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Small Differences: Turning Molehills Into Plot Mountains

“Sunset – Leobner” by Theo Crazzolara CC BY 2.0,

“A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”
— William James

“So make sure that the smallest difference makes a difference.”
— Mike’s Corollary to William James’ statement (as applied to RPG Plotting)

In Monday’s article, I looked at the first question raised by Ronald, “In fantasy settings, how can the GM and players [distinguish] factions when they are very similar?” Today, I’ll tackle the much larger second question, “How can GMs effectively make a story without being repetitive in a campaign [where groups/factions have such] strong [similarity]?”

It’s always difficult to know where to start with big questions like this. Get it wrong and you not only confuse the reader, you can get yourself lost in a jungle of backtracking. Get it almost right and you can invest a lot of hours chasing into cul-de-sacs and dead ends.

One way to avoid those problems is to play with the scale of the problem – simplify it, or only look at part of it, or ignore some of the restrictions that make it difficult. Or you can offer an answer based purely on theory that sounds good but doesn’t actually provide any tangible benefit when you try to turn theory into practice.

I’m going to attempt to evade both of those approaches by making sure that we’re all on the same page with the fundamentals before we start.

The Anatomy Of A Campaign

The image to the right is a small-scale illustration of the constituent parts of a 3-player adventure, and how they in turn combine with the adventures to either side of them in continuity to form part of a campaign.

The Blue dots are the main plotline of each adventure, and they are connected by the big blue arrow of time running down the page.

The Yellow dots represent character ‘moments’ for each of the PC; these are part of the adventure that is specifically tailored to involve interaction between the plot and a specific PC.

The Green Dots represent immediate character ambitions that are peripheral to the adventure itself but that are to be addressed within the context of the adventure.

Lastly, the red dots represent ongoing plotlines for each PC in the form of subplots, also known as character ‘loops’; because these are not intended to resolve themselves within the current adventure, but form an ongoing narrative within the campaign, they too are connected by arrows.

These distinctions are all lost on the players in the course of play; to them, one plot element within of the adventure is the same as another, and they don’t distinguish between them.

What’s more, all of these can have shockwaves and interactions with all the others. Those shockwaves are also represented surrounding each of the elements just described, but the interactions would have complicated the diagram to the point where the meaning became unclear.

In the real world, things can be even more complicated. A character’s subplot may require time to mature, so that subplot may not get mentioned in terms of ongoing plot developments; since it’s unfair to give one PC less spotlight time than others who do have subplot developments, this is usually dealt with by giving that PC an extra green or yellow dot in place of the red, and the subplot arrow would arc around the adventure to connect with the next one in which that subplot progresses.

A character’s desired actions during the adventure that don’t relate to the adventure proper – the green dots – can be inspired by their personal subplot, or can feed into that subplot, such as solving a short-term problem at the price of complicating the long-term situation.

Or the main adventure can simply alter the context surround a personal subplot, or vice-versa. Eventually, the personal subplots will need to become elements of a bigger picture, so each of those smaller arrows will end up leading to a yellow or blue dot. And if that doesn’t happen at either the end or near-end of the campaign, a new subplot will then spring up for that particular PC.

In addition, character’s subplots can sometimes interact with the subplots of another PC. Sometimes? I mean often. How often has your boss, or your neighbor, or a family member solved a problem (or partially solved one) in such a way that your life became more complicated? For example: Problem: It’s been a while since the family all got back together. Solution: Relative X is having a birthday/anniversary soon, let’s make it an unofficial family reunion. This doesn’t really address the reasons why family reunions don’t often happen – distance, other commitments, expense, health, whatever.

And, in reality, a character can have multiple subplots going on at the same time (not all of which get a mention in any given adventure), or multiple scenes in which they are furthering personal ambitions. That’s the sort of thing that makes character lives rich and fulfilling to play.

So, each adventure is composed of at least 3 constituent parts per PC and one more that binds everything together.

The number of combinations then tells us how many possible interactions there are. The formula is horrendously complex to calculate, because you can have combinations of 2, or 3, or 4, all the way up to a single combination of every constituent element. Even with the minimal structure illustrated, that’s 1,013 possible interaction modes. If a fourth PC joins the campaign, that goes up to 8,178. If you double the number of subplots or side-plots that each character becomes involved in within a single adventure, that’s 524,268 with three PCs and even more with four. (with thanks to Stat Trek for providing the online calculator used in generating these totals).

It’s not uncommon for a campaign to have five or more PCs.

The total is an absolutely horrendous number of possible combinations. A campaign with 6 PCs is roughly the same in combination-count as a 3-player campaign where each PC gets two pieces of plot interaction of each type – so the simplest 6-player campaign has roughly 524,268 ways campaign elements can interact, per adventure.

But, when you boil it all down, you are left with those same five types of elements. And while they each have characteristics that distinguish each type, in many ways, you can further simplify things down to three simpler elements: character subplots (which may or may not be fully resolved), character moments as part of the overall adventure, and the overall plotline itself.

Know/Define Your Differences

I made a big point about creating differences, however small, in the previous answer, and it should come as no surprise that this is once again a critical stage in developing faction-related plotlines. But, where the differences were primarily expression-oriented for roleplaying purposes last time, this time they should be more external in orientation, relating not only to the politics, society, and theology of the individual factions, but to the differences in their attitudes toward the world around them and the phenomena that inhabit them.

Differences come in two varieties: attitudes and sensitivities. A difference in attitude means that the faction has a relatively distinctive opinion or attitude toward something, either positive or negative; a sensitivity means that the faction is distinctively more prickly in it’s attitude towards the subject (relative to the other factions), less tolerant of any differences of opinion.

I have a long list of possible areas of distinctiveness but these are just the tip of the iceberg; don’t be afraid to throw something else into your choices.

  • Religious Tolerance
  • Theft & Petty Crime
  • Serious Crime
  • Judicial Independence
  • Inheritance
  • Gender Equality
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • Non-religious artistic endeavors
  • Personal Rights
  • Elves
  • Dwarves
  • Halflings
  • Orcs
  • Other neighboring races
  • Outsiders
  • Clerical Spellcasting
  • Arcane Magic
  • Magical Items
  • Other valuables
  • Taxation
  • Sorcery
  • Literacy
  • Political Authority
  • Days of Worship
  • Theological Leadership
  • Austerity
  • Social Stratification
  • Theological Doctrine

As I said, these are just the beginning, feel free to extend the list.

There should be one point of distinctiveness for every faction, no matter how small, minimum. But if I were populating a world such as the one described by Ronald, I would list the faction and then allocate all the points of distinctiveness, both in attitudes and sensitivities, between the factions, spreading them out reasonably evenly. And note that there is absolutely no reason why two different factions can’t be distinctive in the same area but in different ways.

Full Profiles

If you wanted to work up a full profile, in fact, you should do something like rolling d-something minus half maximum, with a score of less zero indicating a sensitivity and a score greater than zero indicating an attitude. A zero qualifies as an “indifference”. But that’s too complicated for our purposes here; it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees.

Succinct Profiles

Instead, what we are generating are ‘succinct profiles’ that only hit the high points, the most extreme results one way or the other.

Once you have the selections made, the next step is to work out what the specifics of each point of distinction, at least in broad terms.

Make a list, and number each point of distinction.


Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to explore the ways in which these factions – nations, businesses, political parties, organizations of all sorts – interact.

  1. Make a list of the factions, and assign each of them an alphabetic letter code. If there are five factions, use A through E, and so on.
  2. Draw up a table, with one column for every faction and one row for every faction, and label them with the alphabetic codes. Put an “X” in those cells where both row and column indicate the same faction unless a point of distinctiveness for that faction can be described as internally disputed.
  3. Now, we fill in the cells, so we start with the “A” row and work our way across all the columns, starting with “A”. Look at the two factions; if there is a point of agreement in attitude, put a plus in the cell and write the number of the point of distinctiveness. If one has a distinctive attitude, and the other has a sensitivity on the subject, write a – and the number of the point of distinctiveness. If the faction internally disputes something, write the number of the point of distinctiveness with a minus sign. It’s possible and even desirable that you end up with multiple entries in a single cell.
  4. Points of distinctiveness that accord (the plusses) are the foundations of alliances between the two factions. Points of contrast are the foundations of rivalries and disagreement. For each faction, note which factions they have differences of opinion with, and which faction(s) they have the most in common with.
  5. This starts to give you a feel for relations between the factions. But we aren’t quite finished yet. Next, you need to draw a rough map of the territories claimed by the different factions. This can be highly abstract. Label each faction’s territory with the alphabetic code of the faction and the results from analyzing that faction’s row.
  6. Find the two factions that are most widely separated. If they have a common border, they have a separation of zero, if you have to go through one other faction’s territory to move from one of the two to another, they have a separation of one, and so on. You want the two factions with the highest separation.
  7. The farther apart two factions are, the less opportunity they have for their points of disagreement to result in conflict. The closer two factions are, the more a faction will have its metaphoric nose rubbed in any disagreement. Add notes about the separation and attitudes toward their neighbors to your details regarding the factions.

Additional Questions To Ask Yourself

Which faction has the most wealth, and which the greatest economic need?

Which faction has the greatest military power?

Which faction has the greatest quantity of arable land, and which is the hungriest?

Which faction is the sneakiest, and which is the most trustworthy?

Which faction owes the greatest debts, and are they becoming more desperate than they were? Or more untrustworthy?

Which faction has the greatest friction with those outside the factions, and which enjoys the best relationship?


There are two basic plots: responses to stimuli and conflicts. Conflicts can be social, political, military, economic, or anything else that seems appropriate. Stimuli are outside events that affect the Faction. Every point of disagreement is the foundation for at least one plot; most points of distinctiveness are also the basis for a plotline. To get involved in one, all you need is for the PCs to be in one of the two factions or to cross the border between two factions.

Remember what I said about the combinations of plot elements within an adventure? The same math applies to the number of possible plotlines. Taking the 28 areas of possible distinctiveness or disagreement, doubling because we have both, and then determining the number of possible combinations taken N at a time (usually 2, sometimes 3) can yield astronomical numbers. 56 items taken two at a time = 1540 plotlines with zero repetition. Taken three at a time – for example, one faction stirring up trouble between two others, with the PCs caught in the middle – yields 27,720 possible combinations.

Throw in the answers to the questions raised a moment ago, and there’s plenty of depth.

It doesn’t really matter what the PCs do, it will make at least one faction like them more and at least one faction like them less. Throw in stimuli, and you literally have thousands of possible plotlines to work with. Now complicate the whole thing with personalities and factions and leaders growing senile or just old and rebellious youngsters. After all, what you have generated is a snapshot of the way things are now – but everything is subject to change!

Questions To Ask

You should have some overall plotline involved. What that is will depend on the actual choices you make as to distinctiveness within the factions, so I can’t give a lot of advice from this specific point of view – there have been lots of articles on the subject of campaign structure and plotting here at campaign mastery, consult and apply them.

The ideal solution is a domino structure in which each adventure brings about the next, regardless of the outcome of that adventure. But that can be very tricky to arrange; it’s usually easier to use a structure in which subplots turn into main plots, and leave yourself enough flexibility to cope with sequel adventures and unresolved plot threads.

The Seven Stages Of Adventure Definition

Click on the link for a larger image in a new tab

I know that if you read some of the articles that I’ve written, people can get the impression that everything is pre-planned in great detail in advance. That’s not actually the case, and this is one application of campaign planning where that impression can get you into a lot of trouble.

There are six stages of completeness when it comes to campaign planning, as illustrated above, plus a seventh that would have been almost completely empty (so I left it out of the diagram). From most-complete to least-complete, they are:

  1. The current adventure is as clearly-defined as it’s possible for an adventure to get. You know what’s going on, what NPCs are doing and why, what the locations are going to be, what they look like, and how this sequence of events over here will relate to that sequence of events over there. The illustration depicts the current adventure as half-complete, by which point you should also have a fair idea of how it is likely to end (even if more than one outcome is possible).
  2. The next adventure that you are going to run is almost ready to go. You still have some t’s to cross and i’s to dot, and there will be some loose ends from the current adventure to integrate (such as player decisions about what their PCs want to get up to during the ‘downtime’ between adventures), but the structure of the plot will be clear and the content mostly defined to a playable state, needing only some final polish.
  3. The adventure after next is partially done. You’ll have some of the content defined – narrative, locations, NPCs; you’ll know the broad outlines of the plot structure; but there are substantial unknowns still be determined.
  4. The adventure after that will be even less defined, less locked in. You will have ideas for some of the content, you’ll know parts of the plot structure, but more remains to be decided than is already known.
  5. The fourth adventure after the one now being run is even less coherently defined. You will have a vague idea of the content, a vague idea of the overall plot, but it’s mostly just ideas with a little fleshing out done, at best.
  6. The fifth adventure to come is probably little more than a one-paragraph summary. There may be some vague ideas about content, there may be a plot outline, but mostly it’s just hints and concepts.
  7. The earliest stage of development is just a one-line bullet-point synopsis of an idea. “Count Montedevo plots against the PCs”, or something like that.

As play proceeds, you are continually getting fresh input from ongoing adventures, and player decisions, and good (or bad) die rolls, and from flashes of inspiration. Each adventure is a domino that both partially-defines and ‘knocks over’ the next, and (to a lesser extent) the one after that, and the one after that again, and so on.

My practice is (usually) to map out an entire campaign in one-line bullet point ideas (however vague), so that I have a road-map of sorts to follow. About 1/3 of any given adventure derives from past adventures, the outcome of which provides the context in which those bullet-point ideas to manifest. This often takes the shape of a number of subplots that are also outlined in bullet point summaries, one event after another, but that are subject to variation and change based on PC choices, actions, and outcomes. The remaining third comes from decisions taken in past game sessions that did not relate to the main adventure at the time – “[My PC] wants to study [insert subject here]” or “I don’t trust [name of NPC], I think he’s hiding something and want to spend some time investigating him.”

The first third are long-term planning, the second third is medium-to-short-term, and the last are short-term to immediate components of the overall plan. The plot structure defines which of these items will progress first, in player-chronological sequence (not game time). “Johnny’s going to get a hint about the Dark Cult, then Matt’s going to have his studies interrupted by the consequences of what Ray did last week, and even though the two have nothing to do with each other, Ray will put two and two together to make five, sending the PCs off in completely the wrong direction but enabling them to stumble into the main plot, which starts with….”

Don’t get too far ahead of yourself and let the adventures evolve organically – always with an eye to the ‘big picture’ of the overall campaign that only you can see.

Ultimately, every campaign is a confluence of what characters want to achieve, what they are willing to do to achieve it, and the repercussions of those actions. The players and the GM are equal contributors, collaborators in the tale of what happens to the PCs. Building plots around a number of factions with similar philosophies and members of similar capabilities within a similar environment should be no harder than doing so for any other campaign.

Hope that answers your questions, Ronald!

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Patterns Of Distinction: Playing members of multiple factions

Miniature Knight

Image Credit: / gulden erikli tüllük

I don’t often get asked for help by another GM through the mailbox here at Campaign Mastery, mainly because the Ask-The-GMs service is suspended until I can get caught up.

Nevertheless, I received just such a request the other day, and I thought the questions good ones, so here goes!

Ronald wrote,
How can I make a difference between a faction/armed group/tribe? They all have [similar] beliefs, and can be easily confused.

In my campaign there is a group/tribe who call themselves “The Hunters”. They treat everyone out of their tribe as game, except for a few groups, mostly for benefit, fear or affinity.

There is no doubt [that] they have a cannibal ideology, based on “the strongest, the fittest” idea. [The campaign is] based in a post-apocalyptic world, and that [particular] Darwinian thought is widespread, and [certainly] not a unique trait of that tribe in particular.

There’s even a decayed sect based on Darwin’s idea of Evolution called the “Golden Society” who also practice cannibalism as well as a strong racial discrimination. Several groups share similar beliefs, [though they are] separate from each other.

[Which raises the general question,] in fantasy settings, how can the GM and players [distinguish] factions when they are very similar? And how can GMs effectively make a story without being repetitive in a campaign [where groups/factions have such] strong [similarity]?
                              — edited for clarity.

I’m going to deal with these two questions in separate articles, because they are very different in subject matter. The first one is about play, i.e. adventure execution, and the second is about adventure creation.

So, to the first question. In general terms, when the similarities between two or more factions outnumber and outweigh the differences, how can the GM – who has to play all the parts – make it clear to the players which faction they are currently representing?

Military Iconography

This is not a unique problem. It has been confronted on many occasions and in many different contexts. So let’s examine a few of them and see what we can learn, then apply that knowledge to the particular problem that we face.

One obvious parallel is with soldiers on a battlefield. If everyone’s in khaki, how do you know who’s a friend and who’s a foe?

Well, the cut of the uniforms is likely to be slightly different. Hats and other accessories are most likely to be individual to each army. But those can get lost or come off.

Weapons are also quite possibly distinctive, but that’s not very useful; not only would you have to get too close for such a means of identification, but in a combat furball, the likelihood that you might run out of ammo and grab an enemy’s weapon is just way too high.

Patches and insignia are going to be different. The nature and location of name-tags might be different, if any are displayed at all. These can be summarized as visual indicators.

Finally, and more to guard against infiltrators in false uniforms, recognition codes and passwords are reasonably common – with a reasonably quick rotation to a new one so that capture and interrogation won’t yield useful information to the enemy.

It’s no one thing – recognition is a compound of many different small distinctions. So that’s useful technique number one.

Sporting Iconography

Next, let’s think about sports. I have two analogies in mind – the first is ball sports, and the second is motorsports.

In both cases, it’s vitally important that you can distinguish one side from another at a glance. The solution is color. In both cases, teams use color to make themselves (and, where appropriate, their vehicles) distinctive.

Color combinations become iconic, a part of the team’s identification, symbolic of the team in some respect. I live in the Canterbury-Bankstown region of Sydney, and the local sports team in the dominant local football code has a royal blue and white color combination. If I wear anything in those colors, anywhere in the eastern coast of the country, that association would be instantly recognized. If I wore anything that matched another team’s iconic combination – for example, the Red and Green of South Sydney, or the Green and White of the Canberra Raiders, or the Red and White of St George, that too would be instantly recognized. Red and Black are a combination that I could get away with, because the team that used to have those colors – North Sydney – is gone from the competition and has been for twenty years or more. I have a sweat top which is red with gold flashes at the shoulders, which I can wear anywhere – because that combination isn’t used by any of the clubs in the sport.

But, if I were to wear it to certain parts of the US, it might be interpreted as support for the San Francisco 49ers, because those are their colors.

On top of that, each team generally has a logo or iconic image and accompanying name, again chosen to symbolize something about the club. The local team is the Bulldogs, symbolic of indomitable determination. South Sydney is the “Rabbitohs”, with a Rabbit icon, symbolic of speed. The Canberra Raiders have a Viking symbol. St George has a silhouetted Knight and a Dragon. North Sydney were the Bears. These images are totemic, and even if the colors don’t match correctly, still recognizable.

It’s the same thing with Soccer teams, and with Baseball teams, and Australian Rules teams, and Rugby Union teams, and Basketball teams, and Gridiron teams, and even cricket teams – in the shorter forms of the game, at least; remarkably, the traditional form of that game, test cricket, has everyone dressed in white, and you need to understand the rules of the game to interpret who is doing what and therefore what team they represent.

Both totemic symbols and iconic color schemes are recognition signals, designed to be recognizable at a glance.

Medieval Iconography

This isn’t all that new a concept, either; it derives from Heraldry, which had the purpose of providing a means of recognition of armies and commanders when faces were concealed by helmets. From heraldic devices spring the notion of national flags, which render certain color combinations and patterns iconic and instantly recognizable. When those combinations are likely to be misleading, a different combination is chosen which becomes just as iconic.

Modified flag of the US

The American Flag, with it’s famous white stars on a field of blue and red-and-white stripes is instantly recognizable. In terms of instant recognition, it’s not even necessary for the number of stars and the number of stripes to be correct, so long as they are something close to correct. While an expert, or even someone paying close attention, will recognize not only that there is something wrong with the image of the flag shown here, and probably even work out what that something is, at a casual glance it is ‘close enough’ to trigger the association. Of course, the 50 stars in the real thing represent the 50 states, while the 13 stripes represent the original British Colonies, but most people don’t think that hard about the image. “Lots of stars, field of blue, lots of red-and-white stripes, it’s the American Flag” is about as far as a casual glance takes them.

And even if they recognized the errors – too many stripes, not enough stars – they don’t think of it as a different flag, they think of it as an American Flag that someone got wrong!

The Australian Flag has the Union Jack in one corner and a field of blue containing both the Southern Cross in white on the right and a seven-pointed star representing the Six States of Australia on the left, underneath the Union Jack. One point is reserved for Papua and any future territories, creating what is known as the Commonwealth Star.

The colors are exactly the same as those of both Great Britain (because their flag is the Union Jack) and the USA. On the sporting field, this would lead to all sorts of confusion – so Britain’s sporting colors tend to be red and white, or just white, and Australia uses Green and Gold, derived from the colors of the Boxing Kangaroo flag flown by Australia II in the America’s Cup.

Even beyond these applications, you see the same principles applied to corporate logos and corporate uniforms all over the world, though there are an awful lot more of these, so it’s usual that symbology and typography form an essential part of the corporate identification. The design of the Coca-cola logo is recognizable pretty much all over the world.

If there was a stronger means of distinguishing allied and opposing factions at a distance and at a glance, the sporting codes and business interests of the world would have found it by now. But the concept of iconographic representation in general is even more powerful, and definitely needs to be part of any solution to any similar problem.

Tribal Iconography

Let’s think about tribes for a while. To avoid offending anyone, let’s invent one: The Ashuni Tribe. The Ashuni Tribe want to distinguish themselves from all the other tribes around them, even though they eat the same food, drink the same water, have very similar social practices and religious beliefs. That’s because, a long time ago, the Ashuni and their neighbors were all one tribe, but a family was outcast for some reason, or separated from the main tribe, and slowly developed a slightly different cultural identity.

They could take their weaponry in a different and distinctive direction – but if the differences make them less effective or efficient in battle, they won’t last. Their language might evolve, but there’s sure to be a fairly large overlap.

The most likely thing to do would be to look to nature, and single out an animal that has a distinctive appearance, transferring that distinctiveness through clothing and fur and facepaint and even hairstyles. The Ashunti might adopt the Jaguar, or the leopard; or the lion; or the zebra, with its stripes, or an eagle and its feathers – nature is so varied in the appearances of the creatures that it creates that there is sure to be something whose symbolic territory isn’t already claimed by someone nearby.

Quite often, in fact, the choice in iconic symbology would predate the separation of the tribe, and be the iconographic representation of a key family – their ‘totem symbol’, in effect.

These symbolic representations would influence their development in other ways, as the symbology of the totem manifested itself within the culture. If a tribe chose a lion as their symbol, their totem, then the human values generally associated with that animal – popularly, courage – would become ideals to which they would aspire and values that they would cherish. Iconography should represent more than simply a symbolic association.

This is also a factor for us to bear in mind. The uniqueness of a point of cultural identification would derive from the natural surroundings, but would also propel other forms of distinctiveness and divergence. Let that persist long enough, and no matter how similar in every other way they might be to their neighbors, the differences would be like chalk and cheese.

I think we’re ready now to consider the ways in which these principles can be applied to the problem of making multiple factions in an RPG distinctive.

Techniques of RPG representation of Iconographic Cultural Identification

I have identified seven basic mechanisms by which one faction can be distinguished from another. Not all of them will be either available to, or suitable for, every GM in every situation, but I’ll deal with that as I discuss each of the six. The first principle that was developed in the analysis of similar problems remains – it’s usually not enough to have one point of distinctiveness, a compounded effect will be far stronger and more effective.


Verbal distinctiveness can refer to differences as profound as an accent to a particular way of ‘mangling’ sentence structure, to the regular insertion of non-English words. It typically characterizes the distinctions between ethnic groups. It has limited utility in distinguishing between offshoots of the same ethnic population.

In other words, it’s great for making Dwarves different to Elves different to Humans, and even population groups as distinctive as national identities (France is different to England is different to Scotland) – but it’s not so useful for any case in which the differences are smaller.

Nevertheless, this aspect would be in force in at least one respect: no matter how similar their ideology, there would nevertheless be small but profound differences in the way each group describes the fundamentals of their beliefs. The bibles used by Catholics and Protestants are profoundly similar, but no two passages of more than one or two sentences are quite the same. Even broadly similar sections such as the Lord’s Prayer can have one or two words that are different, and that profoundly alter the meaning of the request being made through prayer.

This principle would definitely apply to the situation described by Ronald. In most cases, they would be saying the same thing, but saying it in different ways at times, and using slightly different phrases at other times. This is the sort of thing that would only be noticeable when directly comparing a more-or-less identical work, such as prayers or bibles or myths.

The greatest point of disparity is almost certain to relate to the subject or cause over which the separation between the two groups took place.


Altering the sound of your voice is something that some people can do really well – and others barely at all. This goes beyond accents into questions of breathing and vocal register and intonation. Techniques can be simple, such as talking into your hand to muffle the voice, or profound, such as stretching the vocal cords and altering the resonances of the airways through tongue shape and position.

Try this for an exercise: Say aloud, “Well, you really should know that no two people ever sound quite alike,” a couple of times – and then say it while moving your tongue to touch your cheek instead of the roof of your mouth for d, t, and s sounds. At first, it will feel profoundly unnatural, but with practice, you will be able to do it. Here how the entire voice seems to change?

Then try this: recite the words “Dum, Dum, Dum, Dum,” over and over aloud, but instead of touching the front of the roof of the mouth with the tongue, gradually move the point of contact farther back into the mouth, and notice how the sound changes.

Most people are able to raise or lower their voice in pitch at least one step in either direction. Girls frequently use this technique to mimic a male voice and vice-versa, lowering and raising the pitches respectively.

On top of that, part of accents involves the tone of voice used at the end of sentences and questions. The difference in sound between “It makes a difference,” and “What difference does it make?” can be profound – so something as simple as phrasing statements as rhetorical questions or always phrasing questions as statements can make sufficient distinction between two different individuals. When those patterns are common to a larger group, you achieve a point of distinctiveness about the way that they speak.

A more extreme version involves identifying each faction with a particular well-known character with a distinctive vocal style that you then imitate whenever a representative of that faction is speaking. “These all speak like Darth Vader.” “These all speak like Tweety Bird.” “These all talk like Dirty Harry.” “These all talk like Ronald Reagan did.” I don’t recommend this technique because what most people deliver is a caricature of the voice that can be distracting and can undermine the seriousness of what is being said. But it’s something to keep up your sleeve!

Vocal techniques are great, but often not enough on their own. They may make a contribution to the distinctiveness but are rarely enough to do it all. So, let’s move on.


Italians are famous for employing gesticulation when they speak. What most people don’t realize is that people instinctively alter the manner and delivery of spoken words to fit the rhythm of these gestures, increasing the volume and slowing the pace of their speech at the end of each gesture, pausing briefly before the next stroke, and then speeding up at the start of the next gesture to try and ‘catch up’.

It follows that the use of particular gestures and gesticulations as a characteristic trait of a faction can also influence the vocal sound of that faction’s dialogue, even while it provides a visual indication. Consistency is the key – you can’t do it sometimes and not at other times.

It can take a bit of playing around to find a distinctive gestural ‘style’ for each faction, but it can be a useful technique when you aren’t a Mel Blanc, able to do that sort of thing naturally.

Beyond that, there are more subtle tricks that one can play. Contemplate the number of rhythm patterns that are possible using two fingers simply by varying the spacing between the beats. ‘One – two – one – two’; and ‘one – two – two – pause’ for example. Such finger-tapping probably won’t have a great impact on vocal delivery, but can form an audible subtext to the vocal being delivered to the players even when barely audible. However, a lot of people have trouble improvising dialogue while maintaining a cadence, even one simply tapped out with two fingers, so this is something that you will definitely need to practice in advance.


If in-game was reality, no conversation would take place in isolation; there would be a natural background soundtrack, sometimes described as a soundscape, that would vary slightly from one environment to another. I talked about the requirements, pitfalls, and potential solutions extensively in The Hollow Echo Part 1 – Adding Music To Your Game.


Another way the environment would figure in the real world is through variations in scent. In theory, it would be possible to precede each faction’s speech with a spray of an iconic perfume or scent; even something as simple as opening a bottle of scented oil and waving it around the table would impart a subtle cue. In practice, I don’t think this would work as well as such distinctions would appear in real life, simply because scents linger, and you couldn’t match the pace of scent dissipation with the compressed time involved in gaming.

Nor would it be possible to use realistically-representative odors (or desirable, for that matter). But I dismiss that particular problem because there are a wealth of possible scents that can be used symbolically to represent an iconic scent. Not that it matters while the first problem is insuperable.


An obvious solution is to employ a ‘representative graphic image’. This could be a depiction of a typical representative of the faction, or it could be something more abstract, the equivalent of the iconic totem graphics used by sports teams. If necessary, even rudimentary graphical editing skills will suffice to create variations on the image.

Image courtesy / Michelle Dennis, photo-manipulation by Mike.

Take a look at the image of the soldiers. The first image is the original. For the second, I simply selected all the red, deselected the odd bit of wood, ground, or skin that got picked up, then color-shifted the result. For the third, I did the same thing, but didn’t color-shift it quite as much, then selected all the white of the uniforms and used the techniques described in Stalking Fear: The Creepy in Non-creepy genres to colorize them yellow. It took longer to find and select the base image than it did to produce the two variations. Looking at them, could anyone doubt that they represented three completely different nations or factions?

Sidebar: Chamo

Some people have a lot of trouble doing an effective “Chamo” pattern so I thought I would share this while I was in the vicinity of the subject.

Looks complicated, doesn’t it? It isn’t.

  • 1. I started with a blank canvas.
  • 2. …and made the whole thing a grayish green. This is my base color.
  • 3. With a somewhat darker shade of the same color I did some blobs at random in a new layer.
  • 3a. I set that layer to ‘add’ and gave it an opacity of about 45%, choosing that value by eye until it looked about right. When adding colors, the darker the color being added, the smaller the change it makes.
  • 4. In a new layer above that one, I did some random blobs of a very pale and somewhat grayer version of the same color. If you look closely in the lower left corner, you can even see a few spots where I didn’t quite have the color right. I then turned that layer off until the next one was done.
  • 4a. I set that layer to ‘multiply’ and again fiddled with the opacity until it looked about right.
  • 5. More blobs in a darker shade of the same basic color, still grayer than the original color – compare this color with the one from 3.
  • 5a. I also set this layer to multiply and fiddled with the opacity until it looked right. Then I turned the layer from 3-3a back on.
  • 6. I then created a new layer directly above the base color and made some larger blobs in the same color, and then added some more at about 50% opacity.
  • 6a. I also set this to ‘multiply’ and tweaked the opacity. The order of layers can be very important, because any layer on top of another modifies the image created by the lower layer. Also, anyone who knows anything about math will realize that multiple layers doing multiplication will compound to an exaggerated effect. That’s why there was very little impact on the base layer but some of the upper layers became much darker in color as a result of this layer’s inclusion. The result looks more like a forest than chamo pattern, but that’s just because I’ve shrunken these images down so that you can see them all at the same time.
  • 7. The background to all these shows the image at the size that I actually created it. I merged all the layers and then applied a slight color shift toward yellow, because the greens had shifted slightly toward the blue.

Of course, if I wanted to apply this effect to clothing, I would need to make the color a lot more pale and somewhat less saturated, because ‘multiplication’ increases both those effects, so that’s what I did at the bottom.

To use this, I simply:

  1. Copy and paste the chamo texture into the photograph to which the texture is to be applied (into a new layer, of course), then hide it;
  2. select the parts of the photograph to be rendered in ‘chamo’ colors, and desaturate them so that they are in black and white;
  3. turn the texture layer back on and using the same selection shape, cut out what I need to cover the parts of the photograph to be transformed, getting rid of the rest;
  4. set the texture layer to multiply, fiddle with the opacity and fine-tune the brightness, contrast, and opacity until I get the effect I want.

What this ultimately achieves is that the color comes from the texture layer, while the shadows and form come from the underlying photograph – and only those parts of it that you want to change are affected.

It’s also worth noting that I spent only about ten minutes on this example texture; if I were doing one ‘for real’, I would have taken longer and a bit more care. This was a quick-and-dirty demonstration.

Also note that you can use this technique with any texture you find on the internet, though most will be too dark without modification. Fur, stripes, animal spots, lizard skin, even woodgrains.

Physically Illustrative

Here’s a simple idea: if you give each faction their own distinctive color combination, you can get a length of dowel maybe ten inches long, and use a combination of paint and glued ribbon to turn that dowel into a visual indicator that you simply hold in your hand to indicate which faction is currently “talking”. So long as you make the combinations sufficiently distinctive, players should be able to read the ‘cue’ with a glance. Learning which colors represent which faction might take a little longer.

If you implement this solution, all the others that you employ will help achieve that recognition more quickly.

Other Representations

Lots of GMs use miniatures. Even if you don’t use them with battlemaps, you can use them to solve this particular problem in various ways. And if you do, even occasionally, use minis for their intended purposes, you can consider this a ‘bonus’ application.


Instead of painting bases in realistic colors, such as was done in the main illustration accompanying this article, consider painting at least one figure’s base in the iconic colors of a faction.

If you have six figures, each identical save for the color of the base, it’s easy to hold up that figure to indicate who’s doing the talking.

Alternative Figures

Alternatively, you could use spare figures intended for a different game and take advantage of iconic implications. Let’s say that there are three factions: one numerous but weak, one anarchic and fiercely independent, and one oppressive and manipulative. Break out your Star Wars minis and use them to represent the different factions – not on the battlemap, but simply “in hand” as a visual prompt. Stormtrooper, Rebel, Darth Vader – done! This carries implied undercurrents of personality and relationship, which you can subvert or manipulate to your liking, because players will read things into these representations.

Similarly, you could use Lord Of The Rings figures to represent factions in a D&D or Star Wars game, or D&D figures to represent factions in a Sci-Fi game – you are limited only by the variety of your collection and your creativity.

Poker Chips

What if your figures are already beautifully painted, or of the D&D mini’s variety (some of which don’t have bases)? Place a poker chip under each figure, using different colors of chip for each faction. To signify that a member of one faction is speaking, simply hold up a poker chip of the appropriate color.

Of course, this precludes using colored poker chips for any other purpose, such as elevation.

If you want to get even more specific, you can get adhesive stickers of the “spot” or “dot” variety (often used for price tags), write a number on one, and use the numbered chips on the battlemap. That permits you to identify “blue 2” or “yellow 4” as the specific member of a given faction as the speaker.


If you are skilled enough, consider the expedient of painting ‘armbands’ (in iconic faction colors) onto some of your figures. This actually doesn’t require anywhere near as much skill as doing a full paint job, but you might still need to practice a time or two before working on an important figure.

Or, if they have bases, a couple of spots of paint might be enough – though this will be harder to see.

Colored rubber bands

Don’t want to permanently disfigure your minis? No problem. Get colored rubber bands and wrap one of a particular color around the base, arm, or foot of each member of a particular faction. Don’t wrap them too tightly and there will be no damage done at all.

Adhesive colored dots

Or you could apply those adhesive sticker dots directly to the underside of a figure.


I’m sure there are more solutions, but these should either solve the problem or point you in the direction of your own solution. Just remember the ‘rules’ that we derived earlier:

  • Recognition is a compound of many different small distinctions;
  • Totemic symbols and iconic color schemes are recognition signals, designed to be recognizable at a glance;
  • Iconography should represent more than simply a symbolic association.

Turn these to your advantage and the recognition problem will be but a memory.

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Goody and Project Roundup April 2017: Ten Goodies To Back or Buy

I always get far more invitations to support and review projects that I can possibly manage to satisfy. Every now and then, I bundle as many of them as I can into a goody roundup to inform those who might be interested in backing them of what’s going on. Today, I have 10 items to review for you:

  • DungeonFog
  • Satanic Panic
  • Brother’s Keeper and Olympus Inc.
  • A Touch Of Class
  • The Snake’s Heart – A Lost Age Adventure
  • Kobold Guide To Gamemastering
  • Aces And Eights Reloaded
  • The Forest Kingdom Campaign Compendium
  • Hershey Family Support Bundle

and, last but far from least,

  • Journey To Ragnarök: A Norse Mythology Adventure for 5e

There won’t be enough room or time to give any of these the attention that they deserve, but deadlines wait for no man.

So, let’s dive right in…

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project


I was actually invited to test-drive the alpha version of this tool, which is a cloud-based map-maker and campaign manager with a lot of nifty-sounding tricks up its sleeve. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to clear enough time from a busy schedule in order to take advantage the offer.

Picture this in your mind: you create a map. You create a dungeon or settlement and place it within that map. You create your GMs notes for each room within that dungeon settlement. You add appropriate window dressings to the area, and room descriptive text is automatically generated to match. Each prop comes with its own appropriate ambient soundtrack, with volume levels appropriate to proximity – a fire is closer if you are right next to it. You add NPCs. You add character notes. You upload any illustrations you want.

In play, when you indicate that the PCs have reached the dungeon location, the GM notes automatically come up. When the PCs enter a room, your notes and any NPC details needed pop up, and the ambient soundtrack begins to play, and the PCs see a rendering of what their characters can see and no more. When they move to another room, everything updates to show that room’s contents.

Ditto treasures – allocate one to a PC’s record and there will always be a link from that PC to the details of the item, including where it was found and when.

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

So far, so good.

Now imagine that everything is logged in a database so that you can access any of the NPCs that you’ve created for your game from anywhere in the game world.

Next, imagine that all of this is fully and intuitively customizable using a simplified photoshop-like interface. Imagine that you can download all the text and maps into a customized PDF for offline reference. And finally, imagine that all of this is fully collaborative – if you create a custom prop or illustration for your dungeon, others can access it, and (at the same time), you can access what they have created for your own use.

That’s what DungeonFog promises, as I understand it. Well, most of what they promise – there are extras and nuances that I haven’t mentioned, like Roll20 compatibility.

As of this writing, the Kickstarter Campaign has raised €30,863 of a €15,000 target and still has 6 days to go.

That’s an impressive first-time-at-bat result! By the time you read this, that will be down to about 4 days, so don’t shilly-shally if you’re interested in becoming a backer.

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

Satanic Panic

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this project. It’s an RPG set in a fictional 1970s and 1980s where everything people said about tabletop gaming during that time was true – it was turning people into monsters and bringing demonic forces into the world. The PCs are government agents tasked with containing, controlling, and eliminating the spread of tabletop gaming and have to work as a team for the common purpose of containing, controlling, and eliminating the threats to the world at large – all while keeping the truth from the public, lest a panic ensue.

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

The game will be a 200-page hardcover book with everything needed for a GM and 2-6 players. It is designed so that it can be played as a traditional RPG campaign or can be played in an episodic fashion with different numbers and arrangements of players.

My ambivalence has nothing to do with the game mechanics (which sound interesting) or the creator (who seems innovative and friendly). It’s the premise. Like many of those of my vintage, I lived through the moral panic surrounding D&D and RPGs in general during the 1970s and 80s, and did everything in my power to debunk the abject nonsense of which gamers were accused. While I can appreciate the expression of ultimate victory over the wowsers (and the irony) of an RPG about that period, and the twist of making it all true, the subject still strikes too close to home for me.

However, there is clear evidence that others do not feel this discomfort. As of this writing, $30,469 had been raised against a target of $10,000. The kickstarter has closed, but there is is a link there that will permit you to preorder a copy, which ill grant you all the same benefits of backing the kickstarter, you will get your book and/or PDF with the rest of the backers, and you get access to the original print run of the game. How long that offer remains valid is unknown, so, once again, if you want to get in on the act at the 13th hour, don’t mess around. Click – and click now!

Click on the image to view this product’s page at DriveThruRPG

Brother’s Keeper and Olympus Inc.

This is an adventure created for the Olympus Inc. setting. “Your team is hired by your Shadow to assault a warehouse owned by the Hope Builders Corporation, a subsidiary of The Peace Initiative. Inside the warehouse is some sort of new weapon, but your Shadow isn’t sure what it is. Your job is to recover the weapon and anything else of interest you find in the warehouse. If you can’t capture the weapon, you need to destroy it. What could possibly go wrong?”

Even knowing nothing about the setting, I would find that description intriguing. Certainly there are ideas there that could be molded and adapted to just about any Sci-Fi or Superhero RPG. Rework the ‘new weapon’ and its nature to have a magical basis, and it could work in a D&D setting, too.

Click on the image to view this product’s page at DriveThruRPG

This isn’t a kickstarter, it’s ready for sale and download from DriveThruRPG right now for just $2.

It says that in order to play it, you will need the Olympus Inc Game Setting, which “combines the vibe of the cyberpunk genre with modern espionage and urban fantasy” to depict a world in which “modern-day demigods and mythical creatures battle in the shadows for the future of our world.”

I’m not sure that this is necessarily accurate if you intend to revamp the adventure to work in some other game setting, but even if that is the case, the games setting is crawling with great ideas. Deities running Cyberpunk-style Corporations? Love it!

Right now, you can get the PDF for $20 or you can get it for free by buying one of the Print-on-demand versions ($30 and $50 respectively). I don’t know about anyone else but I can clearly see the difference between the two in the examples provided, and would pay the extra $20 without hesitation if I had it. You may feel otherwise – but isn’t it good to have options?

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

A Touch Of Class

This is a 70-page softcover book with sumptuous illustrations, always a plus in my book. It contains 7 new classes for D&D 5e, revised and updated from their original appearance in EN5ider, the 5th Edition Patreon by Enworld. “Each is a full class, along with archetypes; plus the collection includes a selection of supporting feats, spells, items, backgrounds, and monsters to help make the most from them.”

I’m sure that any 5e GM is already giving serious thought to acquiring this product, even if they didn’t know it existed until a few seconds ago. But that’s not all you can get. One of the backer tiers is called “The Full Monty” and it not only gets you the paperback, it gets you a bundle of 19 mini-supplements in PDF format that, between them, offer another 45 new subclasses! Or you can pick the “Electronic Delight” pledge level, which gives you everything in PDF format – including those 19 mini-supplements.

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

But even if you don’t want them to use as classes, there are plenty of extremely mineable ideas for fantasy adventures in general from the concepts provided in those 19 mini-supplements.

One final set of numbers speaks volumes. Against a £1,000 goal, a total of £48,218 has so far been pledged by 1,713 backers, more than a third of whom have gone for the “Full Monty” bundle, and almost another third of whom have chosen the “Electronic Delight” bundle. Those are the sort of numbers that you expect at the end of a really successful Kickstarter campaign, but (as of right now), this one still have sixteen days to go!

In fact, the project was fully-funded in just under an hour. That short a time-span means that those who knew Enworld, and what to expect from the book, were overwhelmingly on-board in such numbers that it has to be considered a resounding vote of confidence!

This is a campaign without stretch goals, which is a little unusual. But my way of thinking is this: those 19 mini-supplements are the stretch goals, accessible at the incredibly-generous fundraising target of $0…

Click on the image to visit the Indigogo page for this project

Player Tools

Player Tools is a smartphone App with functions designed for Card and Board=gamers, Miniatures Wargamers, RPG players and GMs, LARP players, and more. In fact, there are around 70 functions bundled into the app by my count! This is being provided by a Polish Company who usually produces software applications for hospitals, schools and companies. Now, while schools might be more forgiving, selling to corporate customers and hospitals demands a high standard of reliability and capacity for delivering on promises.

I can only assume that this factor has been overlooked, or not enough people have heard about this fundraising campaign, because at the current time they have received no backing whatsoever. Personally, I found the candid admission of where potential shortcomings (Polish-to-English translation) existed to be refreshingly honest, and liked that there was a very affordable stretch goal designed to overcome the potential liability. And, in any event, the English used on the fundraising page is quite passable.

Perhaps the problem has been with their marketing outreach; the contact message to Campaign Mastery talked about the LARP aspects of the app, and I came close to ignoring the rest of it as irrelevant when I read that. I find myself wondering how many RPG sites were contacted with similar messages who consequently overlooked the message?

Or perhaps it’s that the plan is for this to be a free app that will fund itself through advertising? Or that the campaign is being conducted through Indigogo and not the much better-known (for RPG products) Kickstarter?

Whatever the cause, even if you think they are being overambitious, I think they deserve better than the current lack of backing.

So click on the image above and at least give the programmer a shot at entering the RPG market. You still have a month.

Click on the image to view this product’s page at DriveThruRPG

The Snake’s Heart – A Lost Age Adventure

Two years (plus a month or so) ago, I reviewed the original version of “The Snake’s Heart” by Wild Games Adventures in collaboration with Moebius Adventures in A Serpentine Slithering To Adventure. That review ultimately decided that there was a lot of good material, and it had great potential, but it wasn’t quite ready-to-run in a number of respects.

So, now it’s back, in a greatly expanded and revised version, this time for the Mazes & Perils game system – which, as it happens, is another system I don’t know at all. Be that as it may, since the comments I offered the first time around were all centered around holes where additional content was required, this revised-and-expanded version definitely has my interest, and it should have the attention of every fantasy GM out there.

It’s gone from 4500 words (slightly smaller than the average article here at Campaign Mastery) to 12,500 words. New maps, new artwork, stats revised to suit the new game system. The only downside is that the revised version costs more than the original – $8.99 for the PDF, $12.99 for the B&W softcover, $13.99 for both. If the problems I pointed out in my original review have been fixed, it’s definitely worth it. And from what I can see from the preview, they have been.

Click on the image to view this product’s page at Kobold Press

The Kobold Guide To Gamemastering

There might not be any content from Campaign Mastery included, but nevertheless, this should interest anyone who reads this blog even occasionally. 21 essays from experts ranging from old-hand experts like Keith Baker and Wolfgang Baur to hot newcomers to the professional RPG-writer ranks like ‘Iron GM’ Dan Clark, covering topics as diverse as solo campaigns, shy players, digital distractions, and making rulings on the fly. $9.99 for the PDF or $19.99 for a print copy.

Click on the image to view this product’s page at Kobold Press

Elven High Magic

While I’m in the vicinity, there’s another Kobold Press product that I absolutely couldn’t not mention.

“Legends say that the elves of ancient times could enchant entire cities, change fate, and even reshape worlds. These feats are unheard of today, and most non-elves believe elven high magic has died out. But this power still exists, as a closely guarded secret practiced only by the elves and their shadow fey relatives.”

This is a PDF-only product that ticks a lot of D&D-related boxes for me – so many so that I want a copy even though it’s for 5e and I’m not currently playing that generation of the rules. Any lover of big-concept fantasy should add this to their collection.

And it’s only $2.99!

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

Aces & Eights Reloaded

I have to admit that I’m probably the wrong person to review this product. I’ve never been a big fan of the Western genre – I can count on one hand the number of Western movies that I’ve enjoyed over the years and still have fingers left over. Still, when western motifs get translated into another genre I don’t have a problem with them. There are parallels between the western genre and action-adventure, and buddy-cop movies, and some sci-fi, and even some of the best courtroom drama, and more, and the connections between the wild west and the superhero and pulp genres are undeniable.

So I’m not coming at this as a genre purist, but as someone whose attention is slightly off to one side. An Olympian perspective without a great deal of genre investment.

The original Aces & Eights was something of a surprise smash for Kenzerco, whose primary focus was always Hackmaster. It sold out, winning a number of awards along the way, and so did a number of reprints and supplements; for quite some time the only way to buy it was in digital format. A number of people began to ask when it would next be reprinted – without getting a real answer. Last month’s Knights Of The Dinner Table finally revealed the answer, with the announcement of Aces & Eights Reloaded, a fully revised and updated edition to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the original.

This still only gives the smallest hint as to the cleverness of the Shot Clock game mechanic. Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project and see the animated versions.

The game mechanics – those that are revealed by the Kickstarter – look good. I’ve championed the notion of using non-dice randomization mechanics for quite a while – a deck of cards is essentially a d52, but with additional ways of combining results based on suits and royal cards and runs and combinations – and so the hit location system (displayed on the Kickstarter page) was of immediate interest.

In terms of production values, Aces and Eights reloaded looks to be as good as you can get. Embossed leather looks great, and always has!

It’s also interesting to note that this is Kenzerco’s first Kickstarter campaign. In combination with a product of proven popularity, it must have been very hard to determine reasonable expectations and stretch goals. At the same time, though, the fact that this product has proven popularity makes this a good choice for ‘getting your feet wet’ in the fundraising arena. Despite setting what they describe as ‘aggressive’ targets, the fact is that with 33 days still to go, they have pledges of almost $50,000 against a $20,000 initial target. That means that four stretch goals have been ticked off already, and the fifth is teetering on the edge.

Kenzerco have dealt a winning hand with this Kickstarter, and I doubt it will be their last.

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

The Forest Kingdom Campaign Compendium for Pathfinder and 5E

Forests are one of those iconic terrains that inhabit virtually every campaign. Places of atmosphere, of nature, of wonder and magic. This is an encyclopedic game supplement aimed at expanding the potential of the terrain to the point where it can sustain an entire campaign. Content includes two complete wilderness adventures, over 50 new spells and magic items, three dozen new character options, including new sorcerer bloodlines, cavalier orders, feats, archetypes, and more, over 30 new fey and forest monsters, eight ready-to-play pregenerated characters with detailed histories and personalities, perfect as allies, rivals, or PCs or NPCs, and rules for fey-themed haunts and integrating fey into a campaign.

This illustration is highly-reduced in size and barely represents the quality of the illustrations. Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project.

This is a supplement that I wish I’d had access to back when I was creating my Shards Of Divinity campaign, which was heavily fey-themed.

It starts by combining the entire River Kings product line from Legendary Games into a single volume, edited and polished and in many cases, available in print for the first time.

I’ve always been a fan of lavish illustrations, and those presented as samples from the compendium sit comfortably alongside the best I’ve ever seen, so production values are right up there.

So far, then, that’s about 240 pages of material. But then come the stretch goals, which all take the form of additional inclusions in the sourcebook. A huge number – about ten – of these have already unlocked, and more are within reach. They have raised more than $25000 against an initial funding target of $4000. But that’s because the clock is about to run out on this project – by the time this sees print, there will be only three or four days left. So if this appeals to you, pledge quickly!

I also want to call attention to a couple of add-ons with this fundraiser. The Kingdoms supplement and the Gothic Campaign Compendium will both be of interest to a great many GMs. Be quick, this fundraiser is about to expire.

I’ve had to edit this image slightly to get it to fit. Hopefully those who have provided products for this generous offer can see that it was done with the utmost respect and to preserve the legibility of the text. Click on the image to visit the RPGNow page for this package and get more information on the products included.

Hershey Family Support Bundle

As you can read to the right, this is a bundle that has been put together to assist the funding of medical treatments for the wife of Rick Hershey. Hershey is a graphic designer and artist who has contributed to numerous projects, including Olympus Inc, which I covered earlier in this roundup. The bundle, from several publishers, has a total value of over $230 and costs only $20.

Included are:

  • 5th Edition Racial Options – Aasimar from Fat Goblin Games,
  • An Average Wild West Town from Fabled Environments
  • Baleful Strix — A Free Field Guide from Rising Phoenix Games,
  • Claustrophobia! — When Flamingos Attack from Rising Phoenix Games,
  • Deck O’ Names – Modern from Tabletop Adventures, LLC,
  • Deck O’ Names – Modern Generator from Tabletop Adventures, LLC,
  • DNA – The Buried Zikurat Pathfinder Adventure from Fat Goblin Games,
  • Echelon Reference Series: Cleric/Oracle Spells Compiled (PRD-Only) from Echelon Game Design,
  • Echelon Reference Series: Clerics (PRD Only) from Echelon Game Design,
  • Modern Item Cards from Fabled Environments,
  • Operation Lightning from Fabled Environments,
  • Fat Goblin Travel Guide to Epiphany’s Wayside Inn from Fat Goblin Games,
  • Fehr’s Ethnology Complete from Purple Duck Games
  • HeroGridz – Sewers – Core Set from Rising Phoenix Games,
  • High School Horrors Figure Flats from Fabled Environments,
  • Kamarathin: Kingdom of Tursh from D3 Adventures,
  • Lands of Porphyra Campaign Setting (PFRPG) from Purple Duck Games,
  • Letters from the Flaming Crab: Inspired by Heraldry from Flaming Crab Games,
  • Letters from the Flaming Crab: Murder Bunnies from Flaming Crab Games,
  • Lunatic Labyrinth (Revised) from Rising Phoenix Games,
  • Monsters of Porphyra from Purple Duck Games,
  • NPC Strategy Cards from Rising Phoenix Games,
  • Shadows over Vathak: Player’s Guide to Vathak from Fat Goblin Games,
  • The Gamemaster’s Worldbuilding Journal from Fat Goblin Games,
  • The Lost Temple of Forgotten Evil (Pathfinder) from Dark Naga Adventures,
  • The Pewter Tankard Tavern from Rising Phoenix Games,
  • Trail of the Apprentice: The Bandit’s Cave (5E) from Legendary Games,
  • Trail of the Apprentice: The Bandit’s Cave (Pathfinder) from Legendary Games,
  • vs. Ghosts from Fat Goblin Games,
  • vs. Stranger Stuff from Fat Goblin Games,
  • [M&M3e] The Great Game from Fainting Goat Games.

That’s 31 items, far too many to try describing individually. As with any such bundle, there will be contents that appeal to a given GM and things that don’t, but it doesn’t take too many ‘yes’ votes to get over the $20 price tag, and on top of that there is the knowledge that you are contributing to a good cause. There are certainly items on the list that interest me!

How long this bundle will be available, I don’t know – but purchasing sooner rather than later is always going to be of greater comfort to the family of the recipient. So take advantage of it while it lasts!

Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project

Journey To Ragnerok

There’s something about the Norse Mythology that appeals to RPG gamers. You can fit it directly into Superheros and Fantasy; you can tweak it just a little to fit it into Pulp; you can tweak it a little more and it will work in Westerns, or in Sci-Fi. It’s something close to universal. This takes a compendium approach to the mythology, dividing the nine worlds up into nine sandboxed supplements and then binding them together back into a hardcover book. Throw in an adventure, new archetypes, a new character class, and a focus on Runic Magic.

Angurvadal, a magic sword carved with Runes that take fire when a battle approaches. Flashes and shadow added by Mike. Click on the image to visit the Kickstarter for this project.

There’s so much of interest in this book – even though I don’t currently run or play in a 5e campaign – that this game supplement is something that I definitely intend to back.

The art looks great, so a particularly attractive add-on is the artbook. There’s more than 15 years of research and development encapsulated in this game supplement, and that provides the depth that the subject really requires. I have to admit that I’m struggling at this point to put down in words exactly how much, and why, this supplement excites me.

Unusually, this is an Italian project that will be presented in both Italian and English versions. Also unusually, shipping costs will be worked out after the campaign and costs invoiced separately. So be aware that your final commitment will be higher than whatever you pledge, and build that into your forward budgets. They have provided estimates at the bottom of the campaign page.

This campaign has so far raised €26,607 in pledges against an initial goal of €5,000, and there are still 16 days to go.

Final Words

Hopefully, there’s something above for everyone. There’s a lot of variety – content for 5e, for Pathfinder, for Savage Worlds, and more. There are some great projects included. But several of them have only a few days left to run, so move quickly.

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Delivering The Deal: Confections of Adventure Content

Image Credit: / anshu mishra

I’ve been re-watching Season 2 of The West Wing over the weekend. I only meant to watch a couple of episodes, but as usually happens when I put it in the DVD-player, I started to binge. It’s a show that never fails to tickle my sense of optimism, my hope for the future, my love of smart writing, clever plot twists, and witty dialogue. Not to mention a soft spot for good political drama.

It’s a show that just ticks most of my boxes. Not much action, not a lot of sci-fi, and very little courtroom drama but just about everything else about the show delivers what I enjoy in a TV show. It’s not everyone’s first love, but that’s all right, it doesn’t have to be.

Long-time readers will be aware of my love for the series and that I even have an occasional series of articles, “Lessons From The West Wing”, and may be wondering why this isn’t one of them. It’s because this article isn’t really derived from the show – it’s just that there is a tangential connection.

Here’s my point, and the RPG connection: your goal as a GM should be to make your players feel about you campaign the way I feel about the West Wing.

It’s an absolutely obvious point, but one that can often get overlooked when a GM is making serious efforts to improve his game. You can get so caught up in details that the biggest picture of all becomes enshrouded in fog and misplaced.

What Do You Want?

I’m not a fan of GM surveys of players. Very few of them do very much more than contradict each other and raise hopes that will be impossible to satisfy. Other GMs, to be fair, have gotten very good mileage from player surveys, or so I’ve been told; I’m just not one of them.

But there is one question that should be put to the players as soon as you decide to run a campaign, and that it is never to late to ask. Two questions, actually – but this is the first: “In one word, what do you want from the campaign?”

That “one word” is critically important. It forces people to think hard about their answer and it leaves the answer loose enough that you can do multiple things with it.

What is one important thing or change that you character wants to accomplish by the end of the campaign?

The other question is one that can’t really be answered until your a few sessions into the campaign in most cases; occasionally players can do it after character generation with the benefit of campaign briefing notes, but that’s usually not enough.

Make sure your players know that you mean the question seriously and the answers WILL alter the shape and scope of the campaign. That means that frivolent answers should and will be rejected, and that you may want to discuss more serious answers with the player in question before you implement their requests.

The GM’s Answers

The GM should also answer the first question and give two answers to the second. Question one: What do YOU want from the campaign? What will make you enjoy it? and Question Two: what are two things that you want the PCs to achieve in the course of the campaign?

It’s very important that there be a different number of answers to the two questions when they are all compiled. You’ll see why in a minute.

These answers are no less important than the ones you get from the players. If you aren’t having fun, you won’t put your best efforts into the campaign.

The Combinations

To keep the combinations manageable in an article, let’s say that you have 3 players. That’s a relatively small campaign, the average is usually 4 or 5.

With three players, you have four responses to Question 1 – A, B, C, and D – and five responses to Question 2 – a, b, c, d, and e.

If you take each of these combinations in sequence, you get a pattern:

Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ae, Ba, Cb, Dc, Ad, Be, Ca, Db, Ac, Bd, Ce, Da, Ab, Bc, Cd, De, repeat.

Compare that to the pattern that you get if you didn’t have the extra answer from yourself in response to Question 2 (the ‘e’ response):

Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, repeat.

The extra answer gives a lot more variety by making the cycles of different lengths.

The meaning of the combinations

This makes a lot more sense if I explain with a more substantial example:

A = action-adventure; B = awe; C = politics; D = characterization/roleplay

a = A lasting peace with the Orcs; b = explore the cosmology; c = reform the Dwarves; d = overthrow the Hidden Lich-King; e = Discover the hidden secret of the Lucentius Order.

(No, I don’t know what all of those mean; I made them up out of whole cloth, and most won’t make sense without the context of the character and the campaign background).

So, Question 1 gives style of adventure, while Question 2 gives a plot thread. The combinations show how the two are linked. Aa is an action-adventure plot furthering peace with the Orcs. Exactly how it is going to do that is up to the GM.

Add the occasional item from left-field

Throw in the occasional item that no-one has asked for, that stands alone in terms of plot, but that gives each of the players a little of what they’ve asked for, and you have a campaign.

Mix It Up

Of course, in real life, you wouldn’t simply go Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ae, and so on. You might go Ca, Be, Ad, and so on; the order in which things appear is something that needs to be massaged in such a way that it makes sense. You might also have logical difficulties to overcome – it’s hard to do much exploring of the cosmology until characters are high enough level to make the trip under their own power. Unless you get creative, of course.

The third ingredient

On top of that, you should make an earnest effort to ensure that no two successive adventures have the same ‘feel’ to them. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not.

Individual plot threads

This becomes even more important if you break your adventures into plotlines with internally-contained subplots and inter-connective plot threads. For example, you might make sure that if the main adventure doesn’t focus on the Action-Adventure style, player A has a small action-adventure subplot to scratch that itch – so that almost every adventure has some ‘A’ content.

It’s also reasonable to assume (until proven otherwise) that player A will be looking for opportunities to scratch his action-adventure ‘itch’ even when it’s not explicitly ‘hard-coded’ into the adventure.

Other Subdivision modes

The more ways you have to slice an adventure up, to subdivide it, the more ways you can mix and match to achieve different plot configurations. That’s a blessing, because every adventure should have something from all four of A, B, C, and D. You don’t want any given player to be happy one adventure in four or even one in two – you need to deliver what they want every time, even if it isn’t the predominating influence within the day’s play.

For example, you might configure your usual adventures to have a James Bond style “teaser” before the main action starts to satisfy the action-adventure component. At the same time, you might tease another player who loves mystery content with a puzzle that will lead into the main action. You could alternate those mystery openings with something that will scratch the itch of player #3, and add variety every now and then so as not to be predictable.

Another area where you can customize the adventure is in the mode of resolution. Again, sometimes diplomacy, sometimes action, sometimes a mystery.

Use all the subdivisions open to you to make sure that each adventure delivers something to match each player’s desires.

Complicated Answers

Of course, the example answers offered are relatively simple, as you can see from the fact that I was able to write five of them in so short a space. In real life, the answers you get might be far more complex.

Take “Defender”, for example, a Kzin (NPC) character from my Zenith-3 campaign. His homeworld attempted to conquer the Human Race a couple of times (and failed spectacularly each time). Their society then experienced a radical revolution when a retrovirus was introduced that made all the females sentient, and (in fact) smarter than the typical Kzin Male at the hands of a then-PC in another campaign. As a result, and due to the recognition of some mutual dangers and interests, the Kzin have entered into a formal treaty and diplomatic relationship with the humans of Earth. This particular NPC was part of a revolutionary cabal dedicated to restoring the status quo, not realizing that they were being manipulated by an outside party, and that the end result would have been the destruction of his homeworld; it was saved from that fate by the PCs, one of whom then retired to teach the surviving members of the cabal his traditional Japanese sense of Honor. He hates and distrusts humans and the PCs in particular, because of their affiliation with the Matriarchy, but his sense of obligation has forced him to become a member of the team until his debt to them has been repaid to his satisfaction. At least, that was his motivation when he joined; it is slowly evolving into something different, as his mind-set and values are stretched to encompass a more pan-galactic perspective. Eventually, there will be a crisis – what happens then will depend on everything that has happened between the PCs and this NPC prior to that point. He might leave the group and become an enemy, or he might renounce his old ways and become a fully-fledged member of the team, or he might adopt some entirely different course that I can’t presently anticipate.

Of course, the PCs were suspicious, and even a little hostile to his position within the team when he first showed up; but slowly, they have come to trust him, and he has made several worthwhile contributions to the team.

You could summarize his initial ambitions relatively simply – “Satisfy his sense of Giri” – provided that the background and context is understood. But the evolution in perspective and the crisis of conscience that will eventually result are beyond simple summation.

Character ambitions can and should evolve as the campaign progresses. Characters may add secondary objectives and decide that new objectives have a higher priority than their original ones. To some extent, the GM may be able to anticipate these and build them in, to some extent he will have to evolve the campaign as the characters and their relationship with the campaign evolves.

The combinations don’t dictate the totality of an adventure, and the totality of them don’t define the entirety of the campaign; they are more akin to recurring themes.

On top of that, tastes change. Our action-adventure aficionado might discover a passion for social reform and want to explore that more deeply in the campaign. The would-be cosmology explorer might so fall in love with a mystery built into the campaign that he wants more of the same.

Worse still, some answers are more difficult to analyze than others. How do you respond if a player answers “variety” or “surprises” to question 1? (A rhetorcal question – the obvious answer is mix it up still further).

The bottom line

Ultimately, these are just guidelines for what the players want more of, and what they don’t want. My co-GM and I recently ran a very Gothic-horror adventure in the Pulp Campaign, something decidedly Lovecraftian in nature, despite knowing that it was not the favorite genre of one of the players. We went out of our way, however, to make sure that he had substantial “swashbuckling” content to enjoy – and despite leaving the adventure deliberately open-ended, have no intentions of repeating anything like it anytime soon. Such adventures are a definite pulp sub-genre that should appear at least once in the campaign, but once is enough. Every RPG adventure is a package, a collection of different styles and influences.

But every GM should have some idea of what his players want him to deliver at all times. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes its hard, and sometimes the player himself doesn’t know (except perhaps by exclusion). Ask yourself the question right now – do you know what each of your players want?

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An Easter Surprise: Little Bubbles Of Nothing

Mint Aero showing the internal structure

A Mint Aero showing the internal structure.
Photo by Evan-Amos , released to the public domain by the photographer,
Usage restrictions:

You can never tell where inspiration is going to come from. The best you can do is remain alert to the world around you and leap in with both feet whenever you find it.

That’s what I was thinking while enjoying a chocolate treat – A mint Aero bar – the other day.

For some readers, that name is all they need. Aero bars are popular in a great many countries, amongst the most popular on sale. In fact, everywhere they have been released, they have become a staple treat, with one notable exception – the United States Of America.

Why this is so has been the subject of much fascinating speculation. There are multiple web sites devoted to the question, which often spin off into discussions of comparative chocolate quality and the differences between M&Ms and Smarties and why Mars Bars aren’t the same in the US as they are in Australia… But I don’t want to get sidetracked, so suffice it to say that it’s a bit like a Hershey’s Air Delight, but in more flavors. And better chocolate.

Links to find out more:

Okay, so an Aero Bar is chocolate with bubbles in it, a sort of rigid chocolate foam. And that got me to thinking. And the ideas just kept coming…

Bubbles Of Nothing in Space-Time

Dark Matter and Dark Energy are two of the great unknowns in Modern Cosmology. Proving that either exist, and identifying conclusively what either of them are and how they function, are sure tickets to Nobel Prizes. And, maybe, just maybe, an Aero Bar is the model that is needed to explain both of them.

Dark Energy first.

Dark Energy is needed to explain the expansion of the Universe, which doesn’t correspond and correlate with observations. In a nutshell, the expansion rate of the universe doesn’t appear to proceed smoothly, and Dark Energy was introduced to give it a (theoretical) boost at one or more points in history. It’s a fudge, in other words.

So, let’s postulate that there is something out there that can create bubbles of non-space-time in the space-time around us. Because we are part of that space-time, and so is everything we can observe and measure, we would not be aware of these bubbles – they would literally not exist so far as we were concerned.

And yet, if the total energy contained within the universe is a constant, as required by the laws of Thermodynamics (assuming the universe to be a closed system), either the energy density would have to be increased because the total volume of the universe is less than observation would determine (it contains voids that we shouldn’t count but do) or, like chocolate with a bubble forming in it, the volume would need to expand to contain the extra ‘voids’. Result (of the latter): the expansion rate of the universe inexplicably increases.

But what happens to prevent this being a constant source of Universal growth? Well, what happens if the bubbles have a finite existence – effectively making them Time without Space? That means that we can have periods of increased bubble formation (greater acceleration of expansion) followed by periods without such effects.

What might these bubbles actually be? Unless that question can be answered, however speculatively, this simply shifts the goal-posts of the unknown, it doesn’t really explain anything.

Well, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the many-worlds theory of space-time is likely, in some form or another. So, postulating this to be true, why not another space-time that is completely independent of our own?

Well, that’s one possibility, but for me, it doesn’t work. The more quantum events there are to create branches in space-time, the more parallel timelines there are to be accommodated, and the theory is that Dark Matter had its greatest effect – some say, it’s only effects – during the first instants after the Big Bang, when there were no quantum events.

Turning the theory on it’s head, however, works. Whatever the primordial universe, pre-Big-Bang was, is what is in these bubbles, and the process that ‘evaporates’ one or more bubbles is the expulsion of this ‘raw’ unspace-time into another timeline. It’s not that bubble creation is any slower; instead, it’s that bubble dissipation is variable.

Dark Energy? Is that like Dark Chocolate? The answer might very well be ‘yes’.

Bubbles of Something in Space-Time?

Dark Matter is inferred from various gravitational effects. In essence, the matter that we can see in the universe isn’t enough to explain the effects that we observe out there. There needs to be additional matter out there – matter that we can’t see (hence the “Dark” part of the name).

The Aero-bar theory completely revises the whole concept of the observable universe and its structure. First, the expansion rate, and hence the energy density, are radically altered. Next, we need to discern whether or not the bubbles ‘contain’ the Non-Space-Time or are the Non-Space-Time. The first implies some sort of interface or barrier, which then has to be explained (and, in particular, what happens to it when it the Non-Space-Time goes away), but seems easier to comprehend than the two space-times simply rubbing against each other.

Nevertheless, the latter is simpler in many other respects, requiring fewer answers. Now, if the gravitational effects of the content of these bubbles of Non-Space-Time can extend beyond the bubble, what happens? In effect, there’s all this energy out there at the original density of the pre-big-bang universe – something near-infinite. No, that doesn’t work, because it applies a pro-contractive force just when we want an expansive force, and vice-versa.

Okay, what if the dissipation of a bubble – the removal of the ‘expansive force’ of Dark Energy – releases gravitational effects? After all, there was a void that affects the size of the observable universe even if we can’t actually see it. When that void goes away, the universe closes up seamlessly to occupy that void – and the only mechanism we have to explain the resulting change in the shape of Space-Time is Gravity. Result: A faux-gravity effect. It looks like gravity, acts like gravity, but there’s literally nothing there (so far as we can observe) to create the gravity. And, since matter is the densest form of gravitational generator that we know of, we infer therefore that there has to be matter there that we can’t detect. Dark Matter.

Bubbles Of Something in Nothing

Those two ideas alone would probably be enough to justify this article, but a beefy inspiration doesn’t stop there. The concept of two space-times being interwoven in n-dimensional topology implies the existence of an n+1th dimension to contain the ‘action’ of separation. Maybe more. In effect, there needs to be an ‘outside the universe’ where all the other universes can be located, because under this concept, they have their own space-time, completely independent of ours. In effect, if we consider each universe to be a closed ‘solid object’ (it isn’t, but the analogy makes this easier to understand) then we need a multi-universal ‘space’ to contain them all. Our current best theories, so far as I am aware, say nothing about anything being located in this void, but the void itself has to exist. Think of the multiverse being a whole bunch of inflated balloons inside a larger balloon. The size of that larger balloon is irrelevant; it could be larger or it could be just big enough to hold the balloons inside.

Not that I’m suggesting this outer ‘balloon’ actually have any sort of substance or existence; what matters is the multi-universal space enclosed within.

But wait – what if time were different from space? Current thinking ties the whole together into a single bundle called “space-time”, but ’tain’t necessarily so. If time were common to ALL space-times within the multiversal balloon, it might help to explain how the ‘bubbles’ can ‘integrate’ with our universe and have an effect when they are ‘expelled’. In fact, this would permit us to lose that extra N+1th dimension – time could do the job all on it’s own.

Whenever I want to get inspired along these lines, a book that I always think of is James P Hogan’s Thrice Upon A Time (click on the link to buy a copy from Amazon). That book discusses two models for space-time and communication between different periods of time – serial and parallel – and dismisses both as inadequate before postulating another one, with ‘threads’ of space-time connecting a series of moments within the same universe. It occurs to me now that the model I have proposed in this article yields both parallel and serial models, or something close to them, simply by viewing an instant as a cross-sectional slice through the multiverse that intersects that instant on that particular universe; it’s only the angle of the cross-section that changes. If at perfect “right angles” to time, you get parallel worlds, all experiencing analogues of the same instant at the same time (commensurate with their past histories); if at an angle, then none of the worlds will be at the instant in question in the reference universe. Some will be ahead of it (i.e. having already experienced an analogue of the same instant) while others will be behind (i.e, have yet to experience that instant).

Solid Nothing

Inspiration can be like a freight train – once you start it rolling downhill, ain’t nothin’ gonna stop it till it hits bottom. Everything you’ve read so far was my first thought; but, even though I turned my attention to other things, ideas kept coming to me.

The holes in an Aero bar are really empty; they contain a gas, probably air or nitrogen, possibly CO2. But if the ‘walls’ of the bubble were strong enough, they could contain a vacuum, i.e. nothing. That got me to thinking about force-fields in superhero RPGs and what happened when they materialized – did they ‘wrap around’ the subject (if you slowed time down enough with a high-speed camera), or did they appear as a point and ‘inflate’? Could they contain a vacuum?

One of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign is (effectively) a sentient dimensional interface (a very long story). He is the strong man of the group, the toughest and most resilient of them. He is, in effect, solid nothing, and yet, it’s a nothing that can move and change its shape at will. He draws his mind and physical shape from the mind (both conscious and subconscious) of the person contained within the dimensional interface. This person is somehow nourished when the interface “eats”, hydrated when he “drinks”, oxygenated when he “breathes”. And something else happens to the wastes, because the interface never needs to use the Bathroom.

A future adventure is going to have at least one PC exploring within the Dimensional Interface, at which point the “how’s” of these functions will have to be explained. I have answers to them (that I am not going to mention here), but by contemplating the concept of a bunch of bubbles of “solid nothing” and multidimensional topology, those ideas suddenly became a whole lot more robust. But, since I didn’t have time to write them down, I’m hinting at them here to remind me of them when the time comes!

Social Metaphors

But this also gave me the thought of something being contained within bubbles of something, or voids within something. And that’s a metaphor for isolationism, whether in the form of an isolated group – Assassin’s Guild, Thief’s Guild, Secret Society, Conspiracy – or a lonely individual, stuck in a rut, introverted and friendless – or are they really? Regardless of perceptions, only the most antisocial are truly without friends; the rest simply don’t open up to or recognize those who enjoy their company.

But that throws new light on those less socially-desirable groups. Are they really completely at arms’ length from the society around them? In some cases, they are so antisocial that perhaps this may be the case, but in most cases, there will be a certain tolerance and comradeship from like-minded groups, and there may well be family and personal friends. Even enemy agents have their handlers, and must make a degree of effort to blend in, or they endanger their missions. That means making friends and acquaintances, and no matter how much the agents in question might intend to abuse that relationship in the long term, to the friends and acquaintances (at least until they do), the relationships are genuine.

It’s easy and simplistic to paint such groups as evil or foolish or any of a great many unflattering terms. That makes it easy to mock them, or to parody them in games – and I have to admit to having had “Crazy Survivalists” pop up now and then in my campaigns (and not always have them being wrong), and the occasional Right-wing paramilitary group. With this insight, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think about either in quite the same way again.

How about those who hold unpopular, deranged, or downright stupid ideas? Flat Earthers, conspiracy theorists and Anti-Vaxxers, for example? Again, it’s easy to deride such people and groups, and that’s just as foolish. Mock their opinions, if you must – but remember that there’s a person on the other end of that tweet, a person who may simply be trapped in the internet echo-chamber, denied any opportunity to see the flaws and fallacies in their positions.

But what of those who commit crimes? Appreciating them as individuals with their own tale to tell may or may not mitigate their crimes, but the social function of protecting society remains the paramount consideration. Those who commit crimes or frauds for personal gain without compunction, the corrupt, and sociopaths and psychopaths remain pet hates. Call them the Amoral, if you want a collective term. I would quite contentedly lock all such up – in effect, putting them in a bubble within society, whether they like it or not.

The Aero Bar makes a powerful social metaphor. Embracing it will make your depictions of radical groups of any sort more realistic and more human – and may just make you and your players better people in the process.

Secret Lore

I’m not done, yet!

Knowledge is never uniformly distributed. If you were to draw a circle to represent only those with a given skill or expertise and leave the rest of the map blank, you end up with something that looks an awful lot like bubbles, clustered in areas of appropriate population density, background, and economic circumstance.

In a small rural community, there might only be one or two people who know anything much about Dinosaurs. Or “Walking With Dinosaurs” may have been the hot topic of conversation for weeks after it was aired. Or there may be fossils in the vicinity, making dinosaurs part of the tourism industry for that community – and attracting experts in the field. If the settlement is too small to even have a school of its’ own, there might even be no-one who knows anything substantial about paleontology.

Think for a moment about the distribution of those with traditional Blacksmithing skills. Are there people out there right now who could take an iron bar and turn it into a horseshoe? The answer is certainly ‘yes’ – medieval re-enactors, if nothing else! And those who do ‘cowboy things’ for tourists. And, perhaps, those in less-developed parts of the world – South America? Africa? Parts of Asia?

The same principles apply to secret knowledge – something like some Necromantic Ritual, for example. Individuals with such knowledge would seem to be relatively isolated bubbles, at first glance. But knowledge is useless unless shared; so chosen apprentices might well receive some extra training, and one bubble becomes two or three. Initially, these would be clustered, but as the apprentices broke out and began their own careers, they would disperse.

On top of that, there is a discomfort to keeping a secret whenever you are reminded of that secret; the common expression of this is that a secret can “eat you up” or “consume you”. This discomfort can be alleviated by talking to someone else with the same problem. That’s the basic conceptual principle behind support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. So, from time to time, possessors of this secret knowledge might get together to scratch each other’s “itch”.

Furthermore, there are always social dynamics at work. Mages might prefer to live and work in isolation, unbothered by the world, but they still need to eat, buy supplies, and so on. There might be a social force tending to drive them away from population centers, but there is another force pulling them into such centers, because that’s where the work is. Whenever you have two opposing forces of varying intensity, the human tendency is for an unstable oscillation to occur – so mages might spend three months a year earning what they needed for the rest of the year and then absent themselves to study in peace and quiet. Or it might be a quarterly cycle, or a monthly one; or even a weekly one, or might even vary between these time periods depending on circumstances, which is probably the most likely scenario of all.

(1) Five have a secret. (2) They pass it on to selected Apprentices. (3) The Apprentices ‘Graduate,’ and now eleven know the secret. (4) They pass it on to selected Apprentices. (5) The apprentices graduate, and now 23 know the secret. Note that four of them at any given time are contained within the largest settlement, possibly the capital city, while the others are dispersed. (6) A few more tell apprentices who graduate, and migrate. Every town in the region now has at least one person who knows the secret – and each then tells one or more selected apprentices. 57 now know the secret, including a substantial cluster in the city. Observe that one of the original secret-bearers has died, leaving an apprentice who knows the secret (in the lower left area). Five to 57 in roughly three ‘generations’.

Of course, they would normally take their apprentices with them, if they were going to be away for any significant period of time; anyone who has seen Fantasia knows what happens when a Sorcerer’s Apprentice doesn’t have enough supervision! The effect is for these isolated clusters of bubbles to drift in and out of population centers – the larger the population center, the more likely it is that two or more of the possessors of the secret will be present at any given time.

And, of course, it’s always easier to recruit gifted apprentices from an urban environment.

Over time, the population count of those with access to the secret will grow, unless positive steps are made to contain it. But it’s easy for that kind of caution to go too far, and for a secret to start dying out. That, of course, might be what the original holders of the secret wanted to achieve!

That’s why 99.99% of conspiracy theories are hokum – I have in mind things like the alleged ‘faking of the moon landings’. So many people would have known the secret that it could never have been kept, and by now, everyone would know. Even completely disregarding the physical proof, the ‘theory’ falls apart under its own weight.

Does that mean that conspiracies of this size are impossible? Not at all. What the Nazis were doing in the death camps was kept secret from the general German populace; it stayed a secret for a few years, at most. How some people can doubt the truth of such horrid events, can entertain the notion that it was all faked for some reason, is beyond me; by now, the “truth” of such a cover-up would be as widespread as knowledge of World War II is.

All this becomes significant under two circumstances: one, something happens to make the knowledge relevant and the possessor becomes aware of the circumstance and seeks out someone to do something about the situation (usually with oaths of secrecy being involved); that ‘someone’ could be the ruling authority, or it could be the PCs. If it’s the ruling authority, they then presumable involve the PCs, telling them only what they ‘need to know’ and no more. Or, two, someone becomes aware that the secret exists, deduces or sets a trap to identify the possessors, and proceeds to make contact with them. Either way, secrets have a way of getting out.

You don’t need to count settlements on your map; it’s easy to do mathematically. I started with 5, and added 6 apprentices. That gave 11. The 11 added 12 apprentices, giving 23. The 23 added three or four more apprentices, giving around 26; the 26 then added 32 apprentices, and one of the original 5 died, giving 57. In the next generation (not illustrated), the numbers would roughly double once again, and most of the remaining original 4 would die off – about 110.

Considering this to be the area of a circle gives a rough indication of the growth of the region in which the secret is readily accessible. The area of the new head-count is roughly given by pi times r squared; we don’t know the original size (I deliberately left off a scale), but what we want is the ratio of the increase in area from one generation to the next.

110 = pi . r ^2; r = 5.917.
57 = pi. r2 ^ 2; r = 4.259.
5.917 – 4.259 = increase in radius = 1.685.
Divide this by r2 and multiply by 100: 38.9%.
So the increase in area is roughly 40% of the size of the map – 20% in every direction.

You can even estimate the number of generations to ‘saturation’ if you know how big the total area is, relative to the original map. Let’s say that this is one-ninth of the total: then all you need to do is square each increase.

1 x 1.4 = 1.4 (4th generation).
1.4 x 1.4 = 1.96 (5th generation).
1.96 x 1.4 = 2.744 (6th generation).
2.744 x 1.4 = 3.8416 (7th generation).
3.8416 x 1.4 = 5.37824 (8th generation).
5.37824 x 1.4 = 7.529536 (9th generation).
7.529536 x 1.4 = 10.5413504 (10th generation).

What’s more, we can estimate the total number who will know the secret at this point, based on 4th generation = 110. It’s 110x(9×9/1.4) = 6,364.28571429. So 6.364 is the ‘saturation point’ of a secret in a political area nine times the size of the one shown; when that many know it, there will be one person in almost every community and several in all the larger ones. We can apply the same scale – without the /1.4 – to the number last shown in the city on the map: 12x(9×9) = 972. Almost 1,000 people in that city will know the secret.

Five people might be able to keep a secret. 6,364? Not likely. If each generation of apprentices is 10 years apart (and 4-5 is more traditionally likely), it’s about 85 years to reach that 6,364. Can you imagine that many people keeping a secret for that long? No chance.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a sinister secret. It could be a trade secret, or a recipe, or a design for nails, or an architectural style, or some improvement in the design of armor.

The design of the A-bomb was one of the most tightly-held secrets of World War II. The Russians got it through espionage. Stalin Knew that his spies were delivering up these secrets during the Potsdam Conference at which the post WW-II political world was shaped by the Allies, which is why he was not cowed by the vague hints at a super-weapon dropped by Truman. Their first successful nuclear test was in 1949. Despite being undermanned and under-equipped, the Soviet project took virtually the same time as the whatever-they-need Manhattan Project. The “Nuclear Club” has only grown since.

Economic Metaphors

I mentioned trade secrets in the previous section, and that got me to thinking about the application of the metaphor to economic activity. Half the work on this has already been done in that section, so let’s look at what’s left.

“Bubbles” are of course already a metaphor for various economic phenomena – Housing Bubbles and Tech Bubbles being the two most obvious examples.

Housing first: Everyone talks about “Housing Bubbles” as though they were nationwide. They aren’t; the fact that this phenomenon refers to the constituent parts of settlements inherently ties them to population centers, and the size of the community is a factor in the size of the housing bubble. But even when talking about a single city, some areas will be experiencing “bubble inflation” while in others the real estate market can be stagnant or even receding.

In fact, since there are no statistical “rules” for the valuation of any given property, even when you look at individual suburbs or districts within a city, you find that some areas are “inflating” faster than others. In fact, every time you look closely at one of these housing bubbles, you find that it’s actually composed of smaller bubbles – until you get down to the level of individual dwellings, the “indivisible atom” of housing. A “housing bubble” is really composed of a sort of “housing foam” – it’s more like the internal structure of an Aero bar, in other words.

And, like the chocolate walls of an Aero Bar, the constituent bubbles of this foam have a certain level of resilience. We’ve been hearing that we’re in a real estate bubble that’s about to burst for at least a year, here in Australia. The Reserve Bank, which controls housing interest rates, would like to increase them in order to take pressure off the bubbles before they burst, because that tends to be a chain reaction that starts in one or more locations and spreads; but debt levels are so high that doing so would result in other forms of economic distress that would be even more damaging to the economy.

Median Housing Prices (Melbourne) to income ratio, 1965-2013
By Stephenwratten78 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Click on the thumbnail for the full-sized image.

This is not a new story here in Australia; I’ve heard it reported several times over the last 40 years. In fact, some suggest that the housing bubble has been inflating since 2001. In fact, the big upswing shown on the accompanying chart starts in 1996-97. It was headline news last year when the average price for a family home in Sydney topped the AU$1,000,000 mark.

Of course, some buildings contain more than one dwelling. Apartment blocks and other forms of what we consider “Medium Density Housing” can have hundreds of dwellings, though the more common numbers would be in the lower-middle double-digits – perhaps 25-30. In other words, some of the ‘single building’ bubbles are composed of still smaller bubbles!

One way that the ‘heat’ can be taken out of the housing market is to increase the number of apartments for sale. If three houses become thirty apartments, that’s a significant increase in the ability to satisfy demand, and a significant downward pressure on the price of such dwellings. In my part of Sydney, there are more than 50 apartment blocks being constructed at the moment (my personal count is 54 – that I know of). If they have an average of 30 apartments each, for an average of 2.5 residents per apartment, that’s 4,050 people that can be accommodated in the space that 54x3x2.5=405 people used to occupy – a tenfold increase.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In a corridor along the railway line that connects me to the CBD, the government wants to house an additional 100,000 families over the next 20 years or so, more than 250,000 more people. 54 developments is small potatoes! In effect, they want to take a LOT of small bubbles and divide each of them into a lot of even smaller bubbles. (The good news for residents like myself is that all this construction will push rents down. And other improvements are mooted, too – better rail services, more shops, and so on).

They expect that they will get a lot of immigrant settlement. I think that they will also get a lot of pensioners, retirees, and unemployed, because rental distress is a very real problem for these groups. When I first moved into my current apartment, the rent was $1 per week more than my weekly income! Students will also find these affordable properties.

That’s not a bad thing. A diversity of population – age, nationality, etc – makes a place more interesting. Migrants to Australia tend to bring the best of their homelands with them and shuck the rest. There are exceptions of course, but I’ve known lots of them and they have almost-universally been friendly and welcoming, save when provoked. The local district boast Greek, Tongan, Turkish, Egyptian, Italian, American, New Zealand, Indian, South African, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Maltese influences – and that’s without looking hard (In fact, on the last census numbers released, my suburb was one of Australia’s most diverse, with residents of 127 nationalities (Each of those represents a different sort of bubble, too, while we’re talking analogies – a bubble of individual culture).

Okay, so let’s look at the application of all this to RPGs.

Most games don’t concern themselves with property values, or not directly. One area of a city will be wealthy, another will be poor, a third will contain industry, and there will be somewhere ‘middle class’ – all relative valuations, of course. But there are two secondary effects that should be present in every game – the relevance of overheads to the price of goods and services, and (more directly) the impact on the price of accommodation in hotels and inns and the like.

I use a scale of from x0.5 to x3 of the listed price for the latter and x0.25 to x1.5 for the former, based on 6 categories.

In other words, I rank each area within a city (in terms of prosperity) on a 1-6 scale. Divide it by 2 to get the relative price of accommodation, divide it by 4 to get the relative price of goods. I also base availability on these values, more by instinct and common sense than anything else – if the people of that economic level want a commodity, it will be available, if they don’t then there are poor chances of finding it.

On top of that, there’s a city-wide overall modifier – 1-8 scale, divided by 4.

After applying that, I multiply by (0.5 plus d10/10) to value individual streets, and do the same thing again to get individual buildings.

Except that I don’t do any of that – not quite the way it’s written. Chance can bias the results, and so can judgments, by applying the same factor more than once. For example, a city is prosperous, so it has a large high-value sector and a small poor sector. But you then apply the city-wide modifier to that, and you bias the results. Instead, I divide the city as evenly as possible amongst the different economic rankings. That lets me load all the bias into the city-wide overall factor.

Let’s do an example.

  • Section 1 (Poor) – rank 1 = accommodations x0.5, goods x0.25.
  • Section 2 (Industrial) – rank 2 = accommodations x1.0, goods x0.5.
  • Section 3 (Temples) – rank 3 = accommodations x1.5, goods x0.75.
  • Section 4 (Middle-class) – rank 4 = accommodations x2, goods x1.
  • Section 5 (Merchants) – rank 5 = accommodations x2.5, goods x1.25.
  • Section 6 (Wealthy) – rank 6 = accommodations x3, goods x1.5.

Now, let’s rank the city as 6 out 8 for prosperity:

  • City Factor = 6/4 = x1.5.
  • Section 1 (Poor) – rank 1 = accommodations x0.5×1.5= x0.75, goods x0.25×1.5= x0.375.
  • Section 2 (Industrial) – rank 2 = accommodations x1.0x1.5= x1.5, goods x0.5×1.5= x0.75.
  • Section 3 (Temples) – rank 3 = accommodations x1.5×1.5= x2.25, goods x0.75×1.5= x1.125.
  • Section 4 (Middle-class) – rank 4 = accommodations x2x1.5= x3, goods x1x1.5= x1.5.
  • Section 5 (Merchants) – rank 5 = accommodations x2.5×1.5= x3.75, goods x1.25×1.5= x1.875.
  • Section 6 (Wealthy) – rank 6 = accommodations x3x1.5= x4.75, goods x1.5×1.5= x2.25.

I’ll divide up the streets as evenly as possible amongst the 10 possible values. I’m not going to do all of them in this example, let’s pick a couple of examples from a couple of different sections:

  • City Factor = 6/4 = x1.5.
  • Section 1 (Poor) – rank 1 = accommodations x0.5×1.5= x0.75, goods x0.25×1.5= x0.375.
    • Rank 1 street = x0.6 = accommodations x0.75×0.6 = x0.45, goods x0.375×0.6 = 0.225.
    • Rank 5 Street = x1 = accommodations x0.75×1 = x0.75, goods x0.375×1 = 0.375.
    • Rank 7 Street = x1.2 = accommodations x0.75×1.2 = x0.9, goods x0.375×1.2 = 0.45.
  • Section 2 (Industrial) – rank 2 = accommodations x1.0x1.5= x1.5, goods x0.5×1.5= x0.75.
    • Rank 1 street = x0.6 = accommodations x1.5×0.6 = x0.9, goods x0.75×0.6 = x0.45.
    • Rank 5 Street = x1 = accommodations x1.5×1 = x1.5, goods x0.75×1 = x0.75.
    • Rank 7 Street = x1.2 = accommodations x1.5×1.2 = x1.8, goods x0.75×1.2 = x0.9.
  • Section 3 (Temples) – rank 3 = accommodations x1.5×1.5= x2.25, goods x0.75×1.5= x1.125.
  • Section 4 (Middle-class) – rank 4 = accommodations x2x1.5= x3, goods x1x1.5= x1.5.
  • Section 5 (Merchants) – rank 5 = accommodations x2.5×1.5= x3.75, goods x1.25×1.5= x1.875.
    • Rank 1 street = x0.6 = accommodations x2.25×0.6 = x1.35, goods x1.125×0.6 = x0.675.
    • Rank 5 Street = x1 = accommodations x3x1 = x3, goods x1.5×1 = x1.5.
    • Rank 7 Street = x1.2 = accommodations x3.75×1.2 = x4.5, goods x1.875×1.2 = x2.25.
  • Section 6 (Wealthy) – rank 6 = accommodations x3x1.5= x4.75, goods x1.5×1.5= x2.25.

Why haven’t I done full example? Because I don’t really do this either, not in practice. The players tell me what part of town they are going to. I ask them what sort of place they are looking for (if it’s accommodations) or what they are shopping for (if it’s goods). If the place they are looking for is a clean, decent inn at a reasonable price, say, I will compare the ‘district rating’, as modified by the city bias with that description and choose a street modifier and building modifier accordingly. Instead of calculating a whole range of values, and only using a few of them, I calculate one value that gives me a direct answer, relative to the prices marked in the Core Rules.

For example, looking for a “clean, decent inn at a reasonable price” in the poor sector? That’s only going to be on the best street in the quarter, and it’s going to be one of the best buildings on that street – ratings of 8 and 7 out of 8, respectively:

  • Section 1 (Poor) – rank 1 = accommodations x0.75, goods x0.375.
    • Rank 10 street = x1.5, Rank 7 building = x1.2. Accommodations x0.75×1.5×1.2 = = x1.35, goods x0.375×1.5×1.2 = x0.675.

If, on the other hand, they were to look in the Mercantile part of town, clean and decent would be the expected minimum standard on all but (perhaps) the worst streets [rank 2], while ‘affordable’ is going to be the cheapest building on that street [rank 1]:

  • Section 5 (Merchants) – rank 5 = accommodations x3.75, goods x1.875.
    • Rank 2 street = x0.7, Rank 1 building = x0.6. Accommodations x3.75×0.7×0.6 = x1.575, goods x1.875×0.7×0.6 = x0.7875.

In other words, I can define an entire city as:

  • City Factor = 6/4 = x1.5.
  • Section 1 (Poor) – rank 1 = accommodations x0.75, goods x0.375.
  • Section 2 (Industrial) – rank 2 = accommodations x1.5, goods x0.75.
  • Section 3 (Temples) – rank 3 = accommodations x2.25, goods x1.125.
  • Section 4 (Middle-class) – rank 4 = accommodations x3, goods x1.5.
  • Section 5 (Merchants) – rank 5 = accommodations x3.75, goods x1.875.
  • Section 6 (Wealthy) – rank 6 = accommodations x4.75, goods x2.25.

Of course, not all cities will allocate their districts that way. In a city that specializes in carving Marble for shipment elsewhere, Industry might be in Rank 5 (with everything else sliding down as necessary. An especially pious community, or a Church that’s gouging the parishioners, might be in Rank 5 or Rank 6.Each city is different. In some cities, instead of “Industrial” you might have “Fishermen”.

This converts narrative and dialogue with the players into Overheads – based on the structure of an Aero Bar.

Solid areas of color in a map vs cells of negative space

Click on the image to see a larger version.


What’s wrong with this map? The one below it is clearly superior, but what’s the difference?

Bubbles. Or, more precisely, cells. The second map has had multiple layers of different sizes and densities cut through the forest, turning stands of trees into bubbles – some filled, some not. Something similar has been done with the grassland.

Suddenly, it becomes clear where the logging roads – which don’t even exist on the first map – should go. In addition, little bubbles of scrub have been dotted here and there on the grassland.

Any topological phenomenon can be depicted as bubbles, filled with this color or that. A forest here. A clump of trees there. Mountains (the one change I didn’t make, fearing that they would leave the relationship between the two maps obscured).

Even the grassland can be considered a bubble, with water on at least two sides, separated by the occasional bubble of beach sand.

When it comes to mapping, what’s in the bubbles is more important than what isn’t.

The results are clearly a far more photo-realistic map, for not a lot more effort. (The example took more because I wanted to build map 2 out of map 1, something I normally wouldn’t have done.

Always remember, small bubbles of terrain within larger bubbles of context.

Reality Foam

From out of left field, this term wafted into my consciousness. It is completely meaning-free at this point, and yet it sounds so cool that I couldn’t leave it out.

What might it mean? Well, I’m of the opinion that extra-dimensional travel should be as diverse and contain as many natural dangers as any form of overland travel, so I’m always on the lookout for more ideas for such dangers, and this seems to fit the concept.

So: Reality Foam results from the failure of a potential universe / prime material plane to coalesce and may be found in any of the inner planes save the Prime Material Plane. It is created when inner planes mingle or ‘rub’ against each other. It is a ‘foaming’ or ‘curdling’ of the surrounding environment which poses a great danger to travelers; any who encounter it ‘attempt’ (involuntarily) to transit into dozens or even hundreds of nascent planes simultaneously, causing a massive disruption of the bodily / spiritual tissues. Damage received is 1 per point of WIS and 1d6 per hit dice or CON, whichever is higher. e.g. a character with Will 14 Con 16 and 8 HD would received 16d6+14 damage.

This damage is halved on a Fortitude / CON save. Characters who are ‘killed’ by this process will reintegrate after the passing of foam from the vicinity; this will take 1 day for each point of damage sustained. Reintegrated characters have 1 hp and permanently lose one point each of Str, Con, Int, Int, Wis, and Cha. One of these losses can be restored magically; the others require the use of one Wish each.

There is a theory that suggests that Reality Foam dissipates over many years as they drift away from the inner planes, each ‘bubble’ or ‘pocket’ of nascent reality scattering into the outer planes where, under the right circumstances, they can become the ‘core’ of an outer plane. Such theories fail because no-one has been able to suggest what those “right circumstances,” or the processes involved, might be – but the theory persists, nevertheless.

Another theory suggests that the Prime Material Plane will eventually dissolve back into the Reality Foam -like state that it was in prior to coalescence, i.e. that the stability of the plane is an illusion over the very long term. From time to time, would-be nihilists and overconfident mages attempt to accelerate this process, but none have yet found a means of doing so. Nevertheless, those entities that support or benefit from the existence of mortals – Gods, Demigods, Devils and Demons – actively oppose such efforts, and they are one of the few things that can unite these natural enemies. In order to minimize friction between them – they are not natural allies – they normally work through mortal proxies so as to remain at Arm’s Length from the action.

Structures within blood plasma called Dutcher and Russell Bodies

Structures within blood plasma called Dutcher and Russell Bodies
by Gabriel Caponetti – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cell Structures

Cells are very similar to the ‘holes’ in an Aero Bar; they are always contained by some medium, whether that be air, blood, water, or some other biological fluid. That containing medium is often forgotten; we laymen tend to think of the cells and their importance as though they were all there are.

Take muscle fibers. Most people will have some idea of their shape and behavior from high school biology. But people think of muscles as “solid”, as though the muscle cells were glued together. But they can’t be – you need to get food and oxygen to each cell, and remove the wastes, and then there are the nerve fibers that have to run through the muscle to activate the fibers. The reality is clearly a lot more complicated than the superficial thoughts most people have on the subject.

This gets interesting when we think about obviously non-human body structures, such as those of the Beholder, or of some alien species. Their tissues don’t have to be anything like those of humans, and neither does the chemistry that enables them to function, and therefore neither does the inter-cellular medium. Most GMs don’t invest a lot of thought in this subject; commonly, at most, the blood will be an unusual color.

Some of the most fascinating articles I ever read in The Dragon were the “Biology of”… series. I didn’t always agree with the content, but it never failed to be inspirational. Not even the author – whose name I am now unsure of – went into cellular structures and biochemistry, probably because you need a degree in medicine or veterinary medicine to really get deeply into it. Nevertheless, even a layman’s understanding can be useful to the GM in individualizing races, simply because we can get creative without having to make more than a passing nod at plausibility.

For example: Black Dragons have Hydrofluoric acid as the medium through which their blood cells travel. This is one of the strongest known acids in chemistry (depending on the concentration, of course). They have Damage Reduction vs Magic not because they are inherently resistant or even magically protected, but because non-magical weapons dissolve to the point of being worthless virtually as soon as they make contact with interior tissues. Blood sprays and splashes therefore become another defensive mechanism for the species, and acid splash damage can be inflicted in combat (in addition to all the other attacks they have). Worse yet, they are intelligent enough to observe these effects and use them to their advantage. “Black Dragon Splash” would reduce AC, inflict to-hit penalties, and do damage to characters exposed. They simultaneously become more ‘realistic’ and more dangerous.

Every ‘exotic creature’ should have some unique attribute in terms of the ‘alchemic properties’ of one of their organs, something else that GMs rarely think of (PCs get enough treasure as it is), though a few do. Hardly any of them think about whether or not these properties reflect real traits of the race, and even fewer actually amend the creature descriptions to incorporate an interesting biological effect.

This is a lost opportunity! Goblin Blood might polymerize into a protective coagulant upon exposure to the air, closing wounds and gunking up weapons that break their skins. I think it was Owlbears who used to have Gold in their Gizzards in AD&D, though memory may be playing me false; well, that needs a biological explanation (why?) and a mechanism (how?), and those will have repercussions for combat with Owlbears. How does the gold get into the Owlbear’s system? Perhaps they have gold-based blood (instead of iron or copper, the two most common such chemicals in fiction) and they naturally consume gold-bearing rocks, which dissolve in a second (or third or fourth) stomach. There aren’t many acids that will dissolve gold. Aqua Regia, a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, will do it. Aqua Regia is a yellow-orange fuming liquid. The fumes are composed of chlorine gas and nitric oxide (NO) that auto-oxidizes to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a poisonous reddish-brown gas. So, wound an Owlbear too seriously, and your eyes will start to water, your lungs will burn, you may collapse into a coughing fit, and – if you’re really unlucky and score an arterial hit (a critical), you may cop a spray of this stuff – something that will eat away at armor and weapons and gold and platinum…

Think a little about the biology of your unusual creatures when you know they are going to appear, and turn that biology to your advantage. You may have promised the players (implicitly) that their characters would earn XP and loot; you never (I hope) promised that it would be easy!

Nanotech Delivery Systems

The final thought that I have for the sharing takes us back to where we started – chocolate with bubbles containing something, and a Sci-Fi interpretation of them. I was wrapping up my notes for this anthology-styled article when one final thought came to me: Consumer bio-nanotechnology is something that is tipped to become a staple of medicine over the next fifty years. I’ve read suggestions that a daily regimen of nanobots will clean our arteries of fats before the can clog them; repair/boost/supplement the immune system; confer immunities against specific diseases like cancer by targeting the malformed cells at a cellular level, and much more. Every suggestion I’ve seen has these being delivered in a plastic pill, if it gets mentioned at all, though I once saw one suggestion that they might be suspended in a drinkable yogurt – this from the manufacturer of such drinks, I should add.

Why not in a chocolate bar? Different flavors for different nanobot functions. Your complete daily medical regimen in a snack, the nanobot equivalent of a multivitamin?

Why not, indeed? But now, all this thinking and talking about Chocolate is making me hungry…

The Hall Of Shame

I have decided to name-and-shame the worst spammers assaulting Campaign Mastery every six months or so. This is more to warn readers of the blog that if you are reliant on the services of these companies, you may face ongoing difficulties in accessing the site, than it is to criticize the companies.

My anti-spam process has 3065 spam currently logged. Because records expire unless refreshed with a new offence, this is considerably less than the total spam recieved since it was first implemented. It is currently tracking 877 offenders either as individual IP addresses or as networks, world-wide. Currently, 100 individual IP addresses are serving sentences that range from life to mere days, as are 120 networks.

Life Sentences

Policy is for these to be blocked for 28 days after each spam, will be paroled if they go 3 months spam-free, plus one month for every 1000 days of sentence. With one exception, spam-free periods are currently measured in days or weeks, and none of these have earned one of those extra months of probation.

  • 192.210.128-255.* [ColoCrossing, USA] (30 spam) 212 days
  • 46.118-119.*.* [Golden Telecom, Ukraine] (28 spam) 160 days – now 1.5 months spam-free
  • 104.227.*.* [B2 Net Solutions, USA] (19 spam) 151 days
  • 198.12.64-127.* [Colocrossing, USA] (22 spam) 144 days
  • 198.46.128-255.* [Colocrossing, USA] (21 spam) 119 days
  • 192.186.128-191.* [B2 Net Solutions] (19 spam) 122 days

“Locked up” pending Final Appeal of Life Sentences

These all result from a big spam surge over February and March. Almost all of these are open-and-shut cases, but the process takes time. The worst offender (assuming that they stop all spamming activities) will come off probation only after being completely spam-free for 18 continuous months!

Note that there are other factors than spam count employed in meting out sentences; in particular high spam density and frequency of recurring spam events are both significant. This is why it is possible to have a higher ‘sentence’ for a lower total spam-count compared to another ISP, as illustrated by the last two entries on this list.

  • 107.172-175.*.* [ColoCrossing, USA] (248 spam) 15,878 days
  • 104.144.*.* [B2 Net Solutions, USA] (113 spam) 3,822 days
  • 23.94-95.*.* [ColoCrossing, USA] (95 spam) 3,231 days
  • 192.227.128-255.* [ColoCrossing, USA] (75 spam) 1,516 days
  • 192.3.*.* [New Wave NetConnect, USA] (60 spam) 1,243 days
  • 172.245.*.* [ICK Networks, USA] (59 spam) 966 days
  • 198.23.128-255.* [New Wave NetConnect, USA] (51 spam) 292 days
  • 23.229.0-127.* [Server Mania Inc, USA] (42 spam) 578 days
  • and 6 more of lesser ‘sentences’.

Life Sentences in Isolation

The only grounds for appeal against “Life Imprisonments” are a sufficient degree of adverse effects on ordinary would-be users of the site. Unfortunately, the only way to measure that is to block the network and count the hits.

While only two actual cases of inaccessibility to the site caused to a reader by the anti-spam techniques employed are known to me, the process automatically looks for cases where this might be the case and deals with ‘members’ of the ‘gang’ individually. These are also blocked for 28 days after each spam, and will be paroled if they go 3 months spam-free plus one week for every 100 days of sentence.

  • [seodedic, St Petersburg, Russia] (90 spam) 3,091 days
  • [Petersburg Internet Network ltd., St Petersburg, Russia] (16 spam) 102 days
  • [VHOSTER-NET, Ukraine] (13 spam + hacking attempt) 92 days
  • and 8 more of lesser ‘sentences’.

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Practicalities Of Society

Image Credit / Svilen Milev
Shadows added by Mike

For today’s article, I’m reaching back into my memories of the mental processes that I employed to construct the Orcish Society in my Fumanor Campaign, and generalizing them, because it works for any society in any game – heck, I’ve just been applying the same basic principles to 27th-century Scotland for my Dr Who campaign.

Because these processes are simple and yet profound, this might be a relatively short article but it will still pack a wallop in terms of significance.


At the heart of the process is a core concept that I have been trumpeting loudly and regularly for many years – Iteration. This essentially means doing the same thing, or sequence of things, repeatedly. I won’t go into too much detail because (a) it should become obvious during the course of the article, and (b) I’ve already covered the subject in Top-Down Design, Domino Theory, and Iteration: The Magic Bullets of Creation.

Exit Trigger

Iteration essentially means devising a process, that loops back on itself. Anyone designing such a process for a computer program knows that one of the critical decisions that need to made is what will trigger exiting the process. There are essentially two possibilities, both very similar:

  • Perform Process until the exit trigger condition is achieved;
  • Perform Process until a list of subjects is completely processed.

The first is the more general one, and when performed by humans, it permits an abstract trigger, such as the results being “good enough for the required purpose”. The second is more specific, and requires the generation of the list in advance, possibly by means of another example of the first. This is the methodology that I use when constructing a society for an RPG.

1. Foundation: Leadership

I always start by deciding what the type of society is, and in particular, how leaders are selected (Refer Pulling That Lever: The Selection Of Leaders In RPG Societies for the most common approaches).

That gives me a lead on who the actual Leader currently is; I’ll make any notes that come to mind on that subject, but don’t commit to a final personality profile at this point.

2. Factions Within Society

Next, I generate a list of all the different factions within the society. A good starting point is Johnn’s series on City Government Power Bases, but that series is incomplete in my book; once the Essential Pulp Reference Library series is complete, I have Johnn’s permission to extend it. He’s listed 9, I expect to extend that list to 21. So it’s just a starting point, at least right now. Note that I only list the important ones; the rest form a final group, a coalition of minor forces.

At the moment, these factions are nothing more than a 1- or 2-word title – “Wizard’s Guild”, “Merchant’s Guild”, “Builder’s Union”, “Military Command”, “Church”. It’s too early to develop any significant information about them, though I will (of course) jot down any ideas for future reference.

Also note that I don’t number the list at this point; there are several other steps to go through first.

3. Natural Rivals

Step three is to go through the resulting list looking for any factions that would be natural rivals, given the circumstances, adjusting the sequence to place these sequentially and making notes as necessary.

4. Faction Strength

Step four is to go through the resulting list estimating how powerful each of the factions will be within the social structure. I classify each into one of three categories, A, B, or C.

  • A means that the faction can exert influence over matters outside their direct area of responsibility within the society.
  • B means that the faction can exert influence only over matters within their direct area of responsibility (and any related matters) and may be overruled by an ‘A’ faction. ‘B’ factions often wield their most powerful influences indirectly.
  • C means that the faction can exert influence only over matters within their direct area of responsibility within the society and that this influence is strongly limited, and may be overruled by ‘A’ or ‘B’ factions.

5. Assess Rivalry Balances

I pay special attention to the natural rivalries that I have identified, and the relative power of the factions. There are six possible combinations: AA, AB, AC, BA, BB, BC, CA, CB, and CC. But, when you look more closely, several of these are the same – BA and AB are the identical, for example; the factions are simply listed the other way around.

  • AA This rivalry will be a central feature of the society and its administration.
  • AB The ‘B’ faction will need to attract an ally of roughly equal significance in order to achieve parity within society to its rival, and may need to compromise its priorities to achieve that alliance; where such compromise is not necessary, the objectives and principles of the allied group will need to be accepted and added to those of the B faction. If such an alliance is not possible, the B faction will control only those matters directly related to their function within society if (or perhaps when)they are opposed by the A faction.
  • AC The ‘C’ faction can’t do much more than complain or provide nuisance value to the ‘A’ faction, except in matters strongly related to their social function, and even those will probably be compromised by the A faction.
  • BB This rivalry will be a minor feature of the society, and the objectives and principles of the two factions will often be subordinated to other priorities. To exert dominance over their rivals, a faction will need to demonstrate a confluence of interests with a more powerful faction, but this will be on an issue-by-issue/case-by-case basis.
  • BC A weak influence vs an even weaker influence, it will be rare for this rivalry to matter very much within the society. Both will be dominated by more important issues and priorities. As with the AB rivalry discussed earlier, the C will need to ally itself with at least two other factions of equal strength to itself in order to balance the influence of the B faction.
  • CC This rivalry is constantly overshadowed by more significant influences which provide the context for the struggle between the rivals. It will be unusual for either faction to be significant within the society.

6. List three things about each faction.

I do this in a separate document, but that’s up to you. This step may involve quite a bit of brainstorming; you want to identify the distinguishing traits or characteristics of the faction, the things that make them different from every other faction. This could be an objective, or a philosophy, or a motivation, or a favorite tactic to influence things ‘their way’. They need to be commensurate with their Authority Level. They should not be things like where the headquarters are located or anything like that. If a significant NPC has already been developed and introduced into the campaign then their name may be listed as one of the things provided that you can also make a supplementary notation as to how typical they are of the faction and how their opinions (etc) differ from the typical.

I will also tend to eschew things like symbolism at this point; what they wear, or the banner they operate under, is not significant to defining their role within the society.

If I need to brainstorm, I will usually use either the The Backstory Boxes – Directed Creativity approach, or one of the methods described in The Characterization Puzzle series (part 1 introduces the series, parts 2-4 offer three different techniques, and part 5 talks about how to choose between them).

The more creative and inspired you can be during this phase of the process, the better, but don’t bog yourself down in too much detail at this point!

7. Construct Necessary Alliances

Alliances come about in one of four ways:

  • Doctrinal Resonance is when two factions want similar things, or both factions achieve their objectives as a result of one broad social policy.
  • Factional Balance is when two factions have goals or ambitions that don’t conflict, permitting them to unite against a faction that would otherwise dominate them. These needs were noted in earlier steps, but – to recap – two B factions make one A faction, and three C factions make one B faction. A coalition of six C factions are NOT enough to make an A faction, however, as it can be confidently assumed that there would be sufficient disparity of interests within such a coalition that at least 1/3 of them would be opposed to any particular measure; you need eight C factions to equal one A faction, and that’s extremely unlikely. They would tend to splinter into two B faction equivalents and a couple of independents.
  • Manipulation But the unlikely can happen, especially if someone is pulling strings to play one force off against the other. This might be the leader of the society, or some advisor behind the throne, or even a B faction exerting indirect influence in such a way that their hands (overtly) stay clean. I usually refer to such alliances as Arranged Alliances.
  • Historical Relationships Finally, relationships can and do often linger long after the confluence of interests that created them ceases to apply.

Where you have a two-member alliance balancing a single faction, that’s a “simple” alliance. Where you have a multi-member alliance balancing a single faction, that’s a “compound” alliance.

Most societies are naturally self-balancing over time unless the leader of the society chooses otherwise. Even if the leader elevates a particular faction to “A+” influence – a Cleric or Devout Believer or even a Fanatic in a Theocracy, for example – the rest of the society will tend to self-balance.

There is a set sequence in which I create alliances, based on the likelihood of them forming and the likelihood that they will be stable enough to continue to exist beyond a single-issue confluence of desires/intents. This sequence is:

  1. Simple Alliances based on Doctrinal Resonance – i.e. “Natural Allies”
  2. Simple Alliances based on Factional Balance – i.e. “Allies Of Convenience”
  3. If I have identified a manipulator who is likely to be responsible for a Simple Arranged Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
  4. If I have created sufficient History of the Community/Nation/Race to identify a reasonable (simple) Historical Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
  5. Compound Alliances based on Doctrinal Resonance – i.e. “Natural Allies” – these are much rarer, but the possibility needs to be excluded before continuing.
  6. Compound Alliances based on Factional Balance – i.e. “Allies Of Convenience” – these are far more likely because they are matters of pragmatic political calculation.
  7. If I have identified a manipulator who is likely to be responsible for a Compound Arranged Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
  8. If I have created sufficient History of the Community/Nation/Race to identify a reasonable Compound Historical Alliance, I look for such an alliance.
  9. Now things are getting desperate. I either have to create a Manipulator to satisfy possibilities 3 or 7, or enough history to justify a ‘yes’ to possibilities 4 or 8.
Additional Notes on Arranged Alliances

It’s important to note that these alliances were rejected as “Natural Alliances” and as “Allies Of Convenience” (indicating that the groups not only have little or nothing in common, but actually oppose each other on at least one issue or group of issues.

There are two subtypes of Arranged Alliances that result: Stable and Unstable.

Stable Arranged Alliances indicate that the alliance has been in coalition long enough for some mechanism to have been established between the members of the alliance for the resolution of these conflicts on a case-by-case basis. This can’t be simply the more influential faction overruling smaller ones. There will also need to be some mechanism for the discharge of tensions between the members that could drive a wedge between them. As in (5) above, these are rare, but need to be excluded first because there is someone manipulating the society/politics to create an “unnatural” situation.

Unstable Arranged Alliances are those in which the two members simply go their separate ways, or even link up with other allies, when matters on which they disagree arise, but otherwise present a united front against the faction that they are balancing. This results in what can euphemistically be described as “robust political debate”!

I avoid unstable arranged alliances as much as I can because, even though they may be more realistic, they are a lot more complicated to administrate as a GM.

The GM needs to make notes on the “touchy subjects” and how the “usual politics” changes when they become significant.

Additional Notes on Historical Alliances

Historical Alliances suffer from the same problems as Arranged Alliances. The implication is that at some point in history, one of the other types of alliance was possible despite any areas of disagreement. You saw this sort of thing happening in World War II Britain, when political differences were less important than the survival of the nation, and is far more likely to occur in a Meritocracy. Then, something changed to bring those differences to the fore, either for the first time or once again, but the spirit of cooperation created by the legacy arrangement lasted long enough for a resolution mechanism to be agreed upon (Stable) or for the allies to agree to disagree on a particular subject (Unstable), just like Arranged Alliances.

Once again, the GM needs to record the details.

8. Keyword Policy List

With the ‘necessary’ alliances defined and structured, the GM needs to create a list of subjects upon which the society will have made decisions. These should be based on both the titles of the factions and on the issues that are relevant to each faction; it’s hard to say how many items will be on that list. “Defense” might be an item; “Military Preparedness” might or might not be a separate item. “Urban Planning” might be an item. “Strictness of Law” might be an item. “Law Enforcement” is likely to be a completely separate item.

9. Policy Trends

For each item on the Policy Lists, you have three choices: More, Neutral, or Less. More indicates a higher priority in terms of attention and budget, less indicates a lower priority. For each faction (treating alliances as a single faction), work out where that faction stands – do they back More, Neutral, or Less?

Once you know where they stand, record their “vote” according to their Influence level – A, B, or C, then move on to the next faction. The easiest way is to turn the Keyword Policy List into a table with one column for the keyword and one for each of the three choices.

You will end up with something like this:

Note that these represent the normal state of affairs – in emergency situations, for example when the community is actually under threat or being invaded, priorities might be very different!

Numerical conversion

I find it convenient to convert this string of factional positions into numbers. Count 1 for each C, 3 for each B, and 6 for each A. The positions given above for “defense” (and I note that I have, through habit, used the British spelling and not the American) translate to “More: 23, Neutral 18, Less 19”.


Subtracting the “Less” from the “More” enables the table of policies to be sorted according to the priority placed on them by the society. In the case of the example, that would be “4” – a number that is meaningless in isolation, but that is very meaningful relative to all the other spending priorities.

When any proposal to increase expenditure on defenses is proposed, unless there is a clear indication of urgency, or the increase is very modest, the neutrals can be expected to vote against the measure, as will the “Less”. In our example, that’s 23 yes, 37 no.

If there is a clear indication of a possible threat, the neutrals would probably swing to the ‘yes’ camp, resulting in a vote of 41 yes to 19 no.

On any vote to reduce military expenditure in peacetime, the neutrals would tend to vote against the measure, in temporary alliance with the dead-set opposed “more” camp unless the proposal was to reduce it back to previous peace-time levels. Those votes are 41 no 19 yes and 23 no 37 yes, respectively.

Thus, this simple analysis begins to provide a feeling not only for the state of military preparedness of the population’s defenses, but of the history and narrative that surrounds them – slightly more readiness than strictly necessary, quick to ramp up when threatened and falling back once the threat has passed. Equipment is as archaic as it can be without actually posing a threat to the protection of society, save perhaps for a couple of elite units. Nevertheless, there is a slow trend for military readiness to increase.

Broader Interpretation

Coupling these policy trends with the sequence of priorities gives you a sense of the trade-offs within the society. Everything on the list tends to steal a little budget share from everything below it in peacetime. When a threat arises, the first places to lose funding – sometimes up to 50%, sometimes to 100% are the places lower on the list, while those higher on the list – where the real money is – tend to be reduced by a little.

More to the point, you gain a sense of how political change takes place, what the social dynamics are, the conflicts within the society, the impact of social legacies from previous emergencies, and a tool by which any proposal or problem response can be estimated.

Using this tool, and the sorted list of policies, I will generally write a 1-paragraph summary of the society at this point, followed by a paragraph detailing the normal politics and another on how they respond to emergency situations. This is the start of my written summary of the nation/race/community.

10. Factional Hierarchy Revisited

Using the information at hand, a revised sequence of factional influences can now be produced – if defense is at the top of the priority list, for example, then even if an individual faction other than the military have a greater influence, the military are effectively the top of the tree. So the next step is to revise that hierarchy of factions accordingly, grouping allies together, and noting the balance with respect to oppositions.

11. Factional & Alliance Descriptions

I then add a brief paragraph to my description of the nation/race/community describing each of these factions and factional groups, their philosophies, policies, and ambitions, their allies and their (internal) enemies.

If I’m doing this long-hand, I leave as much space as I have used in between each of these paragraphs; if I’m doing it electronically, a couple of blank line will suffice.

12. Factional Leadership

Those empty spaces are to contain information about the current factional leadership and its effects on the politics and society. So far, we’ve been dealing with broad historical forces and generalities; but in the real world, individuals make a big difference. Willingness to compromise, personal priorities, fanaticism, shortsightedness, and corruption are all individual factors that can have a big influence. This is also where the GM gets to twist the “status quo” to make the place/people more interesting. Is the current leader of the military faction a stiff-necked martinet who is vastly unpopular (though eminently qualified)? Is he a paper-pusher who achieved his position by bureaucracy and internal politics within the faction rather than competence? Is he particularly charismatic, or particularly warlike? Does he feel the need to prove himself? Is he overconfident or cautious? Or perhaps a drunken fool whose position is fragile?

Or perhaps some new “influence” has wormed its way into the political structure – one that doesn’t have the nation’s best interests at heart. This could be anything from the fanatical head of a secret society to a foreign agent.

If there is a singular leader, does he have authoritarian capability? If so, his personal opinions will hold sway, no matter what the consensus of the court might be.

PCs don’t interact with historical and social generalities; they interact with individuals. And there can be a world of difference between someone’s official position and their personal opinions.

Having someone rail against the PCs and their proposals and everything they stand for and implying that their very presence stains the ground beneath their feet (because that’s the policy position he’s required to take) and then pulling every string he can reach (behind the scenes) to assist them makes for great roleplay.

“General X is an old fool whose ideas are as antiquated as the displays in the Military Museum, but he keeps the Trade Guilds off-balance, so I can’t dismiss him. You will need to work around his tactical failures and overly-conservative strategies – without actually disobeying him, mind, because he can order you hung if you do.”

“I may be the Patriarch Of The High Church of Antioch The Holy but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a reasonable man, and I quite enjoy a good cup of tea in amiable society.” – that’s a line of dialogue (as best I can remember it) from my actual Fumanor campaign.

An example (in brief)

Let’s look at Orcs for a moment. I decided that their leadership was militaristic in nature, and tribal in structure. The two great factions of their society are the hunters/soldiers and the church, who are the “Keepers of Tradition” – and neither trusts the other as far as they could throw a hill giant – in times of peace. The third most influential faction are the women, who network amongst themselves to play these two factions off against each other, manipulating both. Everyone else in Orcish society is a C group.

If a PC approaches an Orc Tribe with a proposal, as soon as one of the two main factions indicates a tendency one way or the other, their opposition will denounce it and take up the opposing position – unless the safety of the Tribe is at stake. The servants will listen to the two groups debate and then report back to the wives, who will coordinate a groundswell of opinion one way or the other, and especially the Fist Wife, mate of the Tribe’s Leader.

The women cook the food that feeds the tribe, wash and make the clothes, and educate the young in the fundamentals of Orcish society. The Priests are the repositories of tradition, the keepers of knowledge, and the splitters of hairs; the Military are the fighters, builders, artisans, and hunters.

The wives are slow to make up their minds, but as powerful as a flash flood when they do, raising arguments to undermine the faction they disagree with and providing their mates (and especially the Tribe’s leader) with insights that support the position they agree with, usually in the form of pointed questions that the other side don’t want to answer. You have to speak with the Leader, but it’s the servants – treated as little more than slaves, as part of the furniture, by the males – who you have to convince.


The individual steps are simple, if a little repetitive. This is a process, not a shortcut. But it doesn’t take too long to implement, and gives the structural outlines of a culture.

Finishing polish then comes from the Distilled Cultural Essence series.

How long does it take? Well, that depends on your creativity, to some extent, but half an hour should be enough to adequately define all but the most complex of societies, and perhaps another half-hour to populate the chief positions with individuals. The yield is rich characterization of the society producing game-play that can last for hours. That’s a pretty sweet deal, in terms of return on time invested.

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Narratives Of Skill: How To ‘Improv’ Outcome Descriptions In Advance

Cute Kitten on Window Ledge

“Make Your Stealth Roll”.
Photo from / Pete Smith

In many RPGs, skill results are a light switch – you either succeed or fail. At best, this is a missed opportunity for the GM; at worst, it can convey a false sense of capability to PCs because they have no idea of how close they may have come to failure, just that whatever they rolled was sufficient.

The worst case can be avoided to some extent by simply telling players what they need to succeed in a skill check, but this does nothing about the best-case failure of the system. Perhaps ‘failure’ is too strong a word, but it will suffice.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a very simple solution and one with vast benefits to the campaign. And that’s what today’s article is all about.

Scale Of Success (or failure)

The principle is simple: translate an approximate margin of success or failure into narrative.

In order to actually perform that, you need to understand the probability of success or failure fairly intimately. That means different things depending on the system mechanics. I’ll look at three of the most common approaches:

  • Linear eg d20
  • Bell-curve eg 3d6
  • XdY, count those above a threshold
    Linear eg d20

    d20-based systems make this fairly simple – you simply set a ‘bandwidth’ for each classification of success or failure. There are three fairly common patterns:

    • Fives
    • Threes or Fours
    • Non-linear series

      Probably the most common approach is to use intervals of 5, also known as the 5-scale – so that

      • failure by 5 or less is a ‘near miss’, success by 5 or less is a ‘difficult success’;
      • failure by 6-10 is a ‘worse failure’ (relative to the 1-5 band), success by 6-10 is an ‘easier success’;
      • failure by 11-15 is a ‘serious failure’, success by 11-15 is an ‘easy success’;
      • failure by 16-20 is a ‘monumental failure’, success by 16-20 ‘makes it look trivially easy’.

      In addition, many systems incorporate the concepts of a critical success or critical failure / fumble, occurring on a natural extreme result on the die roll. Some GMs may choose to regard these as an additional category, others will simply default to the most extreme category listed above. That’s entirely up to the GM, though he should be consistent or the narrative loses its value as a tool for roleplay.

      Threes or Fours

      Some GMs choose to narrow all but one of these bands, expanding the remaining one to fill the gap. This is usually applied to widen the range of ‘monumental failure’ and ‘trivially easy’ bands.

      Fours, or 4-scale:

      • ‘monumental failure’ = fail by 13 or more.
      • ‘serious failure’ = fail by 9-12.
      • ‘worse failure’ = fail by 5-8.
      • ‘near miss’ = fail by 4 or less.
      • ‘difficult success’ = succeed by 4 or less.
      • ‘easier success’ = succeed by 5-8.
      • ‘easy success’ = succeed by 9-12.
      • ‘trivially easy success’ = succeed by 13 or more.

      Threes, or 3-scale:

      • ‘monumental failure’ = fail by 10 or more.
      • ‘serious failure’ = fail by 7-9.
      • ‘worse failure’ = fail by 4-6.
      • ‘near miss’ = fail by 3 or less.
      • ‘difficult success’ = succeed by 3 or less.
      • ‘easier success’ = succeed by 4-6.
      • ‘easy success’ = succeed by 7-9.
      • ‘trivially easy success’ = succeed by 10 or more.

      To appreciate the reasons why a GM might choose one of these, consider the actual likelihood of each result at three different skill targets: low (needs 6 or better), moderate (needs 11 or better), and high (needs 16 or better):

      • Low (6+): A roll of 1 would be a failure by 5, or possibly a critical failure. Ignoring the latter possibility, that’s a ‘near miss’ on the five-scale, and a ‘worse failure’ on both four and three scales. If critical failures are part of the game system, then a roll of 2 is the worst non-critical failure, which is a failure by 4. That’s still a ‘near miss’ on the 5 scale, becomes a ‘near miss’ on the four-scale, and remains a ‘worse failure’ on the three scale. Going directly from a ‘near miss’ to a ‘critical failure’ bothers some GMs; they would rather have some sort of intermediate failure level in between the two. But there isn’t a lot of room for that on a fairly easy roll, i.e. when the character is highly skilled; most of the room is taken up with the (greater) likelihood of success.
      • Moderate (11+): An average target means that you can succeed or fail by as much as 10, or 9 if criticals are reserved. Failure by 9 is the second-closest level of failure on the 5-scale, while success by 9 is only the second-best success mode on the 5-scale. Despite looking good in theory, when actually applied, the 5-scale is often considered too blunt. Failure by 9 just scrapes into the ‘serious failure’ category on a four scale, while success by 9 is an ‘easy success’ – in other words almost the entire range of results are possible. If the Critical Failure/Success descriptions default to the narratives prepared for the most extreme categories, in fact, the entire range are possible – the two most extreme categories in each direction have only 5% chance each of occurrence, but that’s better than none. But the 3-scale is even better in some GM’s eyes, making the third most-extreme outcome in each direction as probable as the less extreme results.
      • High (16+): If you transpose the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in the low-target description, the results are identical to those from this target result. As the difficulty relative to the skill level of the character attempting to use their skill, the ‘success modes’ get cramped for room, while the room available for failure modes expands.

      In theory, the best results would be achieved by having different ranges apply depending on what the character needed to roll, but that’s too much hard work to be practical. Some GMs divide their handling up by character level, in the expectation that skill levels will reflect character levels – so they might use the 4-scale through to tenth level and the 3-scale through from eleventh level up. But that can get messy when you have some characters who have gone up into the higher level range and some who have not; better to have one system and stick with it throughout.

      Non-linear series

      One method that comes to mind for avoiding many of the problems listed above is to make the different outcomes have different likelihoods of success in the first place. Whoever said that the probabilities had to be evenly distributed, anyway?

      There are two obvious approaches to applying this principle: success or failure by 1 for the narrowest, then increase by 2 for each subsequent category; or success or failure by 2 for the narrowest, increasing by 1 for each subsequent category. To distinguish these from the ‘linear scale’ models described above, I tend to call these the ‘2-mode’ and ‘1-mode’ respectively (referring to the way the categories increase in size, and not the size of the narrowest category of result).


      • ‘monumental failure’ = fail by 9 or more.
      • ‘serious failure’ = fail by 4-8.
      • ‘worse failure’ = fail by 2-3.
      • ‘near miss’ = fail by 1.
      • ‘difficult success’ = succeed by 1.
      • ‘easier success’ = succeed by 2-3.
      • ‘easy success’ = succeed by 4-8.
      • ‘trivially easy success’ = succeed by 9 or more.


      • ‘monumental failure’ = fail by 10 or more.
      • ‘serious failure’ = fail by 6-9.
      • ‘worse failure’ = fail by 3-5.
      • ‘near miss’ = fail by 2 or less.
      • ‘difficult success’ = succeed by 1 or 2.
      • ‘easier success’ = succeed by 3-5.
      • ‘easy success’ = succeed by 6-9.
      • ‘trivially easy success’ = succeed by 10 or more.

      Once again, to look at the advantages, you need to examine the possible outcomes based on what a character needs in order to succeed.

      At very low chances of success, there’s still a full range of failure modes available, and the room for success still cramps up – but the scales have also been ‘cramped’. If ‘monumental failure’ is the equivalent of a critical failure, then a ‘2’ roll yielding the second-worst possible result would happen on a target rolls of 6-10, with the chance of that outcome on that roll going up by 5% with each +1 to the target roll required for success. Similarly, at very high chances of success, the success modes get cramped, but the shrinkage in the likelihood of the ‘close’ results makes room for the full gamut of possible outcomes for most results. It’s a little more work until you get the ranges memorized, but this is the scale that I use for my d20 games.

      Nevertheless, it is more work than the straightforward 5-, 4-, and 3-scale choices, and with a linear roll, you have the choice.

    Bell-curve eg 3d6

    Bell-curves complicate everything. The likelihood of missing by 1 depends on what you need to roll. If you need 6 or better, it’s 5/216, or about 2.3%; if you need 11 or better, it’s 12.5%; if you need 16 or better, it’s back down to about 4.6%. Even experienced GMs can have difficulty visualizing the way the probability curve impacts the chances of success of a given result. My Co-GM and I have to do this regularly to determine how big a modifier we need to apply to create a given psychological expectation of a result in the Adventurer’s Club campaign – but it’s worth it; a minus-4 modifier sounds huge (and it is), but if you can use it to ensure that only one or two PCs succeed in a difficult task, you encourage a variety of experiences at the game table. Depending on the character’s skill levels, there can be times when -2 is a bigger penalty than a -4, or even a -6! – but it sounds so much smaller than -4 or -6 that there is a greater expectation of success. This can be manipulated to change the interaction between character and adventure, ensuring that each gets his moment in the spotlight each time we play, that one or two characters get to star in an adventure, and so on – so that no one character dominates play all the time.

    Graph of X or less on 3d6

    Above is a graphing (courtesy of AnyDice of the chances of rolling less than (x) on an unmodified 3d6. To get a handle on how a -N modifier (not beneficial) would affect the likelihood of success, simply find your target number and count up N bars. +N modifier (i.e. beneficial) is simply a matter of counting down. I’ve chosen this graphic because – unlike most d20 systems – the rolls of 3d6-based systems are usually ‘x or less’.

    With a bell curve, you have exactly the same options as were outlined for the d20 example earlier, but the effects are disproportionately amplified for extreme die roll targets, and the ranges narrower to begin with (on 3d6 and 4d6 rolls, anyway).

    This means that the 5-, 4-, and 3-scale options don’t – ever – yield an even chance of achieving each category. There is a disproportionate increase in the likelihood of getting whatever result lies nearest the natural average roll, and a disproportionate decrease the farther away from these that you get.

    Ironically, the Mode-2 and Mode-1 patterns actually compensate for these effects in some measure – how much is far too complicated a question to go into here – resulting in something closer to an even distribution of result likelihoods. With one of the two biggest advantages to the -scale options left inapplicable, it only strengthens the arguments in favor of one of the two ‘mode’ alternatives.

    XdY, count those above a threshold

    There are an increasing number of systems that work in this way, or so it seems to me. That’s because they embody a more sophisticated probability mechanism that does most of its work ‘below the surface’ where neither GM nor players can see it, yielding a very simple game mechanic. The key is that it provides the GM with two variables to play with: the target threshold for a die to count, and the number of successes (dice ‘counted’) required to achieve overall success in a task. On top of that, there are variables in how skill levels are manifested (more dice or a bonus to each?) and how stats apply to skill checks (more dice or a bonus to each?). Ultimately, what you end up with is nevertheless a bell curve, but with a much smaller range of results, and one that is skewed in the opposite direction to the threshold value – if the threshold is low, the likelihood of a higher number of successes increases, and vice-versa.

    I’m trying hard not to get sidetracked into looking at this in detail, so even though I’ve worked out how to do it at AnyDice, I’m not going to get into probability graphs. (If you want to play around with it for yourself, here’s a link to the code for 10d10 and a threshold of 3:

    Just click the link and take a look. Then change the 3’s to 5’s and hit calculate again. Try changing the number of dice. You’ll soon get a feeling for the way this probability mechanism works).

    The bottom line here is that we need a smaller mode-style progression in order to fit within the available range of results. It’s like rolling dN where N is the number of dice – but where the chances are distorted into a bell curve.

    With eight dice, the range of possible results runs from 0 (no rolls above the threshold) to 8 (all above the threshold), and the average result will be roughly 1/2 [(min + max) + (die size-threshold)-1]. With a threshold of 3, and a die size of d10, that gives [(0+8)+(10-3)-1]/2 or 14/2 = 7. But this won’t be exact. If the number of dice is smaller, the average shrinks. I recommend what I’m going to label Mode-Zero:

    • ‘monumental failure’ = fail by 4 or more.
    • ‘serious failure’ = fail by 3.
    • ‘worse failure’ = fail by 2.
    • ‘near miss’ = fail by 1 or less.
    • ‘difficult success’ = succeed by 1.
    • ‘easier success’ = succeed by 2.
    • ‘easy success’ = succeed by 3.
    • ‘trivially easy success’ = succeed by 4 or more.

    If the number of dice being rolled is usually more than 10, you might increase the ‘serious failure’ and ‘easy success’ categories to a band of two results (fail or succeed by 3 or 4), shifting the extremes by 1 in the process; I wouldn’t contemplate it for less.

    Success by 0!?

    You may have noticed that none of the above proposals do anything special for an exact success. Some include it in the ‘difficult success’, others don’t mention it at all. There are two options for handling ‘success by zero’ – you can either consider these a “difficult success’, or you can let this be GM’s Choice – so long as you end in a success. So you might start out describing a “monumental failure” only to have some twist of fate yield a success at the last possible moment. Or a “Trivially easy success” that almost goes drastically wrong at the end.

    Frankly, this choice should be dictated by your improv abilities – if they are good, go with the GM’s choice, because it’s more dramatic. If you aren’t confident, go with the ‘safe’ choice.

Differentiated Narratives For Scales Of Success

For each of these different degrees of success or failure, the next thing needed is a piece of narrative. Then, instead of telling the player what they need, you can relay this narrative after they roll.

This is a heck of a lot better than a “You succeed” or “you fail”, or their equivalents when applied to a particular skill.

But preparing such a list in advance for every skill is a lot of effort. Especially since the ideal would be to not reuse them for a while, afterwards.

It is possible to construct a general list that you then interpret for whatever the skill is to which the narrative is being applied. This takes an impossible task and re-frames it into a practicable solution.

You can also subdivide this general list however you see fit – you might break the total number of skills into “awareness” skills, “analysis” skills, “knowledge” skills, and “action” skills, for example. This would require four lists, but would make the “interpretation” much easier.

How to generate the Differentiated Narratives

Either way, the process that I have devised for generating such lists is the heart of today’s article. I have given the contents of these lists the general title of “Differentiated Narratives” – Narratives that Differentiate between degrees of success or failure.

The process is simple, mostly consisting of short steps that are repeated as often as necessary:

  1. Pick a skill
  2. Describe each degree of failure
  3. Describe each degree of success
  4. Choose a different skill
  5. Translate each description
  6. Generalize each description
  7. Repeat 1-6 at least twice more to generate new descriptions.
    1. Pick a skill

    Start by picking a skill and a typical task that a PC might want to accomplish using that skill. This HAS to be something that you would normally require the player to roll for; no tasks that you would normally hand-wave.

    Let’s Pick “Climb” as an example, and “climb a short cliff” as the task.

    2. Describe each degree of failure

    You may have more degrees of success than I have indicated, or you may have less; but I think that four failure and four success modes are about right. For each of them resulting from the chosen skill being applied to the task, create a line of narrative. I always find it easier to think about the ways a task might fail, first.

    • Catastrophic Failure: You almost reach the top before a handhold crumbles and you fall. Everyone who follows (including any second attempt by you) are at a penalty to succeed, and there’s a 1 in six chance each that you will knock someone else off the cliff on your way down.
    • Serious Failure: You reach about half-way up before misjudging a hand-hold and fall. There’s a 1 in six chance each that you will knock one of your companions off the cliff on your way down.
    • Failure: You almost reach the top when a handhold crumbles. You fall a short distance before you catch yourself, but you wrench your shoulder badly in the process. You need a Cure Light Wounds or a Healing potion, but that will have to wait until you reach the top; in the meantime, you are unable to climb.
    • Almost Succeed: You reach about half-way up before the handhold you are reaching for crumbles. You find yourself stuck, unable to climb any higher. Other climbers will have to use another route to the top, and may then lower a rope to you.
    3. Describe each degree of success

    Having worked out how to fail at the task, it becomes easier to work out how someone can succeed despite almost succumbing to those difficulties.

    • Just Succeed: It was touch-and-go when a ledge collapsed under your weight, but you caught yourself on an outcropping and were able to eventually reach the top, completely out of breath.
    • Succeed with Difficulty: Crumbling handholds made the climb difficult, and matters weren’t helped when your sword fell from it’s scabbard about half-way up, requiring you to go back down and retrieve it.
    • Succeed Easily: Some of the handholds were hard to reach and none of them were as secure as you would like, but with great care, you climb the cliff.
    • Make it look easy:: Your arms were exactly the right length to reach from one hand-hold to the next, and although you loosened several of the ledges you used on the way up with your weight, you make the climb look easy, and aren’t even winded when you reach the top. You wouldn’t expect it to be so easy next time.
    4. Choose a different skill

    If you are creating just one general list, this should be a radically-different skill and task. If you have sliced the overall pool of skills applications up into subtypes, which I recommend doing at least for a while (it makes the rest of the process easier), then you should choose a skill from the same category – so long as it’s a different one to your first choice.

    To make the example as comprehensive as possible, I’m going to take the harder path, and choose “Knowledge: History” as the skill, with the task being to trace the movements of a particular Elf through multiple documents in an attempt to figure out where he hid a treasure that he stole from a Drow Enclave, using a library of rare books.

    5. Translate each description

    Taking each of them in turn, determine what the equivalent of each degree of failure or success would translate to in order to apply to the new skill-and-task pairing. Note that if you do this sort of translation in your head, and then immediately perform the next step in the process for that degree of success or failure, it will be less work.

    • Catastrophic Failure: You almost finish, but when you hold a scroll up to the lantern to see it more clearly, it catches fire. You beat out the flames, doing some minor damage to the scroll, but in your haste, you knock over the ink-pot, spilling ink all over your notes and two of the source documents. You will not only have to start all over, you have made it materially harder for you – or anyone else – to succeed.

    Now, you could proceed with the rest of the degrees of success or failure, but instead of writing the above down, let’s pretend that I’ve done it in my head and proceed directly to step 6 – then come back to this step to work on the next one.

    6. Generalize each description

    The act of ‘translating’ each failure/success narrative into application to a different skill means that you have started, mentally, to translate it into a generalized form – which can then be applied to any skill as needed.

    • Catastrophic Failure: You almost succeed before an accident not only causes this attempt to fail but makes it harder for you or anyone else to succeed in a subsequent attempt at performing the task.

    Now, since you’ve only done the first one, go back to the previous step and process the next degree of failure/success.

    7. Repeat 1-6 twice more to generate new descriptions

    If every catastrophic failure were to have the same general ‘shape’, they will get boring fairly quickly, and the same is true for all the other degrees of success/failure. The more variety you have, the longer it will be before you have to repeat one. By the time you include interference, misjudgments, accidents, circumstances, wildlife, environment, and potentially many more, it’s not too difficult to generate a lengthy list of possibilities. But why try and do them all at once? Do just enough that you’re covered, then store them when those are all used up and generate some more.

    Based on my experience, you are unlikely to need more than three from any given degree of failure/success in any given day’s play, but you may very well need two – so, two, plus a reserve of 1, is my recommendation for a standard ‘batch’.

Applying Differentiated Narratives

Applying one is fairly simple – identify the degree of success or failure, pick the next generalized description that matches off your list, and apply that general narrative to the task and skill being employed, just as I translated the “climbing” narrative into a research narrative.

Replacing and storing used Narratives

As each is used, I would tick it off in pencil. When I got down to only having the reserve unused, or less, I would generate a new batch to add to the list. If I couldn’t think of new ones, I would erase the ticks and start over – but keep trying to extend the list in between game sessions.

Narrative by Instinct

Eventually, you will discover that you don’t need the lists anymore; the combination of circumstances, task, skill, and degree of success or failure will prompt you to think of a solution on the spot. This is Differential Narrative by Instinct. Once reaching that point, habit and repetition become your enemies – and the easiest way to combat them is to add whatever you have come up with to the list (in suitably generic form). This will enable you to continually verify that you aren’t inadvertently repeating yourself.

What’s more, you will find that the exercise of creating and using the lists has greatly enhanced your improv strength in other game areas as well – a side benefit, but a good one.

And now, having seen what is possible, you can fully see what I meant when I described the ‘succeed or fail’ light-switch as a wasted opportunity.

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A Political insight for RPGs & Life

Image credit: / abtmay

While this article starts off with political analysis, it leads into the discovery of what appears to be a universal social truth that can be integrated into multiple situations in any RPG.

I’ve done my best to avoid coloring the analysis with my own opinions, and have neither intent nor desire to belittle in any way the opinions of anyone else, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.

If, at times, I have failed to preserve this Olympian disengagement, I would assure readers that it is inadvertent and accidental, and therefore is likely to say something that I didn’t intend to say, which might not even be an accurate representation of my views – so just ignore it and move on.


The other day, I was catching up on some TV that I had time-shifted from last year, I found myself watching an episode of Gruen (formerly Gruen Planet, Gruen Sweat, and originally The Gruen Transfer).

One of the regular segments of this show about Advertising, Business, Politics, and Society, called “The Pitch”, challenges two advertising agencies to produce television adverts that meet “impossible” briefs.

In this particular episode, the challenge was to convince people to restrict the vote to under-60s. Neither of the ads produced to meet this brief were really convincing to me, but one at least got me thinking.

One of the problems of modern society is the “Youth Inheritance” issue. I first became aware of the issue in the season 4 episode of The West Wing, “College Kids”. This awareness was reinforced by one of the most celebrated West Wing episodes from Season 6, “A Good Day”. Both were episodes that touched on the youth vote, pointing out that most political decisions are made by older people, whether that is because older people are more likely to vote or because the majority of candidates for political office are older, and that it is the young who will have to live with those decisions for the longest time. It’s easy for authorities to take decisions that might be beneficial or “correct” in the shorter term but that have long-term problems, consequences that the leaders of tomorrow will inherit.

This was initially presented in the West Wing as an argument in favor of lowering the voting age, and on the second mention, was central to a concert attempting to increase the youth participation in the upcoming elections within the Season 6-7 narrative. But in connection with the “restrict the vote to under 60s” advert, it sparked a new thought, and that led me to an insight not only into reality but one that can easily be applied in RPGs in all sorts of ways.

Speculation into Insight

The “Youth Inheritance” issue means that there is an argument that the youth vote should be disproportionately weighted relative to an older voter. They have more “skin in the game”, as it were.

But hang on – age is supposed to bring Wisdom. Surely that’s a counter-argument implying that young people will make impractical decisions, choices of idealism over practicality?

Democracy works, in theory, by balancing both idealist and pragmatic extremes. It can also be assumed that the ‘idiot vote’ will be evenly distributed over both sides, leaving the actual selection in the hands of those who think deeply about the issues and who can be swayed, one way or the other.

One side of this idealist-vs-pragmatic balance will assume dominance for a while, and social progress will result – in an imperfect and not completely practical way, and sometimes heavy-handedly – shifting the social and political landscape in the process. Then the other side will assume power and shift things back in the direction of the way things were – but never be able to go all the way back, being forced to countermand only the most extreme misjudgments of what has gone before – ‘extreme misjudgments’ in the eyes of their supporters, that is. They can’t undo everything, no matter how much they would be ideologically disposed to do so, because going too far in that direction will cost them votes from the center, and its the center that holds the balance of power. If you want to win future elections, the art of the practical and pragmatic demands that you pick your battles – and let some of the changes stand. The upshot is that social progress takes place at, overall, a manageable pace.

Oscillation back and forth about a slowly-evolving median position – that’s the reality of western politics in the long term.

Validation Of Theory

This view plays into a whole heap of stereotypes that imbue it with a comfortable ring of plausibility – to those of us born into a belief in those stereotypes. I can point at four examples without thinking too hard:

  • The Anti-war Movement of the 60s & early 70s
  • The Ecological/Environmental Movements of the 70s-90s
  • The ‘New Camelot’
    The Anti-war Movement of the 60s & early 70s

    The Vietnam War polarized opinions very strongly – so much so that draft dodgers fled to Canada to avoid it. Was the generation of the late 60s and early 70s any less patriotic, or any more cowardly, than those who fought in the two World Wars? That seems unlikely. So, what had changed? The biggest thing was the emergence of the generation gap – while I’m sure that younger adults had always opinions, prior to the 1950s and 60s, these were always subordinated to the authority of the older generation. That started to change when television advertisers identified the teenager as a separate demographic who could be marketed to; and that gave the youth of that era the self-confidence to back their own opinions. The anti-war movement – and the hippies in general – were the results.

    This is always remembered these days as a conflict between youthful idealism and the pragmatic military necessities of the cold war. As losses mounted with no prospect of victory in sight, and as television brought the horrors of the war into the living rooms of the citizens, popular sentiment shifted against continuing involvement. To many of the idealists who refused to serve, the rest of the country came around to their point of view.

    For myself, the war was a childhood memory, and I don’t support either side of the anti-war debate, or more accurately, I see and support both sides equally. My abiding reaction is of being appalled by the treatment meted out to returning servicemen, many of whom did not want to participate in the first place. Thankfully, attitudes since have moderated toward them.

    The Ecological/Environmental Movements of the 60s-00s

    It was in the 1970s that industrial pollution entered the public consciousness as it became clear that some business interests were putting short-term profits ahead of long-term sustainability of the environment and the welfare of their customer base. There followed story after story of profit being placed ahead of all other considerations, everything from the treatment of leather to asbestos being examples. Legislation that was protective of the environment was the inevitable result.

    The other consequence is that businesses who were more socially responsible were unable to compete as well, and the direct outcome was the mantra of the 80s encapsulated by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street – “Greed Is Good” – and by “Larry The Liquidator” (Danny DeVito) in Other People’s Money. This in turn has engendered a lasting distrust of business that is still current; some operations have overcome this distrust through humanitarian engagement and an absence of negative publicity that fits the “profit vs responsibility” narrative, but it only takes one slip and the ingrained distrust rematerializes.

    The beginning of what is currently lumped together as the “Green” movement, world-wide, can be traced to the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson, about the consequences of the indiscriminate use of pesticides in 1962, or to the Resources and Conservation act of 1959, or even to the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. But growing political awareness of the issue meant that for most people it was either another example of government interference, or completely under the radar. This was a rare instance in which government was ahead of public awareness, never mind public opinion. Public attention on the environment was focused on the Clean Air Act, Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Act, Air Quality Act, and at least four amendments to the Clean Air Act. While legislation relating to other forms of environmental damage were also around, the issue didn’t seem to grab public attention outside of the impacts of Smog and Acid Rain.

    Initially, it was the hippies – principally a youth movement – whose sounding of the eco/environmental alarm that first raised public awareness, and the message was largely lost in a general dismissal that “long-haired louts” and “radicals” had anything to say that was worth listening to. Slowly the message permeated the mainstream, propelled by landmark court cases, and the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency, established by President Nixon in 1970, and built upon the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

    Given that the EPA was established by the Republican Party, it seems ironic that President Trump seems intent on winding it back if not shutting it down completely! But I’ll have more to say on that a little later.

    It was the Sierra Club and the somewhat anarchic evolution of the ‘Don’t Make A Wave Committee‘ into Greenpeace that established what many considered “radical environmentalism”, though other groups would adopt still more extreme positions in later decades. Ever since, environmentalism has been viewed as a youth movement – largely ignoring the fact that a 20-year old in 1970 would now be 67 years old! Even today, this perception, and associated attitudes, persist to a certain extent.

    The New Camelot of the Early 60s

    There’s a lot of Hype around the Presidency of JFK as it is perceived in modern times. At 43 years of age, he became the youngest elected President, and the second-youngest to serve in that capacity (Theodore Roosevelt assumed office at the age of 42 after the assassination of President William McKinley). There was wide criticism of his age, and the average age of his cabinet, at the time of his Presidency, and his inaugural address cemented the perception of a youthful idealist, with it’s call to the nations of the world to unite to combat “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

    This impression of naive idealism was confirmed in many minds by the Bay Of Pigs debacle; few realized that the planning had been commenced under the prior Eisenhower presidency, and the failures were largely attributable to forewarning of the Castro regime by KGB intelligence, who knew the exact date of the planned invasion, and that the CIA were aware of this foreknowledge and failed to brief Kennedy about it before he gave final approval for the planned invasion – at least according to the Washington Post of April 29th, 2000. A second factor was that the then head of the CIA believed that Kennedy would authorize whatever additional support was necessary just as Eisenhower had done with respect to the Guatemala Invasion of 1954, a plan drawn up by many of the architects of the later Bay Of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy, however, did not authorize such involvement, focusing on the political impact of the failure rather than the military needs of achieving success.

    Despite this, Kennedy received the adoration and admiration of a great many younger people (a vague term that some mean to refer to under 30s, others to under 35s, and still others to under 40s), largely because of his charisma and perceived idealism and principles. There are those who to this day describe his assassination as “the killing of hope”.

    No history of the 1960s can fail to create the impression that he effected little lasting direct change except when forced into it. These days, he is best remembered for:

    • His (somewhat half-hearted) support of the Civil Rights Movement, whose principally-peaceful approach was catalyzed by the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the violence with which the Freedom Riders were met, into the more aggressive and militant Black Panthers. It was Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice-President and successor, who made the next significant mark in this area;
    • For the Space Race / Apollo missions which were ultimately curtailed, and which were largely undertaken as propaganda against the space successes of the USSR;
    • And for the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which – according to legend – he was able to view and treat the Soviet leadership as people first and exemplars of ideology second, holding firm on what was considered by many advisors to be a foolhardy blockade that cost the US any opportunity to engage and destroy the threatening missiles.

    The indirect legacies that resulted from these and other activities in office have arguably done more to transform the world than those of any US President since, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan. How much of the credit can be assigned to Kennedy is irrelevant; int the popular perception, they are his achievements or the legacies of his leadership.

    Kennedy’s election had been a narrow one, the closest since 1916. Nevertheless, he won widespread approval for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the election of 1964 was still looking difficult; that was the primary reason behind his campaigning in Dallas on the day of his assassination. That event shocked and outraged even many of his political opponents, and ensured his elevation to near sainthood in the minds of many; a posthumous popularity that Johnson was able to harness to achieve a landmark victory in 1964, with the highest popular vote margin since 1820. In particular, it signaled the arrival of the power of the Youth Vote as a political force. By the end of Johnson’s term of office, discontent over the Vietnam War and with progress in Civil Rights was in the ascendancy, and led to his decision not to seek reelection; Richard Nixon’s promise to end the war was one of a multitude of factors that led to his becoming the 37th President of the United States.

The Populist Difference

Of course, even the Obama administration can be viewed as direct representations of this perspective. Obama’s “Yes we can” was a direct appeal to idealism, and his racial background made him a radical proposal for the Presidency.

That is why the populist Nationalistic movements that have recently been gaining traction in many countries around the world appear to be something different and new and potentially dangerous to those who expect reality to conform to these ‘youth idealism’ and ‘pragmatist’ stereotypes – the populist movements are largely youth-driven, or appear to be, while those in opposition are frequently older men and women who are viewed as having become part of the socio-political “machine” that has created the inequalities against which the populists are railing.

The two most dynamic leaders in the recent US elections were Donald Trump, playing the populist, nationalist, card, and Bernie Sanders as the older, radically-progressive opposition. Of course, Sanders failed to secure his party’s Nomination, leaving the task of opposing the populist movement that had (in some people’s eyes) hijacked the Republican Party – a naturally conservative group – in the hands of Hilary Clinton, a figure lacked the ability to polarize a sufficient opposition simply because she was more moderate than Sanders. People in her party supported her, but the passions that might have been aroused by a Sanders candidacy never seemed to be there. Instead, it appeared to be Trump who had a monopoly on the real passion in the campaign.

‘Was that a mistake on the part of the Democrats?’ was the question that I found myself asking by the time my thought processes had led me to this point.

Perhaps it was, or perhaps it was a reflection of the same Radical vs Pragmatist reality playing out – perhaps it was inevitable, given such a fiery, radically-conservative, and possibly impractical, figure as Donald Trump, that he would be opposed by a more pragmatic opposition candidate viewed as representing the ‘establishment’.

Even the problems that have beset the Trump Administration in implementing their policies and the resistance of the Washington Bureaucracy can be understood in this context.

The Australian Situation

Here in Australia, we have a conservative government led by a Prime Minister who had a reputation as a political moderate prior to taking power, but who has experienced extreme difficulty in enacting his policies. Why?

His predecessor in office (from the same party) was ideologically extreme, even radical, and polarized a relatively pragmatic and moderate opposition into existence – an opposition that Prime Minister Turnbull “inherited” when he took the reins of power in a leadership spill. With the moderate, centrist, political stance tied up by that opposition, Prime Minister Turnbull was forced to appeal to the extreme faction within his own party for support – the same extremists from whom his predecessor, former Prime Minister Abbott, had derived.

The result has been viewed as a largely paralyzed government, whose most extreme agenda items are regularly thwarted, forced to compromise with minor parties and a populist fringe, only watered-down versions of the government positions can actually garner sufficient support to be implemented. The rest of the time, the government just looks mostly helpless. The Opposition appear both more pragmatic and seemingly ineffectual – and yet, time after time, ideologically-extreme government proposals are successfully blocked.

These facts are not lost on Prime Minister Turnbull, and last week he made a direct appeal for his party to move toward a more centrist position, inviting – as good as daring – the opposition to become more radical in their policies. Should the Labor Party do so, they will be falling into a trap, conceding the rational middle ground to the current government and losing the advantages that have garnered them more then enough support to be elected to power, so great is the dissatisfaction with the current government.


Who are the Radicals?
For most of the twentieth century, then, the liberals and progressives have been cast as the radicals and idealists, and conservatives and nationalists have been viewed as the pragmatists and ‘realists’. Donald Trump, Malcolm Turnbull, and the architects of Brexit represent something that hasn’t been seen for quite a while: the conservatives and nationalists are now viewed as the radicals whose time has come, and their opposition are now the ‘realists’ and pragmatists. This is a complete inversion of the popular perceptions of both groups, something that has taken place over roughly the last five years or so.

The time before last that we had these forces in the ascendancy, the result was Fascist regimes and U.S. Isolationism. Is it any wonder that there are those who identify similarities in the postures and positions of various political forces and policies with those of that era? Prime Minister Turnbull sought (unsuccessfully) to ‘liberalize’ freedom of speech by weakening hate crime legislation, and has been backing a plebiscite over Gay Marriage, earning many comparisons with fascism. Donald Trump talks of Allies having to do more if they want to enjoy the protection and friendship of the US and attempted to distance himself from NATO, has attempted to restrict immigration (in the most heavy-handed and clumsy manner possible), and Scotland appears to be on a path to independence from England so that they can remain within the EU despite Brexit.

The last time, we had the wave of deregulation which undid many of the protections put in place by preceding governments, policies that led directly to the GFC.

That doesn’t mean that these will be the outcomes this time around; it merely means that Nationalism means putting a local perspective ahead of a more global one, and that in that environment, inequalities and repressions can potentially flourish.

The Architects Of Change

It’s almost always the radicals who bring about change, whether for good or ill – if they can. How long the radicals stay in power depends on how quickly the populace tire of radical failures, tilting at windmills, and attempts to catch the rainbow. The pendulum always swings the other way, eventually.

The Principle, for GMs

The Radical-vs-Pragmatist principle is an important one for GMs to understand when it comes to Politics within their RPGs. The natural opposition to a radical political force – whether in power or not – is NOT an opposing equally-extreme radical force from the “other side”, it’s a pragmatic, relatively quiet opposition. Equally, the natural opposition to a pragmatic, centrist position – whether in power or not – is by definition going to be more radical than the centrists.

Even if leaders are not inclined in those directions, they will always be forced in either the pragmatic or radical direction by the need to contrast themselves with the political force that they have to oppose. This will push that opposing force even further in the indicated direction, a pattern of escalating domino effects and counter-escalating domino effects that eventually push the two factions into these roles.

Even two moderate centrists, when opposing each other, will drift into these polar extremes. One will make a move – either in the direction of pragmatism, or in the direction of radicalism – and the other will react, setting the trends in motion.

The 20th century was largely the story of radically-liberal idealists (as they were perceived to be, whether they were all that radical or not) and a reactive counterforce that painted themselves as the pragmatic and practical ‘realists’. So far, the story of the 21st century has been built around the rise of a radically-idealistic populist conservative nationalism, and the resulting reactive counterforce.

RPG Applications

Some applications may be relatively obvious, given the preamble described above. Others may come as a surprise. It took only a minute or so to think of more than half-a-dozen, but am under no illusions that this is a comprehensive listing – in fact, the entire article to this point took only about ten minutes of semi-distracted thought (while I continued to watch the TV show that has inspired it).

  • Nations At War
  • Negotiating A Trade Deal
  • Nationalism vs Internationalism
  • Rivals In Love
  • Police vs Citizens
  • Business Rivalries
  • Competing Military Plans
  • Entertainment Duos
    Nations At War

    Whenever you have a war, one commander will inevitably follow the best military doctrine they know, while the other will counter with radical innovation. If this were not the case, there would be no need for the war in the first place, the outcome would very predictable. Usually, it is the side with a shortcoming in military force to apply – whether that results from a relative shortage of personnel or from inferior equipment – who is forced to get innovative, while the force with the greater military might adopts the more traditional tactics. And, of course, it’s a never-ending cycle; if the innovative tactics work, they get added to the body of traditional military lore thereafter. Next time around, a new innovation will be required.

    And, of course, it’s worth noting that military tacticians study all the battles of history, regardless of who they were fought between, on the theory that the principles of achieving victory haven’t changed, only the details, and you can never tell what will be useful until it is.

    Negotiating A Trade Deal

    In fact, in any negotiation, one party will always be more conservative than the other in his proposals, while the other will be more creative in terms of the offer they are making. GMs should always assess the nature of the tactics adopted by PCs when bargaining or negotiating and have the other party adopt the contrasting tone – traditionalism and convention vs innovation, etc.

    In a three-way negotiation, the third party will align with the more conservative and traditional approach.

    This doesn’t make an offer made by the PCs any more or less acceptable, or vice-versa; that’s down to specifics and personalities. I am specifically referring to the style of negotiation that will be adopted.

    Nationalism vs Internationalism

    One of the more obvious applications, but one that will apply from time to time in many different genres and games. Again, reality is distorted somewhat by the need to preserve PC independence, but if the PCs emphasize common interests between two or more nations, the response will be more nationalistic, more beneficial to the negotiator’s particular homeland (or to their clients, if a professional negotiator or third (neutral) party has been engaged, at least in comparison to the more internationalist tone of the PCs.

    If, on the other hand, the PCs adopt a more parochial stance, the other party is more likely to look for an opportunity to further desired alliances, either with or against those the PCs are representing, because that represents and justifies ‘driving a hard bargain’ that yields the maximum benefit for the other party in the diplomatic exchange.

    Most players will be expecting this; sometimes, it can be amusing (when the GM perceives a clear way for the other party to take advantage of the situation) to have them give the PCs everything they could possibly want and a little more, after briefly playing hard-to-get. This is akin to the players putting all their diplomatic weight to a door only to find that it was already ajar; healthy paranoia should set in, leaving them to wonder for hours what it is that they’ve overlooked.

    Rivals In Love

    When two rivals are wooing the same love (being careful with gender designations, here), one will generally go in for overtly extravagant gestures and declarations while the other will generally emphasize stability and safety while pointing out the instability and risks represented by the opposition. It doesn’t matter what the respective personalities are, even a bad boy or girl can represent stability and known quantities and a sense of community.

    In addition, one will normally emphasize what they are offering, while the other emphasizes what the prospective partner will get from their offer. These may align with the radical/conservative differential, or may run in the opposite direction, which provides variety for the GM to exploit.

    Police vs Citizens

    If citizens are polite and respectful of the authority of law-enforcement, or are perceived by the police in that respect, the police will usually (in turn) be more flexible and innovative in their community relations. If citizens are untrusting and disrespectful, the police will tend to adopt a more hard-line approach and more conservative law-enforcement values. The former also lends itself to corruption while the latter lends itself to authoritarianism.

    These same patterns can be observed everywhere from the slums of the 1990s through to the old west.

    Business Rivalries

    Two supermarket chains in Australia, until perhaps 10 years ago, controlled almost the entire market space. With the arrival of new players, both have lost market share, but between them, Coles and Woolworths still account for almost 70% of the market in foodstuffs. In 2005, that was nearer to 77%, which was close to the peak; go back twenty years, and the pair accounted for only about 1/3 of the grocery market, (I can’t speak to the conditions in other countries in this area).

    This (effective) duopoly, with the pair concentrating their marketing clout almost exclusively on trying to steal market share from the other over a period of decades, puts Australians in a unique position to assess the way rivalries work between businesses engaged in what is basically the same market.

    First, Woolworths concentrated on freshness of produce, while Coles concentrated on affordability. Over the years, each attempted to steal the focus from each other; Woolworths introduced cheaper brands, while Coles began to focus on its fresh fruit and vegetables sections to a greater extent.

    At regular intervals, one would attempt some radical marketing while the other retreated to a position of conservative reliability, only to strike back when the effectiveness of the radical move was all but spent; thus, the two traded a few percentage points of market share back and forth for many years. And, to some extent, these marketing games continue to this day.

    In the 1970s, many of the independent retailers formed a co-op in order to compete with the “big two”, but these did little more than slow the erosion of independent grocery stores, mostly in low-turnover low-profit markets. But, in 2001, a new and rather more radical player entered the markets when Aldi Australia was launched. Their signature is the ‘non-grocery items on sale at ridiculously low prices that you never expected to see in a grocery store’ – anything from TVs to Angle Grinders – but their ‘trademark’ is the substitution of low-cost alternative brands to the big brand-names. This permitted savings of up to 1/3 on a weekly grocery bill, significant savings when money is tight, and the combination has won them many loyal customers, eating into the market share of the big two little-by-little over the 16 years since.

    As Aldi, with its radical and innovative marketing and promotions, gained a toe-hold in the market – it’s now up to over 12% – the big two responded by becoming more conservative in their approach. Only once people became used to the “Aldi Difference”, becoming perceived less as being radical more simply “the way things were”, i.e. more traditional, were the two big players free to become more radical in their marketing.

    After a couple of PR disasters, Woolworths has, in the meantime, lost credibility as “The Fresh Food People” and are now seeking to re-brand themselves as ‘the home of premium products and brands who can also supply your everyday needs’, effectively conceding the traditional ground to Coles while latching onto what they hope will become a new market differentiator as Australian culture continues to evolve. But, to be fair, they had also suffered a number of financial setbacks and calamities which left them unable to compete on the old territory as effectively as they had done; they had to do something radical, they could no longer simply throw money at the problem in terms of subsidizing low-cost products.

    As a result, for the last six months or so, you could say that the Australian Market had finally come to terms with having two major chains and two smaller groups that between them comprised a significant share of the market. And just in time, as Amazon are arriving in 2017 to shakeup online grocery sales, an aspect of the business that the big two had largely taken for granted until now! But that’s in the future.

    The point is this: the same patterns apply, the entry of third and fourth players into the market notwithstanding.

    Competing Military Plans

    Military advisors rarely present just one plan to a political leader with the authority to order them into action. There will usually be three different plans – a best case, a worst case, and a most-likely case in the middle. The idea is to brief the political leader on how bad the costs in manpower and money could be, and what reserves should be made available, as well as the best estimates of the cost of any given action.

    While I have no information on which to form a definitive statement, I find it improbable that this practice is a recent innovation. While it may have arisen along with the General Staff concept (a German invention, copied throughout the world), it seems even more likely that it extends as far back as Imperial Rome or even beyond, at least as a concept.

    Traditionally, problems arise when Presidents seize on the most optimistic projections and base their expectations and instructions on them. This generally happens more often in fiction and media than it does in reality, I think, but some are incurable optimists.

    Things can become even more confused when there is a filter placed between the originators of the plans and the authority; there have often been suggestions that Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and of the KGB, respectively, showed only the most favorable predictions to their political masters in order to encourage endorsement of their proposals, with the assumption that once a country was in trouble up to its neck, whatever additional resources might be needed would be forthcoming. Again, without evidence to confirm the supposition, this sounds an awful lot like the description of what went wrong with the Bay Of Pigs invasion discussed earlier. It’s certainly a central point in Red Storm Rising amongst other works of fiction.

    As a side-note of relevance, it’s interesting to observe that in that novel, whenever the Soviet forces get radical and innovative, the NATO forces are forced into relatively conservative responses, but that as these become the accepted state of play and command patterns and routines become established, it becomes possible for NATO to become radical and innovative in its own respect. It’s a measure of the soundness of the theory that this seems entirely natural when reading the book.

    It’s also worth mentioning the relationship between this phenomenon and Surprise. Surprise, by it’s very nature, means doing the unexpected, which in turn is automatically radical; and the only possible immediate response to Surprise is “by to the numbers”, i.e. a traditional and expected standard response. Thus, surprise tends to give the Initiative to the party with Surprise, and leaves the enemy reacting by rote, at least for a while. This also permits the force with Surprise to make great gains initially, even if progress later bogs down as the new status quo becomes established. Blitzkrieg tactics were effective in World War II because they tended to end the battle before the other side could regain their balance and take effective counter-action. As noted earlier, it’s the radicals who make changes in a situation.

    Entertainment Duos

    Finally, one of the more unusual applications of this theory, and one that only really came to mind late in the writing. Have you ever noticed how, in any comedy or entertainment duo, one tends to be the straight man to the other? Is that not just another aspect of the same theory being discussed? Abbott and Costello, Penn & Teller, even George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (Wham), and Sonny & Cher, and some of the Japanese comedian duos that have appeared on VS Arashi – they can all be viewed in this respect of one ‘radical’ and one ‘straight’ man. Another entertainment partnership that comes to mind is the partnering of Lennon and McCartney, both in the Beatles and after they split.

    I’m not a big fan of the Three Stooges, but it’s my impression that they traded off the straight-man role between them. A fan more familiar with their work than I am might be able to extend the theory further with respect to multiple participants by analyzing the dynamics of the legendary comedians.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. This seems to be a universal rule of opposing social and political forces, regardless of the manifestation, and a literary truth to boot. It’s also relatively easy to apply in any given situation in a game – whether the protagonists of the confrontation in question are NPCs against NPCs or PCs against NPCs. And yet, at the same time, I’ve never seen it suggested anywhere before. Sure, reality can be more complicated – but in terms of the abstraction and simplification necessary for an RPG, it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal!

Comments (2)

Choices in Tactical Representation Of Reality

Late last week, while I was taking a break from writing the “When Undead Go Stale” three-part article, Master John – better known as @beerwithdragons – asked on Twitter,

What's the most useful thing behind your DM Screen?

There are a number of GMs on Twitter who ask such questions as conversation initiators. When I have something to say in response that no-one else has suggested, and the time to say it, I reply. In this case, I wrote,

Me. Nothing else can create anything else needed on the spot.

At that point, I might have tweeted a link to one of my articles on ways GMs can get themselves out of trouble, such as A potpourri of quick solutions: Eight Lifeboats for GM Emergencies, and the conversation would have taken a different turn. But I didn’t do that; I had to get back to writing. When next I checked my Twitterfeed, I discovered a reply and a follow-up question:

Well said! Do you use minis and an mat? Or all theater of the mind?

To which I answered,

Neither exclusively. Depends on the situation. I'll have to write an article about that, sometime!

He replied,

Yes, please! I'm trying all sorts of ideas. Mats, theater of the mind, minis, overworld maps etc.

So, here we are. How do I choose to represent the tactical in-game “reality” and what are the options?


There are eight considerations that I’m actively aware of when choosing how I am going to represent the “reality” that surrounds the PCs:

  1. Scale
  2. Complexity
  3. Set-up time
  4. Dynamism
  5. Positional Relevance
  6. Simulation Capability
  7. Desired Pacing
  8. Reconstruction
    1. Scale

    D&D and Pathfinder generally scale at 5 feet to the game-scale inch. The hero system works on a 2m to the miniatures inch, which is close enough to the same thing to permit minis to be used interchangeably. There are a few other scales out there, and some minis have bases that are larger than this, but for the most part, miniatures can all be used at this scale.

    Which means that they are of limited use if the area that needs to be represented is more than a couple of hundred feet along either axis. I simply don’t have the table space for anything larger (even that is a stretch). If the tactical situation deals with several miles of range, such as a marauding war-band of Orcs coming out of the hills and spotted long before they enter combat, or aerial combat with a Jet, or space combat with just about anything, or fleet movements, or the positioning of armies – forget minis, at least as literal representations.

    Which demonstrates just how important a consideration Scale is – it can rule out all but one or two possible choices.

    2. Complexity

    I’ve heard of people using their children’s four-foot tall doll’s mansions (usually with the furniture removed) as “battlemaps” representing a castle. Unless you have something similar at hand, depicting an entire castle at once is not going to be feasible, even though the floor scale might just about permit it.

    Some things – even natural scenes – are simply too complicated to be practical with some of the solutions. If the spacial relationships between disparate locations are so important that they need to be represented, tactically, that can definitely be a factor in choosing a means of representing those locations.

    That said, there are a couple of techniques that can simplify representations using miniatures, even making the otherwise-impossible not only practical but relatively easy:

    3. Set-up time

    Unless you can do it in advance, a key consideration is how long it will take you to set up your tactical representation, because you can’t run the game while this activity is taking place. Sometimes you can get around this – the others go to get lunch, one with your order and sufficient funds, while you stay back, keep an eye on their gear (might be necessary in a public space) and set up the scene. As a rule of thumb, 5 minutes or less is completely acceptable; between five and ten minutes is tolerable; between ten and fifteen minutes, I would have second thoughts as to the chosen mode of representation; and (with exceptions, as noted) more than fifteen minutes demands a different solution.

    4. Dynamism

    There are certain things, dynamic phenomena, that some modes of representation do poorly. These are less likely to come up in D&D / Pathfinder games than in other genres, but even there, they can occasionally manifest. Example: the PCs are swept up by a flash flood, the raging torrent carrying them away at high speed. Using miniatures to represent this effectively means resetting the entire battlemap every round. It’s impractical.

    Anything involving the third dimension used to be included in this category, but over the last decade or so, solutions have been found.

    See, for example,

    See also the links above.

    5. Positional Relevance

    How important is it that the players be able to visualize where things are relative to either other things or to themselves? There are situations in which it is critical – especially melee combat – and situations in which it isn’t important at all. Again, most of the latter will occur outside the D&D / Pathfinder arena – situations like psionic combat – but they can happen.

    6. Simulation Capability

    Equally, and similarly, there are often things that simply can’t be simulated using some of these techniques. Sometimes you simply don’t have the right figure (especially true in the case of larger-scale creatures). Sometimes, the environment itself is malleable or dynamic in some way – but I’ve already covered that.

    Sometimes, the creative GM can get around these problems, but such solutions are not always available. See, for example,

    For example, let’s say you want to set an adventure on the fantasy equivalent of one of Larry Niven’s Integral Trees, possibly as something that exist in the Elemental Plane Of Air. How would you represent that with battlemats?

    To the right is my solution – a somewhat gnarled trunk, ‘forest’ at top and bottom, and the occasional . It rests on the fact that direction on a battlemap is just an assumption – so along the spine and in the top and bottom foliage, the battlemap is Vertical while tufts along the way are represented by the smaller battlemats to the side – with round pieces of dressing used to indicate where the trunk is located. Minis would stand up on those side tufts, but be posed ‘lying down’ on the main battlemat.

    How long would this take to assemble? Two minutes – most of which is spent selecting the right tiles of battlemat – is probably a generous allocation of time. How long would it take to think of? If you haven’t discarded the notion that battlemats represent floor areas etc from above, it might never occur to you.

    7. Desired Pacing

    Literal Representation is slow. You not only have full game mechanics, but you have set-up and continued interpretation of the battlemap. There are no details that can be omitted or handwaved, everything has to be updated continually. The more that you abstract the representation, the more these factors swing to the opposite; you only have to mention something when it becomes relevant, and you can even streamline game mechanics to achieve a more cinematic action style.

    That means that the pacing you achieve is directly related to the representation methodology that you select – and, therefore, that the representation methodology should reflect the game pacing that you want to achieve.

    8. Reconstruction

    Most people can’t just put their representations to one side and leave it intact between game sessions. That means that if you aren’t finished depicting the situation being represented at the end of the game session, you will need to reconstruct next time. That can be easy, or it can be almost impossible, depending on the choices made during initial selection and implementation of the methodology. If there is any possibility of ever having to reconstruct your representation, the time to bear that in mind is from the very beginning.


There are six general solutions to the problem of representing the in-game reality.

  1. Minis & Battlemaps
  2. Detailed Abstract Representation
  3. Dynamic Abstract Representation
  4. Broad Abstract Representation
  5. Supplemented Theater Of The Mind
  6. Theater Of The Mind
    1. Minis & Battlemaps

    Let’s be honest: the two extremes are the options that everyone knows and that most people employ as a matter of course. Depending on the breadth of their experience as a player, a GM may literally have never heard or seen anything else, and may not even be aware of the other extreme option – if, for example, you and your group can’t afford miniatures, or view them as a low-priority purchase item. I didn’t have any form of miniature for my first 30 years or so of gaming – and was a GM for most of that time.

    About 12 years ago, I think it was, I met a GM who had never played or refereed a game without using miniatures. He was totally flabbergasted that it was even possible, never mind that I had GM’d for close to three decades without them!

    These days, there are lots of options when it comes to minis – everything from cardboard to pre-painted plastic to traditional lead, mostly in 25mm scale, which has become the near-universal default. And you can get battemats and tiles for everything from Sci-fi settings to dungeon tiles, not to mention 3-D Terrain and Flatpacks like the ones I reviewed in last October’s Periodic Goodie Roundup.

    2. Detailed Abstract Representation

    Picture this: you whip out some tile-based boardgame, like Settlers Of Catan, and lay down contiguous terrain tiles, elevating some of the tiles with some form of stackable support underneath them. You then place a miniature representing one of the PCs and several monsters on different tiles, then announce that each figure represents a unit, and each tile is a mile across – the one character miniature is all the PCs, and each of the monster figures could represent anywhere from 5 to 500 actual enemies. Throw in some more figures representing units allied with the PCs, and you’re off to the races with a major war.

    This is a detailed abstract representation. You can do something similar to represent fleet actions, either naval or space-based, or a whole range of other broad-scale activities. Or you can use a different scale – 50 feet to the square on dungeon tiles – and drop a d10 to represent the number of enemies in a space, again with one figure representing all the PCs in a space.

    Of course, in many of these cases, you won’t be able to employ your normal game mechanics. That’s all right, there are plenty of military-style games which represent conflict between units of various technological standard, from something relatively medieval to something rather more high-tech. Pick the one that’s right and simply work up a set of conversions where necessary. A lot of the old Avalon Hill boardgames work especially well in this respect, but there are plenty of alternatives.

    3. Dynamic Abstract Representation

    Get a sheet of cardboard or a large sheet of paper . Glue several of the cheap figure-stands in lines across it, then slice the cardboard into strips so that each strip has pairs of the figure-stands across it. Sit battlemaps in between the stands. You now have transformed a set of battlemats into something that can be moved, by moving the underlying cardboard/paper, without disturbing any figures on the battlemats.

    Nor is this the only kind of dynamic abstract representation – most are far more abstract! I talked about constructing maps as you go in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly, and the technique is another form of dynamic abstract representation.

    Still another is to pull out something like the old boardgame, Orbit War; the board has a number of concentric circles with spaces arranged equidistantly around each of these circles, so that there are more spaces in the outer rings than in the inner. The purpose is to simulate orbits around a star or planet; at appropriate time intervals, you advance a marker representing each of the combatants – one, the PCs, and another the enemy – one space.

    Battlemaps on a lazy susan give them the ability to rotate.

    The only limitation is the scale of your imagination.

    4. Broad Abstract Representation

    This is a solution primarily used for large-scale areas – it’s your traditional overland map, or a digital equivalent. There may or may not be some sort of marker to indicate where the PCs are.

    I’ve used playing cards to represent unknown terrain – deal the deck out into some sort of grid. I normally use one three cards wide, face down. All you need is a table of what each card represents – or you can use it as a random generator. If you want to get even more sophisticated, you can take into account what terrain the PCs are moving from as well as what the new card indicates.

    My normal technique is to define a vegetation level by suite, and use the numbers on the cards to indicate elevation – and dynamically add in rivers and the like. Any change of 8 or more represents a cliff or steep climb.

    It doesn’t matter which way the characters turn, they continue to advance down the strip. More rules for that, because the terrain to their right doesn’t magically transform – normally – into that indicated by a new card; so that card gets removed and applied to the end of the strip. Of course, the GM has to keep track of the results, because they might circle back – this permits consistency.

    On one occasion, I saw a GM using a street directory to represent the corridors in a Death Star. He had defined in-context meanings for each of the standard map symbols in use, listed specific “street addresses” for each of several key locations the PCs might want to go, and simply never let them know where on the map they were.

    5. Supplemented Theater Of The Mind

    This is probably the option that I use most frequently except in fantasy gaming, and even there, it’s right up there. This is “theater of the mind” (I love that phrase) i.e. narrative description, supplemented by illustrations, photographs, sketches, diagrams, etc.

    I discussed this in detail in Stream Of Consciousness: Image-based narrative, and how to use Google Image Search – one of the major resources for the finding of appropriate images – in Finding Your Way: Unlocking the secrets of Google Image Search. Of course, I have also built up a large collection of images, usually with no specific intention as to their usage, and am quite prepared to sketch something out ad-hoc if necessary, or if I can’t find anything that I can transform into what I need!

    It’s astonishing how far one good image will go in providing a foundation for narrative.

    6. Theater Of The Mind

    The final option, of course, is pure narrative. Describe the scene and let the players picture it in their minds. This is something that I’ve written about extensively, here at Campaign Mastery; the most directly-useful articles are probably the six-part series on The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative, and Stealth Narrative – Imputed info in your game.

    The series on Writer’s Block, and especially part 4, which focused on Dialogue and Narrative blocks, might also be useful.

Making The Choice

Choosing a means of representing a particular tactical situation is a quick six-step process.

  1. Campaign Style defines a default choice
  2. One Step Removed: More Abstract
  3. One Step Removed: Less Abstract
  4. Another Step
  5. Repeat 4 until complete
  6. Make the best choice for the whole encounter
    1. Campaign Style defines a default choice

    Every GM has what they think is a default choice. In reality, it is the campaign style within the bounds of a particular genre that has that property, but unless the GM tries a different genre, or a markedly different campaign with a deliberately different style (in order to make the two more distinctive), he might never realize it.

    Once you have deliberately chosen a default style, you need to apply it every time that there is not a clear and undeniable reason not to do so.

    A deliberate choice can be more complex than a simple “always miniatures”; you can define a set of conditions under which miniatures are the default choice, and another set of conditions under which a more abstract choice is the default. Quite often, combat and non-combat are differentiators, for example.

    2. One Step Removed: More Abstract

    Assuming that the default style won’t cut the mustard on a particular occasion, I next consider the alternative that is one step more abstract than that default choice. Does it solve the problem that made the usual choice unsuitable? Does it fail to introduce new problems that rule it out? If the answers are yes, then that’s my choice. If either answer is no, proceed to step 3.

    3. One Step Removed: Less Abstract

    That, quite obviously, is to move in the other direction on the list of options (assuming that you can, of course), and ask the same two questions. Again, this either results in a selection, or you proceed to step 4.

    4. Another Step

    Quite obviously, that next step is to go one step further in each direction, with the same two questions.

    5. Repeat 4 until complete

    And you simply repeat until you have considered all six options.

    6. Make the best choice for the whole encounter

    This isn’t really a step in the process, but it’s something that might require you to change your mind.

    There are times when the situation is fluid or is likely to change before the end of the encounter/game session. It’s particularly jarring to start with one mode of representation and then shift to another one; details might not match up, and any player who made choices based on their perceptions of the situation will immediately get their noses put out of joint. So consider the whole encounter or situation before making your choice.

The Tactical Representation Of In-game “Reality”

After you’ve used all of these for a while, you will find that you no longer need to even think about which approach to employ, it will be obvious to you. When that happens, GMs get used to doing things in that particular way, and can find it disconcerting when they change game systems or genres and discover that the old instincts are no longer correct – or worse yet, bull their way into running an encounter using the wrong choice.

Changing game systems and/or genres requires that you go back to actively questioning your choices until the new ‘normality’ has settled down in your mind.

One last piece of advice: Buy a variety of Boardgames. As you can see, they can add to your RPG repetoire in all sorts of interesting ways!

My choices

You may have noticed that I’ve now reached more or less the end of the article without actually shedding much more light on my choices than was contained in the initial exchange on Twitter.

That’s intentional; my choices not only vary from campaign to campaign, but might also persuade readers that this way is the “right” way. There IS no “right” way, only a choice that works for a given GM in a given campaign. For that reason, I wanted to provide as much room for GMs to assess the options for themselves, the same way that I have done each time it becomes necessary. Each of these is a regular part of my toolkit, and which one I will pull out always depends on the circumstances. In the Zenith-3 campaign, Supplemented Theater Of The Mind and Miniatures are used with equal frequency. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, the default is always Supplemented Theater Of The Mind. My fantasy games tend to be equally represented by Theater Of The Mind (sometimes Supplemented, more often not) and Miniatures; the exception was my 5e game-testing campaign, in which I deliberately chose to go with Miniatures and Battlemats as the default choice.

Every option has its benefits, limitations, and even liabilities. Make the choice that will provide the maximum upside at the minimum difficulty.

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Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 3

Having been delayed 8 hours by a massive spam attack last night (650+ spam in 6 hours – but the effectiveness of my response is clear, only 17 spam made it through my protections while writing this article), it’s back to business. The fact that this is appearing rather less than 8 hours after it was due is the result of three factors: (1) I had most of the article fairly well mapped out in my head already; (2) I always try to leave myself margin when working out how much I can get done – about 4 hours worth of margin, in fact; and (3) I’ve cut a few corners – hopefully in places where they won’t show!

Ask the gamemasters

This article is intended to wrap up a comprehensive answer to the questions, both direct and implied, by Jesse Joseph. In part one, I reiterated the basic advice I would offer to anyone in his situation, and looked at ways to make low-level undead more respectable opponents. In part two, I looked at the broader issues implied by the very existence of undead in a campaign. This time I look at Jesse’s question in its most general form, and then wrap things up with a few links to related articles here at Campaign Mastery. Just to refresh recollections, let’s start by reminding readers of the question.

Jesse wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

In its broadest possible form, this question could be rephrased, “My campaign is coming to an end and I need to figure out an ending. I don’t even know who the major villain is going to be.”

So, that’s today’s agenda.

End-game ingredient list

Let’s assume that you have a list of the unresolved questions that have emerged in the course of the campaign and all the unsatisfied PC goals, or can generate one. These could be “what’s Villain X really after?” or “what’s the meaning of Y” or it might even be that almost everything has been resolved already.

Wait, what if almost everything has been resolved already?

Just because everything looks resolved to the players and PCs doesn’t mean that it actually has been resolved. If you find yourself in this situation, go back over the past history of the campaign, looking for anything involving the player’s “favorite opposition” – the enemy that they had the most fun overcoming. What you want is any appearance in which (1) either the villain or a third party could have deceived the party into thinking that the situation was resolved when it actually wasn’t. and (2) where a plausible reason can be devised for why this deception did not become apparent on any subsequent encounter.

That might yield multiple choices, not a bad thing. If you do get more than one to choose from, pick the one that most completely changes the context of the subsequent encounters, especially if this results in the villain secretly having a different objective to the one he appeared to have, and which the PCs appeared to frustrate.

Here’s a recipe – well, a list of ingredients – that a really epic finish should contain.

  1. More of the same
  2. At least one MAJOR plot twist
  3. A revelation
  4. Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened
  5. A Betrayal
  6. Higher stakes than ever before
  7. Life-or-sudden-death danger
  8. A moral inversion or challenge
  9. Imminent Total Failure
  10. One last chance at victory

To some extent, these can be reordered as necessary. Some can occur more than once. Above all, you want the end-of-campaign adventure to have an epic quality to it. The locations should be more spectacular, the scenes more wondrous, the magic more arcane, the violence more bloodthirsty – everything should be turned up to eleven!

Let’s run through these in detail:

1. More of the same

You want this final adventure to feel like it’s part of the campaign to date – so whatever you have been doing, you need to keep doing. This also makes a nice low-key beginning to the adventure. The difference is that where you would normally have begun to wrap the adventure up any other time, you instead ramp things up.

2. At least one MAJOR plot twist

This is very migratable within the sequence. Some major piece of the foundations of the PCs understanding of the world around them needs to vanish from underfoot at some point.

3. A Revelation

Another item that can occur anywhere in the plot sequence. This can be packaged with the plot twist, or it can be something more low-key, but the PCs need to learn something important about the game world and everything that they have experienced so far that they didn’t suspect.

4. Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened

Ideally, the big finish should lend new significance and meaning to everything that’s happened in the past of the campaign. This is part and parcel of making the campaign feel like it’s coming to an end, and is often overlooked.

5. A Betrayal

This could be one of the Villain’s Henchmen betraying him for his own gain, or because he’s learned what his master is really up to, or it could be an ally of the PCs who either becomes a pawn of the villain or is revealed as always having been in the service of the villain. It can be tempting to have this ally be revealed as the major villain, but that’s much harder to pull off effectively. Not saying that it can’t be done, but nine times out of ten this stretches credibility too far.

Inverting a trope can also count.

6. Higher stakes than ever before

This is an integral part of the “epic” quality that I mentioned. It’s not necessary to have everything the PCs care about hanging in the balance, but the more that the outcome is critical to the PCs, the better.

7. Life-or-sudden-death danger

If this really is the big finish of the campaign, it’s time to take the kid gloves off – at least to some extent. If a PC falls along the way, who cares? Well, you do, and the player does – and I’ll get to that in a separate sidebar in a moment. Look at the big finish as a blockbuster disaster movie, in which – from time to time, and at regular intervals – someone (a PC or favorite NPC) has to give their lives to propel the rest of the party one step closer to success.

Wait, if I kill one or more PCs, what happens to their players?

It’s not as though they can roll up a new character and resume play next week/next adventure, after all. There are all sorts of solutions, but the bottom line is this: you need a way for dead characters to continue to contribute to the success of the mission. Ideally, a different solution for each dead PC. And, unless you can predict with complete certainty which PC will meet their demise, you need a plan that can cover that complication. There are two alternative general solutions:

  1. Link each PC with a dedicated means of continuing to contribute if he or she should perish, and simply pull out the ones that you need when you need them.
  2. Link each incident which could result in a PC death with a means by which any PC killed can continue to contribute.

There are all sorts of possibilities. Here are just a few:

  • The PCs ghost refuses to abandon his colleagues until the crisis is resolved.
  • A short side-quest provides access to a one-off means of resurrecting the PC – at least temporarily.
  • Recast the death as something that is inevitable but can be deferred temporarily.
  • The PC may have been ‘killed’ in such a way that they are supposed to join the PCs enemies, but he is able to resist – for now.
  • A magic item may have the hitherto-unsuspected quality of acting as a soul jar.
  • A God – or a Devil – may offer a bargain for the (temporary) restoration of the PC to life, one that is low enough that the PCs can and will pay it, but high enough that the PCs will not be all that happy about it.
  • A supposed enemy will appear, reveal themselves as a hidden (and perhaps reluctant) ally – “at least under these circumstances” – and restore the character to life. Or perhaps the PCs will have to go to them.
  • Whoever transports the dead to the afterlife might be bribable to delay ‘collection’.

A lot depends on the primary contribution that the character makes to the party. If it’s physical, they need to retain a physical body of some sort; if it’s intellectual, or spellcasting, you have more flexibility. The other consideration is what will be needed to keep the player happy. You need to tick both boxes with your solution.

With this ‘back door’ in place, you can kill off PCs with relative impunity – and nothing signals a raising of the stakes more quickly.

8. A moral inversion or challenge

Someone needs to have a change of heart, and/or there needs to be a significant moral challenge for the PCs to overcome.

Save the life of an enemy, or give them greater power? Cause intense short-term misery to safeguard a prosperous future? Make some fundamental change in the world with uncertain consequences? Permanently weaken the forces of Good in order to prevent total victory of the forces of Evil? Kill 1/3 of the world’s population to save the other 2/3 – with the certainty that friends and family will be amongst the 1/3? Is it better to elevate an evil man to the throne, or to tear the nation apart in a civil war?

Note that the “someone” can’t be a PC unless they are (and perhaps always have been) an agency of an enemy – even if they didn’t know it. This works best if you have an enemy who always seems to know what the PCs are up to, a capability that has never been definitively explained (or that has been explained, but the explanation was either an error or a deception).

9. Imminent Total Failure

For a big finale, I always like to make it look like the PCs are going to win – perhaps at a price – only to jerk the rug from under their confidence at the last possible second, perhaps through the enemy doing something desperate, something so dangerous that they would never have contemplated it – until it became their only hope of victory, or of a pyrrhic victory, or of exacting revenge for their defeat. The PCs think they are winning – and suddenly you raise the stakes again and tell them (metaphorically) that the game is going an extra innings.

10. One last chance at victory

Just as it looks like all hope is lost (refer 9), there needs to appear one final chance at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. What’s more, if you have been exceptionally ‘harsh’ in your treatment of the PCs through the early part of the adventure, making them earn every inch of progress, you can now shade things just a little in their favor – just enough to ensure a last-possible-second victory, despite the opposition and the hand you have dealt them. If you have ramped up the bad guy enough in (9), they won’t even suspect.

Remember, your ultimate goal is for everyone to have fun! Losing that final battle would suck, but so would being railroaded to success.

You can even pull out the Pyrrhic Victory 13th-hour solution – let the bad guy win, discover that the sweetness of the victory doesn’t last, and travel back in time to help the PCs defeat his younger self at the 59th second of the 59th minute of the eleventh hour! But don’t do this every time.

If the PCs fall at the final hurdle, it’s often better form to pencil in, at some future point, a sequel campaign in which another opportunity will arise. But this time, you will have an end-game target in mind, and that will make a big difference, trust me!

Omitting Ingredients

Can you still devise a blockbuster finish without including all these ingredients? Sure. But every item that you leave out makes those that remain more important to get right.

Take a look back at the suggestions I actually made to Jesse by email, reproduced in part 1. How many of these boxes were ticked by my end-of-campaign proposal?

  1. Is there More of the same? Yes – there is still lots of running around fighting undead.
  2. Is there At least one MAJOR plot twist? None yet. But there is plenty of scope for one.
  3. Is there A revelation? Yes. Both where the villain’s base is, and the revelation of what his true goals are, would qualify.
  4. Is there Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened? Yes – that’s one of the big selling points of the proposal.
  5. Is there A Betrayal?Yes, probably. The Trope inversion could count, but there’s plenty of scope for more concrete examples in the course of the wars and blood feuds proposed. Also, every PC that gets killed adds directly to the villain’s power.
  6. Is there Higher stakes than ever before? Yes – this isn’t about a single undead getting uppity, this is a full-scale subversion of both life and death, something that could ultimately threaten the Gods themselves.
  7. Is there Life-or-sudden-death danger? Yes, indisputably.
  8. Is there A moral inversion or challenge?Not at this point. You could insert one – Sacrificing the Goddess Of Life to end the menace, for example, or doing a deal with a Deity Of Death. There’s no indication of what the PCs might have to do in order to overcome the menace, yet.
  9. Is there Imminent Total Failure? Maybe. – it depends on what the PCs think is going on and how the Revelation of the truth about the Big Bad is handled.
  10. Is there One last chance at victory? None written in – yet – but the plot exists only in conceptual form.

That’s six yes, one Maybe, and scope for each of the remaining three.

Mapping Plot Threads to Requirements

So, the first step is to map the dangling plot threads that you listed earlier to the list of requirements. There doesn’t have to be a one-to-one correlation; you could have a dangling plot thread that will lead to an encounter that will tick the box. For example, you might have two seemingly-unrelated villains – discovering that one was a hidden ally trying to build the PCs up to the point where they could oppose the real Villain in the course of one last encounter with that Villain, or that one of the two Villains is secretly an ally of the first and always has been, for example. Or having the PCs need to turn one Villain into a reluctant Ally in order to deal with the other. Or any of several other possibilities.

Unticked Boxes

If you have any of the ten Requirements unfulfilled, you have to make a decision: you can either create something to bring about the item in question or you can forgo that item off the list. In the event that you choose option #1 of those two, you now need to create the game element in question. That leads to a second choice: you can either establish the campaign element ahead of time, or you can have it appear as a Revelation in the course of the final adventure. Which you choose will depend on the campaign element that you create, and whether or not you can think of a second plotline involving it, and whether or not there will be sufficient separation between that second plotline and the start of the big finish.

Don’t neglect the possibility that the second plotline could be what triggers the big finish, either.

Outline the plot

Once you know the specific constituents that you have to work with, it’s time to outline the plot. This essentially consists of four stages for each: (1) Something that will happen, (2) the significance of that something, (3) how the PCs will discover it, and (4) what they are expected to be able to do about it. Note that there’s no “how the PCs are going to do whatever they are expected to be able to do” – that’s up to them. Only if the PCs clearly don’t have whatever abilities or resources that they will need to have a shot at doing what the GM wants them to be able to do about the situation do you have to worry about it, and that’s dealt with separately in a later step of the process.

Complicate the plot with the other dangling plot threads

This is reasonably self-explanatory. But one point requires further amplification: for each other Villain you have out there, you need to answer two questions: (1) Is there any way that they could discover what the main Villain is up to? and (2) What will they do about it if they do learn of it?

Another critical question at this point is about the Major Villain’s capabilities. Does He have everything that he needs, in knowledge, power, and resources, to set his end-of-campaign-plot into motion? If not, can he obtain them from one of the other villains of the campaign – by guile, force, bribery, subterfuge, betrayal, or by any other means?

Create and insert any additional resources required by the PCs

Next, it’s time to revisit that question that was deferred in “outline the plot”. You have the same questions to answer, and the same answers to consider, as were listed in “Unticked Boxes”.

Dispose of any unused dangling plot threads before the big finish starts. Unless you’re saving them.

If you want to leave dangling plot threads for a possible sequel campaign, that’s fine, but if you don’t, then you want to get these out of the way before the big finish. In particular, if anything is likely to interfere with your planned big finish, get rid of it in advance.

Remaining Campaign Structure

The structure of the remaining campaign is now fairly self-evident.

  • The Pre-finish phase, in which unwanted dangling plot threads are resolved, and both Villain and PCs are acquiring the resources the GM wants them to have during the big finish.
  • The Opening Gambit, which appears to be just another adventure, a day in the lives of the PCs just like any other.
  • The Trigger, which sets the final adventure into full motion. This could be a revelation on the part of the PCs (learning what the Villain is really up to), it could be the Villain obtaining the final resource that he needs, it could even be the Villain setting out to acquire the final resource that he needs, or putting his plan into motion because it’s time-critical without having secured everything that he needs. The content will largely depend on the personality of the Villain.
  • The Big Finish.

That’s all there is to it, really.

One final piece of advice: Just as it’s never too early to start planning for the big finish of your campaign, it is also never too late. But a good “big finish” happens by accident very, very rarely. Have one or more ideas for what it might be and keep them in your back pocket at all times.

Further Reading

There have been a few other articles about undead (and scary stuff) here at Campaign Mastery.

There have also been several articles on Big Finish Adventures and other Anniversary/Special adventures.

Finally, there are a number of miscellaneous articles that are relevant to the subjects discussed in these three parts.

Comments (1)

Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 2

We’re part-way through a comprehensive answer to the question, both direct and implied, by Jesse Joseph. Last time out, I repeated the basic advice I would offer to anyone in his situation, and looked at ways to make low-level undead more respectable opponents so that GMs weren’t forced to use Undead Royalty just to have an opponent who could carry the plot. Today I’m going to look at two of the broader subjects implied by Jesse’s question. Just to refresh recollections, let’s start by refreshing memories of the question.
Ask the gamemasters

Jesse wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

Here’s the agenda for this 3-part article:

  1. The Immediate Answer
  2. General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far
  3. General Question: The Implications of Undead
  4. General Question: Where do Undead come from?
  5. The Generalized Question: Tying dangling threads together
  6. Further Reading

Items one and two were ticked off in part one of this article. Part two – which you are reading right now – will tackle items three and four. That leaves items five and six for part three.

General Question: The Implications of Undead

The very existence of Undead in a campaign carries deep theological and philosophical implications for a campaign. While it’s not necessary under most circumstances to delve into those issues, it’s always useful (and a boon to internal consistency, which greatly enhances verisimilitude) to do so, and becomes far more important when Undead are central to the campaign, simply because those deep questions are therefore also going to be central to the campaign.

I’ve divided the issues into two related general questions – the first looking at them generally, and the second looking specifically at the general question of the origins of Undead and what they imply.


There is obviously something, some qualitative difference, that distinguishes living things from non-living things. In an existence without Undead, this something is obviously the thing that animates the living, enabling them to move around and do things, to grow, and to reproduce. Introducing Undead into the mix separates the ‘animation’ part of this something from the rest.


What survives into Undeath? One of the clearest distinctions between Royal Undead and Lesser Undead is that the higher Undead retain the mind and personality of the original person. If this is accepted as a functional distinction, it clearly places Ghosts in the “Royal” category, and possibly related forms of Undead; if this is merely a trait of some forms of undead that happen to include Royal Undead, we establish a spectrum – Lesser Undead without Minds and Personalities, Greater Undead with, and Royal Undead with.

This question relates to the relationship between types of Undead, whether one type can become another, and to how Undead should be roleplayed by the GM.

You can even argue that all undead retain the mind and personality of the original person – that is certainly the case in Piers Anthony’s ” Xanth,” for example. The expression of personality is then clearly simply a matter of making the appropriate substitutions in the Hierarchy Of Needs of the Undead.

This line of thought led to the creation of the Golden Empire in my Fumanor campaign – an Empire of Undeath, in which the economic, military and social implications of an Empire of Undead were/are explored. (In brief: Undead don’t need to eat, don’t need to sleep, and don’t grow tired. Overrun an enemy and the enemy’s dead become new recruits – lesser forms of citizen, to be sure, but that can change. Undeath is a form of immortality, and so the society has evolved in such a way that the living lead lives of abject luxury, supported by dozens or hundreds of undead servants, then repaying the state that has provided this largess with eons of service. While no one needs to work, civil service while living demonstrates a level of support to the state that is rewarded by “ascension” to a higher form of undeath at the moment of Death.

Economically, I worked out that one Undead is worth about 10 mortals in terms of economic productivity, about 3 mortals in terms of combat effectiveness (six if the enemy fear Undead, which is (supposed to be) most living things). Not having Children is viewed as anti-social; increasing the population base eventually increases the number of tireless Undead workers, so large families – ten, twelve, fourteen are normal. This is practical because children receive unconditional support from the state, incurring a life-debt that is to be repaid in their Undead Years; work during the Living Years permits a reduction in this Life Debt.

Once a Life-debt is repaid, the living citizen can begin amassing credits toward the costs to society of making you a Noble Undead when the time comes. Education and skills acquired in life are preserved in Undeath, so Education is provided by the state, divided into two branches: Basic and Practical costs more Life-debt (on the premise that practical knowledge will enable the student to earn and hence repay life-debt), but for those with the right aptitude, Higher Education is viewed as contributing to society during Life, and pays off existing Life-debts. There’s a lot more, but I’m just hitting the high points here, as it’s a bit of a side issue.

It was also this concept that led me to the principles espoused in Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species in 2014, and to those enunciated in Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans three years earlier.

The very fact that some forms of Undead retain the mind and personality that the person had in life makes it obvious that this is another aspect of living that is divorced from the essential difference between Living and Non-Living. (This is a useful point because it also permits the natural evolution of Sentient Magic Items as a concept).


Death is clearly a process, and one that goes a long way beyond simply ceasing to live. This is obvious because the process can be interrupted, resulting in an Undead. This process is very hard to study in real life, because it’s very hard to interrogate anyone who has experienced it; but Undead in games imply the capacity not only to breach the veil, it usually takes place in games in which the Gods themselves are capable of bi-directional communication with mortals.

How much the Gods have revealed and how much of that doctrine is truthful is another open question that the GM of an undeath-centric campaign needs to answer for themselves. You don’t need to get too specific, but certainly you need to answer that question in broad terms – together with the implied question of ‘why’ if there is any deception involved. Again, this can be as simple as keeping dangerous knowledge out of the hands of “children” (i,e. Mortals), or it can be to preserve their own monopoly on power, or it might be that the knowledge leaves one open to corruption and heresy, or it might be in the nature of a rule to teach the value of rules (the “Forbidden Fruit” justification).

These begin to define, or redefine, the relationship between Gods and Mortals.

It is even possible, from simple logic and information built into most game systems which incorporate Undead, to outline at least some of the broad stages in the Death Process.

  1. Physical Death – in some cases, with luck and skill, the person can be resuscitated, but the window is small.
  2. The ‘difference’ between Living and Dead separate from the physical being. At this point, self-aware Undead can be created.
  3. The identity, personality, and mind separate from the body and attach themselves to the ‘difference’ (we know this because communication with those in the Afterlife is possible using various spells and spiritualist techniques, and the spirit retains the personality, memories, and self-identification of the original. At this point, ‘mindless’ Undead can be created. They may or may retain some or all of the knowledge acquired while living – even if it’s just enough to walk and articulate “Braaaains”!
  4. The ‘difference’ and identity commence their transition to the afterlife. The body is now just a shell. The capacity for the body to be transformed into some form of mindless undead persists for a period of time that may or may not be linked to the duration of that transition process, but eventually the ‘clock’ runs out.

There could be quite a lot more to the process, but those steps, in that order, have to take place to make sense of the things we already know. Steps 2 and 3 are combined if all undead retail their identity and awareness.

It can be even more complex than is implied; for example, the experiences and personality might leave a physical ‘imprint’ like a mould, enabling the deceased person to be both within the afterlife and reanimated as an Undead at the same time. There are no wrong answers so long as the basics listed above are observed – and you can even change those, if you want; it just means changing other elements of the game world. Remove the various ‘talk with the dead’ spells, for example, and you can have the personality/mind simply evaporate unless extraordinary measures are taken, adding additional complications to the creation of Royal Undead.

Constituents Of Life

So far, then, we have two or three separate constituents to the living thing, plus the physical body. Learned Skills, education, and Personality; The Animating Principle; and the magical ‘something’. You could argue that these in combination comprise what we call the ‘soul’, or you could define the ‘soul’ as that something – and noting that this is all fictional theology! It’s my understanding that the latter is the more conventionally-accepted real-life Western theology – and that the separation between the components is how that theology reconciles scriptures with the discoveries of modern medicine – but I could be wrong!

There is a great deal of similarity between this view and that of the Ancient Egyptians, who also defined the soul as the difference between life and death, and divided the soul into three parts that had to be dealt with separately for the soul to be at rest in the Afterlife. was essentially the personality; Ka was the ‘vital spark’ that permitted animation of the body, amongst other things; and Akh, which was the Mental ability or Mind or Conscience (it’s meaning changed a number of times over the history of Ancient Egypt). The Death Process involved the reunion of the Bâ and Ka with the Akh in the afterlife. You can read more about this at the Wikipedia article on the Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul.

Applicability to Other Races & Species

It’s a very useful concept to the GM, because it permits the substitution of other constituents, making races and selected species spiritually unique, explaining various natural abilities (and, perhaps, limitations).

I first applied this concept to explain those creatures who were inherently magical, like Golems. It then occurred to me that creatures like Dragons (who can fly magically) could also fit. The more I thought about it, the more useful the concept became.

Let’s hit a few high points from a few short minutes of rumination:


Plants, in most fantasy games, and trees in particular, have inherent similarities and differences to Animals/Creatures. Tolkien introduced the concept of Elves running around “waking up the trees”, and of Huorns and Ents – the latter of which morphed into the Treants of D&D. This was also the origin of the concept of “Elvish Forests” being inherently different to those of other forests, a staple of the fantasy genre.

Treants and Ents have all the attributes of standard “souled beings”, though they something in place of the magical Something, barring them from the Afterlife.

“Awakened Trees” have minds, and at least some learned skills (languages, for example), but (generally) lack the animating principle – they don’t walk around naturally – though they have the capacity for it, and can be imbued with it, enabling them to attack, or even to travel relatively slowly, especially under the direction of Treants, Elves, or Druids.

In the Fumanor Campaigns, I made the Treants more humanoid, an artificial species crafted by Elvish magic, and renamed them Verdonne, enabling me to make “Treants” a little more treelike and use them as the “Animated Trees”. You can read more about the Verdonne in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3, if you want to develop them for use in your own campaigns.

Another idea that I came up with specifically for the Fumanor: One Faith campaign that GMs might find useful was that of basing a tree’s personality profile on external appearance. Oaks, with their broad arms, are matronly and mothering; Birch trees are vain, Spruce are excitable, and so on. One variety that especially attracted bird life and which was often found in the company of other trees – I forget which one it was – was an inveterate gossip, incapable of keeping a secret. Vines – some of which can be very tree-like when mature – were classified as a ‘cousin’ of trees, and inordinately curious, unable to resist poking metaphoric noses into every nook and cranny, and (generally) too busy asking questions to answer any.

I also had ‘unawakened trees’ as being less self-aware but still with a spark of sentience; an Elf or Druid could speak with one, relay messages from one tree to another, and so on. A Druid could use any plant as a spy, with degrees of awareness limited to the size of the plant.

I once read somewhere that Trees are especially sensitive to certain changes in the environment, to the point where the health of a tree can be used diagnostically. And, of course, there are the infamous experiments which were claimed to prove that plants react to other plants being in distress of various sorts – Cleve Backster’s theory of Primary Perception, which may have been busted by Mythbusters in 2006, but which might still be valid to whatever extent you want in a fantasy game. It’s not a great leap to put those two things together, conceptually, to suggest that Trees have some sort of “Environmental Affinity” or “Environmental Awareness” that most other species lack. This, in turn, might be a manifestation of whatever Trees have in place of ‘humanoid souls’ – call it ‘The Gaia Principle’.


It seems obvious that the various inhabitants of the Elemental Planes, commonly referred to generically as Elementals, would have the appropriate form of “Elemental Force” as a substitute for the “Vital force”.


Elves themselves are an interesting race, unlike any others in many editions of D&D, unable to be resurrected, and immune to various things. It is simple to link these facts together (if they apply in your campaign) and explain them by having something else in place of the essential component of “Life” that permits mortals to become Undead.

Dragons, Beholders, Abberations in general?

Some creatures are considered inherently Magical, enabling them to exist and function despite logic and rationality suggesting otherwise. The obvious implication is that they have raw magical energy in place of the ‘something’. But, if you go down this route, it would take undead dragons back off the list – unless you do something special to create them, of course. Like harvesting mortal souls until you have enough to imbue ‘life’ into a Draco-Lich – or any other form of Undead Dragon that you wanted to create, from a GMing perspective!

General Comments

You don’t have to go down this metaphysical pathway if you don’t want to. It’s a theory, and one that can explain a lot – but to what extent it is true, and which species and races it applies to, is entirely up to you.

Nor does this really look too deeply into the possibilities of replacing one of the other constituents of life with some substitute. I’ll leave that possibility to the creative juices of each reader, because I have to move on!


The concepts of Undead and an Afterlife of some kind are fairly difficult to separate (it can be done, but it’s a lot of work). The general concept of Undead is that something that would normally progress to the Afterlife is intercepted somehow and stuffed back into the body from whence it came, or into some other body. The “Process” of death is interfered with, in other words, to create or become Undead, and that inherently raises the issue of what would happen without that intervention.

Definitions of Perfection

Most Afterworlds are an idealized environment of some kind where everything is “perfect”. But Perfection is in the eye of the beholder – the Norse Valhalla is very different to the Christian afterlife in concept. It’s entirely plausible, even reasonable, that in a fantasy environment such as that of a D&D campaign, each society or each race has its own variation of “the afterlife”.

This can be a key into unlocking elements of the general personalities of the those races, just as it can be an expression of those general personalities as defined in the relevant sourcebooks. Formicas, for example, are an ant-like species. If aspects of their lives are modeled on those of real insects, they will have both wars with other colonies and civil wars, as explained in this post at Quora: Do ants ever go to war?

Their view of an afterlife might well be one in which the All-Queen, Matriarch of all Queens, rules, and all Formicas reside in the Great Nest in perfect harmony, with food and water aplenty. It’s conceivable that Formicas are uncomfortable unless surrounded by their fellow Formicas, and that the Great Nest is one in which no Formian is ever alone because there are too many residents for that. Crowding of that sort would drive humans nuts and certainly not be their idea of heaven, but for a Formian, it might be, well, Heavenly!

Orcish “Heaven” might be more like Valhalla, but with tribes led by the different Gods engaged in perpetual conflict – with Feasting and Females afterwards. Or, if the Orcs are more ‘liberal’ and expect the Women to serve on the front lines and be judged like any other Orc, the Feast might be followed by pairing up – a mate for every Orc, regardless of gender.

Use what is known about a races’ society to decide on the nature of their afterlife, then use that concept of the afterlife to shed further light on their society, theology, religious practices, morality and cultures, then use those refinements to further tweak and enhance the afterlife.

Judgment, Denial & Refusal

It’s very rare for an Afterlife to be open to just anyone. There are exceptions, especially amongst Eastern religions in which one’s stay in that afterlife is only temporary (unless one achieves the perfect state of Nirvana). In almost all cases, the dead face some form of judgment. In some cases, the spirits travel or are taken to a place of judgment that is distinct and separate from the afterlife itself, while in others, the judgment transpires at the gates to the afterlife. The latter always seemed cruel to me – letting someone get to see the ultimate reward and then taking it away from them – but that’s a personal impression.

Judgment implies that some are denied entry into the afterlife, and that means that some determination has to be made within the Social Cosmology created by the GM for what happens to those who don’t make the cut. Or is that an answer to the second subject of the day?

At the same time, the mythology of ghosts suggests that someone who is unwilling to accept their fate or is unwilling to accept while ever they have ‘unfinished business’ can and will refuse the afterlife. The people of Joraldon (discussed in The Ultimate Weapon, part 5 of the Spell Storage Solutions series, were killed by a plague so quickly that they didn’t even know what had happened to them – they simply ‘woke up’ the next day and went about their ‘lives’ as usual. This was inspired by some “real-life” ghost stories that I read many decades ago, except that in those stories, the deceased spent most of their time trying to find out exactly what had happened to them, or searching for family members who passed on centuries/decades earlier, according to the reports I read/saw.

….Hmmm… A ghost who attacks anyone who suggests they aren’t alive for saying such “cruel and hateful mis-truths”… not a bad idea for an encounter!…


Everywhere needs someplace to be – which might seem to be a tautology, but it makes perfect sense when you have individuals with the capability of traveling to that someplace, wherever it is. Just as a combination of the concepts of Adventuring and other Planes of existence implies the existence of means of exploring those Planes, so the existence of those means of traveling the Planes implies that somewhere amongst them will be found the Location of the Afterlife.

Unless you want to work the Afterlife as an Earth-Two from the Silver Age of DC Comics, of course – the Afterlife is all around us, our world made perfect in every way, separated from our own by nothing more than a blink and the limits of our perceptions.


So how do dead spirits find their way to it? Either they have to be guided, or they have to wander until they find it on their own, or the process of dying itself thrusts them into it, or there has to be some sort of connection that can be followed. All of the above have been proposed by different groups at some point in the history of human theology, and more besides! On top of the real ones, it’s possible to dream up more – an “all roads lead to Rome” concept married to the notion of a mountain that must be climbed because heaven is at the summit, with a pass so narrow that the living cannot fit through it, for example.

Most of what I’ve read about the subject in terms of fantasy gaming (especially D&D) is based on reported experiences of Astral Projection, but these often felt ‘tacked on’ and not fully integrated with the metaphysics contained elsewhere. The implication was that when you Astrally Traveled, you were entering the “pathway to the afterlife”, possible only because you were leaving your body behind, but that you were bound to that body by a tenuous silver thread which you could follow to return ‘home’ again. At the moment of death, you were thrust into that Astral environment and the silver thread cut.

Thankfully, 3.x did away with this confusion, separating death from the concept of Astral Travel, but replaced it with new confusion by not providing anything in its place. But that simply means that the field has been cleared for each GM to come up with his or her own decisions in this respect.


Transition is rarely considered to be instantaneous; it is usually depicted as taking hours or days, most commonly three days. It is routine in fantasy gaming for the duration of this passage to be linked to the potential for resurrecting the dead – or reanimating them as Undead. What the ‘Spirit’ experiences en route is something that is rarely discussed in fantasy literature, let alone anywhere else. It’s something that I knew I was going to have to dig into in my Rings Of Time campaign, but that campaign came to a premature end following the death of one of the two players, so I never got around to it.

Since various sections of the remainder of this article deal with the subject, we’ll be exploring it for the first time together!

Escorts & Guardians

By far the most common mythological construct or device for getting the dead to the afterlife or to their final judgment is for there to be some sort of escort or guardian. If all they had to do was guide the spirit, that would be a fairly dull sort of experience; that’s something that I had to grapple with when creating Cyrene, the deity central to Assassin’s Amulet. For those who may be interested, you can read about those struggles in The Creation Of A Deity: The Origins Of Cyrene and get an extremely truncated version of the outcome from Cyrene Revealed: an excerpt from Assassin’s Amulet. The Deity in the Assassin’s Amulet pantheon responsible for escorting the dead is Thanastis, the God of Death.

Things get a little more interesting (from the point of view of a mortal seeking to visit the afterlife prior to his death) if the escort also serves as a Guardian, because that implies that the shade is vulnerable while in transit – dangers that the Guardian needs to protect the soul from, and that such independent travelers may encounter.


So what sort of dangers might there be?


The newly-dead who aren’t satisfied that their lives have run their course could easily be manipulable by Demonic temptations. Or, if not swayed, it might be that Demons could enslave the soul, consume it, or both – a larder on metaphysical legs that earns its own keep with hard labor.


The same obviously goes for Demons, who tend to be more naturally manipulative and less prone to whimsical violence for its own sake. It’s sometimes said that Devils should never do anything without reasons lined up neatly in a row!


Necromancers fuel their magic with souls, frequently killing those who current posses those souls in order to gain access to them. How much more convenient would it be to be able to gather a number of souls who have passed naturally? At the very least, if the body falls into the hands of a Necromancer, the soul could be sucked back into the body in the process of reanimating it as an Undead.


Other creatures might well be able to feed off souls. If there is a ‘food resource’ or something that can be used as one, inevitably something will arise to take advantage of it – which might be the origin of Demons, or it might indicate that there is something else out there.

‘Environmental’ Dangers?

There could be all sorts of ‘Environmental’ dangers to be skirted – anything from a Reef Of Lost Souls which entraps the shade to brushes with the positive or negative planes of energy.

Put all these potential dangers together and you get a gamut that needs to be run. If the ability of the Guardian to protect the shade is dependent on the virtue of the life led, a ‘natural selection’ takes place in which those who have died unworthy of Paradise fall victim to some danger along the way. Perhaps, en route to the shade’s final rest, the Guardian has to revisit with them the key moments of their life, in terms of their virtue; this would mean that each individual would have a slightly different path to follow, and no two shades would experience exactly the same dangers.


I’ve mentioned Necromancy already, but clearly the nature of Life and of the Soul is intimately connected to the Darkest Practice. Although I’ve never seen the notion written into any game mechanics, in fiction, the most necromantically-desirable souls are always those who fit the extremes – the darkest and the most virtuous. This would largely be a function of the good/evil axis of the alignment of the shade, and could be a nice piece of color to drop into a campaign.

Why Create Undead?

One particular question that needs to be addressed by the GM is why Necromancers create Undead in the first place. A servant of limited capabilities but of guaranteed loyalty? Learning the craft of doing so in order to preserve their own lives when the time comes? Both of those are entirely acceptable answers, but they are by no means the only ones. There is also the “pure research” answer, which those using it would consider amoral at worst. Clerics who seek to better understand the processes of death and life and the minds of the Gods would also come under this umbrella.

Wrapping Up

That naturally segues into the next subject, but before we get there, I want to reiterate one final point, the one with which I opened this discussion. Take a look back at the breadth of topics that became entangled with the very existence of Undeath in the preceding analysis – Philosophy, Cosmology, Theology, The nature of the soul, Medicine, Fantasy Biology, Dragons, Abberations, Plants, Elves, Elementals, Races, Magic, Economics, Politics, Sociology, Divinity, Morality, Devils, Demons, and more besides. The very existence within of undead within a campaign has implications in all of these areas, and more; between direct implications and flow-on effects, I doubt there’s very much in a campaign that isn’t affected, one way or another. All of those are “in play” the moment the first Zombie shuffles out of a graveyard.

General Question: Where do Undead come from?

In the course of the previous discussion, I presented a list of the stages of the process by which Death occurs. That list glossed very lightly over the question that I have just placed squarely under the spotlight.

There isn’t a great deal of information in most rulebooks devoted to the question. A snippet here and there – a little under the descriptions of various forms of undead, some information in published game modules (much of it relating to editions other than whichever one you are currently playing), perhaps a little under Flesh Golems, and no doubt some within appropriate character classes.

Librus Mortus (WOTC) actually does a great job of discussing aspects of the situation, while Undead (AEG) covers the question in much less depth but touches on aspects of the question that Librus Mortus doesn’t. (Amazon has affordable, even cheap, copies of both through the links offered).

In the absence of official canon, there’s a lot of room to grow your own answers, and these can have profound effects on a campaign. This is demonstrated by a synopsis of the concepts behind another of my campaigns, The Tree Of Life.

When DnDNext was in its playtesting phase, I reasoned that most playtesting would focus on one-off adventures to test the fundamentals; I deliberately created a campaign for my playtesting to test the cumulative impact of the rules over many game sessions and adventures. The core concept was that heaven was full, and the only way for someone to enter it was to “bump” someone else, who reappeared in the campaign setting “wearing” whatever was left of their body, restored to life, in the condition they were in when they met their demise. Of course, most had died for good reason – throats cut or whatever – and immediately died again. Others, who had led a less virtuous life, returned as ‘spontaneous undead.’

The more recently you had died, the closer to the ‘edge’ of the afterlife you were, and the more likely to be ‘pushed out’. The more virtuously you had led your life, the greater the momentum with which you reached the afterlife, propelling you closer to the center.

Loved ones and deceased family members were reviving. Widows suddenly had two husbands eying each other. Criminals found their dead victims returning to testify against them. Executed criminals were back to their old tricks. Murder cases collapsed because the victim stood up and walked away. Several past rulers showed up to argue over who was the rightful King, leading to civil war.

But it wasn’t just people. You couldn’t consume a meal without the risk that it would revive in an hour or two, vanishing straight out of your stomach. Fruit trees could be picked clean only for the fruit to reappear. Trees could not be felled. Furniture and walls and structural timbers were vanishing from buildings and reappearing as the trees that they used to be. Dangerous animals that had been cleared from ‘civilized’ areas began to reappear. Starvation and social unrest was rife, and the more people died (from whatever cause), the worse the problems became. Howling mobs, terrified beyond rational thought, roamed the streets and burned indiscriminately. Many felt that the situation entitled them to kill for the slightest offense against their person, because the death was only temporary.

On top of all that, Devils and Demons were running amok, and the Gods had stopped responding to any Prayer above 3rd level (because, of course, that was as far as the spell-book of the playtest went, at least at first, but that won’t wash as an in-game explanation)!

The campaign came to an end with the close of playtesting, with the PCs – all formerly deceased individuals from different historical and social periods, now transformed into unexpected contemporaries – only just getting to grips with what was happening and never discovering the cause.

That cause: population growth had outstripped the growth capacity of Heaven. This in turn had jammed the metaphysical “machinery” that performed the process of death, which froze the ‘living’ embodiments of those metaphysical functions, the Gods. Only those gifts that were bestowed automatically without Divine Approval worked. And the reason for the original problem: the chief villain of the campaign, a Necromancer, had been ‘inspired’ by a top-level Devil (I hadn’t yet decided which) to create a way to siphon off the growth of Heaven for his own purposes, not realizing that he was being tricked into (literally) breaking loose all of Hell, and paving the way for that Devil Lord to assume primacy over the others. Once undisputed Lord of the Nine Hells, he would release the Siphon, and things would more-or-less return to normal, just as they did after a riot, or after a flood.

There was more to it of course, but those are the relevant details.

As you can see, in an undead-centric campaign, the question of where Undead come from is of critical importance.

Other Solutions

There are lots of alternative answers that can be – and in some cases, have been – formulated. Perhaps the process of creating an undead is similar to splitting the atom – some of the energy is liberated for the creator’s use. Perhaps the soul leaves a “mould” that can be filled with an intercepted soul – that won’t quite fit, causing the ‘imperfections’ in the resulting undead, and (again) making the excess available for use by a Necromancer. Perhaps Undead are merely a vehicle for a sentient plague. Perhaps Necromancers and Higher Undead can harvest part of the “soul energy” of undead that they have created for their own purposes – a harvest that, like blood in the living, will naturally regrow.

If you find yourself in Jesse’s situation, and haven’t addressed this issue, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. While it’s still possible to devise an entirely satisfactory end-of-campaign plotline that gathers all the threads of the campaign together and ties them in a nice bow – as I demonstrated in the first part of this response – it will (usually) be a lot more work than it needs to be.

Which, in the concluding part of this three-part article, will be the focus of attention – how to take a bunch of disconnected plot threads that have already been played and merge them into a mighty rope.

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Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 1

There is something about “undead” that tantalize GMs and players. Maybe it’s because their very existence in a game world hints at fundamental questions about what life is. Every GM will, sooner or later, run an undead-dominant campaign or adventure arc.

So it’s kind of a pain that so many of them suck in so many games. Most are weak, easily splattered by Clerics and Paladins, and they never seem to live up to the promise hinted at.

Today’s question in Ask The GMs focuses on Undead at the immediate and superficial level, but the deeper and more general question is how to take a campaign that’s been running for a while without a plan and gather the threads together to tie the whole thing together into a dramatic and spectacular campaign wrap.

I’m tackling this question without the assistance of my usual coterie. There’s a lot to get through, so let’s get started.

Ask the gamemasters

Jesse Joseph wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

There was an obvious immediacy to Jesse’s need for advice, so I dropped a reply by email as soon as I received his question. As I explained last time, I no longer have access to the email exchange itself, so I can’t say definitively, but I have a vague recollection of a reply saying that it was exactly what he needed – which may be my memory making a narcissistic distortion of the reality. Certainly, I didn’t receive a response asking for clarification, expansion, or steering the question in a different direction – if I had, that would have been preserved, with response, for use in writing this article (I have one of those cases coming up).

So I have to assume that even if the advice offered didn’t satisfy Jesse’s immediate needs, it at least sparked the necessary thought process for him to fill in the blank space on his own.

Here’s the agenda for this article:

  1. The Immediate Answer
  2. General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far
  3. General Question: The Implications of Undead
  4. General Question: Where do Undead come from?
  5. The Generalized Question: Tying dangling threads together
  6. Further Reading

There’s no way that I can get all that done in a single response. In fact, It’s going to take three – items 1 & 2, items 3 & 4, and items 4 & 5 in each respective post.

The Immediate Answer

This is the reply that I sent to Jesse:

We have a bit of a backlog built up on Ask-The-GMs at the moment due to other projects taking more time than expected, so it might be some time before a full answer makes its way onto the site. In the meantime, here are some preliminary thoughts:

  1. There’s a big difference between an end-of-plot-arc villain and an end-of-campaign villain. If you want the first, take an NPC who the characters already know and trust and have him be the big bad villain – possibly for the noblest of motives.
  2. But I get the impression you’re talking about the uber-villain about whom the whole campaign has been revolving all this time (but no-one’s figured that out until now). Once this bad guy is taken down, it changes the campaign setting so much that it ends the current campaign; anything that follows is a sequel campaign (even if it has the same characters).

I would start by inverting tropes. You’ve been hitting them with undead, especially vampires, who feed on life; invert that to create a character who secretly lives on death. Every time one of his undead minions kills someone, he consumes the part of the spirit that normally ascends into an afterlife, leaving only the pseudo-undead shells running around and causing more mayhem. Why pseudo-undead? Because they don’t necessarily suffer the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of real undead (though they may have thought that they did and have been behaving accordingly – until now).

What’s more, every time a cleric turns such undead or they are destroyed by positive energy, the undead are essentially being pumped full of artificial life and then killed – which also feeds the power of Mr Nasty Britches.

What’s his master plan? Well, the more death the better, at least in his book – so he’d be trying to set up perpetual warfare between nations, blood feuds, and the like. He’d be trying to unleash terrible plagues – and note that his undead would be immune to those. Oh, and when he’s soaked up enough power, he might try and kill the God(dess) of Life.

How would this plan manifest? Treat everything that’s happened in the campaign so far as skirmishes and the positioning of forces in key positions, and perhaps the occasional piece of misdirection. The *real* campaign starts *now*.

The PCs arrive at a major city, to find it being ravaged by a plague that’s come out of nowhere. They have to make hard choices, condemning innocent people to death, sealing off those parts of the city that are affected and waiting for everyone in there to die – mothers, children. They notice people trying to smuggle valuables and people out of the affected regions, and go to confront them. To their surprise, they are vampires – even though it’s the middle of the day.

That sets the tone, and gives the PCs the clue that can eventually lead them to the real enemy. Until they get there, just keep doing what you’ve been doing – but set things in the daylight instead of at night, and keep plagues of various types floating around. Perhaps throwing in a famine or plague of locusts around now would also get the PCs attention. And have lots of Temples to the God(dess) of Life getting smashed up when no-one’s looking.

Eventually they will ask the right question of the right person and discover the identity of the Death Eater or Soul Eater, or whatever you decide to call it. Set it’s lair under the plague-ravaged city where all this kicked off – will the PCs brave the plague, knowing that one or more of them will probably die from it, to end this menace?

That’s what I would do. What you choose to do might be something entirely different. I hope this helps.

While this is all sound advice, it won’t fit everyone’s needs. So the bulk of this article looks at the general issues raised by Jesse’s question, in two major categories: Undead-in-depth, and Plotting A Big Finish at the 11th hour.

We’ll start with Undead…

General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far

Low-level undead simply aren’t all that scary, even to low-level PCs. If you want undead that the players will respect or even fear, forget the zombies and ghouls, you need to wheel out magic-item equipped Mummies or Vampires and Liches. In fact, there’s a huge “undead gap” between these undead royalty and the run-of-the-mill undead.

There are three solutions to this problem, and none is complete in and of itself. The first is to make Turning that little bit less effective, the second is to make low-level Undead that little bit more dangerous, and the third is to make them that little bit scarier to oppose. Put those three together and you give low-level undead a whole new respectability.

Weakening Turning

This is a little tricky because higher forms of undead are already dangerous enough; whatever changes we make need to leave them untouched. That means altering the low-level undead, in my view, rather than anything more fundamental in terms of the rules. The simplest answer is to have them impart a penalty to Turn Attempts made while they are within the radius of effect. That also gives us grounds for differentiating between different types of undead based on their “gregariousness”. The other aspect of turning that we might tinker with is whether or not “destroyed” is a permanent outcome or just a temporary reprieve; but, if we do that, we also need to specify a means by which the destruction can be made more permanent.

Let’s look at 6 broad types of undead, and how these additional abilities can be used to differentiate between them. I’ll be using D&D 3.x because that’s the system that I know best.

  • Zombies
  • Skeletons
  • Ghouls & Ghasts
  • Wights
  • Vampire Spawn
  • Zombies

    Zombies come in all sorts of varieties.

  • Zombie, Kobold at CR 1/4
  • Zombie, Human commoner at CR 1/2
  • Zombie, Troglodyte at CR 1
  • Zombie, Bugbear at CR 2
  • Zombie, Ogre at CR 3
  • Zombie, Minotaur at CR 4
  • Zombie, Wyvern at CR 4
  • Zombie, Umber Hulk at CR 5
  • Zombie, Gray Render at CR 6

That’s because Zombie is a template that can be applied to almost any other kind of creature in the rulebook. These are just examples; if you want a Zombie Red Dragon, there’s no reason you can’t have it. Zombie celestials might turn heads, however!

But there is a fundamental divide that starts with Zombie Minotaurs in that list, and it stems from the habits of the creatures when they were living. Kobolds, Humans, Troglodytes, Bugbears, and Ogres are all typically encountered in groups, often large groups. Minotaurs are either solitary, paired, or in gangs of three or four; and similar patterns hold true for everything that follows them on the list of examples.

That means that it would be fine to introduce another fundamental divide beyond the examples on the list: Any creature of CR 7 or more to whom the Zombie template is applied retains it’s base intelligence. Zombie Slaad or Zombie Frost Giants immediately become far nastier propositions, bridging the gap between “Noble Undead” and “Ignoble Undead” with sheer power.

It also means that we can introduce our “Turn Resistance” effect and restrict it to Zombies of CR 1 or less, which you would normally expect to encounter in groups.

What we want is a progression that slows down with increasing numbers so that it is naturally self-limiting. Only Zombies within a cleric’s “turn radius” are counted. A bonus with straight numbers quickly becomes too large, or is too insignificant at smaller numbers. We want to make a Zombie Horde something that’s scary.

For my money, the Fibonacci sequence starting with 2,4 seems about right. A Fibonacci sequence is a string of numbers in which each entry is the sum of the two numbers that preceded it in the list. I like this pattern because it grows at a slower pace than a geometric expansion, which is the usual way these things are handled (doubling each time, for example), and because Fibonacci numbers are actually found in biological patterns all the time.


Creature Count: 2 4 6 10 16 26 42 68 110 178 288
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

I seriously doubt that you would ever encounter more than 288 zombies at a time! But if you need to, it’s a simply matter of addition to extend this table as necessary.

So, what happens: The cleric rolls his turning attempt as usual; the GM counts the number of Zombies within range of the turning attempt and consults the table above, the subtracts the modifier from the number actually rolled by the cleric before working out what happens. That means that Zombie Hordes become harder to Turn or harm by Turning as they increase in size.

The other part of this story is the “automatically destroyed” result. This happens (if the cleric so desires) when his class levels are two or more times the number of Hit Dice that the zombies have, and enables the cleric to destroy any that he would normally Turn. Since our modifier reduces that number, it also reduces the impact of the “automatically destroyed” result.

If you want to further reduce this effect, restrict the “class levels” to “class levels that add to clerical Caster Level”. In practice, that will probably have minimal effect, but even a small effect is enough. But I don’t recommend this.

Another thing that GMs need to understand is the relationship between CR and a fair fight, when it comes to Undead.

Doubling the number of creatures doesn’t double the effective CR of the group; it adds +2 to it. That means that to add +1, you multiply by the square root of 2, or 1.414. This breaks down with creatures of CR less than 1, becoming one rightward step on the list of CRs – from 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2 and then to 1.

Zombie Kobolds have a CR of 1/4. So:

  • 1 Zombie Kobold has a CR of 1/4.
  • 1.4 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1/3. But there’s no such thing as 1.4 zombies; it’s just a mathematical abstraction.
  • 2 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1/2.
  • 2.8 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1. I would round this to 3, and consider the result valid, because…
  • 4 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 2.

From that point, the normal progression can be applied. To get a collective CR of, say, 7, count the number of +2s from 2 to 7 (three)l that’s the number of doublings. If there’s a number left over, apply the x1.414 to the result. So: we start with 4, double it to 8, double it again to 16, double it a third time to 32, then multiply that by 1.414 to get 45.25 – call it 45.

The other half of this equation is the level of the PCs. With most creatures, you can use the same principles to work out an effective CR for the party based on their character levels, permitting the calculation of a “collective CR” that defines a fair fight. This principle breaks down when we’re talking about Undead and Clerics, because Clerics have an additional “damage/destruction mechanism” (Turning) that can be applied. You can view this ability as either permitting Clerics to punch “above their weight,” i.e. having a greater “effective CR” than class levels alone would indicate, or you can view ordinary PCs as punching “below their weight” when it comes to Undead, with only Clerics at full effectiveness.

Either interpretation requires some sort of conversion to the party’s “effective Collective CR”. In theory, this sort of thing is handled by adjusting the CR of the creatures, but this doesn’t happen with zombies, whose CR is unchanged from that of the base creatures on which the undead is based, and it doesn’t happen with Undead in general because party composition has a disproportionate effect.

You might assume that the “advantages” of being a Zombie equal the “disadvantages”, including the vulnerability to Turning, but that doesn’t scale with increasing numbers, it’s still individual to each Zombie and each Cleric. So that counter-argument doesn’t fly.

Time to grasp the nettle, then: are 3 Zombie Kobolds a fair fight for a first-level fighter? If yes, then clerics punch above their weight and are effectively a higher number of “class levels” with respect to undead than the straight numerical value listed; if not, if they are too much for a fair fight, the every non-cleric class should count for less where Undead are concerned (of course, this ignores the elephant in the room – the painful possibility that the truth is somewhere in between these two interpretations).

Zombie Kobolds have an attack bonus of +1; most PCs will have an AC of about 17 (+2 stat and +5 armor) – either contribution to AC could be greater or less, I’m looking for a typical fighter average. So Kobold Zombies will hit on a roll of 16 or better, which is to say, about 25% of the time. The average damage by a Zombie Kobold using a spear is 1d6-1, or an average of 2.5, boosted by the critical of x3 on a result of natural 20. So, 4/5ths of the time when they hit, they will average 2.5 points of damage; 1/5th of the time, they will do 7.5 points. If they use Slam, they forgo the critical and average 1.5 points of damage; if they use a ranged crossbow, they are at an additional +1 to hit (succeed 30% of the time), do an average of 3.5 except on a critical, which happens on a 19 or 20 (so 2/6ths of the time that they hit), and does 7 points on average. Assuming that Zombie Kobolds only get one shot with a crossbow before needing to switch to spear, we have:

30% x [(2/6 x 7) + (4/6 x 3.50]
= 30% x [2 1/3 + 2 1/3]
= 1.4 points per Zombie Kobold, combat round 1;


25% x [(1/5 x 7.5) + (4/5 x 2.5)]
= 25% x [1.5 + 2] = 0.875 points per zombie Kobold on subsequent rounds.

The typical 1st level PC fighter will have d10+2 HP (or better); call it 7.5.

Three Kobold Zombies do an average of 3 x 1.4 = 4.2 HP while the fighter closes to melee range. That leaves 3.3 hit points to inflict. At 3 x 0.875 (=2.625) points of damage in a round, that will take 1.257 additional combat rounds. Since .257 is less than 1/3, the likelihood is that it will be on the second Kobold Zombie’s roll in the third round of combat.

Now, the other side of the equation: how long would it take the typical fighter to dispatch three Kobold Zombies? This is rather trickier, because there’s such a variety of weapons available, and because the Kobold Zombies have damage reduction of 5/slashing. We can assume that the typical fighter has his STR as his highest or equal-highest stat, and an additional +1 bonus can have a huge impact. But a few more assumptions (“broadswords are typical” for example) enable a similar calculation.

Under the scenario presented, round 1 damage = 0.
Subsequent combat rounds, the fighter does 6.5 damage on a hit, unless he scores a critical. The Average Kobold Zombie has AC 13 and 16 hit points. Even if the fighter hits every round, something that seems unlikely, it will take 2.46 rounds of combat to kill one zombie. In fact, he will only hit 50% of the time – and has a 10% chance of a critical, doing 13 damage. Taking those factors into account, we get 4.47 combat rounds per zombie. And that still ignores the damage reduction. Adding that to the equation takes the total to 7.44 rounds – for each Zombie Kobold.

In no way is a 1st level fighter equipped with a broadsword a match for one Zombie Kobold, never mind three.

But wait – what if he has a mace – the typical weapon of a cleric? His average damage, to-hit, and critical chance are unchanged, but he then gets to ignore the damage reduction, and that makes a big difference. 4.48 rounds per Zombie Kobold. Which is still way more than the 1.257 melee rounds that the Kobold Zombies would take to dispatch him. But, if you do the math on ONE Kobold Zombie, it’s a lot better than the 13.26 rounds that it would take a lone Kobold Zombie to defeat him.

You can play around with the numbers all you want, but the summary is that 1 Kobold Zombie is no match for a typical 1st level fighter, regardless of his equipment, and a typical 1st level fighter is no match for three Kobold Zombies. Logically, two to one is the closest to parity. Which means that the fighter is punching below his weight – effectively, he’s 2/3 of the character he normally is.

That means that everyone except the cleric should be assessed as having only 2/3 of their character levels when determining what a fair fight is for a party. But that’s a complication that GM’s don’t really need.

Now contemplate the impact of the change that I’ve proposed, which reduces the effectiveness of the “extra weapon” that a cleric has, especially against a group of Zombie enemies. As a rule of thumb, is it not reasonable to suggest that it brings the cleric into line with the other PCs – effectiveness of about 2/3 of his character levels? At the very least, it moves him closer to that value.

And that means that instead of being XP-fodder, a “fair fight” of low-level undead is actually a very difficult fight. A party of four first-level PCs against 12 Kobold Zombies? I know who I’d be backing.

Now, it’s only fair to point out that as characters gain in character levels, many of the variables that have such a big cumulative effect in determining the parity change. Even a party of 3rd level characters would have a fair chance in a “fair fight” with Zombie Kobolds. Attack chances go up, hit points go up, hit point bonuses stack, and so on. The change proposed makes zombie groups scarier, but is not overbalancing except against low-level PCs.


Skeletons are just like Zombies – a template that is applied to a base creature. That template shows that Skeletons are supposed to be more effective combatants than Zombies, but a Skeleton Horde doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I would reduce the impact of the Turning Penalty:

Creature Count: 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

…and give them some other advantage to compensate. I rather like the notion of a Skeleton being able to reassemble itself from the bones of other dead creatures, for example – a limited form of regeneration, one that takes them out of battle for a round.

Ghouls & Ghasts

These are typically encountered in smaller groups than either skeletons or zombies. By making the initial values smaller, the Turning Penalty mounts more quickly:

Creature Count: 1 3 4 7 11 18 29 47 76 123 199
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

But even this probably isn’t enough on it’s own to make these scary. What’s more, this is NOT a template; if you want a Hill Giant Ghoul, you will have to build it yourself completely from scratch.


Wights are not usually encountered in numbers. I would further lower the numbers needed for a Turning penalty and skip every 2nd result:

Creature Count: 1 2 3 5 8 13
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

…which makes them VERY hard to Turn. But I would go further, and state that, even though they don’t use weapons or armor, each has such (if they were a combat-character) or has been buried with some treasured item (if not). Unless that item (or those items) are found and destroyed, even a “destroyed” Wight will reform in it’s tomb in d4 days. What’s more, Wights are able to track such items and those who have taken possession of them, and will hunt down the thieves and recover their property. Selling the item merely adds another victim to the list, it does not relieve the initial ‘thief’ of the danger.

The next thing that is required to make these far more terrifying is to give them some means of being able to bridge that Nd4 days head-start that the party have – N being the number of times that the party have ‘defeated’ the Wight. They have a movement rate of 30 feet, which is much the same as that of the PCs. But, if we presume that they never need to rest, and can ignore terrain-based movement reductions in overland movement, then every night that passes they will regain at least 1/3 of a day of lost time, possibly more. Inevitably, eventually, the Wight will catch up, again and again.

Next, wights stick together. A wight in pursuit of a ‘thief’ will be joined by any other wight he encounters en route. One will become two; two, three; three, five; and so on. (This is another Fibonacci sequence, one that starts 1, 2).

What makes this particularly bad for PCs is that any of the loot they have carried off from the Wight’s tomb or surrounding area might be the Treasured Item. Such items can be detected once the Wight is in pursuit as Cursed, and the Curse can then be lifted once the Wight has again been destroyed. The rest of the time, Detect Curse and Remove Curse are ineffective.

Of course, there’s a problem: there is no such spell as “Detect Curse”. The DMG states that Cursed Items may be detected with Identify (1% chance per caster level) or Analyze Dweomer – but these aren’t trivial spells. Identify is only 1st level, but has only a small chance of identifying the item, per casting. If your chance is, say, 10% (caster level 10), would anyone care to hazard a guess at the number of times it would need to be cast to be reasonably sure of success?

My math says 110 castings gets you to 99.999% certainty.
88 castings will get you to 99.99% certainty.
66 castings gets you to 99.9% certainty.
44 castings gets you to 99% certainty.
22 castings gets you to 90% certainty.
11 castings gets you to better than 66% certainty.
7 castings gets you a better than 50-50 chance.

Things improve markedly at higher caster levels. It only takes 52 castings to get to 99.999%. 42 castings is 99.99% certain. 31 castings is 99.9% certain. 21 castings is 99% certain. 11 castings is better than 90% certain.

At Caster Level 25: 41 castings to 99.999%, 33 castings to 99.99%, 25 to 99.9%, 17 to 99%, 9 to 90%, and three castings gives you a better than 50-50 chance.

You see, each time you cast the spell, the gain in confidence is reduced. At Caster Level 10, you have a 10% chance of success – but, if you fail (which you will, 90% of the time), you then have 10% chance again. So, with two castings, your total chance of success is the initial ten, plus 90% of the initial ten for the second casting – because you wouldn’t cast the spell a second time if you had already succeeded. 10%, 19%, 27.1%, 34.39%, and so on.

It makes more sense if you work out the chances of failure. The first time, you have 90% chance of failing. The second, you have 90% of 90% of failing with both rolls. The third time, 90% of 90% of 90% with all three rolls, and so on.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the attacks stop.

Vampire Spawn

One reason Vampires like to have Vampire Spawn around is so that when a Cleric attempts a Turning, they can take the hit instead of him. If Vampire Spawn are treated like Ghouls and Ghasts and confer the resulting bonus on the Spawning Vampire,

In fact, the same logic holds for all higher undead – it gives them a reason to keep lots of low-level undead around.

Making Undead more Dangerous

What if contact with undead transmitted some sort of taint to the soul – and, if that taint exceeds the character’s capacity for it, if and when they die, they become undead of the type that caused the taint? Answer: nice in theory, too much work to track in practice.

Obviously, this would not have applied to “noble undead”, all of whom have very specific pathways to creation, in-game. But something keeps making more Skeletons, Ghouls, Zombies, and so on. Can you really lay all the blame at a few higher undead and the occasional malicious Cleric of a dark deity?

Most systems make the assumption that if you are killed by an Undead, you become that sort of Undead. But in a world with even moderately competent adventurers running around, that isn’t enough to explain their numbers.

To do that, we need to examine and counter other assumptions.

Let’s start with an obvious one:

Hallowed Ground

There is a theory going around amongst most adventurers that if you lay a potential Undead to rest in Hallowed Ground, it will not rise again, that the ‘sanctity’ of the grounds will thwart the evil.

What if the opposite was true? What if the presence of an undead Defiled a cemetery, leading those who are subsequently laid to rest there vulnerable to become more Undead of the type “in residence”.

If we were to couple this with the “Tainted Soul” concept, we would go quite a long way towards explaining the prevalence of Undead in appropriate locations.

It would not be 100% effective; there would need to be some further part to the story. Perhaps it only works with Evil characters. Perhaps there is a time limit – and, if the body is sufficiently protected by coffins and crypts that the ‘seeding undead’ can’t reach them within that span of time, it doesn’t happen. Say, one day plus one day for each hit dice of the undead? That would give Zombie Kobolds 3 days and nights, an iconic sort of number.

Skeletons and Wights might get additional span of time if the prospective victim died violently – that’s important, because they are generally lower in HD than Zombies, but are equally if not more prevalent.

Perhaps there’s a limit to the number who can be converted at a time, again based on the number of hit dice the creature has – and only the seeding Undead can spawn more. But kill it, and any surviving Undead become a new generation of “Patriarch / Matriarch Undead”. Or perhaps Undead breed at the rate of Death, assuming they can fulfill the other conditions described.

Lots of options there.

Withering The Soul

Lots of undead are described in fiction and legend as having an impact on the living, should they turn hostile. This effect, if it exists, would be minor in comparison to the abilities some Undead already gain in this line, but they should have something.

Perhaps the Turning Penalty is also the modifier to a PC’s Will Save that they have to make in order to attack – or simply not to recoil from the touch of – Undead? You could even scale and customize the impact of this effect by the type of undead. Zombies cause violent nausea, preventing the character from attacking. Skeletons cause the victim of a failed check to recoil, reducing the character’s AC for a round. Ghouls and Ghasts might do 1d6 temporary hit point damage on a failed check – damage that is instantly healed at the end of the round, but that might make the difference in a close fight. Wights could force the character who fails his save to relive the Wight’s original demise. first-person i.e. as though it were them, potentially inflicting psychological harm on the character. The touch of Vampire spawn might sap the will and make the character aware of his own mortality, tempting the weak-willed to join their band and live forever.

As the Zombie Kobolds example showed, you don’t need much. The highest Turning Penalty I’ve listed is 10, and that requires an extraordinary number of Undead. Most of the time, the target would be far lower – maybe three or four. Most PCs will make their check easily – unless they roll a 1.

Taint, again

Just because it’s too much work to track in the case of PCs doesn’t mean that the concept needs to be thrown away altogether. It might only be effective if the subject has fewer hit dice than the undead. That means that a commoner touched by an undead has a fair chance of becoming another undead when they die – possibly too high a chance.

Making Undead Scarier

Fear is a dangerous thing for a GM to play with, because it potentially means a player losing control of his PC while it is in effect. What we need to do is make the Undead scarier to the Player commensurate with the fear that we want them to induce in his character.

The easiest way is to make undead more dangerous in numbers. Not much, just a little – maybe 1/2 or 1/3 of the Turning Penalty – as an attack bonus or an AC bonus when they are present in numbers.

If that seems excessive, it might only apply to as many undead as the Turning Penalty. Confront 20 Human Zombies – a Turning Penalty of 4 – and four of them each turn get +1 or +2 to hit, just from the size of the group. In fact, if this limitation on the effect is in place, I would be tempted to make the amount 1 to 1 for the Turning Penalty.

This simulates being swarmed under, and makes a group of Undead that little bit scarier – which is what we want.

Other techniques that I’ve seen – because I’m not the first person to muse upon this need – is for Undead to radiate an anti-life field that sucks away one HD in all attackers for every 2 HD of Undead within melee range. A fifth-level character up against three 2HD zombies finds themselves with – effectively – only 2 HD. That gets scary in a hurry.

But it’s also a lot of work if you have to recalculate attack numbers and so on. So let’s simplify it and simply subtract that many average dice in hit points, plus CON bonuses.

The Net Effect

The combination of these three changes to undead don’t overly change the danger represented by one Undead. But they greatly ramp up the danger posed by a group, and give higher undead reasons to maintain a group of “follower undead” that insulate them from an easy defeat.

And with that, I’m completely out of time. Next time: Making low-level undead more dangerous, and making them scarier. Don’t worry, I’m building to something…

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