of the range will be “middle probability”.

The “Bias Ratio Sum” is simply a fancy (but accurate) way of describing how far through the Absolute Effect Range the midpoint of probability will be located, and it’s actually really simple to calculate.

Denominator

The important part is what’s on the underneath of the fraction. That is The Bias Ratio Sum, because it’s a total that gives the Bias Ratio.

If just one thing has to go right eg confirming a critical, the Bias Ratio Sum is 2.
If two things have to go right, the Bias Ratio Sum is 3.
If three things have to go right, the Bias Ratio Sum is 4.

The pattern should be clear: the number of things that have to go right, plus one.

To get the maximum, all three attacks have to be possible criticals, and each of those has to be confirmed. That’s actually 5 things that have to go right – the original critical roll (that’s assumed so it doesn’t count), the confirmation of that critical, and the two additional critical chances and confirmations, so in both examples, the Bias Ratio Sum is 6.

Numerator & Ratio

And the top part of the fraction is always a 1, unless there’s some re-roll or second-chance mechanism involved – in which case it’s 1 plus each additional chance. This can get a little more complicated than it seems, if the player has only one re-roll available for multiple rolls; if you have to handle this situation, the only way to get a usable value is to do one of two things:

  1. Work out the complete set of possible situations and assess their relative probability, in exactly the same way you would work out the results of 3d6 or 4d6; or,
  2. Fake it. Pick a number that seems about right.

The ratio is, obviously, numerator divided by denominator.

So, in our examples, the ratio is 1/6, since the denominator is 6 and the numerator is 1.

Calculating The Absolute Effect Midpoint

If there’s a range of 0 to whatever in the Absolute Range, then the absolute effect midpoint will be “Bias Ratio of the way through” that range. Which sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Just multiply the range by the fraction you’ve calculated and that’s the midpoint of probability, or close enough to it.

Quite often, you will have to decide how to round the result. I generally decide based on my reasons for choosing cinematic combat in the first place: if it’s to facilitate roleplay or skill activity against a combat background, I’ll round down; if it’s to enhance the drama of the encounter, I’ll round up; otherwise, I’ll round off.

  • Straight Pathfinder, Absolute Effect is 42 + 0-42, so the range is 0-42. 1/6th of the way through that range is 42/6 which equals 7. So the Range Midpoint is 42 + 7 = 49.
  • With “Absorbency”, the Absolute Effect is 30 + 0-32, so the range is 0-32. 1/6th of the way through that range is 32/6, or 5 1/3. For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that the combat is to be secondary to a player trying to solve a puzzle (a skill activity), and round down to 5. The Range Midpoint is 30 + 5 = 35.

10. Secondary Effect Types

While I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to explain what’s going on here, in practice – once you know what you’re doing – you can generally rattle off each number about as fast as you can write them down. Only once or twice is a calculator called for, and I’d guesstimate those numbers. Speed is more important than accuracy, as I’ll explain in a bit. I want to get the practical stuff out of the way, first.

It literally is just a matter of seconds. That means that it’s fast enough – when necessary – to repeat the process thus far for each type of effect that you need to track – whether that’s separate Stun and Body damage, or an Endurance cost, or whatever.

d10 or d12?

Ultimately, this replaces all the damage calculation with a single d10 or d12 roll. I’ll explain how in a moment.

Use a d10 if your game system doesn’t have critical hits. Use a d12 if it does.

Both D&D and Pathfinder definitely have critical hits, so in this case the choice would be a d12.

The d10 Range

Doing damage based on the d10 roll is really simple: roll a d10, multiply the result by one tenth of the adjusted Probable Effect Range (roughly), and add the Probable Effect Minimum.

The d12 Results

For results of 1 to 10, on the d12, simply multiply the result by one tenth of the adjusted Probable Effect Range (roughly), and add the Probable Effect Minimum, exactly as if you were rolling a d10. The result is not a critical hit.

13a. The 11 Result: Absolute Effect Midpoint

If the result on the d12 is an 11, the result is a critical hit doing the damage calculated as the Absolute Effect Midpoint. If you want a bit of variability, subtract 5 and add a d10, or use -10 and a d20, but I don’t usually bother.

13b. The 12 Result: Adjusted Absolute Maximum

If the result on the d12 is a 12, the result is a critical hit doing the damage calculated as the Absolute Maximum – as adjusted for multiple dice, if necessary. If you want a bit of variability, subtract 5 and add a d10, or use -10 and a d20, but I don’t usually bother.

The Underlying Philosophy

While this system for accelerating damage handling is grounded in the realities of the existing game mechanics, it is not a perfect simulation and doesn’t pretend to be. It is predicated on the principle that so long as both sides are utilizing the same mechanics, it doesn’t matter if there’s an approximation here or there, or the occasional inaccuracy; the system is still fair to both. Just thought I’d clear that up.

Going one step further

Of course, it’s possible to go even further. You could combine both the Cinematic Attack Roll and the determination of damage without too much difficulty. All you have to do is regard the margin of success as your d-whatever. If the damage process states a d12 is the right choice, i.e. you have critical hits to worry about, then the top two results – natural 19 and natural 20 – are treated as the 11 and 12 on the d12, otherwise the 20 is the same as rolling a 10 on the d10.

Of course, it would be absolutely astonishing if the range of success just happened to be 10 or 12, whatever is called for. It’s more likely to be 7 or 9 or 14 or something. So you may sacrifice some granularity – or you may gain some, but the odds are more the other way.

If your range of successful “hit” results is, say, 14, and you don’t need to allow for criticals, then it’s range times margin of success / number of possible “hit” results, i.e. 14. And a calculator is almost certainly needed.

And that’s the ultimate reason why I only rarely go to this extent. Why sacrifice everything you’ve gained by needing to pull out a calculator and use it?

The Advantage Gained

Ultimately, what this process does is define the minimum and maximum damage that can be achieved by a non-critical attack, make allowances for game mechanics, and then spread the range of damage between these extremes over a convenient linear scale after adjusting for what I described in the article on Attack Mechanics as the “non-linear probability hump”.

The scale of the advantage to be gained is dependent on the game mechanics being replaced; the more complex they are, the more the GM stands to gain. The Hero System, for example, is both the most complex game system to be simulated by this process, and the Game System that gives the greatest benefit from being streamlined.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, is far more typical. So, let’s tally up the gains and their cost using our example as a standard.

Three critical confirmations, three rolls of the damage dice, and six additions per combat round have been replaced with about six simple calculations that only have to be done once per combat. Let’s assume an average of 1 second to complete each of these tasks.

One combat round: 12 seconds vs 8 seconds.
Two combat rounds: 24 seconds vs 10 seconds.
Three combat rounds: 36 seconds vs 12 seconds.
Four combat rounds: 48 seconds vs 14 seconds.

Even at this freakishly fast pace, the trend is clear. But the reality is even more distinct: five-to-ten seconds for each action per combat round is probably closer to the mark even in a quick combat, while 1-2 seconds for each calculation remains fairly reasonable. And that’s per character. You ALWAYS roll a d20 to attack and a d10 for damage, so you may as well roll them both at the same time and simply ignore the damage if you miss. Yes, there is slightly more set-up time; but that is a one-time thing, or once per combat at most.

The Abstraction Of Damage

It’s far more challenging to abstract the damage part of the combat mechanic, but no less rewarding. The combination yields an enormous time saving, and enables combat to flow far more naturally, succinctly, and dynamically. The process may be more abstract, but the result is often a smaller gulf between action and consequence; battle feels more real because there is less of a wall dividing the visualization of action. Game mechanics may simulate reality, but they do so at arm’s length; cinematic combat is an action-movie roller-coaster in comparison.

Of course, part of that benefit exists purely through the contrast of pace between the abstracted mechanisms and the normal game system. You should always have a clear and compelling reason for choosing cinematic combat; overuse it and it will lose its mojo. But use these techniques in appropriate circumstances and you will be astonished at their effectiveness.

If abstracted mechanics bring combat closer to the players, would not no mechanics at all be the ultimate delivery vehicle for excitement? That’s the minefield that the final part of this series is going to walk right into…

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The Power Of The Question-mark in RPG Plotting


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Here in Australia, there has recently been a confrontation between the media and politics within the courts in the form of the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, suing one of our newspapers for defamation over a story which appeared both in print and on their website, and two tweets promoting that story. The story alleged that Hockey was offering privileged access in return for party donations. The headline was “Treasurer For Sale”, and the offending tweets consisted of nothing more than that headline and a link to the story.

The outcome was something of a draw, and quite possibly, a pyrrhic victory. Hockey wanted damages of a million dollars plus; what he got was an award of $200,000 for the headline and the tweets, and nothing for the story. Furthermore, there has been the suggestion that since he lost the main part of his case, he will be stuck paying the majority of both sides’ legal fees, which will easily top the $1 million that he originally sought.

You can read more about the story and the judgment here and here (two transcripts from a television show about media issues and stuff-ups).

From the first that I heard of the case, I was struck by one thought, which has only been reinforced by the verdict and all the coverage that I have seen since. Hockey “won” (if you can call it that) because the headline was deemed to have alleged that he was corrupt. If only the editor of the newspaper had seen fit to place a question mark at the end of the headline, it’s entirely likely that Hockey would have lost on all counts.

After all, there’s a world of difference between a headline that simply states, “Treasurer For Sale”, and one that asks the question, “Treasurer For Sale?” – the first is an accusation, the second merely asks the question and leaves the reader to make up their own minds based on the evidence provided in the story.

That got me thinking about the power of the question-mark, and – everything that crosses my mind gets reviewed from a gaming perspective sooner or later – about the power of the question-mark in RPGs. In particular, when you put a Question-mark in your plans for an adventure, what can it denote? What might it represent?

The Unknown

The first thing you might use a ? to represent in an adventure is an unknown.
 

  • “? The player who moves first…” or,
  • “? The highest perception total notices…”,

 
for example. This represents a point of interface between PC capabilities or player choices and the way the adventure content will be shaped as a result.

The other thing that the adventure designer might use a ? to represent is something that he doesn’t know, even cannot know, at the time of drafting the adventure.
 

  • “? The last enemy standing…” or,
  • “? When half the soldiers have been defeated…”

 
As you can see, these are variations on the same theme, a way to build a variable into the adventure while keeping the structure of events nice and straightforward.

GM Decisions to be made

The second major purpose that comes to mind is for the ? to represent a decision that the GM has to make, in particular one that is predefined based on events earlier in the adventure.
 

  • “? If the PCs believed the old man in Scene 3, …”, or
  • “? If any of the attackers in Scene 4 escaped, …”

 
A variation on this application is for the ? to represent real-time decisions.
 

  • “? If there is not enough time for the combat to be completed, insert Scene 3a” or,
  • “? Let the PCs roleplay random encounters until 40 mins of play remain,” or even,
  • “? Don’t let the lock get picked until the PCs have had encounters 1, 2, and at least one of 4, 5, or 6.”

 
or any other “If-then-else” flags that control the flow of the adventure.

Doubt

A further variation could occur when the GM is uncertain about the course events will take.
 

  • “? Will the PCs stop to investigate, encountering the bandits (scene 5b)…”, or,
  • “? If the PCs win too easily…” or even,
  • “? How the PCs react is up to them, play it by ear.”

Variables

An obvious purpose would be to represent variables.
 

  • “? There are three NPCs who can tell the PCs about the treasure: 1, 4, and 6. Let them ask until they find one of these,” or,
  • “? The charge will continue to build by 1d6 per round until one of the PCs zaps themselves or it reaches a maximum of 25d6.”

Puzzles & Riddles

Another obvious use would be to call the GM’s attention to puzzles and riddles that the PCs have to solve.
 

  • “? There is an 11 minute hourglass and a 13-minute hourglass. The door will only open exactly 15 minutes after the first hourglass is turned. The note says ‘You will only be given one chance to prove your worth.’ The PCs must solve the riddle of how to accurately time 15 minutes using these two hourglasses.”

 

The Solution:

  • Start both hourglasses at the same time.
  • When the 11 minute hourglass runs out, flip it again immediately.
  • When the 13 minute hourglass runs out, the 11 minute hourglass will have 9 minutes left, so flip it and it will last another 2 minutes.
  • 13 minutes + 2 minutes = exactly 15 minutes.

Riddle taken from Good Riddles.

The Low Road

The uses keep on coming. Another might be to signify an alternative to be offered to the PCs.
 

  • “? Let the players decide whether to harvest the mushrooms or water the herd.” or,
  • “? Let the players choose which door to open. When they touch the handle…”

To Be Continued?

The final use comes from the Dr Who episode, ‘The Pandorica Opens‘ and is a bit of an afterthought. At the end of the episode, the TARDIS has exploded, rupturing time throughout its’ length, and explosions surround the Earth in space before everything fades to black and silence. And then, with everything supposedly and seemingly destroyed, the graphic comes up on-screen, “To Be Continued” – which, to me, takes all the suspense out of the situation.

Sure, people would have known that the season had one more episode left, but the “To be continued” as good as states that the story isn’t over yet.

The ending would have been far more powerful if the producers had attached a simple question mark to that end-of-show graphic: “To Be Continued?” instead of “To Be Continued”.

Because every time you can attach a question mark to something to be communicated, the doubts and confusion it raises and represents are in the minds of the players. And of all the ways that the GM can make use of a Question Mark, that may be the best of them all.

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Cinematic Combat Part 1 – Attack Mechanics


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Cinema Film by Alexandre Saes

On any number of occasions, I’ve referred to using a Cinematic combat style instead of the “full treatment”, but I’ve never gone into detail of how I go about that. I’ve explained why, but never how. (just in case, I’ll recap “why” as we go along).

I’ve always resisted doing so because I felt that the techniques that I use are too dependent on the game system that I am using, and so they would be of limited utility to anyone not using those systems.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of thought to catch a glimmer of how I might be able to sufficiently abstract my techniques to give them a broader applicability, and even now I’m not sure that I’ll succeed. But I definitely won’t do so if I don’t give it a crack!

This is an article in three parts. Part one will deal with simplifying your game mechanics for attacks; part two deals with abstracted mechanics for damage; and part three will deal with the complete absence of traditional combat mechanics.

So here we go…

Reasons For Cinema

There are three central reasons why you might want to choose a more cinematic combat style.

  1. It increases the Drama of the conflict.
  2. It makes Combat secondary to Roleplay & Non-Combat Action.
  3. It permits greater manipulation of the look and feel of the situation.
Drama

Cinematic Combat is essentially throwing away selected game mechanics and replacing them with narrative. Because the resulting mechanics are greatly simplified, Combat goes faster and is more dramatic, especially if the GM manipulates his narrative to emphasize that drama.

Combat vs Roleplay & Non-combat Action

Cinematic Combat leaves greater capacity for non-combat activities and elevates these to be equal or greater in importance than the combat that is taking place alongside such activities.

Look and Feel

And, by replacing relatively flavorless mechanics with flavor-rich narrative, the GM can adjust the content and style of his delivery in order to control the look and feel of the encounter.

Justification Examples

Whenever the fight should not be the center of attention, cinematic combat is the preferable approach. A group of PCs trying to hold off hostile forces while another PC attempts to solve a puzzle, pick a lock, reprogram a missile, hack a computer, defuse a bomb, negotiate with an enemy – the list is endless – for example.

Or perhaps the outcome of the combat doesn’t matter as much as the amount of time it takes while something else is happening, or how the PCs behave during combat, or the combat itself is relatively trivial compared to the fact that it has taken place – trying to prevent or intercept an attacker who is trying to reach a target protected by the PCs.

Whenever the PCs are up against a deadline, by the end of which the combat has to be resolved – indicating that the Pace of the action is more important than the action itself – cinematic combat is at least worth considering.

Or perhaps the need is to emphasize a particular look-and-feel rather than being slavish to the game mechanics. Barroom brawls, a duel while the combatants balance on a piece of rope stretched between two masts, a PC and group of NPC grunts vs another group of NPC grunts, combat between two starships using a game system that doesn’t explicitly cater for it, a dogfight – these are all valid reasons to employ cinematic combat.

What To Throw Away

So Cinematic Combat is all about throwing away game mechanics and substituting something simpler. The question is therefore “what to throw away?”

Cinematic Timekeeping

The first thing to get tossed aside like a chew-toy is any detailed timekeeping. I’ve actually reported previously on my adapting a D&D 3.5 Initiative/Combat-Sequence approach to the Hero System (Taking the initiative with the Hero System). You can’t afford a high level of granularity in a cinematic combat sequence; you want the fight to Flow. This is so much a sine-qua-non of cinematic combat that it can be taken as read.

The Elements Of Combat

After that, it gets more complicated. Combat Systems – all of them – essentially come down to Tactical Assessments, Number Of Attacks, Attack rolls, Defensive or Target Comparisons, Resolution, Damage Calculation, and Consequences Assessment. Attack Rolls may have Critical Hit and/or Fumble sub-steps. Damage Calculation may have Hit Location complications, and may also be different based on those attack roll variations.

The question can be simplified by uniting these into logical groups. Tactical Assessments usually modify attack rolls, so they can be combined, and an attack roll is nothing without the Defense/Target comparison and Resolution. And Number of attacks is just more of the same. Abstracting all of that into a single Combat Element makes perfect sense to me.

Because Critical Hits alter the Damage Calculation, and Fumbles are the other side of the coin to that, those three elements can be considered a second Combat Element. The same basic argument also integrates Hit Location into the damage assessment.

That leaves Consequence Assessment to stand alone as a third combat element, though you could argue that Critical Hits and Fumbles should be in a group with it. Either way, we’ve – in theory – simplified combat mechanics down to three things from nine elements to three, and that’s good enough for the first level of abstraction.

But we’re a long way from being able to actually accomplish that. How do you combine these elements? What are the effects on combat? What are the traps?

The Attack Element

This is actually a lot simpler than it might seem. There are four elements to be combined into a single abstract quality. The trick is to remove the complications, building everything into a single die roll. For many reasons, the best choice of die roll to work from is a d20; it’s linear probability nature, and degree of granularity permits substantial finessing of results.

Relative Attack

We start with the character – PC or NPC – who is both participating in the combat sequence and who has the lowest attack value, ignoring any tactical or circumstantial modifiers. I tag his score as “Base”. Everyone else is rated relative to that score. If you are using a game system that already employs linear probability to determine combat results, that is a simple subtraction; if your game system uses 3d6 then you might need to take into account the “bulge” in probable result centered on the 10.5 mark; but that’s much more complicated, so we’ll deal with it separately.

What you want to know is an approximation of the linear-probability gap from the base combat score to the individual scores of all the other combat participants. If there is a substantial gap between the scores of the PCs and those of the NPC combatants / monsters, you may need to choose separate base values. In the case of multiple attacks at different attack values, as happens in the d20 system, D&D, and Pathfinder, ignore the other attacks and just calculate from the first attack score.

For example, assuming that higher is better, if the PCs have d20 attack scores of 15, 16, 13, 9, and 10, the base score is 9, and the characters have values of +6, +7, +4, +0, and +1, respectively. Jot them down on a piece of paper, a notepad, or a whiteboard. If lower is better – and some counterintuitive game mechanics operate that way – then the base value (ie worst attack value) is 16, and the modifiers are -1, -0, -3, -7, and -6 respectively. The way to tell: “higher is better” translates into “roll this or less”, while “lower is better” translates into “roll this or more”.

Continuing the example, and making the same assumption, if the NPCs/monsters had attack scores of 12, this fits nicely into the same range of results, so use the same base roll and a value of +3. If the NPCs/monsters had an attack score of 2, or of 25, though, it would not fit so comfortably in the same range; you would end up with values of -7 and +13. The first can be lived with, but just barely; the second is more problematic.

Relative Defense

Attack rolls are meaningless until compared to a defensive target. Some systems add the attack value to a die roll to compare with the target, others require the gap between die roll and attack value to exceed the defenses of the target in order to penetrate the defenses. There are other variations; the Hero System adds a fixed +11 to the attack value and subtracts the defensive value of the target to determine the number that must be rolled on 3d6. There are a lot more variations in defensive simulation “theory” than in attack models.

We don’t care about any of that. All we need is a relative assessment of the defensive or target values presented by the different targets – a base value and an assessment of how much better or worse the other values are. If the combat system is non-linear, we also need to account for the potential for the better defensive values to shift combat target values to the “wrong side” of the probability bulge.

Depending on which yields the most convenient results, you can either employ a “highest equals base” approach or a “lowest equals base”. A “lowest=base” approach produces negative modifiers for the better defenses, reducing the relative attack values, sending some into the negative; the “highest=base” approach yields further pluses to attack, which is often easier for GMs to calculate but may be harder to translate into meaningful results. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want the total to exceed the size of your die’s range of results – a d20 has a range of 19, so that’s the highest that can be accommodated. However, in a non-linear combat system, 6 of that range have to be set aside to accommodate the probability bulge, as discussed below – so the biggest range that can be accommodated is 13.

My approach is therefore to consider the “highest=base” approach first, and if the highest combination has a total of 20 or more (14 or more in a 3d6 system), use the “lowest=base” approach.

There’s a slight twist in the logic applied above that might not be clear to the casual reader.

A better defense means that it’s harder to score a successful hit; that means that a “highest=base” approach means that all relative values to the base make it easier to score a successful hit, and therefore add “+modifiers” to the relative attack chance.

Conversely, it also means that using the “lowest=base” means that the modifiers reflect a reduction in the chance of a successful hit, and therefore operate in the opposite direction to the relative attack modifiers; those were “+modifiers”, so the relative defensive values have to be “-modifiers”.

For example: Defensive values of 16, 20, 22, 14, and 17. “Highest=Base” gives a base of 22, and modifiers of +6, +2, +0, +8, and +5. The highest attack modifier that we have from the d20 (linear) combat model is +7; combining that with the highest defensive value of +8 gives a +15 total. This is well within our 19-point range, so that works fine, and this will be the case 99% of the time.
Abstract Combat Table 1

The end product

We have defined a “Base vs Base” result that is the worst attacker vs the strongest defender. If a character has a better attack, he will have a +modifier to the likelihood of successfully hitting that defender; if the defender has a weaker defense, whoever is attacking them will also have a +modifier to the likelihood of successfully hitting that defender.

You could draw up a table showing all the combinations, as shown to the left, but that sounds too much like work to me, and it’s totally unnecessary. All you need is a pair of lists: PC1 A+6, PC2 A+2, PC3 A+0 (and so on), and Tgt1 D+6, Tgt 2 D+7, Tgt 3 D+4, and so on. Of course, you’ll also need attack and defense values for the NPCs attacking the PCs – but that’s simply a matter of extending the lists.

When an attack is made, the attacker simply rolls a d20, the GM mentally adds the attacker’s attack modifier and the defender’s defense modifier, and interprets the result.

Ahh, if only it were that simple.
Roll_of_3d6-sm

The complicating bulge

The biggest wrinkle to be tackled is the non-linear nature of some combat systems’ die rolls – typically 3d6, but there are all sorts of variations. That means that there is a probability “hump” around the average roll result. If your required roll is higher than this, and you have to roll higher than a target, your chances of success are considerably lower than a strict linear accounting (such as I’ve been using) shows. If your required roll is higher, and you have to roll less than a target value, the hump significantly boosts your chances of success.

While an exact accounting of the changes is far too complicated and messy to be practical, some notional adjustment is needed – a tip of the abstract hat to the greater or lesser chances of success. Because the actual adjustments vary too much with specific game systems, I don’t think it’s possible to offer a general solution that is applicable in every case, or even in most of them.

I can offer some broad advice, however. What that comes down to is a three-step procedure:

  • Assess a base-attack-vs-base-defense attempt to hit – what needs to be rolled for success?
  • Use the result to assess where the base-attack-vs-base-defense combination falls on the 3d6 curve, relative to the “hump”. On 3d6, I consider results of 9-10-11-12 to be that “hump”.
  • A better attack will move the hump one way or the other of the succeed/fail division point; a better defense will move it in the other direction.
  • Use this information to assess each combined adjustment (attack and defense) at the time an attack is made; use a quick rule of thumb (given below) to assign an adjustment to the attack chances that gives a rough approximation of the corrected chances to successfully hit. A “+modifier” represents an increased chance to hit; a “-modifier” represents a decreased chance to hit.

So, to that rough rule of thumb:

  • 9 to 11 or 12, or 10 to 12 – i.e. moving from one side of the hump to the other – is worth plus-or-minus 1.
  • 7 or 8 to 11 or 12, i.e. moving from outside the hump to a chance that includes the hump is worth plus-or-minus 2.
  • 6 or below to 11 or 12, i.e. moving from very early on the curve to include the hump is worth plus-or-minus 3.
  • any change from 11 or 12 to 13 or 14 is worth an additional plus-or-minus 1.
  • any change from 11 or 12 to 15 or 16 is worth an additional plus-or-minus 2.
  • any change from 11 or 12 to 17 or better is worth an additional plus-or-minus 3.
An Example

That might not make a lot of sense without an example. So let’s say that we have a “roll X or less” combat system, and that our base-attack-vs-base-defense combination attempt to hit requires 7 or less to hit. This is slightly to the left of the hump, indicating a relatively poor chance of success. A better attack will increase this number, so more of the hump will act to improve chances to hit; a worse defense will do likewise. Assuming a “higher=base” defense assessment – which is what I prefer to use, because it’s all addition – that means that assessing what the modifier due to non-linearity is simply a matter of getting the total modifier.

So, if we have a +5 attack (PC 5) and a +4 defense (NPC 3), indicating that PC 5 is attacking NPC 3, we have a total of +9 from a starting point of 7, i.e. a shift from 7 to 16 on the table above. “7 or 8 to 11 or 12″ gives +3, and the further change from “11 or 12 to 15 or 16″ is worth an additional +2. So the total modifiers for this particular attacker/defender combination is actually +9+3+2=+14.

non-linear Practicality

To be honest, I know the 3d6 probability curve well enough that I don’t bother with the rule of thumb given above; tell me “7 or less” and “+9″ and an answer of “+5 more on a d20″ pops straight out (That’s one of the benefits of Gaming for 34 years). What I’ve described above is the best approximation of my subconscious number-crunching that I can capture.

Tactical Modifier

Tactical Modifiers are now simplicity itself. The GM simply takes ALL the circumstances, in aggregate, into account, and decrees “+0″ or “+1″ or whatever feels right. DON’T let a player begin to rattle off “book values” or mechanics: “I’ve got reach, I’m attacking from behind, by surprise, I’m flanking him, and I’m invisible so that’s a modifier of…” To all such, the answer is “I’ve already taken all that into account”. You can even consider giving the enemy attackers an extra +1 if the player repeats his litany. The character is already in as advantageous a tactical position as he can get, so far as you are concerned, and the modifier you’ve mentally assigned is appropriate to that determination.

Number Of Attacks Modifier

Some game systems give characters multiple attacks at decreasing chances of success. Some give a character multiple attacks at the same attack value in a given time frame according to some stat.

Here’s the truth about abstracting such situations: An increased number of attacks gives a better chance of at least one of them hitting, so the character gets a bonus to hit. I use +1 per extra attack per +5 or less of other modifiers. And it increases the average total amount of damage done, so that needs to get taken into account when abstracting the damage part of the combat.

Example Continued

The highest combined modifier we have is +15. If the attacker in that case has two extra attacks, he gets +3 attack modifier to represent each of those extra attacks (+15/5=+3). If the total was only +14, it would be +2 attack modifier per attack.

The Universal Success Target

Success is a modified roll of Twenty or more. This is the target for ALL characters – apply the case-by-case modifiers to the actual die roll to determine the outcome of an attack – success or failure.

The upshot

The net effect of all this is to take the entire mechanism of determining whether or not a target has been damaged to a single yes-or-no determination based on whether or not the player rolls a target number or less.

It takes only:

  • a second or two to list the attack and defense values of the combat participants, per participant;
  • another second to identify the lowest attack;
  • another one or two per participant to list the differences between this value and the other participants;
  • another to identify the highest defense, and one or two to identify the lowest and get that difference, telling you whether or not you can use the preferred “highest=base” defense approach, or need to use the “lowest=base” approach; allow one more to interpret the result;
  • another second or two per participant to list the differences between the base defensive value and the defensive values of the other participants.

Total prep time for combat between 5 PCs and 5 NPCs: 10-20 plus 1 plus 10-20 plus 1 plus 1-2 plus 1 plus 10-20 equals a grand total of 34-65 seconds.

But it’s in conducting combat that the real benefit emerges. Instead of identifying and analyzing who-knows-how-many tactical modifiers, rolling a die per attack (or 3 dice and getting a total), applying (possibly different) combat values to each, looking up the defensive value of the target, comparing each total to that value, and interpreting each result, there is ONE roll, to which two or three modifiers are added, and an interpretation of the result. You don’t need a second-by-second breakdown to see that the abstraction is a LOT faster.

I didn’t consciously set out to dedicate Mondays to writing article series and Thursdays to standalone articles, but I’ve found that it’s a lot harder writing two series at once. So – for now, at least – that’s the pattern that I find myself in. But that’s not a bad thing – consistency of subject on the one side balanced with something with a greater chance of finding favor an audience who aren’t into that series on the other.

The alternative – seriously contemplated – was to use both Monday and Thursday for a series, so that whatever the subject, it gets dealt with in half the real-world time. But sometimes you need that extra time up your sleeve; a number of times I’ve only been able to get the next part in a series finished by scheduling a relatively short and simple article for the other part of the week, freeing up time to work on the series. So this seems the best compromise. But it will only take one filler article when the next part of a series is nowhere near ready, and the pattern will swap ends of the week.

So the plan is to present part two of this series, dealing with abstracted damage handling, next Monday…

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A Helping Handout


give-me-1113096-mHungry v2

Hungry, over at Ravenous Roleplaying, is a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his regular “Friday Faves” column, in which he collects links to the articles that have most inspired or interested him from the past week. When he has time, he accompanies those links with some comments; these are always interesting, and sometimes genuinely insightful and inspiring.

Last week, in the Friday Faves, he talked about an article at Gnome Stew by Phil Vecchione, Getting Handy with GM Handouts.

In his commentary on the article, Hungry described how his players didn’t seem to respect his efforts when he invested time and effort into game handouts, frequently spending just three seconds glancing at whatever it might be, and lauding Phil’s article as (he hoped) being the key to extending those three-second glances into three minutes of gaming value.

Having observed the “three-second glance” myself, at times, I was sufficiently intrigued to check out Phil’s article for myself, and found it to be both well worth reading, and yet somehow incomplete. Within the bounds of achieving the purposes for handouts that Phil establishes, his techniques are quite reasonable and effective, but I can’t help but feel that he has set the bar too low, and hence is not getting all the value that he could from his handouts – and that he has inadvertently passed on that low-bar objective to others who read the article and implement his advice.

His article, in other words, doesn’t go far enough, isn’t ambitious enough. Handouts can do far more than the limited and superficial purposes that he has assigned to them, and can be far more useful to the GM than his article allows. And that’s what this article is all about.

Specific Exclusions

I want to start by specifically excluding two types of campaign material that could be provided in handout form. These should not be bound by the restrictions imposed on Handouts, because they are designed for players to take away and assimilate over a longer time-frame. If the material is not intended for “immediate consumption” then it should not suffer under the restrictions imposed by providing the material in a format designed to facilitate such consumption.

The first exclusion are any Rules Documents. These can be catalogs of precedents that are to be considered “official rulings” henceforth, they might be some specific extension of the game rules (see, for example, “I Got A Plot Device and I know how to use it: Bluffing in the Hero System“, or A strong wind blows: Environmental effects for RPGs, both of which include rules handouts written for the Adventurer’s Club campaign.).

The second exclusion is anything intended to impart Campaign Background or overall Game World information to the players. Some GMs produce such briefing documents (usually before play begins), some don’t; a relative minority treat them as living documents and actively update them as hitherto-unknown chapters of the game history are discovered by the PCs. Personally, I strongly recommend these and always try to provide them for my campaigns, but YMMV.

Note that this doesn’t mean that I tell my players everything, or that everything that I DO tell them is necessarily accurate. What I provide is the best information available to their characters, and no more accurate or complete than any other common folklore or historical overview. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m giving the campaign it’s best chances of succeeding unless about 75% of these contents are inaccurate or incomplete – because I can then build adventures and encounters around the differences between documented belief and “the truth”. Denying yourself such a rich source of in-game content is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

The 13 purposes of handouts

When I listed all the possible purposes to which handouts could be put, I ended up with ten – but Phil’s article specifically targeted one restricted form of one of the purposes, so I added the other three that I think can be included, in direct contradiction to what Phil has advised, as separate items, bringing the total to a lucky 13.

The first 4 are from Phil’s article:

  1. Downtime Filler*
  2. Info-dump (Immediate Relevance)*
  3. Eye Candy*
  4. Tactical Information*

The rest are what I think can be added to that list:

  1. Info-dump (Short-term Relevance)*
  2. Info-dump (Medium-term Relevance)
  3. Info-dump (Long-term Relevance)
  4. Verisimilitude*
  5. Color*
  6. Context
  7. Subtext
  8. Immersion
  9. Characterization through Customization

* indicates relevance to convention play. The fact that 4/7 of the items so tagged derive from Phil’s article suggest to me that his initial approach may have derived from Convention Play, and that the larger potentials (which require a longer-term campaign before they can provide value) were largely overlooked for that reason. But that’s just speculation on my part.

A special note about maps

Phil specifically suggests including map information. I tend to think about maps as a separate class of handout simply because a good map needs to be at least one page in size to carry enough information to be useful, in my opinion. (I also tend to treat eye candy as separate items because I want to be able to display the graphics on my laptop as they become relevant to the adventure. But that’s neither here nor there).

Phil’s example shows a map that is so small as to be close to useless except as eye candy and two lines of text, in my opinion. It looks very pretty, but it fills a lot of the available space for limited functionality. I would rather have the two lines of text, and bullet-point summaries of the three towns in the region that are shown on the map – taking up about 1/4 of the space used for the map, leaving room for more content.

But that’s my taste in such things, and readers shouldn’t feel obligated to take the same approach as I do. What it means is that you will find no reference to maps in the purposes I’ve listed above – I think Maps should be a third variety of “excluded material”. But I’ve placed them, and this discussion, in a sort of halfway-house because Phil’s article includes them. Feel free to consider them a 14th category if your style aligns with Phil’s!

1. Downtime Filler

I never use a handout as a downtime filler. I want my non-participating players paying attention to what is happening at the table even though their characters are not present, simply because it saves the playing time that would be required to bring them up to speed – and avoids fallible memories on the part of the player actually participating. If there’s something going on that really does require the player to make decisions or discoveries to which the other players are not privy, we step away from the game table.

In fact, rather than using a handout as a downtime filler, I will actively shift the spotlight to give a player time to assimilate a handout specifically targeted at their character – a subtle but profound distinction.

But that’s all a legacy of the number of available hours a month in which to game – 4 or 5 for any given campaign, sometimes less. If we were playing the same campaign every week, or had more hours available on a playing day, my gaming approach might be different – though it was the same when we were playing the Champions Campaign fortnightly, for 10-12 hours a day (sometimes more), so perhaps not.

Of course, not specifically targeting “downtime filler” as an intended function of a handout doesn’t mean that they can’t be designed with the expectation that the players will use that downtime to study the handout! On the contrary, I’m of the opinion that if you issue a handout, the players need to be given time to study it – and that can either be time spent on that activity as a group, or individually during character downtime.

Hungry specifically cites the toner required for the production of handouts as a reason why he dislikes them as a GM. I can sympathize. I get around that problem by producing just one copy of a handout, regardless of its length – it’s “read a page and then pass it to the player on your left”. This round-robin approach solves that problem and can fit with either of the approaches to including “study time” in your session schedule with only a little variation. I mention it here because this is where those approaches are discussed.

2. Info-dump (Immediate Relevance)

Phil makes a specific point about the information provided being directly relevant to the session at hand. In fact, he makes the point twice. Sorry, but I don’t agree.

That’s not to say that some of the information provided should not be directly relevant – it should be. You could even argue that the majority of it should be, and some of the remainder should be indirectly relevant – I’ll get to that a little later.

Restricting the value of a handout to content directly relevant to the day’s play makes the handout more of a disposable commodity, and that doesn’t actually encourage players to play close attention to it; rather, it promotes a quick skim and more detailed reading when the information becomes immediately relevant – hence the label applied to this sort of information.

The other problem with this sort of info-dump is that critical information is often not going to be available to the players prior to the start of play – so you either jump the gun, giving out the information early, or delay giving them the handouts until they get the information in question, or you have to produce a second handout.

I don’t consider any of those particularly acceptable. My solution is something discussed much later in the article (in the section “Different Handouts for Different Purposes?”); suffice it to say that I employ a variation on the “second handout” approach.

3. Eye Candy

I never – well, hardly ever – distribute Eye Candy as a handout unless it also serves as a prop, and then only if the plot mandates the use of a prop. Frankly, there are better ways of distributing eye candy. The last time I can remember doing so was during my TORG campaign, at least ten years ago, when I produced a letter which I artificially aged and very carefully imbued with a lavender scent by staining the page with Lavender Oil, hitting it with a blast from a lavender-scented air-freshener, and rubbing the carefully-died paper with lavender-scented talcum powder. The scent was an essential clue to the players, explaining why I went to such lengths – I was taking no chances!

That letter was a masterpiece, if I do say so myself – colored pencil, water-color paint, coffee and tea baths, ironing to compress the heavy paper, writing part of the letter in permanent marker (so that it wouldn’t run) and part in Lemon Juice which was made visible by baking the page, carefully singing one edge of the paper, abrading the paper in places with gentle application of sandpaper, dripping wax on the page, making an envelope out of the same sort of art paper, making a wax seal and carefully breaking it to show that someone else had already read it – I spent two full days making it. I even rubbed slices of fresh mushroom onto it to give it a slightly musty odor under the lingering Lavender scent! But it was central to selling the plot to the Players.

Getting back on point, not only are there better ways of disseminating eye candy, but not wasting space on it frees that space for more functional content.

4. Tactical Information

I suspect from the example that he included that Phil included this within his “info-dump” category, but I think it warrants a place of its’ own. The actual content that would be covered under this heading would vary from one game system and genre to another; for example:

  • D&D/Pathfinder: Creature information shorn of game mechanics and using emotive, relative terminology in its place. “Immensely strong”, “Extremely Resilient”, “Quick-witted”, “Touch creates agony”, etc. This relates what the PCs already know about a creature the GM expects them to encounter in the course of the day, so a brief descriptive narrative or illustration may also be valid in a non-eye-candy way. In particular, if known to the PCs, preferred habitats, warning signs, and usual combat tactics (in general terms) are also useful. NB: if the creatures to be encountered are ones that the PCs already know, the GM can use this opportunity to provide misinformation while educating the players on another of the creatures they might one day encounter!
  • Superhero/Law Enforcement: A one-paragraph capsule bio of a villain, or the peculiarities of a particular law that will be relevant to the events of the day e.g. “probable cause”, etc.
  • Sci-Fi: An abbreviated summary of a scientific principle that will be relevant to the adventure at hand, or information on a particular planet, culture, or race, or information on a particular model of ship.

GMs should decide what the players need to know in order to make informed decisions in the course of the current day’s play for their campaigns. (And yes, I know that the examples offered provide a rather broad interpretation of “Tactical” – the key parameter is not necessarily combat, it’s decision-making).

5. Info-dump (Short-term Relevance)

Okay, so let’s talk about time-scale definitions. “Immediate” for me means the current game session; “Short-Term” means within the next 2-to-4 game sessions; medium term means within the next 6 months to a year; and long-term is anything more than that. But that’s playing once a month; if you play fortnightly, divide those time-frames in two (except for “immediate” of course), and if you play every week, divide them by three. Round up where necessary.

Having stated what I mean by the time-scale “Short-term”, let’s look at what and you might want to include under this heading, and why.

There’s a lot that can be done under the umbrella of short-term relevance. This is an opportunity to give players background information on broader topics that will become relevant in the near-future, and that might provide a context to the events that will lead to the information becoming relevant. For example, if you tell the players that Elves are going to become important to the campaign over the next few months, the PCs will start watching for anything that might relate to Elves, and will be more aware of any event that might connect with the Elvish involvement or attitudes. This effectively prepares the ground for the next stages of the campaign.

Then, there is the potential for misdirection. Getting the players focused in a particular direction or on a particular potential threat can influence their choices and behavior, steering the campaign in the direction the GM wants it to go. For example, describing Drow as the “masters of covert manipulation” is sure to arouse paranoia about Drow involvement when the PCs start noticing something that might be explained by “covert manipulation”. The secret to being fair about this technique is for the misinterpretation to be widespread amongst a large segment of the society; getting the PCs to be a little paranoid about Drow Plots is simply helping depict the PCs as part of their society.

Of course, this sort of thing is far less effective if the PCs aren’t used to receiving credible information about the game world under this heading. Before you can lie effectively, you need to establish your credibility!

6. Info-dump (Medium-term Relevance)

Today’s article was almost complete when an inadvertent click wiped out everything after this point. While I was able to recreate virtually all of the substance, a lot of the examples have been almost completely lost.

The medium-term is of extraordinary value as a means of making a campaign dynamic instead of static. In the real world, it takes years, decades, or even a generation for social, historical, and economic trends to manifest. Most RPGs don’t have that sort of scale, so it becomes necessary to compress time somewhat.

Such trends have three stages: Before the public become aware of them, after the public become aware of them but before they affect day-to-day life, and the period when they are of immediate significance.

I had a substantial example depicting the buildup to an attempted invasion of a neighboring Kingdom that was lost. The text below captures the essence of what the example depicted.

In terms of game-play, the first stage is when the trend is only noticeable by those with inside knowledge, and sometimes not even then, so it has no effect. The second stage is when people are expressing opinions on the subject, but the overall perspective is evenly balanced between different courses of action; as the stage proceeds, the trend is increasingly the subject of conversation, and the majority of opinions tends to shift into a few unified camps, one of which is in an increasingly-clear majority. At the end of the second stage, action is taken either as a result of, or to mitigate, or to take advantage of, the trend. This action then becomes a day-to-day factor that has to be taken into account by everyone in the affected society, either resident or visiting, including the PCs.

In terms of handout content, unless someone gets advance warning through customized content (see later in the article), the first time the trend gets mentioned should be at the point of entry into stage 2, and it would take the form “people are talking about [X]”, or “There is a growing movement toward [X]”, or something along those lines. From this point on, it will increasingly get brought up in general conversation with NPCs – from occasionally (and fairly dispassionately), to frequently, to regularly (and with strong opinions). In addition, throughout stage 2, the consequences and side-effects of the trend should be increasingly noticeable, and influential people should increasingly demand action – often of radically different sorts. From the point at which such action is taken, the trend shifts from being of medium-term relevance to being of immediate consequence. Once that happens, it starts affecting the PCs in ways beyond being a mere subject of conversation.

Handouts during the time that the trend is in stage 2 should consist of general news-bytes, a few lines long, each highlighting one of: the trend itself (and it’s supposed causes); opinions expressed by notable figures; and mention of the immediate-level consequences of the trend. Depending on what the trend is, this could be anything from public protests, controversial demonstrations, civil unrest, public condemnation by hard-line authorities, perpetrated injustices, and economic and trade impacts.

At the same time as one trend is in the latter stages of stage 2, a second is generally in the early phases of stage 1, ready to start becoming a general subject of discussion (ie entering stage 2) sometime shortly after the earlier trend enters phase 3 and begins to head toward a resolution. The subject of this second trend is often related to undesirable side-effects or consequences of the action taken regarding the trend that is of immediate impact, or otherwise deriving from it.

Of course, once the trend begins directly affecting the PCs, they can also begin affecting the outcome of the actions taken in response to the trend, even if these are never a primary consideration; they can make a difference through inadvertent consequences of whatever they are doing. Remember the old aphorism that begins For want of a nail“? Picture the PCs as accidentally impacting the nail supply…

Because the players see the trends highlighted in the handout having an increasing impact on their character’s lives, they become aware of the campaign world as a dynamic, changing, and evolving location. What’s more, the clear implication is that if the PCs do something in the game world, whatever it may be, it will have appropriate consequences for the campaign. These may be trivial, or profound, and will often not be what the players might have forecast at the time.

7. Info-dump (Long-term Relevance)

A section of the handout dedicated to mentioning subjects of long-term relevance is less concerned with the historical and social forces that are influencing, or will soon influence, the world around the characters, and is more concerned with the ultimate course of the campaign itself, and the forces that are driving those developments. Only as the campaign approaches a climax will the subjects mentioned in this section begin to manifest, first in trends of medium-term relevance, and then – at the actual climax adventure – in day-to-day significance.

Content that falls under this banner are an example of one of the themes of the campaign, a recap of an event that went unnoticed by the PCs at the time, and other events whose significance will take a long time to manifest.

8. Verisimilitude

One of the side-effects of the content described so far, a benefit that comes along for the ride, is an increase in the Verisimilitude of the campaign. It will feel more “real” to the players, because it will feel less like their characters exist in a vacuum and more like they are part of a wider world – one that sometimes impacts on the lives of those characters in a substantiative manner.

The medium- and long-term relevance info-dumps add depth to the campaign, and make it easier for the GM to focus game-time on the immediate.

9. Color

Game handouts are a great vector for general trivia that adds color to the game world. These can be anything from gossip, to factoids, to anecdote, to superstition. These are items of deliberately-negligible immediate relevance, but which accumulate to show that there is more substance to the game world than is presented in the course of play. A few fantasy-themed examples:

  • “The leading collector of militaria is Hawthin Longfellow, a Halfling.”
  • “Any mage with fewer than two apprentices a year after graduation is considered professionally disreputable by the Thak-Durn Arcane Society.”
  • “After he was badly scarred in battle, King Wallend ordered that all coins bearing his former face be disfigured and issued fresh currency with a symbolic crown in place of his likeness.”
  • “During the neo-Barbaric Art Movement, the most expensive pigment was Greenscale, made from the blood of Goblins.”

You could spend a (short) paragraph describing the scabbard-carvings of a particular culture, or the “fact” that Troglodytes consider two to be an unlucky number, or the fashion in Dwarfish Beards. Anything and everything that adds color to the game world, in fact.

And, as an added side-benefit, these are a great source of encounters or adventures in a pinch!

10. Context

“Context” is all about adding relevance to events that have just taken place. These can be direct, or by way of analogy. They call out those events that took place in the last session that will have repercussions at some point in the future, especially those that may have gone unnoticed at the time.

11. Subtext

Where Context is about the past, “Subtext” is about the immediate future. This is the use of anecdote and metaphor to add additional layers of meaning to the events that are about to unfold. “Most people think Elves are paranoid when it comes to Drow” might be a good example. “Lefayre Citadel was thought impregnable until Grek The Great-Orc obtained the services of the Alchemist Droken-Thoria, who devised a waterproof corrosive paste that enabled the Orcs to cut an entrance through the bars protecting the sewer outlets. The moral: anyone who thinks themselves invulnerable is overlooking something,” is a better one.

12. Immersion

In addition to verisimilitude, content types 9 to 11 carry another added benefit: Immersion. By highlighting significance and substance, the game world becomes less shallow and more substantial.

On top of that inherent quality, adding trivia about people and places with whom the PCs are about to interact makes it easier for the players to feel a part of the game setting without the GM spending additional playing time for the purpose.

13. Characterization through Customization

If you are only producing one copy of the handout in the expectation that it will be passed around, this won’t matter. But if you are intent on giving each player his own, why not spend a minute or two customizing the content to suit the background and racial profile of that character?

Fighters usually have a military background. Mages receive arcane instruction, which may or may not be the cultural equivalent of a “science” degree. Clerics receive training in theology.

Elves look at the world differently from Dwarves, who look at the world differently to Humans, and so on – or, at least, they should.

Both of these factors should shape the interpretation of some items, or even leave to some things being left out of their handouts because they aren’t considered relevant, replaced by an appropriate notation.

The Easy route to Customization

It doesn’t take much effort to achieve this. As you write each item, review it for distinct perspective shifts, and create the necessary variants at the same time. Add a code to indicate which specific characters get the variant version. Put everything into your master template, save it under a unique filename, then highlight and cut to exclude anything character one doesn’t get, “save as” to save his unique copy, reload the working copy, highlight and cut passages as necessary out to get character two’s version, and so on.

Ease Of Assimilation vs Depth Of Content

Phil’s article insists on bullet points for easy assimilation. I don’t necessarily agree; bullet points take up more visual real estate for each item, sacrificing depth of content. Bullet points are probably the difference between two-or-three sentences of content and four-or-five – so that’s around 50-60% more content that you can fit using a paragraph-based format.

Furthermore, some people work naturally in bullet points, others don’t. Johnn Four is one of the former, I’m one of the latter. I’ve learned to use them, but it takes me up to twice as long. So I would recommend either that you use the approach that best suits you, or you choose using a horses-for-courses approach; a lot of the content listed above is amenable to the bullet-point treatment, but a lot of it seems better suited to presentation as a three-or-four sentence paragraph.

For example, if I take the preceding paragraph and put it into bullet points:
 

  • Some people work naturally in bullet points, others don’t.
  • Johnn Four is an example of the first group. I’m an example of the second.
  • If it doesn’t come naturally, you can still work in bullet-point format, but it will take up to twice as long.
  • I would recommend either using the approach that best suits you, or,
  • Using a horses-for-courses approach that is content-dependent.

The bullet-point format clearly takes up more space to say the same thing. The number of lines of text is not all that different, but the column width available is less, and there’s “white space” between the bullet-pointed items; furthermore, several lines leave empty space at the end of individual lines.

The Keeper Of Secrets

If you go with the one-copy-to-be-passed-around approach, it makes sense to designate one (reliable) player to act as “The Keeper Of Secrets”, responsible for archiving past handouts for later reference. Sure, the GM can do it, but he’s already got a lot on his plate.

My choice would be to use a clear-book, with a page of notepaper facing each handout so that there is somewhere for players to make notes, but that’s up to you.

Production Value vs Content Value

Phil’s example clearly puts a premium on production value. But where should your priorities lie? I would argue that content value is more important than making it all look pretty. On the other hand, using templates and pre-built background textures and consistent graphics, you can reduce some production value elements to one-time investments.

Content value should never be sacrificed for production values, but without crossing that border, you may be able to achieve quite satisfactory results that are better than plain text on white. It depends on how skilled you are with your word processor of choice and what it supports.

Different Handouts for Different Purposes?

Another unstated assumption that Phil makes is that he will provide only one handout, a kitchen-sink model that bears some resemblance to a campaign newsletter. To be honest, most of the time that’s not what I think of when I consider the subject of handouts.

What I create and use are documents designed for in-game interaction with the players – half prop and half document. For example, here’s a list of the handouts that were employed in a recent adventure for the Adventurer’s Club campaign:

  • Catholic Churches in central London – a map & key
  • December 193x London Weather synopsis
  • M’s Appointments
  • Notes to players – to be separated for distribution
  • Profile, Archbishop Of Canterbury – a somewhat-revised version of the actual Archbishop of the period
  • Chinese Embassy Personnel List – all invented people
  • MI5 Activity report on Chinese Embassy Personnel for Dec 6, 193x
  • Japanese Embassy Personnel List – all invented people
  • M’s Case Notes & reports, all currently active cases
  • MI6 profile of the “Shadow Demon” Tong – an NPC organization
  • MI6 profile of Tatsuya Hiyatsu – a key NPC
  • Telegram to Captain Ferguson (one of the PCs) about Kasugi activities
  • “The Compact” – obscure and suppressed theological doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church
  • Specifications of a tramp steamer, with blueprints and operational notes
  • Tourist Map of central London, 1930s

In addition, there were folders of photographic reference, and amended versions of some of the above documents for GM use, and a couple of documents exclusively for GM reference.

In a nutshell, M was assassinated in his office. There was suspicion directed toward M’s deputy of the time, so the PCs were called in to uncover the identity of the Assassin since the intelligence organization could not be trusted to conduct their investigation in-house.

The murder coincided with the visit of a Yakuza leader who had established common ground with the PCs in an earlier Adventure. One of M’s open cases dealt with the Kasugi family, the arch-enemies of one of the PCs, and a supply of rare ores to Germany for munitions manufacturing in exchange for “re-birthing” and refurbishment of pirated vessels; they were certainly more than capable of using assassination if it advanced or protected their agenda. And the presence of a demonic being in London led the Catholic Church to dispatch a member of Opus Dei (which, in this pulp universe, is a super-spy organization under church control), with whom the PCs had crossed swords in the past, and who was also a potential assassin. So, no shortage of suspects.

In the end, it turned out that the Chinese Government had contracted with an assassin to Kill M using blowfish venom to make it look like the Japanese were responsible, in order to persuade the British Government to tighten bonds with China prior to an anticipated Japanese invasion of the mainland. It might have worked, but unknown to the Chinese, their assassin was a demonically-empowered Tong Leader who took advantage of his presence in London to seize control over several of the local criminal organizations. This kept him in town long enough for the PCs to get on his scent, uncover the real perpetrator, and identify his employers. As a result, the plot has backfired and Britain will keep China’s problems at arm’s length when the invasion begins – historically, several years before World War II officially begins.

We could have used Phil’s approach for some the above, but greatly enhanced the verisimilitude of the adventure by producing a reasonable facsimile of the contents of an “official” MI6 report. (You might also note that we haven’t specified what the current game year is – we intend to keep it mid-1930s for virtually the entire campaign), but are fully prepared to play fast-and-loose with times and events as necessary. So last year, game time, was an amalgam of 1935 and 1936, with infusions of 1933, 1934 and 1937; so far, the current in-game year is pure 1936, but that’s only because we’ve had no need to incorporate events from elsewhen. And next year will be, at least in part, 1936 again).

The Ticket to success with Handouts

Getting back to the point, the ultimate definition of a handout, in my opinion, is a communication designed to interact with the players. Phil’s handouts are one example of a single type of handout, and even within that narrow niche, are capable of far more than he currently uses them for. His approach works for him, but undersells the value and potential of handouts.

Of course, the GM can and should expect that the players have read the provided material – something that is not facilitated by long blocks of text or by bullet-points, most of the time. Instead, aim for a single three-or-four line paragraph or short list of bullet-points for each of the categories described and ensure that the plot requires the players to interact with the handout’s content.

The keyword is “interaction”. If handouts provide clues and reference material of vital importance to the current session’s game, the PCs will study them, making them a vehicle for other content and a substantial enhancement to any campaign, and Hungry’s “three second” problem will be a thing of the past; if they are disposable, they will be glanced at and disposed of. The trick is giving your handouts added value that makes them meaningful to the players in ways that are not apparent after a mere three-second glance.

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 4: Better Campaigns Through Physics


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A ‘Game Physics’ can shape plots, be revealed and extended by plots, but its greatest impact is usually more subtle and cumulative, and only experienced at a Campaign Level, where it can serve as a binding influence that ties disparate plots into a unified whole.

Game Systems in service of plot

This section was originally going to be part of the previous article in this series, because it bridges the gap between plot and campaign; when this was going to be a three-part article, it was intended to transition from one sub-topic to the other. At the last minute, I decided that the accompanying side-note, while inextricably linked with the content of the section, tipped the balance more towards the campaign-level perspective, and moved it from that article to this. In the process, this article grew in length while the previous one became shorter. Oh, well…

If the Game Physics can override the game mechanics, producing House Rules, then there are two implications that need to be observed. The first is that the Game System is defined as being mechanics in service of the plot, elevating campaign and plot over whatever the rules say is possible. Story and Internal Consistency become the driving forces of the Campaign. This produces the hierarchy spelt out in a number of articles here at Campaign Mastery, for example in Blat! Zot! Pow! The Rules Of Genre In RPGs.

The Game Physics becomes the primary underpinning of the Campaign as a result, a function that is performed by the Rules in most beginning GM’s campaigns. This expands the plot capabilities available to the GM. Instead of being restricted to the game world described by the official sources, and having his plots restricted to the interactions of characters and circumstances permitted by those official sources, the GM is free to expand his horizons in any direction he sees fit. Of course, if he does not take advantage of this possibility, he will not realize most of the benefits of having a game physics in the first place; one can still be justified in terms of providing guidelines for situations not explicitly detailed in the rules, but the campaign is a mere shadow of what it could be.

The natural evolution of a GM is to create a campaign using the official rules, generate a game physics for his own use as explanation for what those rules describe and to provide the guidelines mentioned a moment ago, and eventually either face a confrontation between that game physics and the official rules, or find the temptation of a plot idea made possible by the game physics irresistible. Either way, the GM will undergo a profound reassessment of his game style and campaign, and the inevitable result is that the need for consistency and fairness will win out over a peculiarity of the “official rules”. How long it takes for the GM to reach this point will vary – I’ve known GMs who never seem to get there, and I’ve known GMs who got there after a single game session. The campaigns run by the former seem lifeless and stilted, workmanlike and tame, in comparison to the exuberance that comes from being liberated from the confinement of the official rules. This is the inevitable process that slowly evolves GMs into Game Designers.

Inevitably, the second implication that I mentioned will manifest: Adventures that break the mechanics. If the Game System is subordinate to the campaign, it follows that the campaign can change Game System whenever it is convenient or preferable to do so.

The Ultimate Round-Robin Shared Campaign: A Side-note

This idea came to me about a year ago, but until now I’ve never found the right context in which to bring it up. Picture a campaign in which each participant has a character (including the GM). At the conclusion to an adventure, the position of GM rotates to the next in the group. There are only six rules to this transition:

  1. The outgoing GM must provide a way for the PCs to transition to the world of the new GM;
  2. The only game system that the new GM cannot use for his adventure is the one that the outgoing GM just employed;
  3. Characters must remain as consistent in capabilities as possible during this transition;
  4. There must be an overall plotline to the campaign and each GM’s adventure must advance that overall plotline;
  5. There must be a shared “game physics” to which all GMs have access and which any can extend when they are in the GM’s chair;
  6. And, finally, each adventure should have a set limit to the number of game sessions it can run. Four or five is probably a good number, and keeps the rotation going. Three is perhaps a little constrictive, though it clearly defines each adventure as having a Beginning, Middle, and End.

After each GM has been run a set number of adventures each, each GM crafts an adventure that resolves the overall plotline, ending the campaign; these are put into a hat in some symbolic manner and one is drawn at random. If a GM doesn’t come up with a satisfactory way of resolving the overall plot (by his own standards), he can opt out of this final draw. Whoever “wins” the honor of wrapping up the campaign gets the notes and ideas of the others as additional resources and inspiration, and is free to incorporate them into his own “final solution”. This effectively permits the GMs to collaborate on the campaign conclusion while still preserving their ignorance of what is to unfold.

Obviously, the first adventure must set the overarching plotline in motion and justify the “game/genre-hopping” that will follow, setting the tone for the overall campaign.

I can’t see why this wouldn’t work, and it should be an awful lot of fun… D&D to Steampunk to Pulp to Cthulhu to Time Travel to Superhero to whatever, the possibilities are endless! Half the fun would be the “fish out of water” effect as PCs from a different reality come to terms with the new “game world” in which they are playing!

The Primacy Of Campaign

There is an implicit implication in the working definitions of a Game Physics and the inherent applications to which one can be put (as described in part one of this series) that needs to be fully understood. That is: “anything permitted within Game Physics is permitted, and Game Mechanics are simply imperfect reflections of Game Physics.”

This principle enables the Game Physics to override Game Mechanics, as was discussed at the time. It also facilitates a hierarchy of content, as detailed in Part 2, which elevates Plot needs over game mechanics, a cornerstone of the discussion in part three. The conclusion reached was that if the plot required a violation of the game mechanics, the Game Physics should be employed to create house rules that enable the plot to function. The game mechanics bend to plot needs, and not vice-versa.

But there’s more to be said on the topic. Not all house rules are created equal, and some create more headaches than they are worth; and furthermore, a consistency of mechanics is also a desirable trait in a campaign. After all, if you can change the rules every week, it becomes impossible to make an intelligent choice of action. So there are valid counterarguments to the proposition, and the decisions are not as cut-and-dried as they might have seemed at the time. How, then, is the GM to decide?

There are two different considerations that enable the question to be reframed on a case-by-case basis, and when the immediate situation doesn’t provide a decisive conclusion, these considerations can usually be used to reach a decision. The first is practicality of mechanics, and the second – and arguably more important – is campaign consistency.

Practicality Of Mechanics

“How do you tell a good House Rule from a Bad?” That was the question that I posed in The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics early last year. The basic principle that the article demonstrated is quite simple: the more frequently a game mechanic needs to be accessed in the course of play, the more sensitive that game mechanic is to any form of complication or delay.

If there are 3 combats in a game session, each of an average of 5 combat rounds, each involving 5 PCs and an average of 5 NPCs, each of whom take 30 seconds longer to complete their combat action as a result of a House Rule, the total lost playing time is a “mere” 75 minutes. And that completely ignores the fact that after a while, with combat slowed that much, side chatter will further delay play, as boredom and frustration take hold.

As Johnn found in one of his articles back when he was writing for Campaign Mastery, My Group’s Time Thief Revealed, the GM is more susceptible to these additional delays than anyone else at the table, simply because he has more on his plate already. A single rule that adds a mere 5 seconds to the time a player requires to act in combat may add four, five, six, or even ten times as much to the time the GM needs to perform the equivalent action for an NPC.

Let’s run that calculation again, taking this into account: 3 combats, 5 rounds per combat, 5 PCs, +5 seconds each; plus 3 combats, 5 rounds per combat, average of 5 NPCs, +25 seconds each: 6.25 minutes for players, 31.25 minutes for the GM. The Total is still more than 37 minutes lost out of each game session.

There are three ways of considering these facts in the context of Game Physics.

  • The first is to consider such losses to be offset by the amount of time saved for the GM by using the Game Physics to resolve unanswered questions within the game. If these two factors are anywhere close to equal, or if the Game time lost is less than that gained, then the Game Physics, as manifested within the new House Rule, are effectively conferring all the advantages of the Game Physics at no cost to the game – a win-win that is obviously acceptable.
  • The second is to determine that even if the balance between the two is tilted in the wrong direction, the game rule will only apply in limited and unusual circumstances, and as such won’t impact the game play to the same extent on most occasions – making it at least tolerable. Furthermore, the problem can perhaps be overcome by employing a more abstract form of combat for the occasion.
  • And the third is to determine that on this occasion, under these circumstances, the House Rule is too great a price to pay. Unless some shortcut can be found to simplify some other aspect of the combat as a counterbalance, the plot cannot be permitted to override the normal mechanics.

The net effect of these considerations is to frame the question in terms of the long-term impact on the campaign, transcending the plot-level considerations.

Campaign Consistency

The second consideration is campaign consistency. It has to be determined which is more valuable to the campaign: Consistency of rules, or consistency of game physics.

Both are important, and if the vast majority of House Rules and variant mechanics can be established at the very beginning of the campaign, it is possible to both have your cake and eat it, too. The problems only really arise when discussion turns to extending the house rules to accommodate some plot need that is not already catered for within the rules.

Consider the following logic:

  • It is “more harmful” to a campaign to use only established rules than it is to customize the rules to support the campaign.
  • It is more harmful to a campaign to continually chop and change rules than to consistently use a single body of rules.
  • Therefore, it is more harmful to institute temporary rules changes than it is to create and apply new House Rules that will are intended to apply henceforth.
  • It is more harmful to a campaign to have impractical house rules than to have practical house rules.
  • Therefore, it can be argued that the GM should reach his decision on the basis of which will do the least harm: A temporary house rule that is impractical, or not having a house rule that covers the circumstance at all and accepting that the simulation of the “reality” of the particular combination of genre and broader plot that constitutes this specific campaign is always going to be imperfect – and some plots simply will not work as a result of that imperfection, when addressing the imperfection does more harm than good.
  • The game physics describes the “world” in which play takes place, while the game mechanics are an imperfect representation in specific cases of that description.
  • Therefore, consistency of game physics is more important than consistency of game mechanics.

So, if a house rule passes the practicality test, and it can be considered to apply going forward within the campaign, then it is worth implementing it so that the game mechanics more accurately represent the game physics.

If one fails the practicality test, it can be still implemented as a temporary enhancement of the “simulation”, but should not be something that routinely affects play. It may therefore be necessary to cloak the plot in “unusual circumstances” to restrict the impact of the house rule.

The game physics doesn’t change from adventure to adventure. It may be extended, or refined, exceptions to general principles may be revealed in what was previously considered a universal rule. These exceptions may manifest as temporary house rules when practicality of play does not permit a more general solution.

Mechanics Vs Plot: The Game Physics tiebreaker

The result of these deliberations is that when the Game Mechanics, as modified by the existing House Rules, are inadequate for the correct operation of the plot, the choice of which should yield to the other should be made on the basis of consistency with the game physics. It is more useful to the campaign to spend time getting the Game Physics right than it is generating specific House Rules for the campaign.

Most GMs don’t distinguish between the two; they consider the creation and implementation of a House Rule to be a de-facto manifestation of the Game Physics. Whenever you hear of House Rules causing a problem for a GM, the reality is that one of two things has occurred: the GM has made that assumption and failed to address the bigger picture, or the House Rule in question has failed the practicality test. By separating the two, and describing the purpose of any given House Rule before such a rule is written, both these problems can be avoided, and a given House Rule (or existing official mechanic) can be replaced or updated as necessary to avoid or remove a problem.

Game Physics: Big Answers To Big Questions

That’s all well and good. It means that Campaign needs override everything else that you might consider – whether that is the game physics or the rules or even an individual plot, and that the campaign’s needs are best served by a consistent body of game physics principles. This is the principle that I was implying in one of my very first articles here at Campaign Mastery, A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs.

If you can describe, in abstract terms, what “Magic” is and how (in principle) it works within the bounds of a particular campaign, then you are better equipped as a GM to make decisions and game rulings because they will reflect that description. In order to decide on how the Afterlife works, i.e. what happens to a person within the game when they die, you have to decide exactly what a soul is, and the combination of those two answers informs decisions on everything from Resurrection Spells to Necromancy to the nature of the Gods and the nature of Undead, which in turn impacts on Clerical Turning.

All this adds up to the game physics – regardless of game system – being a central and essential element in defining a particular campaign, in specifying what twists and turns on the genre of choice are going to make this campaign unique and interesting. To a large extent, in fact, the game physics can ignore lesser questions, and take it as read that traditional physics will hold sway except where specific contradicted either directly by the Game Physics or by the implied game physics represented by the rules. This makes what can be a difficult creative job practical.

After all, very few of us have a string of doctorates in everything. We rely on reference books, acquired trivia, television, and the internet for our understanding of a whole brace of subjects. For an article I wrote (but can no longer find), I once listed the subjects that a good GM has to know and understand. It was about 20 lines long, listing 5 or 6 items (possibly more) on each line. In The Expert In Everything? I created a much shorter version of that list, which read “Biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics” – and which even a quick glance now shows to be inadequate. At the very least I should add “agriculture, sailing, navigation, statistics, physics, statics, architecture, literature, chemistry, alchemy, manufacturing, industrial relations, race relations, diplomacy, negotiation, military theory, tactics & strategy, language and cognition, and medicine” to the list. And the history of every field listed. But this is the sort of list that simply grows, the more time you spend looking at it.

When Game Physics Breaks Down

The fact of the matter is that none of us are “Experts at everything” – and our effectiveness as a GM and as a creator often hinges on how well we can fake it. But no fake can ever be as good as the real thing. We’re sure to make mistakes in creating a game physics. We’re certain to overlook implications and applications. There are always going to be ideas that we didn’t think of.

Furthermore, it’s dead certain that at least one of your players will have greater expertise than you do in something on the list, and that none of your players think exactly the same way that you do. That means that they will inevitably push your game physics in unexpected areas, and explore your game physics from the perspective of their (real) expertise – finding the flaws that have resulted in your “faking it”.

I know at least one former GM (he no longer games) who refused to generate game physics for his campaigns because of his fears of inadequacy in this respect. But this doesn’t have to be the end of the world, if you plan for this inevitability in advance.

Closed Universe Game Physics vs. Open-ended Game Physics

There are two major philosophic approaches that can be adopted with respect to a game physics: it can either be considered a Closed Universe, or Open-ended.

Closed Universe Game Physics

In the closed universe approach, the game physics is static and unchanging. Whatever is defined at the start of the game is the last word on how things work, and anything that disagrees with that are interpretational errors on the part of either the GM or players. This effectively means that the more accurate topic-specific knowledge of a player can only apply where and how it fits with that game physics. The game world is different to the real world, and their expertise is “real world”; at best, they can simply highlight areas in which the two differ that you had not appreciated because you lacked the expertise to do so.

There are serious benefits to this approach. It’s much less work, and the GM is less likely to tie themselves in knots. Everyone starts off with the same knowledge base – though the GM has almost certainly spent more time thinking about the physics and its ramifications than the players have. The game physics itself is spelt out in black and white, iron-clad universal laws that everyone has to live or die with.

If you are the type of GM who is uncomfortable generating a game physics, or you are just starting out, or if you are seriously time-limited, this is probably the approach that you should consider. What’s more, the shorter the intended campaign, the less opportunity the players will have to push beyond the bounds of the known, and the more the reality will tend to default to this state of affairs regardless of what decision you make.

In particular, this approach tends to find favor with GMs who subscribe to the “GM is the last word, always right even when he is wrong” school, and those who dislike “cosmic”-level adventures and high fantasy.

Open-ended Game Physics

The alternative is to have the game physics represent the state of the art knowledge of the GM, and permit to expand and develop as shortcomings and inadequacies turn up. This approach means that what you describe to the players is the equivalent of classical physics; push it hard enough, and it may break.

The GM can be called upon at little or no notice to extend and improve that understanding of the universe. Early in a campaign, that won’t happen very frequently (in most cases) because the PCs simply don’t have the resources or understanding to push the game physics that hard. When they initially reach the sort of expertise level where they are working with the game physics to find solutions to their problems, there may be a flurry of demands on the GM to enhance the game physics, but as the most obvious holes are found and plugged, these will taper off.

This approach openly admits – without drawing a lot of attention to the fact – that the GM is not, in fact, an expert in everything, but is a human being of limited faculties and time. The Game Physics is defined as “the best that he can do at the time”.

This has the huge advantage in that the game physics is responsive to the players and PCs – it will grow in the areas they are interested in, and to encompass the tactics that they employ. And if one side or the other has a brilliant idea, it can be incorporated – provided that it doesn’t conflict with the past in a way that cannot be explained, retroactively. The Game Physics can perpetually get better, in other words.

If you are the kind of GM who can admit “I don’t know – yet”, or “I need time to think”; if you have a reasonable level of GMing expertise under your belt – two or three years of weekly play is usually more than enough; if you consider time spent on the game physics to be an investment in better understanding your campaign; if you enjoy high fantasy and playing with ideas, then this is the approach that is more likely to suit. It tends to go hand-in-glove with a more humble or “modern” attitude as a GM, and is particularly appropriate for those who plan long campaigns and enjoy “cosmic”-level adventures.

The longer the campaign runs, the more benefit that will derive from this approach – the greater the yield on your time-investment, in other words.

The Open Topology model

A variant on the Open-Universe approach is the “Open Topology” model, often a great compromise between the two. The GM spells out the key ideas within the game physics – the ones that will have an immediate impact on the campaign – and simply ignores the rest until it comes up in the course of play. He makes his decisions on the basis of what is most fun in the short-term and best for the campaign in the long run, and retroactively justifies these decisions with game physics each time a decision conflicts with the basic game mechanics.

The approach gets its name from (a) the fact that it is fundamentally an “open universe” model of game physics, and (b) the GM doesn’t know the ultimate shape of the game physics at any point.

I’ve employed it in the past, and while it is an adequate solution that minimizes the prep time spent on the Game Physics, it suffers from a few colossal drawbacks.

  • First, expanding the game physics becomes progressively harder work, because everything that has already happened within the campaign, every decision and every precedent, have to be accommodated in the revised-and-expanded game physics. Forget one, and you can get yourself caught in an incredible tangle.
  • Second, players can view it as “making up the rules as you go” – any whiff of suspicion of GM bias or anti-GM paranoia can explode, doing lasting harm not only to the campaign but to the relationships between the participants. I know one player who refuses to play under one specific GM because this happened – and to be fair, the GM bias in that case seems fairly clear-cut: the player told the GM what he wanted his character to be able to do, the GM agreed and spelt out a difficult and lengthy process that would enable the PC to achieve this, and – at the end of the process – the GM refused to let the PC have the ability in question, going so far as to change the rules to prevent it.
  • And third, you deprive yourself of the advantage to your decision-making that the game physics can provide. Consistency is sacrificed at the altar of “not enough prep time” (to put the most kindly face on it) or “sheer laziness” (to describe it in less forgiving terms).
Telling Less Than You Know

One solution that is usually a win-win is to tell less than you know. Give the players a cut-down version of the game physics – enough to capture the uniqueness of the campaign, and that adequately describes everything that the PCs would know about “how the world works” from their pre-game experience of living there. However, the GM has a far fuller and more robust Game Physics waiting in the wings for the players to discover as it makes a difference to their lives and the events that surround them. Sometimes, this results in things happening that the players cannot explain – but if they dig into those occurrences, and experiment, and consult experts, they will discover that there is an explanation. “This happens, but no-one knows why” in the game briefing material is a perfectly-acceptable answer. Giving three or four possible explanations – none of which are entirely correct – is an even better answer, because it more closely mimics the real world evolution of understanding of phenomena.

Coupling this approach with the Open Topology model of Game Physics often yields the best of all possible worlds, because it gives the GM the tools and benefits of the game physics while forestalling and potentially excluding entirely the need to expand it subsequently; and it provides another source of great adventures, ones built around someone taking advantage of the things that the players (and their characters) don’t know.

Fixing The Problem

Problems with the game physics tend to boil down to one of only a few things, when analyzed. Either there is an implication or application of the game physics that the GM hasn’t thought of that upsets the balance of power between PCs and NPCs, enabling the PCs to do things that the GM doesn’t want them to be able to accomplish for the long-term health of the campaign; or there is a part of the game physics that is inadequately defined, leaving the GM without the benefit of his guideline exactly when he needs it most; or there is a contradiction in the game physics that hasn’t been noticed previously; or the game physics won’t permit the GM to have an NPC do what his plot wants him to be able to do.

In other words, the game physics is incorrect, inadequate, erroneous, or bites the hand of its creator.

I’m not going to pretend that these aren’t potentially serious problems – they can be. But none of them need to be fatal.

New Implications of Pseudo-science

The first solution is to look at the rest of the Game Physics. Is there something you’re overlooking that can solve the problem? Fresh eyes can sometimes see possibilities that have been previously overlooked.

The Fuzziness Factor

In particular, are there any assumptions made by the existing game physics, especially the part with the problem, that might not be correct, or might be correct only part of the time? Can you solve the problem by refining the game physics you already have, in other words, by applying a fuzziness to it?

For example:

  • Problem: The game physics of multi-spacial timelines implies that you can jump from your current timeline into another, devote as much time to study or research as necessary to find a solution, then return to just after the moment you left in your current timeline.

    • Discussion: So long as none of the players tries this, and you haven’t been so short-sighted as to forget the principle that “Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” – i.e. that anything an NPC can do, the PCs should also be able to do (at least in theory), you don’t have to worry about it. But when someone thinks of it – and they will – you need to address the problem. (This is an actual example from my Zenith-3 campaign). Nor was it being seriously proposed at the time – the players I have know that my game universe “actively conspires” to punish those who try to cheat the system. Nevertheless, I took the position that one of the PCs was asking “why not do this” and looking for an in-game answer purely out of player-curiosity.
  • Solution: There is an uncertainty factor that prevents such close targeting of the arrival point (partial solution); and there is a temporal shock when re-entering a timeline that is proportional to the differential between personal time experienced and the duration of events experienced in the timeline you are re-entering. Recent memories are particularly susceptible to damage as a result of this temporal shock, but physical trauma can result. What’s more, the uncertainty factor can increase the temporal shock exponentially.
    • Discussion: Fortunately, the inter-dimensional transits had always been portrayed as taking a measurable “perceived time” that was roughly 1:1 to the interval of duration in question. This was the first time that anyone had considered deliberately choosing to target their arrival time to disregard that perceived personal time experienced. I had done this because I wanted various threats and interactions between the characters to occur “en route”, but it could also serve to explain why this phenomenon had never been noticed by the PCs before, and the few exceptions that came close were all of very short duration – i.e. producing negligible temporal shock effects.
    • So, the assumption was that you could travel between dimensions and arrive unharmed unless you had encountered some hostile force en route, and that assumption could be rendered fuzzy – it’s accurate enough if you don’t try and rort the system, but as soon as you do, the universe smacks you around the ears.
    • NB: the question of why this had not been noticed previously was a critical requirement of the solution, because dimensional travel itself was already well-established within the campaign.
    • Further Discussion: The “uncertainty factor” had also been in place for quite a while – the more accurately you determined arrival point in space, the less accurately you could determine your arrival point in time, and vice-versa. Various enhancements to the technology used for dimension travel enabled a more precise “fix” on both, but some uncertainty remained.
    • Implementation: How best to make the players aware of this “enhancement” to the ground rules? Answer: by modifying an existing subplot to place demands on the PCs that would force them to experience Temporal Shock from trying to cram too many hours into a day. Temporal Shock played havoc with the PCs, and established that being the “brick” gave no resistance, and – indirectly – answered the question, “why can’t you do this?”
  • Still more discussion: Before I set out to find a reason not to do it, I first considered whether or not it was tolerable to permit it – was the partial solution imposed by the uncertainty factor enough of a control? I had momentary visions of a plotline in which some greedy dimension-traveler was selling “extra time” to students at a university, time that some of them were using for more nefarious purposes. It would have been a good plot, but ultimately I decided that the risks posed to game balance by granting the PCs and NPCs this capability were too great.
Pseudoscience Interactions Of Theory

Sometimes, solutions can be found from elsewhere in the game physics.

I’ve written in the past about the problem of “Elvish resurrection” that emerged when the Fumanor Campaign transited from 2nd edition to 3rd. The solution came not from anything related to Elves, but to the concepts of the afterlife itself, and the definitions of positive and negative energy, and to the fact that mummies were defined as positive-energy undead, unlike the others. Essentially, the process was impossible until it was successfully completed, and the first such success was the result of accidentally exploiting a “loophole” in the game physics. The implication was that just such a loophole had been exploited by other races in the past to enable them to be resurrected.

These thoughts and ideas then entwined with questions relating to the roles of the positive and negative planes in creating the Material Plane in the first place, which led to the “Cavern Realms of Zhin-Tarn” series of adventures in a sequel campaign; further reflection showed that the resulting plane would be unstable and would ultimately become unraveled unless action was taken by someone to correct the problem.

This led to a subsequent adventure at the conclusion of the “Caverns” series of adventures in which the Gods and Chaos Powers both attempted to stabilize the new material plane in a way that advanced their own respective agendas, with the PCs as their instruments.

A consequence of this was that an NPC became that “all powerful expert in everything” (the problem from the Zenith-3 campaign discussed in the previous section) as a result of having close to a century of twiddling his thumbs – but that will actually work to my benefit, making plausible that character’s ultimate retirement from the campaign in a way that suited the overall plotline and was only marginally believable without it. In a nutshell, that character has a destiny, and knows it, and has certain abilities to use in order to make that destiny possible. Pursuing that still-unrevealed destiny led to the circumstances in which he joined the party, which put him in a position to greatly enhance his abilities, thereby justifying (from the point of view of his destiny) his involvement with the party.

Four times, the game physics evolved – and each time, the campaign was strengthened and made richer, more complex, as a result.

Evolving understanding of the Game Universe to fill plot needs

And that’s also an example of the ultimate game physics development process within an Open Universe: Take advantage of the game physics to explain what your plots need to have happen, to lend verisimilitude to your creations, to make the game easier to administer, and enhance its uniqueness. If there is a plot need to be satisfied, first ensure that it’s acceptable for the PCs to also have (at least theoretical) access to the capability in question, and then expand the game physics as necessary. Treat problems as opportunities.

Rewards for Solutions

But, if you ever get really, really stuck, consider posing the problem to your players, offering some reward as a solution – or making it the PCs problem, and listening very hard to the players as they wrestle to discover a solution.

The players, both past and present, have had more input into my game physics in the Zenith-3 campaign than I think they realize. Even when they engage in a fruitless line of speculation while searching for an answer to the problem set before them by the current adventure, I’m paying close attention – first, so that I can work out where their plan goes off the rails, and how, and secondly, because I can sometimes apply their reasoning to another aspect of the game physics, solving potential problems before they manifest, and keeping the game physics one step ahead of the best understanding of the players.

Few campaigns have the longevity of the Zenith-3 campaign and its forebears; it is now approaching its 34th anniversary. There are adults out there whose parents weren’t born when the campaign started (Adults at 18 years, born when parents were 16 years old, = parents born 34 years ago)! One of the reasons for the survival of the campaign for this long has been the Game Physics, the fundamentals of which remain unchanged from their initial creation all those years ago.

Game Physics matter

I opened this series with the statement, “Game Physics’ is a term that not enough GMs take the time to think about in depth.” This exploration has uncovered the reasoning behind that statement. The way the game world works is something that GMs need to take seriously, and enhance to suit their games as necessary – because those games will in turn be enhanced many-fold as a result.

That wraps up this series on Game Physics. I hope that my readers have gotten something worthwhile from it. Next week, if all goes according to plan, a three-part series on Cinematic Combat!

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The Best Of 2013


trophy-m-black

A large part of 2013 was given over to expanding the background of my Fumanor campaign by telling the story of the origins of Elves and Orcs. But there was quite a lot of other great stuff along the way! Milestones within the year include the absolutely massive 500th post (so big that it broke the software), and the 5th anniversary special that saw out the year. But for the most part, it was a year of building on past successes and quietly ticking the weeks off the calander, one after another.

By the time of that 5th anniversary, though, some impressive numbers had been racked up. In five years, Campaign Mastery had amassed 444,000 visits; 283,000 unique visitors (so quite a lot of regular readers, in fact more than three times what is typical of most websites’ loyal audiances), and a grand total of over 800,000 pageviews.

All told, it was a good year, and that’s reflected in the number of articles listed below. To get it down to the 24 selections on offer, I cut half-a-dozen items that were initially listed from the “Location, Location, Location” blog carnival; this was possible only because – as host – I could replace them with the article that rounds up all the submissions that were recieved, and – as usual – treated series as a single entry.

But I also had to cull some really excellent articles, like the one that asked whether or not humans were still evolving, and the one that looked at the intellectual-property crisis that continues to rumble on, to this day. I’m still arguing with myself about cutting the article on Hyperreality and its impact on RPGs, and the one on the way Social Media and SEO are changing the internet! These three are easily amongst the most thought-provoking articles of the year, and still current.

The article on Bluffing In The Hero System survived until the very last minute, simply because it’s something that few game systems handle very well (and that specific game system, not at all). And then, there’s the article on institutional secrecy, which I’ve put in and taken out half-a-dozen times while preparing this chosen list.

After some very hard choices, though, the cream have once again risen.

The Best Of 2013

 
Finally, an article that took months to create and that merits special attention. So big that it broke our delivery systems,

is both unworthy of inclusion and – at the same time – more deserving of inclusion than any other article on this list. Unworthy, because it doesn’t actually contain anything new of direct benefit to a GM; more deserving than any other, because it is easily the article that I most frequently consult. Why? Because it’s a list of articles published to date by Campaign Mastery, organized by topic, with a review/synopsis of each article.

The astute may have noticed that I actually intended to publish this in mid-to-late February. But at the time I was hip-deep in two major series – New Beginnings and a four-part Ask-The-GMs – that were consuming all my available time and energy. So why is it appearing now?

This is Campaign Mastery’s
Seven Hundredth Post!

What’s more, sometime in the two or three weeks, CM will have our (wait for it!!!)
1 Millionth Pageview!

How better to celebrate?

When will the next in the series appear? Well, the 750th post is scheduled to occur a week before Christmas – just two weeks before Campaign Mastery’s official 7th Birthday – and almost exactly when current numbers forecast our 600,000th visitor! I have something special in mind to celebrate that event, but that would be telling…

Suffice it to say that December 2015 is going to be busy, and that “The Best Of 2014″ is currently planned to be part of it!

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 3: Tales From The Ether


Dispersion prism

Original Image: “Dispersion prism”, artist unknown, uploaded to WikiMedia Commons by Florenco~commonswiki. Licensed under CC SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Click on image to view license.

In this series, I’ve been looking into the subject of Game Physics.

Part one examined what a ‘game physics’ is, and what one can be used for.

Part two focused in on one particular application, the generation and validation of House Rules.

In this third part, the subject is the relationship between Game Physics and Plot…

Game Physics as a driver of Plot

If a Game Physics can extend the range of options available to a character – either PC or NPC – then the existence of those options has to expand the storytelling palette on both sides of the GM screen.

Players love knowing that the world their characters inhabit makes sense, even if neither players nor characters fully understand it. (Rhetorical question: how many readers fully understand the world we live in?) Achieving that understanding can be accomplished by memorizing every rule and understanding how they all interact with each other under every possible permutation of conditions, or by understanding the Game Physics that those rules embody.

Because a Game Physics is a simplified and abstracted set of principles that the GM has designed for ease of use when he is busy dealing with the minutia of running the game, it is usually more rational and more easily understood than a rules hodgepodge. If the principle has been established that the Game Physics overrides the rules when necessary, the second choice is clearly the better of the two.

And, because all game physics – just like the physics of the real world – are imperfectly understood, and can be extended by asking the right questions and conducting the appropriate research to answer these questions – there are obvious plot opportunities. NPCs who understand some aspect of the game physics better than most inhabitants of the game world can do things that appear impossible, even miraculous, to those who don’t know what they know. Such plots challenge the players to understand what their enemies know, expanding their own knowledge of the game physics, in search of ways of neutralizing the advantage that those enemies posses.

Some of the very best science fiction takes this as its primary plot. So does some absolute drek, so it is no guarantee of quality, but it’s at least a start. But the same principles apply to any genre.

When I first started my TORG campaign, I deliberately started the campaign a year before the invasion of Earth and the Possibility Wars, simply because these were dramatic developments in the lives of all PCs and I wanted the players to experience them rather than having them occur in some past that was only alluded to in character creation. While I could have chosen any of the settings, the one that appealed most to me was the Fantasy realm of Aysle.

But there was a problem: the world simply didn’t make sense, as described. A flat disc of a world with different topography on each side, much smaller in size than Earth, yet it somehow had something clearly similar to normal gravity. I solved this problem by inventing a new material – I no longer remember the name – and lacing the subterranean earth with it. This material generated increasing gravitational pull as it was heated – but in a non-linear way. Thus, gravity was substantially less on mountaintops, enabling the creatures there to grow larger, and was most intense underground and near volcanoes. In particular, it meant that Dragons naturally sought mountaintops to live on.

This one piece of game physics produced all the attributes of continental drift, mountain formation, earthquakes, and so on. This produced the topography that was observed, which was clearly unbalanced, and produced a tumble like a coin that had been flipped as the sun orbited the world, creating day and night cycles and generating weather and climate. The topography was also clearly unbalanced, producing an oscillating back-and-forth motion as the “penny” tumbled, creating seasons. Uneven heating of land and water meant that things weighed more in summer and less in winter – so the best time to transport heavy loads was in Spring and Autumn, as close to winter as possible before travel became more difficult due to snow and ice.

Most of these effects were specified, or at least implied, in the world description in the official sourcebook, without explanation.

The second principle of the game physics was that life was more mutable in form than is normal for earth. Dwarves were short because they lived underground, closer to the pull of gravity, and that also made them stronger. Elves were taller and slighter because they lived on the slopes of mountains. Should either move into human regions, two or three generations would have seen them assume human proportions and capabilities.

The first major plot arc dealt with the rise of a terrifying Dragon which cause mass panic; infused with Possibility Energy by the conspirators who sought to seize control of the world, this was bigger, stronger, and faster than any Dragon ever before seen, and had abilities that no dragon had ever possessed before. The PCs were tasked with destroying the Draco Necromantus, hunting it down, tracking it to its lair, and killing it. This put them on the periphery of the power struggle for the throne, able to view events from afar, and continually getting caught in the secondary impacts of each political move and counter-move, discovering the organized conspiracy too late; the invasion of Earth was underway by the time they completed their mission, and the government that had sent them on their quest overthrown. At the same time, they were discovering hitherto-unknown abilities of their own, transforming into Storm Knights, giving them the ability to deal with the creature they hunted.

This then enabled them to cross the dimensional boundary and enter the world of the Transformed Earth, discovering that their problems were only a small part of a much larger problem.

Throughout, the Game Physics was entwined in the plot. To reach the capital after the overthrow of Pella Ardinay and invasion of Earth, the PCs traveled by Dwarfish Mass Transit. A State secret that all Dwarves knew, but that was secret from all other races (until this crisis), this consisted of millions of miles of mineshaft with rails, traveled by ore-carts the size of buses. A chunk of Material X (I still can’t remember the name) was attached at one end of the cart beneath a torch; as it grew hot, it shifted “down” from vertical to an angle forward of the front of the cart, permitting it to perpetually roll “downhill” even when gaining in altitude.

The entire subterranean crust of Aysle was honeycombed with these tunnels. It didn’t take long for truly terrifying speeds to be achieved – even a constant acceleration of 1/4 G will get get you there (approx 2.5 m/s/s):

  • After 1 second: 2.5m/s.
  • 2 sec: 5 m/s.
  • 3 sec: 7.5 m/s.
  • 60 sec: 180 m/s.
  • 5 mins: 750 m/s.
  • 30 mins: 4500 m/s.

Multiply by 3.6 to get km/h:

  • 1 sec: 9 km/h.
  • 2 sec: 18 km/h.
  • 3 sec: 27 km/h.
  • 60 sec: 648 km/h.
  • 5 mins: 2700 km/h.
  • 30 mins: 16,200 km/h.

Tracks were graded according to maximum permitted speed: in some slow stretches, the limit was 50 km/h, in the transcontinental express “lanes”, up to 1000 km/h was regarded as “safe”. These were purely arbitrary; nor did I bother calculating the absolute top speed (terminal velocity), but set it at an entirely arbitrary 5000km/h. “Stops” for this subway were located in all Dwarven communities and beneath the major settlements of other races.

Traveling to-and-from the nearest “subway station” was frequently the lengthiest part of any journey, but Dwarves could get troops from A to B faster than anyone who didn’t expend a LOT of arcane energy on apportation magic. “Ship via Dwarf – when it absolutely has to be there in a week or less!”

Of course, the Dwarves kept this a secret, making up tall tales of “running all night” to reach the battlefield, and creating an enduring legend around their endurance in the process!! Everyone on the surface was convinced that the Dwarves were exaggerating their prowess in battle – but no-one was ever willing to call their bluff, because they had the nasty little habit of reaching battlefields in numbers and looking fresh as daisies faster than was possible to even mounted riders!

Plot as a driver of Game Physics

It works in the other direction, too. You can have a plot need and expand your game physics to make some desired plot development plausible and possible. Step by step, inch by inch, this builds depth, uniqueness, and consistency into your game world.

For example, in the Zenith-3 campaign, there was a space-time facing imminent heat-death. Their greatest scientist discovered a way of opening an interdimensional conduit to take advantage of the energy differential between the two, effectively “bleeding off” their excess entropy into other dimensions. The concept was based on Isaac Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves. There were also elements from two novels by James P. Hogan, The Genesis Machine (not one his best novels, to be honest, but not bad) and The Proteus Operation (definitely one of his more enjoyable efforts!) The basic foundations of the situation already existed in the game physics describing the possible differences between space-times, but the game physics needed to expand to describe this new way of harnessing the differences. This was made immeasurably easier because I had already drawn on “The Gods Themselves” for inspiration in creating the existing game physics.

  • Click here to buy The Gods Themselves from Amazon. Limited copies.
  • Click here to buy The Genesis Machine from Amazon. Limited copies.
  • Click here to buy The Proteus Operation from Amazon. Limited copies.

The Ouroboros Development Cycle

In some campaigns, you can enter a wonderful cycle in which you spot a potential plot deriving from your game physics, development of which further develops the game physics, which leads to the discovery of new potential plots. Like the mythical snake swallowing its own tail, this cycle can be repeated time after time. So long as these plots are interspersed with stories deriving from other sources, especially the history, personalities, and activities of the PCs, they won’t grow stale.

A wonderful example of this takes place periodically within the Stargate SG-1 TV show. Almost every season has at least one episode in which a peculiarity of the way the Gate operates is central to the plot, and in almost every case the knowledge acquired in dealing with the problem later provides the solution to a completely unrelated problem. The Second Gate, the Black Hole episode, the Parallel World episode, the time-travel-to-1969 episode, the Groundhog Day episode, the time Jack gets trapped off-world when the gate is buried by a volcanic eruption, using the gate to explode a star, Sokhor’s attack to get SG1 to hand over the captured and dying Apophis… the list goes on and on (I could name the actual episodes, and put them in sequential order, but I thought these off-the-top-of-my-head snapshot synopses would better connect with the typical reader).

Each of these episodes clearly began development as a “What If…” question. Explaining the “Show Physics” that justifies that particular circumstance expands that physics (plot as the driver), but that in turn expands the show’s Canon, the repertoire of tricks up the sleeves of the Heroes – and the villains – which then drives future episodes, either by creating new conundra for the protagonists to solve, or by furnishing the solutions to such problems – when correctly applied.

Plot as exposition of Game Physics

There is – or should be – nothing in the Game Physics without a reason for its inclusion (One of the best justifications is the plot potential, and another is a definite look-and-feel for the campaign). That justification manifests as potential plotlines.

That means that one of the best times to come up with plot ideas for later use is during the initial development of the game physics itself. I have, for a very long time, been an advocate of keeping an “Ideas File” for plotlines, and this is where at least some of those Ideas come from to populate that file.

The benefits should be self-evident, but I’ll spell them out anyway: Because the Game Physics is increasingly unique to the particular campaign that you are running, these plots derive explicitly from the uniqueness of that campaign, and each such plot further enhances and develops that uniqueness. Verisimilitude and internal consistency are inevitable side-effects!

Possible Plot Manifestations

So, what are the possible Game Physics manifestations of a plot? They come down to four basic models: Need, Desire, Motivation, and Capability.

  • Need: The plot needs something to happen, and the GM asks how that occurrence is possible within the Game Physics.
  • Desire: A character wants something, and the GM asks how that desire can be satisfied using the Game Physics.
  • Motivation: A character needs a motivation to do what the plot requires them to do, and the GM answers that requirement with a consequence of the existing Game Physics or an extension of that Physics.
  • Capability: A character needs a particular capability, or needs the capability demanded by the plot to be explained within the Game Physics.

Any of these four plot-related elements can lead to an extension of the Game Physics, and the discovery of that extension by the protagonists is part of the resulting plotline.

Plotlines from Game Physics

The flip side of the coin is the derivation of plotlines from the existing Game Physics. The same four plot elements manifest:

  • Need: The GM spots an interesting consequence or peculiarity of the Game Physics and creates a plotline in which that consequence or peculiarity is featured as either problem or solution.
  • Desire: The PCs want to achieve something that is inherent in the Game Physics as the players understand it. The plot is about the transition from theory to practical application, and the consequences and side-effects. Challenges will often result from extending the Game Physics, and extensions to the Game Physics will frequently result from the GM’s need to pose challenges for the PCs to solve.
  • Motivation: The GM Game Physics makes something possible; the GM creates a character who desires to achieve that something, for whatever reason. The plot revolves around the steps that the character takes to achieve the something, and the PCs interacting with those steps or with the consequences.
  • Capability: The GM notices that the Game Physics can be used to give a character a capability not described within the “official” rules. Giving a character that ability forces the PCs to come to terms with the Game Physics as distinct from those “official” rules, establishing the primacy of the Game Physics and spelling out some part of that Physics through practical manifestation.

As feared, I’m out of time and still have a smallish post’s worth to write – so there will be a part four to this series, when I expand the horizons and consider Game Physics and the Campaign.

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