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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 5: Characters

Frame by  Billy Alexander, Dice Image by  Armin Mechanist, Numeral & Compositing by Mike Bourke

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the middle part of the current block of three articles, spaced fortnightly.

Characters are the single most important thing that a GM can create. Properly-created characters create their own stories through interaction with the environment and the PCs; and, furthermore, since we are all (at least in part) products of our environment, reflections of it, characters also embody that environment. Without characters, it’s all just a pretty still picture in the players’ heads. It’s characters that bring it to life.

If you have the characters, then, you don’t really need anything else.

But where do the characters come from? Ah, that’s the rub.

There are five main sources that I can think of, in general terms:

  • Plot
  • Personality
  • Environment
  • Antagonist
  • Concept


The most common origin of a character idea is plot – we need someone to do something, be something, tell the PCs something. From this central purpose, we determine those elements of the character that are logically derivative of that purpose – why the character would choose to do this, or how they become that something, or how they know what we want them to pass on to the PCs, and then those elements that derive from those, and so on.

The results are inevitably less than the whole character. So we then have to figure out what to add in order to complete them. The main goal is to ensure that what we add to achieve this does not inexplicably and inextricably contradict anything that we have already established; it’s fine for characters to be conflicted, and to make choices – even to make mistakes.

The elegant approach is to find the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character – that, through its logical consequences and derivatives,
fills in all the holes. The humanistic approach is to start with the earliest piece that we know, and add something to match it – then track that forward. The narrative approach is to find some particular “story” for the character’s history to tell, one that adds context and realism to what has already been decided.

The real truth is this: you can spend so much time and effort on trying to find that elusive “perfect truth” that you can never be completely satisfied in any reasonable time-frame.

When writing a novel, that’s fine; we can rewrite and tinker with characters endlessly until we actually get them close to our vision of “perfection” for their role. When creating for an RPG, there are practical time limits. So we substitute instinct and creativity for planning and go with the best answer that comes to mind – and then move on, to the next whatever-it-is that we have to create.

Both of these approaches are extremes, and they both operate by first denying the existence, and potential value, of a compromise that lands somewhere in the middle. But there is a better way, and it’s not all that difficult. But that’s getting ahead of myself.


Sometimes, the pieces that are missing from a plot-driven creation are all that we do have to go on. That usually means that we have a personality, and that how the character acts within any given story will be a derivation of that personality and how their history and experience leads them to perceive the situation that they are in.

In other words, we come up with a personality, develop a reasonable backstory for how the character came to have that personality, and then drop them into a situation because we expect the reaction to be “interesting” in terms of interaction with the PCs.

Once again, this only gives us part of the story. And, in fact, we have essentially the same set of options available for filling in the missing pieces, plus one more: the mechanical approach is to determine what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in, then determine what capabilities they require in order to attempt or achieve those actions.


We need an environment that is shared by the characters in order to ensure consistency. But sometimes, certain characters are a logical outgrowth of an environment. The difficulty is in determining how far to stray from the stereotype that springs to mind, and how the individual will differ from that stereotype.

It’s very easy to say that we want the character to be different from the stereotype in every way, but not all that practical. Stereotypes are associated with particular settings and situations for a reason; there is always a grain of truth, a commonality between them, at the heart of a stereotype, and denying that singular reality produces a character that is so implausibly removed from their reality that they simply don’t seem real. Instead, we need to embrace and transform that commonality and all that it entails – and only apply the kaleidescope of possibility to everything else.

Guess what that adds up to? Incomplete characters – again.


In some ways, an antagonist seems like the easiest character of them all to construct. We already know that they have to oppose the PCs, and that they have to be able to resist the obvious reactions of the PCs to such opposition, so that the two factions can have an interesting “dance”. That usually means pinpointing a point of vulnerability on the part of the PCs and then constructing a character to take advantage of that weak point.

This is akin to using the PCs as a “negative mold” from which the shape of the Antagonist is formed – and, as such an engineering-related description implies, this is ultimately a mechanical technique, all about what the Antagonist can do. Much – but not all – of the rest of the character should derive logically from that foundation – but that’s not enough.

Once again, the character is incomplete – but if any character needs greater depth and more singular effort, it’s an antagonist, simply because they will be subjected to far greater scrutiny than Joe The Barber or Damien the Waiter or Helen, the Astrophysicist, for that matter.

And, once again, the same solutions are available – and inadequate.


The final source of characters is the high concept, where we have some idea that just sounds cool, or interesting. An elf who has lived 10,000 years and still worships the “old gods”. An AI that has been “corrupted” in the human sense of the term, not the computer sense. A character whose entire body has been replaced with nanotechnology and who can consciously direct them to alter that body as he sees fit (I have a villain who will eventually appear in the Zenith-3 campaign who meets that description).

These are all “concept” characters, and they all have obvious holes. Answering the “why” and “how” will usually fill in some of those holes, but rarely all.

Take that Elf, for example: how did he live this long (he might not know himself)? Did anything happen to him to cause his extreme (in D&D terms) longevity? To what does he attribute his longevity? How has this lifespan altered his viewpoint on a range of contemporary issues? What is his personality? What are his goals? Who or what does he care about? What are his skills and physical attributes? What can he do? Who knows of his age? What are his current circumstances? Who are the people around him? What’s his story? What happened to the “old gods” and why is worship of them notable?

Lots of holes. The logical inferences of his concept may fill some of them completely, satisfy others only partially – and contribute nothing at all to the rest. Much depends on who “the old gods” were, and what that means that you can deduce about someone who worships them.

For the rest, you will need to alloy the concept with something else – and once again you have the same inadequate options.

A better recipe

The primary idea, and logical inferences relating to it, can fill anywhere from 20% to 90% of a character. The better the original concept, the higher that percentage will be. But what about the rest?

Earlier I listed a number of different approaches. As soon as I have filled out as much of the character as I can, based on the source of inspiration and a reasonable internal logic, my next move is to decide which of them is going to be the most useful in producing character elements that will contrast and compliment with whatever I have already determined.

There is no consistency as to which of the approaches is the best one to choose; no universal correlation that I have been able to find. Instead, I use a process that enables me to try each of them quickly and contemplate the combination that results. Quite often I will find something that fills most of the empty spots in my character architecture, but that still leaves a few gaps for another idea. As a result, I end up with a character that is primarily exactly what I need, with most of the remainder made up of something that adds depth to the character, and just a hint of something more divergent:
Character Elements

That’s my recipe: Essentials, something Complimentary, and a Contrasting Highlight. Of course, most characters won’t be this complex – I may have gotten a little carried away in trying to illustrate the principle!

There’s something else that’s important to note about the Contrasting Highlight: it should be complimentary to the Secondary, but can be a complete contrast to the Primary.

What do I mean by “Complimentary” and “Contrasting”?

These have been used in the artistic sense. A compliment adds to something without contradicting what’s already there; a contrast is a contradiction that applies in limited circumstances.

A criminal who visits his elderly mother once a week is a contrast, because it undermines the stereotype. A criminal who steals medicine every week for his elderly mother is complimentary, because it adds to this example of the stereotype. You can have as much “complimentary” material in a character concept or background as you like (so long as your primary needs of the character have been met); contrast, on the other hand, needs to be sparingly applied.

There are articles out there which advise to make everything a contrast (using different terms, perhaps) in order to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, ie flat stereotypes. I’ve even written a few of them myself, many years ago. What the above very brief example shows is that contrasts provide interesting characters – but compliments make even more interesting characters, and ones that don’t require so much effort to rationalize and roleplay.

The Technique

I realize that all this might not mean very much without a substantial example, so I’ll offer one shortly. But first, to that technique that I mentioned:

  1. Complete The Primary
  2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled
  3. Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole
  4. Test each for comprehensiveness
  5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary
  6. Select the secondary from the ideas
  7. Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness
  8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary
  9. Select the tertiary from the ideas
  10. Complete the character

Those steps sound very complicated, but they aren’t, they are very quick in practice. What’s more, once you’ve done one or two characters this way, you won’t even need to write those one-line sentences down; you will be able to formulate a line of description in your mind and assess its value immediately.

Let’s break it down, step by step:

1. Complete The Primary

Every character has a function, described earlier. Creating a character that fits that function leaves gaps that need to be filled, but the nature and size of those gaps depends on the function. The possible game functions are:

  • Plot Need
  • Personality concept
  • Environmental Inevitability/Local
  • Antagonist
  • Concept Fulfillment or Expression
2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled

Thinking about everything you don’t know about the character, what’s the one term that clearly applies to most of the empty slots? Is is background, early history, current circumstances, plotline, personality, abilities?

That may not be the biggest hole. There is a secondary factor to take into consideration, which is the likelihood that you will need that information in order to run the character. You don’t need to know about a character’s childhood, for example, except in terms of what it says about the character now. If the character is not supposed to engage in battle, you don’t need his physical attributes – and if you intend to use a more cinematic style for any such battle, may not need the specifics even if he is to engage in battle.

Take that long-lived Elf, again – either he’s unbelievably fit for his age, or he’s unfit for physical combat due to age – and both are completely plausible. Or another example from the same character: Will he be an enemy, an ally, or enjoy a more complex relationship with the PCs? I can see that going in any of the three directions, and producing very different interpretations of the same basic concept.

The biggest “hole” to be filled is the term that the things you will need to know have in common.

3. Using each of the methods listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole

This is fairly straightforward. I’ve implied written answers, but you won’t need those for very long, if at all; the primary goals of writing the answers are (1) to keep the answer concise; and (2) so that by the time you’ve gotten to idea #5 you haven’t forgotten idea #1.

The methods, just to refresh your recollection, were:

  • The elegant approach, finding the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character.
  • The humanistic approach, adding to the earliest backstory and forward-tracking the consequences.
  • The narrative approach, finding some particular “story” for the character to be living.
  • The mechanical approach, determining what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in and the capabilities they need to have or be acquiring in order to attempt or achieve those actions.

There is also a fifth option which didn’t come up earlier:

  • The personality approach, taking a role model from another source and fitting this character to that expression of character.
4. Test each for comprehensiveness

This barely takes a thought, for me at least; others might struggle with it a little more. How many of the empty “boxes” do you think this idea will allow you to tick? A general sense of “most”, “lots”, “some”, “a few”, or “none” is all you need.

I usually conduct this step and the next simultaneously.

5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary

How well does the idea fit with what you’ve already decided? Is it complimentary, or contrasting – or wishy-washy?

6. Select the secondary from the ideas

Picking the most comprehensive idea from amongst those that are complimentary to what you’ve already decided is very simple after the two assessments – unless you have two distinctly different candidates of equal value. That doesn’t happen often, but does happen occasionally. When it does, you have three choices: Pick one of the two by some arbitrary standard and go with it; Develop the character both ways and then pick between the two options; or try to incorporate both into the character simultaneously. My first instinct is to try the last option; either it will work, or I will reach a point of contradiction somewhere in the character, giving me more information on which to make an informed judgment between the two.

As a general rule of thumb, the idea that spawns the most ideas in your imagination, or that gives you the strongest sense of the character as an individual, is usually the right choice, and the choice that you will end up making.

7, Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness

You might think that you have already done so, but the goalposts have moved – comprehensiveness in this case means “filling all the holes that the combination of primary and secondary choices have left.”

But it still only takes a moment. Once again, I usually implement this step and step 8 simultaneously.

8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary

This is a little trickier. You want something that’s complimentary to the secondary idea that you are going to incorporate, and that contrasts, at least a little, with the primary. You want a choice, in other words, that is both plausible and that makes the character a more rounded individual.

9. Select the tertiary from the ideas

Once the two assessments have been made, it’s time to make your choice. It’s more often that you will get multiple answers of equal probity in this assessment; deciding between them is sometimes a difficult. If the character is plot-based, I will generally choose the option that interferes least with the primary; otherwise, I will go with the one that I think will be most fun for me to play.

10. Complete The Character

Using the selected source material, create a complete description of the character (complete in that it has everything that you think you are going to need) and then use that to construct any game mechanics that are required. Use the shortcuts given below for the latter!

Where do the ideas come from?

It won’t have escaped the attention of most readers that this article has leaned heavily on generalization and general principles. Where are the brass tacks? Where do the ideas come from? Almost at the end of it, those questions have not been answered.

That’s because I have already done so, elsewhere. I direct your attention to the following (partially excerpted from the BlogDex) VERY long list of relevant articles on Character Creation:

Also of value, in this context, may be the following articles:

An example

Time is starting to get away from me, so this might not be quite as comprehensive an example as I originally intended, but we’ll see how I get on. To start with, I don’t have any characters on tap with their workings so this will have to be a new creation. Since I don’t want to tip my/our hand in any of the campaigns I run, this will be for a generic D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy campaign.

Because it was the first thing that came to mind, I am going to use the Concept approach (besides, I don’t have a plot on tap, and so can’t use the ‘plot needs’ approach; don’t have a specific campaign environment to build from, so I can’t use the Environment approach; most of the character examples I’ve given lately have been of the Antagonist variety and think a change of pace would be a good thing, so I don’t want to use the Antagonist approach; and don’t have any PCs to tailor an interaction with, so I can’t really use the Personality approach. This is what’s left.

Step 1: Primary Creation

My idea is this: a Demon Hunter, sort of a Van Helsing character, but who is part Demon himself.

So, the usual questions: Who is he? Why is he a Demon Hunter? How did he become part-Demon, How did he become a Demon-Hunter – and which came first?, How do these two statuses affect him now and how have they affected his past? Where is he from (in general terms)? What is his personality? and What can he do that ordinary people can’t? Oh, and – What does he do to the Demons he hunts when he catches one? What is his relationship with the PCs going to be like?

But the first question that needs to be answered is whether or not this is part of an existing campaign where Demons have been encountered already (tying the creation more inflexibly to what’s in the sourcebooks) or will this be a new campaign or a first demonic encounter, giving me a much freer hand? I’m going to assume the latter, simply because I think what I come up with will be “more fun” that way.

So, logical inferences:
His being a Demon-hunter has something to do with his being a half-demon, I’m guessing. It could go the other way, but that would be merely an act of will to overcome the demonic influence – for now – and that’s an idea that I’ve done before. So he became half-Demon, or was born that way, and somehow that has led him to hunt his own “half-kind”.

Right away, a story presents itself to me: A bored student – clerical or arcane – and his friends have a go at Demon Summoning. It gets out of hand (that sort of thing always does) and they really get a Demon. It’s on the verge of chowing down on our bored students’ soul (whatever that is), when another Demon Hunter crashes through the door into the basement where all this is happening and slices the Demon in two. The dying demon, in turn, tears his prospective victim in half and uses the matching half of the student to bind his wounds long enough to blast the Demon-Hunter and escape. (In an established setting, with demons already defined, that couldn’t be done). With his last breath, the Demon-Hunter replicates the process to save the student’s life – warning that his existence will always be imperiled until he can get the rest of his body back and finish the job on the Demon who has it.

So, that makes him physically a literal half-Demon instead of Genetically so, and more or less forces him to abandon everything that he had and was – a spoiled student from a wealthy background – in favor of a new career as a Demon-Hunter. How about Morally and Emotionally? To keep him still being ‘him’, the character needs to be mostly human in those departments – but with a Demonic influence slowly tainting his existence. Which implies that the other half of the story is mostly Demonic, but with humanity slowly tainting It’s purity.

That puts some impetus into the story, a ticking clock – the character is a time bomb of unknown delay that has already been triggered. A sense of urgency is always a good thing in a ‘driven’ character.

What does he do with the demons he captures? He kills them, or tries to – the Demon can always flee back to its own realm, but perhaps can’t return for a period of time. Or perhaps demons are immortal, but can be exiled into some nightmare plane from which escape is difficult and existence is tortuous. That idea gives the Demons a much stronger motive for fleeing from a hunter, even a dying one – which helps make sense of that “origin story”.

We can surmise something of his capabilities: he has to be effective at finding and attacking Demons – most humans, even very skilled ones, couldn’t do what this character’s progenitor did with one blow. So we have to assume that he has some sort of enhanced senses, and that his combat capabilities are much higher against Demons than they are against anything else.

That, in turn, raises the prospects of a very interesting variation on the standard cosmology: Demons are more effective against their fellow Demons than they are against the Gods or Celestials or Angels or whatever they are called this day of the week; Celestials are also more effective against their own kind than against Demons or Devils; so, in order to confront each other and play out their philosophic differences, both sides need mortals.

About the only other element that we can get from this concept is that the plotline that brings him into the PCs’ circle is going to have something to do with Demons, or at least that the Demon-hunter will suspect that.

So far, that gets us about 60% of the way to a finished character. We know that the character is a combination of two stereotypes: the tainted soul seeking redemption, and the bored rich kid who got in over his head.

Step Two: Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled

Off-hand, I would say that the biggest hole is the character’s relationship with the PCs, which raises a related question of what sort of character we are going to have – a hero, an anti-hero, or a complex character? All we know at the moment is that he isn’t an antagonist, though whatever he’s doing might still put him at cross purposes with the PCs.

Most of the unanswered questions are about the effect that this half-Demonic status has had on the characters’ life. His personality will also hinge on this determination. We have some hints about both of those from the Primary, but don’t as yet have enough information to complete the creation.

Step Three: Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole

Plot: The PCs come into possession of a ring of Demon-Summoning (or what the NPC thinks is one) and the NPC wants it. Alternative idea: The PCs have an encounter with a demon or a demon’s mortal subject, and wants to test them to be sure that they have not been tainted. Third alternative: both.

Personality concept: The character is far darker and more villainous than the idea suggests, and his tale of being a bored rich kid is a fabrication; he was an elderly man terrified of death, and the demon summoning was to bargain for eternal youth. His wish was granted – at a price he didn’t expect – and he subsequently learned that he was now equally-vulnerable to Demonic attacks. He hunts demons as a form of pre-emptive strike, and always tries to sucker others into occupying the front lines in these confrontations. That’s what he has in mind for the PCs – as soon as he wins their trust.

Environmental Inevitability/Local: Coming up empty on this one. That’s the problem with a generic fantasy environment.

Antagonist: You could argue that the Personality idea qualifies, but the “antagonist” has a different definition – it means a character that is specifically designed to have mechanics and abilities that oppose those of the PCs. Since we have no defined PCs, this is a null item. If I were designing this character for the Zenith-3 campaign, I would be focused on the fact that while the different types of meta-energy in that campaign can’t normally coexist, Resistances to them can – so my focus would be on resistance of all forms. If I were designing the character for the Adventurer’s Club, Father O’Malley would be the center of my attention, and I would reinvent the Lych’s phylactery as a way of making the NPC temporarily immune to the good Father’s spiritual retribution. But I’m not.

Concept Fulfillment or Expression: And we’ve already used this as the primary source of ideas.

Step Four: Test each for comprehensiveness

The plot ideas don’t tell us very much more than we already knew. The Personality ideas add a lot to the character, and its all relevant material – and they even tell us something about the plot usage of the character. Personality wins this test, hands-down.

Step Five: Test each for complimentary nature to the primary

The three plot-based ideas are all more antagonistic than is justified by what has definitely been decided so far – and they are all a little obvious and lame, as a result. There’s only one personality concept, but it produced immediate spin-off ideas – and these are all complimentary to the ideas I already had, adding to them. The personality idea again wins the contest.

Step Six: Select the secondary from the ideas

Which makes the decision pretty much automatic. The personality idea is the secondary, and our character takes a darker turn.

Step Seven: Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness

We only have one remaining idea – the plot usage. It doesn’t add much to the character, but it does give us an initial plotline that the character can use for getting close enough to the PCs to tell his (false) sob story, setting them up for the betrayal to come.

Step Eight: Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary

What’s more, while the plot ideas may be contradictory to the primary idea, they are definitely more complimentary and plausible once the secondary “darkening” of the character is taken into account.

Step Nine: Select the tertiary from the ideas

Hobson’s choice, perhaps, but the assembled whole works. So the plot ideas are our tertiary component.

Step Ten: Complete the character

The character description is already more-or-less complete; most of it would be a matter of cutting-and-pasting. So, instead, let’s outline the adventure that has derived from that character description:

  1. The PCs have a demonic encounter and come away from it with a ring.
  2. The Demon-hunter shows up to “test” the PCs. They may or may not cooperate, but he’s not likely to give them a choice. They come up clean, but the ring is demon-tainted, which causes a brief misunderstanding when it corrupts the “test results”.
  3. The Demon-hunter demands the ring. He may try to buy it. He seeks to build trust between himself and the PCs by telling his story. He then warns that the Demon they encountered probably escaped and only appeared to be destroyed, and he intends to make sure of it. He invites the PCs to accompany him on this brief quest and insists that they accept.
  4. The Demon-hunter and PCs track down the Demon (who had simply escaped, because Demons are a lot tougher than the PCs thought), and deal with him once and for all by exiling him to the Plane Of Torment. This gives the NPC the chance to fill the PCs in on more of the background to his existence.
  5. From time to time, the Hunter will turn up when he comes across a nasty demon and ask for the PCs aid. From time to time, they may come across a Demon and find that he is not far away. (Several encounters). Slowly, they begin to form the impression that he hasn’t been completely honest with them.
  6. The PCs come across a half-demon – the half-demon who has the NPCs other half. They contact the NPC who willingly joins forces with them – only to betray them rather than destroy and exile the demon. The true story comes out.

Simple technique, powerful process

This is a simple technique that anyone can use, no matter what your level of GMing expertise. Ideas might come more fluidly, more quickly, to GMs with experience, but anyone who can pose a “what if” can use them. What gives them power is the structured process of filtering the results.

I’ve presented multiple ways of generating ideas in the past. This technique provides a framework for integrating them into a character – and, along the way, I’ve tried to salt the article with hints as to what makes for a good one.

The next part of this series – in a fortnight’s time – will focus on Challenges.

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Ask The GMs: Iceberg Plotlines: Massive Plot Arcs in RPGs

This is the second of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs.

Today’s question is asks about something I’ve described using a number of different terms over the years. My current euphemism is “Iceberg Plots”, because 9/10ths (or more) of the plot doesn’t show in any given adventure.

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from “Onion” of, who I know better as my twitter buddy David Ball (@OngoingWorlds). Ongoing worlds is a hub for play-by-post RPG campaigns of all genres.

“Onion” wrote:
“What do you think of slow-building storylines, ones that develop over time and are always in the background? Do you think they can work successfully in a rpg campaign?”

The short answer to this one has been offered a number of times here at Campaign Mastery (and will be offered again, below), but there are a couple of stings in the tail this time around. First, I have no experience with play-by-post games, so my advice might not translate all that well; since the focus of Campaign Mastery is tabletop RPGs, though, I don’t intend to let that stop me. But the second part of the description throws in a curve ball: “…are always in the background.” And that can cause problems…

Iceberg Plots, a.k.a. Ongoing Subplots

An iceberg plot is an ongoing subplot. It’s not the central focus of an adventure, it’s something that happens in the background, and may or may not involve one of the characters; it could simply be an ongoing evolution of that background, the passage of time affecting NPCs who in turn are relevant to the day-to-day lives of the characters either directly or indirectly.

It’s very useful for verisimilitude that a background not be static, that it evolve over time. I first wrote about that in Lessons From The West Wing: Time Happens In The Background over five years ago.

It also gives the players the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the world is “responsive” – that their actions (and those of NPCs) have consequences that will affect the game world.

But the biggest advantage that they offer is that by breaking the “static background” mindset for the GM, they actually do make the world more responsive to the consequences of PC actions! It’s a much shorter leap from “the world is changing just a little” to “the world is changing just a little because of what you did” – far, far shorter than going from a never-changing static environment to a dynamic one. If the world is changing anyway, all you need to do is pay attention to what the PCs are doing – something that should happen anyway – and include that as one of the factors driving changes.

The difference between an Iceberg Plot and a Dynamic Background Element

An iceberg plot is slightly more than an evolving background element, however. “Plot” implies direction, it implies a story – and stories have structure, a beginning, middle, and an end, at the very least.

You might have a local sheriff whose job is to maintain law, order, and peace in the streets. From time to time, he’s a thorn in the side of the PCs, from time to time he may be an ally, most of the time he’s just part of the furniture and as inexorable as the law of gravity. That makes him a background plot element.

If his attitudes evolve over time, especially in regard to his attitude toward the PCs, and if he slowly gets older and more infirm, and begins training a hand-picked replacement for when the specter of old age finally catches up with him, that makes him a dynamic background element. Instead of being the same every time he gets involved in an adventure, he – and his relationships – evolve in response to events and the passage of time.

If the GM has a plan for the character – if he is to slowly become convinced that the Chancellor Of The Exchequer is plotting against the head of Government, and begins letting that conviction influence the way he does his job, eventually leading to the Sheriff setting up a revolutionary faction for the purpose of ousting the Chancellor before the damage done to the nation is irreparable – then the character is no longer merely a dynamic background element, he is an iceberg plot. The changes from adventure to adventure might be minute, or might be significant, but they have a narrative structure, and the changes are not random – they have a purpose. There might even be times when the Chancellor does something that gives the Sheriff pause to reconsider, seeming to reverse the trend, or even completely doing so as the two come to a new understanding of each other’s postures and positions; that’s fine, too. It’s a story – it just happens to be one happening on the periphery of the players’ awareness, and that doesn’t usually affect them all that significantly.

In fact, from the players’ point of view, there is no difference between a dynamic background element and an iceberg plot; all it means to them is that the character is evolving in the way a person would, under the circumstances. Only from a metagame perspective is there a difference.

It’s All About The Players

At the same time, it must be remembered that the GM’s NPCs are not the stars of the show. That honor is reserved exclusively for the PCs. Iceberg plots only matter if they eventually get the PCs tails caught in the machinery – if the plot becomes significant to the PCs, in other words. There’s that sting in the tail that I mentioned earlier: an iceberg plot cannot “always stay in the background”. Eventually, events have to catch up with the PCs, and become centrally important – until the iceberg plot is resolved, one way or another.

Iceberg Advice: Make It Interesting (but not too interesting!)

There’s not much that’s more boring than trivial gossip about people you don’t know and don’t care about. If the gossip is salacious or juicy, that’s a different story. And if the GM is simply relating news about events that don’t directly affect the PCs, what he’s sharing is, basically, game-world gossip.

That’s a serious problem for iceberg plots, where the whole idea is to keep the plot from attracting too much attention until it’s had time to ripen and mature.

From experience, I can tell you that no more than one in five ideas for iceberg plots can meet both targets, and therefore succeed as plotlines. Probably not more than one in ten such ideas make good iceberg plots. There’s a constant tug-of-war between making it interesting and keeping it submerged.

The best solution is to ensure that the protagonist(s) of the iceberg plot regularly engage with the PCs on a matter completely or almost completely unrelated to the iceberg plot. That frees the GM to carefully plan each step of the iceberg plot using in-game appearances of the NPC as a ticking “clock”.

Iceberg Advice: Keep Up The Momentum

Think about some TV drama that you like. If a background plotline gets mentioned once a year, how much interest will it hold? Twice a year is almost as bad. The iceberg plot has frayed at the end, and snapped.

You don’t have to mention the plot every episode, or every adventure – but you definitely need to keep it as a regular presence, part of the plot “furniture”, and that is best achieved by having one or more of the NPCs involved appear regularly within the campaign.

Nor does there need to be an obvious or significant development in every appearance of one of the iceberg plot’s principle characters, but these need to happen frequently enough that there is a clear evolution taking place over time.

If you’re playing every week, this is easy to manage. A character featured in the iceberg plot can show up because of his “day job” every two, three, or even four weeks – no problem. This both keeps his existence and situation in the back of the players’ minds and keeps his situation from becoming too seemingly significant.

The less often that you play, the harder the tightrope becomes to walk. Playing once a fortnight, a monthly mention generally means roughly every 2nd adventure – that’s fine. Even every adventure can be tolerated, if the involvement is natural – the PCs landlord, for example.

Playing once a month means that every adventure requires an appearance by the character. That very regularity means that his problems become more significant to the PCs, and it is that much harder to keep the iceberg submerged. The best solution that I have found is a second iceberg plot revolving around the same character, so that the plot that you care about becomes just another part of that NPCs ongoing soap opera. Simply by giving you something else for the character to talk about, it deflects attention away from the important plotline.

The Lifespan Of An Iceberg

Tension, like subplots, can only be sustained for so long. There comes a point where the audience – your players in this case – get tired of waiting, when they want you to just get it over with.

If you wait too long to resolve your iceberg plot, it will have no impact, or even negative impact, when you do bring down the curtain. That’s what happened to the TV series “Moonlighting” – to quote TV Tropes, “Moonlighting: This was the whole premise of a romantic Dramedy series starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard as private detectives. The whole show jumped the shark in the fifth season when they finally consummated their relationship; the tension was simply gone and it become yet another sitcom. Lampshaded in the series finale, a great example of the show’s frequent Breaking the Fourth Wall: The two detectives come back to the office to find it being dismantled by people working for ABC; an ABC network executive tells them that viewers had enjoyed watching them fall in love, but after they’d already fallen they lost interest.”

(An additional note adds, “In reality the downfall of Moonlighting had a lot of other causes as well. Mostly it was the result of tons of behind-the-scenes problems that plagued the show for the duration of its run, ranging from script and episode delays to a writer’s strike that struck mid-season to the declining quality of scripts to the (infamously combative) lead actors who simply didn’t want to continue working on the show. Bruce Willis launched his film career with Die Hard between the third and fourth seasons and Cybil Sheppard, reportedly never pleased with the long working hours, wanted more time off to spend time with her growing family.”)

One of the benefits of planning an iceberg plot is that you can avoid this fate. First, you can keep the situation developing, rather than a static situation that seems to edge towards development and then falls back into its established rut; Second, you can ensure that the conclusion to the iceberg plot carries enough unresolved plot developments that the game can survive the conclusion of this long-running element; and third, by successfully keeping the plot almost-submerged to just the right degree while it is developing, you can prevent its conclusion from being too important to the ongoing campaign.

The major problem is knowing when a plotline has gone on for too long, and the campaign would be better served by canceling the resolution and leaving this as an ongoing dynamic campaign background element. As TV tropes notes in their section on Jumping The Shark, the telltale signs are only noticeable in hindsight – and at some remove. It’s altogether too common these days to be a prophet of doom and pronounce any change at all to be an example of “jumping the shark” – read this page (but for the love of heaven don’t click on any of the links or you might not escape for hours – TV Tropes is just that interesting a site…!)

On a Completely unrelated side-note, I was once asked why I thought TV tropes was so fascinating. It’s because it’s all about why people like what they like, and don’t like what they don’t like, and why other people don’t like the same things you do, and how those things have changed over the years. It simultaneously confers community upon those who felt alone in their opinions, reassures that those opinions are valid, argues with you just enough to get you thinking independently, and fills in all the spaces in-between with nostalgia. That’s a very heady brew…

The only consistent way that I have found to measure the “breaking point” of an iceberg plotline is to count the number of opportunities to resolve the plotline in the intended manner that have not been taken by the GM. Generally, you can get away with one or two of these in complete safety, but the third time you fail to bring down the curtain puts you into dangerous territory. On exceptionally rare occasions, you may be able to get away with as many as half-a-dozen aborted resolutions, though I have never seen this actually happen except by counting threats to resolve the plotline that never actually eventuate.

Somewhere in between these limits is the normal breaking point, in which interest in the plotline frays so completely that it no longer matters.

But this neat and simple guideline is contaminated by the fact that even solutions to the problem that don’t occur to the GM still count if they are obvious to the players.

So, that’s the foundation of the secondary solution: listen to what the players say to each other about the plotline when they aren’t in character. The major reasons why this is not the primary test is because player personalities are a factor (some players like to complain/criticize/speculate, others don’t share their opinions during the course of the game, or give the GM too much rope, some may simply dislike the specific iceberg plot, and so on), and because player reactions can only tell you when you’ve persisted for too long after the fact, and sometimes not even then.

The Life Cycle Of An Iceberg

Iceberg plots, like all plots, have a natural life cycle. They start with veiled beginnings, progress through a growing significance until they reach the point of ubiquity as a plot element, and then achieve criticality and “come to a head”. Crucially, there is also a fifth stage that is often neglected, but which can be just as important as the others – “After the titanic”.

1. Veiled Beginnings

In the beginning, the significance of the circumstances is not apparent. The iceberg has not even revealed the general shape of the part above the surface, to extend the metaphor. This might be one or more casual meetings between a PC and the protagonist of the iceberg plot, or a series of coincidences, or rumors, or newspaper accounts (or their cultural equivalent); they don’t even cause a ripple in the main plot of the day and aren’t even as prominent as a piece of “plot furniture” – they are wallpaper.

There should always be one PC who is more connected to the plotline than the others, and who should therefore be the focus of the relationship. In the Zenith-3 campaign, St Barbara is the team leader, so almost all political and administrative relationships have her as their focus; Blackwing is an ex-cop, so any relationships with law-enforcement types usually go through him.

That doesn’t mean that an ongoing subplot can’t connect with another PC; it simply makes it a little more noteworthy when one does, prompting immediate suspicion that this may be part of an iceberg plot – even if it’s just some window-dressing to conceal one. For example, Blackwing recently had an encounter with the Press Secretary of the Mayor of New Orleans (in the 2056-game world) and the two had a definite chemistry. He was impressed with her expertise, professionalism, preparedness, and competence; she was impressed with his poise and ability to take direction, even when what he was doing didn’t come naturally to him. Will anything come of it? Possibly, but probably not – her professionalism would get in the way, as would some of the character’s personal issues. However, the interaction will make him more aware of those personal issues (as a character), setting him up for a more significant plot iceberg (plotted in conjunction with the player) in times to come. So, in a way, this could be viewed as the first “glint” off that future plot iceberg. (More on this “real-game” example a little later – I can talk about the planned plot iceberg because the player knows all about – well, about most of it! – at least in general terms).

2. Growing Significance

From that beginning, the overall “shape” or nature of the plot becomes clear, and begins to impact on the characters in minor ways, primarily if not completely outside of the main adventure. For example, this might affect where a character is found when an adventure starts, or what he is doing. Initially, there should be little or no importance to these snippets of “character life”; they should be casual and occasional. Over time they gradually transition to the state of ubiquity, which I will discuss in a moment.

First, I need to revisit the question of how long this phase should last. Specifically, every instance of the iceberg plot should be different, however slightly. There may be a number of discrete “steps” to a relationship, or there may be angst about taking that next step, but there needs to be both development and importance without significance.

Importance vs Significance

The differences between those last two terms often cause confusion when discussing this topic. Importance means that it matters more and more to the character when it happens, and even begins to shape his in-between adventures circumstances; Significance means that it begins to matter to the other PCs for reasons beyond their relationship with the primary PC, and becomes a significant factor within adventures.

That means that you need to have enough variations on the theme on tap to continue the development of the plotline without making it too significant, or prematurely over-important. I’ll talk more about that in conjunction with the example, later in the article.

Evolution, Revolution, and Revelation

Any plotline will contain periods that fall into one or more of these categories, and each one will occur at least once in that plotline. They require different handling, so I thought I would take a moment to discuss each.

Evolution means that an event is a logical progression from whatever happened last time the plot iceberg manifested. It may be necessary that you call the players’ attention to the minor differences that have resulted from this evolution, or it may not – that depends on the circumstances, the plotline, and the individuals. However, you need to be subtle about this, as calling attention to the development makes it clear that you are deliberately progressing this as a plotline, breaking immersion, and undermining all the benefits of having an iceberg plot in the first place. That usually means that you can’t just do it off-the-cuff, but need to spend a bit of time carefully polishing your narrative.

Revolution takes place when some sort of significant milestone is achieved in the iceberg plot. If you aren’t careful, these can be Significant as well as Important, and can even loom as more Important than you want them to be. These problems are best avoided by presenting this as a natural evolution that the characters have been progressing toward for some time – an inevitable result of development. That makes the revolution more about “how far things have come” than about “where things are going.”

Revelations are the trickiest of all three, because by their nature, a revelation demands a reappraisal of everything that has occurred so far. Any flaws in your handling of the other two elements in the past can come back to bite you at this point. I often find it useful to employ a camouflaging smokescreen as misdirection: to prevent focus on the things that I don’t want the PC to pay too much attention to, I will accompany a revelation with some minor crisis or problem of a more immediate and potentially significant nature (the misdirection) and then orchestrate an easy resolution of this minor issue (the smokescreen). The implication is that the “big problem” is solved, or at least shelved, and anything else is minor and not worth worrying about.

3. Ubiquity

Ubiquity is reached when everyone (including other PCs) can assume that the focal PC is engaged in the plot iceberg whenever they don’t know where it is. It’s the point in a romantic relationship when family and friends begin telling each other that they should start making serious plans for an eventual wedding. The relationship is established and shows every sign of having established a new stability, replacing the situation that existed prior to the commencement of the plotline. The status has become quo.

This is a danger point, because this is the last opportunity that you have for tossing your plans and retaining the situation as a new dynamic background element. You also have the difficult question of how long this phase should persist; you need it to be long enough to confirm the impression of a new status quo, but not so long that it becomes unbelievable when you upset the applecart.

4. Criticality

Criticality occurs when the iceberg plot is revealed in its full terrifying majesty, when Important becomes Significant, and the plotline becomes the central focus of an adventure (or, at least, one focus). Criticality may occur in phases as one shoe drops after another and what it looked like you were building towards unravels before the players’ eyes.

Until the iceberg strikes the Titanic, it’s just a hunk of ice. Criticality is the point at which disaster not only cannot be averted, one or more PCs can see it coming – but are powerless to prevent the train-wreck.

5. After The Titanic

The significance of plotlines, iceberg or otherwise, is in how they alter the world, and how they alter the focal character. The aftereffects should mirror the buildup that took place: an immediate life-changing impact, and ongoing consequences that gradually lessen in intensity as a new status quo develops post-event.

The need for an extended after-effects phase is easy to demonstrate: once again, think of a TV show that you enjoy. Imagine that, over the course of a year, a new relationship develops between one of the principal characters that you like and a guest-star. One episode before the season finale, the relationship shatters and the guest-star departs, having wrought havoc on the principal character’s life. And the next week, that character is exactly the same as he or she was before this plotline started.

Such a miraculous recovery does more than strain verisimilitude to the breaking point, it breaks it and then jumps up and down repeatedly on the grave-site.

If PC actions are to affect the world, then NPC actions have to affect the PCs just as strongly.

That is why I felt it important to have Saxon collaborate on the plotline that has been mentioned a number of times as an example, and which will be dissected below.

Re-floating A Sinking Iceberg

There are times when what looked good on paper doesn’t work when playing. This can occur for all sorts of reasons; but the reasons don’t immediately matter. The bottom line is that what you had in mind simply isn’t working.

The character who was supposed to win their trust only to betray it is universally mistrusted from word one. The character who was supposed to die a poignant death was saved. The players see right through the villain’s master plan – and expose a plot hole big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.

When something goes wrong, you have three options: Abandon it (as quickly as possible), Alter it (immediately), or Live With It (possibly giving the PCs the opportunity to turn the tables).

Abandon It

Give up on the idea and write the circumstances out as quickly as possible. The character who was supposed to win their trust realizes that they don’t trust him or her and leaves – immediately. The character who was supposed to die will remain alive and well, and you’ll work out how your campaign plans can be salvaged later. The villain abandons his master plan – and begins concentrating on formulating a more devious one. End of plotline, move on.

Alter It

This is a constant temptation, and it’s rarely a good idea. Not only are the players sensitized to the plotline in question, but such “studio executive meddling” rarely has a good outcome. More often, this is taking an axe to a sinking ship’s hull to open a new hole “for the water to run out”.

I was going to say “never” but there is a sub-variant of “Live with it” in which this might work, under limited and exceptional circumstances – the perpetual problem of blanket statements. “Alter it” in this context means to rewrite your campaign plans assuming that the NPC part of the focal relationship always and deliberately intended to fail at whatever they were doing. You always intended for that dying character to be saved – now here are the consequences. The character who was supposed to gain the PC’s trust only to betray it always intended to do so bad a job of it that they weren’t convinced; they were coerced into even making the attempt. Or whatever.

This makes an immediate transition from Iceberg plot to Significance, regardless of the level of Importance that had been attached to it. Whatever the main adventure was supposed to be will have to wait – the PCs have just been handed a new and higher priority.

You may be tempted to do this on-the-fly. Don’t – at least, not completely. Take a few minutes to think through the ramifications and prepare yourself, or what you end up with will have even more plot holes in it than your failed plan proved to have.

Under no circumstances should you contemplate using the dice to overrule the players. This is railroading of the worst kind.

Live With It

My game plans always predicate the risk of failure. I work hard to ensure that whatever I need to happen in order to justify future plots is served by the very existence of the plotline in question; the adventures aren’t how I manipulate the future, they are side-effects of the circumstances that are shaping the future. That means that I have no stake in the outcome of any given adventure or plotline; the outcome is more-or-less irrelevant to the big picture. So let the players have their victory, they have seen through my scheme and earned it. Reward them with some XP and move on.

That’s possible because my plans are always reasonably general – even when very specific. It might be that for plot reasons, I need a manipulative demagogue to take power within the game; if the PCs expose and discredit the NPC I was grooming for the post, that’s fine, I can introduce another – or bring the NPC who does come to power fall under the control of one – or I can simply find another way to achieve whatever the demagogue was supposed to achieve, in campaign terms.

This is all made even easier because I don’t decide on what a villain has planned until after I have decided what the villain’s ambitions and goals are, and how the plan will accomplish them (or at least move his circumstances in the right direction). Knowing that, and his personality, enables me to determine what he will do when his scheme is blocked – and, unless the PCs manage to translate their achievement into a further one by stopping him as thoroughly as they spoked his plans, thats what he sets about doing.

In other words, the plans are never my plans, they all originate with, and belong to, a responsible NPC. All I do is make sure that there are plenty of NPCs out there with plans and ambitions that the PCs will want to oppose, and the rest more or less takes care of itself.

An example from Campaign Mastery’s Past

In The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure, I offered an example from the future of my Zenith-3 campaign: a detailed iceberg plot of romantic nature centering around one of the PCs (Blackwing) and an NPC Reporter. That plotline hasn’t started yet – the incident that I described earlier involving the Media Liaison / Press Secretary can even be considered to be foreshadowing it, as I noted above.

I would ask my players (other than Saxon, who collaborated with me on the plotline) to stop reading at this point and skip to the end of the article (Control-F and “Revisiting The Question” will take you there).

Everything in a blue box (like this text) from this point on is quoted text from that article. I’m going to interrupt it here and there to comment in terms of the context of this article.

A Big Example

I’m going to wrap this article up with a big example from the planning for my Superhero campaign, an entire character plot arc that will form a subplot for several years of game play before coming to a head. The basic plotline for this plot arc was developed in collaboration with Blackwing’s player, after assessing the character’s current mental and emotional state, and the vulnerabilities that result. In particular, it was decided that the character is currently:

  • Inclined to trust anyone who seems supportive;
  • Inclined to mistrust his own judgment; and,
  • Susceptible to feelings of frustration and doubt.

In this plot, someone publishes a book that would destroy the PCs’ reputations, and they must ride out the media storm that results without making things worse.

I then go on to describe how foreshadowing is used within the plotline, but that doesn’t matter here. Each step in the evolution, each appearance of the iceberg plot, is identified by a code, which I then describe so that readers can understand the significance.

Dismembering The Code:

  • The first two letters identifies the plot arc of which the event is part. In most cases, this will be “BW”, an abbreviation of “Blackwing Plot Arc”. In some cases, it may be another code, indicating that this plot iceberg complicates or interacts with another one, or with another plotline.
  • Each major event or step in the plot arc is then indicated by a two digit number – “00, 01,” and so on.
  • Some events are broken down into sub-steps, indicated by an alphabetic character – “BW03a” for example. These either occur simultaneously or successively – this is usually clear from context. If not, it means that I will decide when I get there.
  • Some sub-steps are so significant that they are further broken down into events, also identified with a two digit numeric code, for example “BW17h01”.

Some abbreviations:

  • “BW” refers to Blackwing. Aside from the team brick, he’s also a detective. And a living dimensional interface, though that doesn’t really play much of a role in this plot arc.
  • “RA” refers to the “Runeweaver Addiction” plot arc in which one of the PCs is found to be addicted to magical power-ups.
  • “St B” is often used as an abbreviation for “Saint Barbara”, the team leader and media spokesman, named for the patron saint of artillerymen and others who deal with explosives.
  • “Champs” and “Z-3” are both abbreviations for the PCs team. “The Champions” are their parent team, and the team’s public profile; to the parent team, this group of characters are known as “Zenith-3”.
  • “V” refers to Vala, a psionic member of the team with emphasis on information-gathering abilities.
  • “IMAGE” are the government agency which has been put in charge of liaising with the PCs. While they have no direct authority over them, the PCs operations would be greatly hampered if IMAGE were opposed to them.
  • “BC” refers to “The Bright Cutter”, which is the team’s (slightly small) starship, and the self-aware computer system that runs it. Another major plotline deals with the question of whether BC is a member or a slave to the PCs – one of several plots relating to the rights of “artificial people”.
  • “De” refers to “Defender”, a Kzin Martial Artist, who hates and mistrusts humans but serves with the team to repay a debt of honor.
  • “KB” refers to Kira, the AI who runs the Knightley Building, the team’s Headquarters. Modelled on a “reconstruction” of Kiera Knightley’s personality as presented in various Film and TV roles, and owned by the Knightley estate, who also developed the experimental building that houses it (2056, remember). The full name “The Knightley Building” is used to refer to the building itself as a location.

I’ve edited the above slightly to make it a little clearer – the original article provided context that this one doesn’t. Okay, on with the example:

The Plotline

  • BW00 – St B meets Reporter Amber Lawrence when both appear on a Talk Show.
  • BW01 – Meet Reporter – after RA13

This is the veiled beginnings phase. It ends when a second chance encounter ends with the reporter asking BW out on a date. You will note that I make notes about the timing of events – “after RA13” for example – when those plotlines are likely to impact on the iceberg plot or vice-versa.

  • BW02 – First Date w/reporter – after RA15
  • BW03 – Second Date w/reporter interrupted by emergency (BW has to leave, reporter tries to convince him to take her with him) – after RA16
  • BW03a – Reporter files story on the emergency & on Champs readiness to go into action at any time – sympathetic piece
  • BW04 – Third Date w/reporter – after RA25 – an emergency right in front of them – she meets rest of team – date resumes afterward – steps up the seduction, first sex (at her place)

The Iceberg Plot has clearly entered the “Growing Significance” phase; you can tell, because it can now be identified as a romantic plotline. Note that any involvement with other PCs is purely incidental at this stage.

There are a couple of milestones (“revolutions”) in these four appearances. The second date can be considered one such, and going back to her place after the interrupted third date is another. BW03a is critical, as it connects with the PC’s “trust anyone who’s supportive” mindset. Note also that there is clear development – an uninterrupted date, a date with an emergency to disrupt it, and a date resumed and a relationship progression in spite of a second disruption.

  • BW04a – The morning after
  • BW05 – “On The Job” encounter, Reporter gives info that helps in a case (Lunar city?)
  • BW05a – Reporter uses [her] insights to give a more thorough report than anyone else
  • BW06 – “On The Job” encounter, reporter gets into trouble trying to “get closer to the story”, was confident BW would rescue her
  • BW06a – Reporter files inside story of the mission – first argument?

In order to submerge more of the iceberg, I then downplay the romantic angle and simply deal with an evolving professional relationship between the two. That comes to an end with a “Lois Lane” moment in BW06, and the slow strengthening of the relationship is demonstrated by the argument that is expected to follow between the two. That is, of course, another milestone; and you can’t have an argument in a romantic plotline without a reconciliation, so that’s what comes next…

  • BW07 – Fourth Date w/reporter – asks for more explanation about something, puts finger on weak point of incomplete St B press conference, sex at her place
  • BW07a – BW’s expanded explanation is used to clarify press conference/official line – second argument?
  • BW08 – Reporter comes across trouble, calls BW
  • BW08a – Reporter files inside story of the mission
  • BW09 – Fifth Date w/reporter, asks BW to spend the night (her place)
  • BW10 – Sixth Date called off (her deadline), Reporter asks if she can meet BW at base later, spends the night in his room

Tentatively, boundaries and professional courtesies are being established between the two, and is an increased level of trust. BW10 is another milestone in the relationship because the team live in a secure environment; this means telling someone outside of the team about the relationship, making it that bit more “real”. This is emphasized by the next step in the plotline:

  • BW10a – The next morning meet staff and computer. NB: NO [news] story follows, builds trust
  • BW11 – Team uses reporter to leak a story to bait a trap – reporter warns there will be a quid-pro-quo sometime
  • BW12 – Reporter again spends night in BW’s bedroom – gets inside scoop on a mission but doesn’t use it, makes a point of that with other team members / base security
  • BW13 – Big story inadequately explained – Reporter calls in favor from BW11 for the real story, manages to spin it to protect the real secret while giving the inside story – trust escalates.

At this point, the romance can be considered an established factor for all the team members. The iceberg plot has now reached the stage of Ubiquity, which means that it is time for me to prepare for the Criticality phase.

  • BW14 – Reporter asks to spend a day “on the job” with each team member, doing an “in-depth” profile for a series
  • BW14a – A day with St Barbara (BW’s reaction)
  • BW14b – A day with BW
  • BW14c – A day with RW
  • BW14d – A day with De
  • BW14e – A day with V
  • BW14f – A day with KB + BC
  • BW15 – In-depth profile series appears, revealing insights into team personalities & history that team might have wanted to keep private, but that might have been identified by a keen observer
  • BW16 – A big story that the team had been hoping to sweep under the rug is exposed by the reporter – focus attention on the ethical conflict the reporter has been “dealing with”.

The relationship has transitioned from Important to Significant, as it now impacts the other PCs directly. BW16 is immensely important; this is my last exit point from the plotline before Criticality occurs. At this point I can still call off what I have planned and let the relationship continue or die as a dynamic background element; what happens next “pulls the trigger” and moves the plotline into the Criticality phase. Note also the use of “misdirection” to obscure the situation (and give me an out) in that final event.

  • BW17 – rumors of a forthcoming book, a tell-all expose being written under a pseudonym, reach the team via a gossip column
  • BW17a – St B is able to verify that there IS a book
  • BW17b – IMAGE ask V & BW to investigate the book to discover what is in it
  • BW17c – V & BW are able to ascertain that whoever wrote it has received a six-figure advance
  • BW17d – V + BW are able to get their hands on a partial galley – revelations are dynamite – BW as a convicted Killer, RW as something akin to a Drug Addict, St B as a sexual predator, De as a human-hating megalomaniac, V as a revenge-thirsty invader of secrets, off-dimensional origins of the team, team as a political tool brought in to shore up support for the Throne
  • BW17e – Reporter asks BW about the rumored book

One final piece of misdirection, necessary for consistency of character, and intended for the benefit of the other PCs since Blackwing’s player co-wrote this whole plotline. One key outcome of the whole plotline is the revelation that the team are from another earth in a parallel dimension – something that the team always suspected would come out eventually, but that they couldn’t find a way to soft-pedal to their satisfaction.

From BW17a on, the train-wreck is inevitable and the PCs can see it coming – but they should not immediately connect it with the reporter, that was the point of the trust buildup in the first place. I will probably run BW17e (above) and BW17f (below) simultaneously, in game time/ real-world time.

  • BW17f – V discovers that the reporter is the author – as she uncovers a new chapter describing the team reaction to the book – does she tell BW?
  • BW17g – Resolve the reporter plotline – she reveals that the sex was great but only a means to an end, “the people have a right to know who and what they are dealing with – I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again”.

The train-wreck happens, Blackwing finds that his “professional” and “private” life have collided. Outside of the impact on Blackwing, this plotline serves two important purposes: first, it comments on the price that the heroes have to pay for what they do (one of the campaign themes of almost every superhero campaign), and two, it gets the “revelations” into the public arena, which is the “big picture” purpose of the whole plotline. If I abort the calamity between Blackwing and the Reporter, I can still achieve this end by having one of the IMAGE personnel be the author. In fact, using this vector for the “metagame plot deliverable,” I can call off the entire plotline at any earlier point and still advance the campaign’s overall plotline.

  • BW17h – The book is published. Effects, aftermath: “The Crucible Of Opinion”

“The Crucible Of Opinion” is a partial quote from an episode of the West Wing, from which part of this plot was derived. It’s there to remind me to review the episode in question as an aide to writing the event.

  • BW17h01 – copies are distributed to all members, instructions to review them immediately, anywhere in the book they are mentioned – we have to know what to expect in fallout
  • BW17h02 – St B reacts to content questioning her morality and trustworthiness
  • BW17h03 – BW reacts to content suggesting that he is a corrupt ex-cop and a homicidal killer
  • BW17h04 – RW reacts to content describing him as a drug-addicted ex-soldier who lives in a fantasy world with little resemblance to reality
  • BW17h05 – De reacts to content describing him as a fanatic incapable of loyalty
  • BW17h06 – V reacts to content describing her as a naive pawn, incapable of self-assertion or critical self-analysis
  • BW17h07 – BC reacts to content describing him as a servile automaton with delusions of independence
  • BW17h08 – KB reacts to content describing it as a failed, even dangerous, experiment in machine intelligence which has been corrupted into thinking itself the equal of a living being
  • BW17h09 – “The staff want you to know that you have our full support. We’ve got your back, just tell us what you want us to do.”
  • BW17h10 – St B reacts to content about the other members
  • BW17h11 – Gov’t reacts to content – “The Champions have our full confidence.”
  • BW17h12 – RW reacts to comments about the other members
  • BW17h13 – Media requests for interviews go ballistic – they weren’t this heavy even when the team first arrived
  • BW17h14 – De reacts to content about other members
  • BW17h15 – Public opinion is strongly polarized by the book. Those who distrusted or opposed the team already now attack with venom, those who supported them defend them with passion.
  • BW17h16 – BC reacts to content about the other members
  • BW17h17 – The initial media response fans the flames of the vitriolic election campaign currently underway – “the timing is simply too coincidental to be plausible” for some. The book is seen as an attempt to deflect attention from the very real political problems of the Empire. Curiously, some attack Z-3 for participating in such a loathsome charade, while others consider them victims of a bureaucracy capable of any extreme.

Lots of people reacting. Some of it deliberately pushes PC “buttons”. All this can be described as the “After The Titanic” phase of this plotline. Note that I haven’t specified, or made room for, Blackwing to react to the personal crisis that instigated all this; how the PC reacts will depend on too many circumstances, but will undoubtedly color and influence those roleplaying opportunities that are listed for him. Such an opportunity is explicitly provided in BW17h21, below.

But my ulterior motive as a GM is revealed by that last item, which both influences the direction of politics within the game world and evolves a further piece of dynamic background – the relationship between the team and the government. Note that if I have to, I can simply have public opinion shift to achieve the same result, even if the team have managed to prevent the publication of the book that was to serve as the “trigger” – or I can have a copy of the book “leak” to achieve the same ends. There are many paths leading to the main plotline that will eventually occur, and I can pick another if this one is blocked; aside from the interactivity between players / PCs and game world, providing plausibility for that plotline is one of the major reasons all this exists as plotline.

  • BW17h18 – KB reacts to contents about the members
  • BW17h19 – A spokesman for the former government condemns the new government for their lukewarm support of the team, describing the official response as “damning with insincere platitudes”. They point out that they were fully supportive, and that the Throne encouraged this; but the reformers first act upon assuming power was to order the team to disband. This latest statement shows that the government cannot be trusted and should never have been elected and should now be impeached.
  • BW17h20 – Protesters begin to assemble at the Knightley Building. Police and security are concerned, caution against inflaming the situation.
  • BW17h21 – BW reacts to content about other members and the knowledge that his relationship with the author led to all this
  • BW17h22 – Media begin showing news footage & photographs of BW and the author together in public. Some suggest that the Champions actively encouraged the book as a ‘safe’ way of leaking things without putting the public offside, and that the new gov’t disbanding the team was a response to learning these secrets and distancing themselves from the team. Others suggest that she has sanitized the book, and there is a lot worse still hidden.
  • BW17h23 – V reacts to content about other members and to their reactions to everything that is going on.
  • BW17h24 – IMAGE (ie the civil service) demands an official media policy & press conference to deal with the book. “Control the message or the message will control you.”
  • BW17h25 – Team meeting about these events to agree on a response
  • BW17h26 – The team hold a press conference
  • BW17h27 – Security report that fans and supporters of the team have started to gather for a 24-hour vigil of support outside the Knightley Building. The police are setting up cordons but things could turn ugly with any provocation – and both sides are doing their best to provoke the other.
  • BW17h28 – IMAGE’s legal experts report that there is nothing actionable within the book; because they are legally-registered eccentrics, they are not covered by or subject to normal libel laws. Legally, public or media can say anything they want to about the team.

Fallout continues – but the last item is worth noting as it highlights a consequence of the “legal framework” in which the team operates that they were previously insufficiently aware of.

  • BW17h29 – Protestors and supporters clash, and the situation around the knightley building devolves into a riot. Police want Z-3 to stay out of it, you would only inflame the situation.
  • BW17h30 – Gov’t (ie politicians) demands an increased media presence by the team over the next few days.

A crisis is always followed by Crisis Management. Interviews are a relatively down-key solution, but that’s because they usually work. The alternative is to go to ground and wait for the media (and public) to find something else to scream about, and that’s dangerous because it hampers your ability to respond to anything else that might happen. Note that there is symmetry to the plot arc, or iceberg plot, or plot loop, or whatever you want to call it: the whole plotline started with interviews and developed with interviews, so it’s only appropriate that interviews are part of the aftermath.

  • BW17h31 – St B is interviewed about the book and whether it represents a breach of trust, and whether or not there’s more and worse.
  • BW17h32 – V is interviewed about her relationship with St B. Interview is constantly disrupted by religious extremists.
  • BW17h35 – De is interviewed about his loyalty and trust issues
  • BW17h34 – RW is interviewed about the allegations in the book concerning him.
  • BW17h36 – BC is interviewed (remotely) about his role in the team and how long he’s been with them etc.
  • BW17h33 – BW is interviewed about his relationship with the author. When did it end? Does he feel betrayed? Does he still have feelings for her? etc
  • BW17h37 – St B is (sympathetically) interviewed about the reasons for secrecy
  • BW17h39 – BW is invited to return serve on the author and spill any dirt she doesn’t want to be public.
  • BW17h40 – RW is asked how his teammates really feel about the book
  • BW17h38 – V is asked how all this looks from an alien perspective.
  • BW17h41 – De is asked what he really thinks of his teammates
  • BW17h42 – BC is asked about his relations with the team and why they have kept him a secret

You can sense the winding down of the whole situation as you read through the above. One round of difficult interviews and media sympathies begin to soften; public opinion will almost certainly be following suit. The curtain has just about finished coming down on the plotline.

  • BW17h43 – St B is informed that the media are beginning to find other news to occupy them, and that the media storm roused by the book is fading. There remain the usual number of requests to interview her (as much because ratings always spike when she appears as because of the current situation), and there are a few requests for Blackwing – normally an unpopular interview subject – because of his close relationship with the author, but that the real media darling to have come out of the whole episode is the Bright Cutter – they can’t get enough of him. Requests to interview him are running two-to-one compared to St B’s normal – they are calling him the “forgotten Champion”. The current expectation is that the book will be a three-day wonder, and this is day three.

I like to throw the occasional twist into the outcomes – and unless they have read this despite my request, there is no way that they will anticipate that this NPC will become a media darling, even though something similar happened to the equivalent member on the parent team years ago.

  • BW17h43a – V, RW, and De are informed that they have no extraordinary media requests for today and can resume their normal schedules.
  • BW17h44 – BW is interviewed, but the focus is on his new-found eligibility as a bachelor. What sort of girl does he like? Or has this whole experience soured him on women? After the interview, the reporter tells him to chin up, he’s almost out of the goldfish bowl – the public are losing interest in the story, and the press will soon follow. And, in case he’s gotten the wrong idea, she’s happily married already!
  • BW17h45 – BC is interviewed about his impressions of the Empire. How much of it has he seen? What did he like? Where else has he been? How did it compare?
  • BW17h46 – St B is interviewed about the difficulties of those in sensitive positions maintaining outside relationships in general. The book is never explicitly mentioned.
  • BW17h47 – BC is interviewed about his perspective on the political questions. He dodges the brier patch with great professionalism while reaffirming an overall moral stance.
  • BW17h48 – St B is interviewed about the coming season’s fashions, and her uniforms, and whether or not she would ever consider letting a professional designer work with her wardrobe choices.
  • BW17h49 – BC is interviewed about his perspective on religious issues. He again avoids trouble without offending anyone. Several church Ministers try to trip him up but it quickly becomes clear that he is VERY expert in theology, has read every Holy Book on Earth-Halo, has perfect recall, and can quote from them at length. He soon has them tied in knots over their refusal to denounce criminal acts (base on West Wing episode I). If he keeps this up, she [St Barbara] might be able to hand over the job of Media Liaison.
  • BW17h50 – St B is advised that the BC has accepted an invitation to be interviewed by one of the most controversial religious right-wing fundamentalist figures on the radio, something every other member of the team has managed to avoid by listening to the advice of IMAGE’s media dept.
  • BW17h51 – BC is interviewed by the radical fundamentalist reporter. He is polite for a while and then takes total control of the interview, publicly humiliating her over her extremist position. (base on the religious critique in the West Wing). It looks like it’s going to be a whole new PR disaster for the team, but at the very end he confirms his support for religious tolerance and the rights of individuals to choose for themselves; he doesn’t have any final answers, and even if he did they would not apply to humans anyway. What he cannot abide is religious intolerance and bigotry and evil cloaked in the pretense of righteousness. He then reminds her that she insisted that he reveal his thoughts on the subject.
  • BW17h52 – BC is finally asked what he thinks about the contents of the book. He systematically tears its credibility to shreds, while maintaining that on the occasions he met “Miss Lawrence” [The reporter] she was not at all biased or deceptive; he is quite sure that the book was reedited by an unknown third party to attack the team’s credibility, putting the most hostile spin possible on every statement it contains.

If you think back to the very beginning, this whole plotline starts with Blackwing being a guest on a Talk Show. Once again, the aftermath is a mirror to the events of the buildup.

A few more things to take away from the example:

  • I’m not an expert on media relations or handling a political crisis. I simply paid close attention to a TV show that featured this sort of thing (The West Wing) and especially the extras, which included interviews with the show’s consultants like Dee Dee Myers, who were.
  • One of the major problems that will have to be overcome is the presence of a Telepath on the team and the potential for premature unmasking of the plot. Countering that meant introducing a new technology into the campaign, and a plotline was developed (and has already taken place) explicitly to do this. It’s only partially effective as a solution, but it should be enough.
  • Most of the buildup was written by trying to decide what would logically and realistically happen next in terms of an unfolding relationship between the PC and NPC who were the focus of the plotline. Notice that most of the non-milestone events can be moved around, hand-waved, or canceled without overly affecting the outcome; no single one of them is critical to the outcome, rather it is their accumulated weight that matters.
  • There has been a lot of thought put into customizing the crisis and its fallout to the individual PCs in my campaign. Should any of them change, the content would have to change as well. But this helps make the players feel like this is really happening – verisimilitude again.
  • While most of the events are presented only as vague general outlines, they are also quite explicit in terms of what I want that scene to achieve, plot-wise.
  • I would expect that all the events of BW17h would form a single “adventure” – they are practically a scene-by-scene breakdown of the plot already, and have to be continuous or simultaneous with each other. (I might even call it “The Crucible Of Opinion”). Other parts will be subplots, located within other adventures or character-driven plotlines.
  • Every PC will be affected in some way, more or less permanently; but outside of specific effects that the plotline aims to achieve, and those character consequences, everything else ends up more or less reset to where it was at the start of the adventure. It’s relatively “contained” as a plotline. Note that at no point do I dictate what a PC will do (other than the things agreed upon with Blackwing’s creator in advance), or how they will react; I simply use NPCs to ask them how they are reacting. Most of the character effects will have ramifications in plotlines featuring those PCs later in the campaign, and can be summarized as ‘airing their dirty laundry in the worst possible light’.

Revisiting The Question

So, if the question is, “can slow-building storylines that develop over time work in an RPG, the answer is an unqualified and demonstrable “yes”; but they can only do so if they matter to the PCs, and that means that they can’t stay buried beneath the surface forever. At some point, they have to explode into the lives of the PCs. Hopefully, this article has given GMs the tools they need in order to use this particular plot type, and avoid the pitfalls that lurk for the unwary.

Next in this series: A Target With Warp Drive: Digital Maps and Minis for Sci-Fi.

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A New ERA and other products to empty your wallet

Image by James Choe

Image by James Choe / Shades Of Vengeance / Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Today I have two Kickstarters and some related and unrelated products to tell readers about, all well worth your hard-won cash.

ERA: The Consortium

The first of the products I’m featuring is “The Secret War”, which is part of The Consortium setting for the RPG engine, ERA. Shades of Vengeance were kind enough to send me a whole heap of review materials, and I have to say they were impressive.

The Core Book

The place to start is with a quick overview of the Core Setting Book. This is 302 pages of material and available from the Shades of Vengeance website, but don’t rush off to buy it just yet! The paperback is US$45 (£30), the hardcover is US$60 (£40), and the PDF is a mere $20 (£13). Having looked through the PDF extensively, I have to say that I would definitely list the hardcover as my first preference and the paperback as my second, it would be well worth the extra expense for the absolutely gorgeous artwork and ability to hop quickly from one page to another. “Random Access, not Sequential Access,” as one of my programmer friends used to say!

So, what’s in it?

Pages from the Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook

Pages from the Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook


Fully 1/3 of the book – and a bit more – relates the history of The Consortium. The size is necessary because the Consortium Setting covers 500 years of future history, and a game can be set at any point in that history.

As this is the heart of the setting, and central to the new product, I looked closely at it. Most of it is written from the perspective of one or more participants in events, and that is both its blessing and its curse:

Blessing because it gives the background an immediacy and flavor that is very useful for the GM planning to use the setting, and Curse in that you have to continuously get used to a new protagonist and new perspective. I was forever asking, “okay, who’s telling this part of the story?”

This wasn’t helped by the fact that the whole story is one continuous stream, delineated only by the timeline excerpts. I would have found it far more useful if it had been broken into period subsections with a general introduction to each era. Heck, even starting each entry with the name of the speaker in bold followed by a colon would have made it more accessible.

Once you knew it forwards and backwards, that might not have been necessary, but until you did, there are a lot of pages to flip through trying to find what you are looking for. This would be less burdensome in a physical copy, but it’s a pain in the Digital version.

The Content is excellent, and should appeal to anyone into Sci-Fi, Exploration, Politics, or Society. In particular, fans of Star Wars, Stargate SG-1, and Babylon-5 will find something of interest.

“Era: The Consortium is the story of a Colony Ship launched from Earth and the habitable world it discovers, Taranis. The game follows the inhabitants of Taranis as they create a society, encounter alien races and explore the space nearby.”

There are one or two gaps in the logic – only one of seven major corporations and an unknown number of smaller ones kept backups of their data? Not credible – but (perhaps because of the way my mind works) each of these immediately presented plotline opportunities to explain the seeming discrepancy in logic.

Image by Victor Adame Minguez

Image by Victor Adame Minguez / Era: The Consortium Core Rulebook / Shades Of Vengeance

Basic Rules

The setting also includes the basic rules for running a campaign. No purchase of an additional “core rulebook” required. As I looked through the other review materials provided, I found that this was a routine practice for Shades Of Vengeance, and one that gets a big tick in my book, as it means that the game system is simple enough to be just one section in a book, and yet sophisticated enough to be used in a great many different ways. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself.

The Campaigns

One of the features that I definitely liked was the list of campaigns suggested. There were six of these, but I found that this was understating the gaming opportunities massively.

Each campaign is divided into a number of “sessions” but in reality you could use each of these as a separate campaign, or as phases in a much larger campaign. For example, from the “Big Seven” campaign, Session 2: The piratical actions of the citizens of the outer colonies have become too extensive to be ignored – they are raiding many ships, from Hardcastle Haulage to private transport vessels. The pirates have to be tracked down and stopped. This is described as a single session; but I could easily get four or five adventures out that alone, each lasting three-to-five game sessions. Given that this is just one of six parts to this “campaign”, even assuming that the others are not as rich in potential plot, it’s easy to suggest that this “campaign” is not six sessions worth of material, it’s easy to call this 54 game sessions, or a full year of weekly play.

Even better, each of these cross-indexes back to the relevant parts of the history.

And that’s all without dropping in additional plotlines of the GM’s own devising. The history is rich and complex, and could be easily used to provide a whole heap more single-shot adventures and campaigns.

Other Content

The races and gadgets/equipment sections are both invaluable for anyone running a sci-fi or superhero campaign, even separating them out from the rest of the background. The alien races are very well realized and different from each other.

Image by Florencio Duyar

Image by Florencio Duyar / Era: The Consortium / Shades Of Vengeance

The Production Values

The production values are first-rate. Lately, there have been a succession of games raising the bar in this area – and I love to recommend them! – and this fits right into that category.

I did spot the occasional typo – mostly of the grammatical nature, where something has been rephrased – but I know from personal experience that in any work of this size, finding all of those is virtually impossible. Nothing caused more than a momentary confusion.

I also love the way the credits have been used to generate the flavor of the book from the outset. A minor touch, but it adds considerably to the immersion value.

The Index

I want to especially call out the index, which is amongst the best that I’ve ever seen in a commercial RPG product. These are notorious, as a general rule, for poor indexing (because it takes as long to do the index as it does to do the rest of the product, and that’s all time that can more profitably be spent working on another product). Kudos, kudos, kudos to the producers!

The Secret War

Which brings me to the latest offering in the product line, The Secret War. “…loads of new options for characters, implants, weapons & missions!”

“The known history of the Consortium takes a more sinister turn when you look back and realize that it has been manipulated for all of its existence by elite operatives, ‘Shades’,>/em> that work for [The] Hayden Bank. They have strengthened the grip of the most politically powerful and financially wealthy company in their society through murder, blackmail and theft. Supported by Hayden Bank’s huge infrastructure, they have had access to technology and weapons that are only dreamed of by other factions.”

The Resistance responds, creating a corps of ‘Phantoms’, specially trained to fight Shades. These operatives track and prevent Shades from completing their missions, providing new hope to the Resistance.

In other words, what we have here is James Bond / Mission Impossible / Super-spies in a futuristic Sci-Fi / Cyberpunk / Action-Adventure setting. Then throw in time travel and a race to prevent the End Of The World… That’s a recipe that is very hard to resist!

Pages from Era: The Consortium - The Secret War

Pages from Era: The Consortium – The Secret War

The Kickstarter

I’m not the only person to have found that to be the case. Shades of Vengeance are currently running a kickstarter (5 days to go) to earn funding for the printing of this new supplement, and so far they are about 200% funded with backing from 48 perspicacious fans.

There’s a lot to like about the way they have gone about this fundraising campaign. I like the planned spending breakdown, for example: 10% goes to the writers, 50% goes on printing copies of the new supplement, Kickstarter get their 5%, and the balance will be invested in producing the next Consortium expansion.

This is significant because it means that development of this product is mostly complete already, and the team at Shades of Vengeance are busy planning for the future.

Here’s another lovely little touch: Each of reward comes with/on a Shades Of Vengeance -branded 4Gb flash drive that is going to be filled with little extras – art, notes, etc – and the author of the supplement is trying to ensure that the content mix of each is unique. Succeed or fail, that’s awesome!

The best news yet: The Core Book (reviewed above) come with the game supplement. With corrections and errata that may well have fixed some or all of those little glitches that I mentioned earlier! But, if you already have it, you can opt for a cheaper commitment and just get the expansion.

Now, every time I’ve seen something similar, it’s been the digital version that’s usually offered. Not this time – we’re talking about the physical Core Book, either Paperback or Hardcover. Drool, drool, drool. In fact, there are no less than 26 different backer levels, and a clear and easy-to-use chart to help you decide which one is right for you.

As I’ve said before, I love Kickstarters that have already met their funding goals and are reaching for the stars, because you have a much better chance of getting what you’re investing in. But time is short – so reach for those credit cards or paypal accounts and check out “The Secret War” kickstarter page Right Now! (Link opens in a new window – don’t worry, I’ll wait here for you!)

Other ERA products

Still not convinced? or interested in why this can be even better value for money than you already thought it was?

There are a whole bunch of other game products in different genres from Shades of Vengeance that all use the same core mechanics. Not similar mechanics, as was the case with the d20 line, and not evolutions of a core mechanic, as is the case with the Hero System and it’s variants like Pulp Hero, Fantasy Hero, and Star Hero. Exactly the same core mechanics, plus a modular plug-in.

Those modular plug-ins (they aren’t described as such, but that’s what they are) provide cross-compatibility across the entire product line. So let’s take a quick look at what’s available:

ERA Lyres

Lyres is a fantasy RPG. Sort of. You play “Lyres” (read “Liars”) who tell tall tales (that you actually roleplay), telling “stories of adventures you never had” for the entertainment (and coins) of tavern patrons – but boasting of the wrong thing can have “real world” consequences for you, should the wrong person overhear. So there are multiple levels of game participation occurring simultaneously, producing a richer “tapestry” than many RPGs can achieve.

But there are creatures in the bestiary that would need little conversion/adjustment to find a place on the alien worlds of The Consortium, just as the aliens would need only a little tweaking (to appropriate technological standards) to find a place in your Lyres game setting.

Heck, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you adapting Lyres to function as a “campfire chat” game or equivalent social practice within your Consortium game, just as a routine change-of-pace and campaign-within-a-campaign.

The product I was offered for review is the Deluxe Digital Version [US$15 (£10)], but it also comes in deluxe paperback [US$28 (£18)] or Hardcover [US$37 (£25)] from the Shades Of Vengeance online store [NB: scroll up to get to the Consortium section or vice-versa if you already have the page opened]. Some of the art is more primitive in style than the glossy fantastic-realism of the Consortium setting, but that’s not inappropriate given that these are supposed to be imaginary creatures!

But that’s not the only Fantasy-oriented offering coming from Shades of Vengeance.

Era: Silence (in development)

Era: Silence is a game in development, described as “A Fantasy RPG about earning your name as a warrior by completing the challenges on the Isle of Silence!” Why do I have the impression that many prospective challengers will stop off at the Taverns and joust wits with the Lyers en route? or that creatures from one might represent the “reality” of the Lyers? There are so many ways these two could synergise! Bookmark the page to keep abreast of developments on this game.

ERA: Survival (in development)

Era: Survival is all about “The last of Humanity struggle for survival in a dangerous world” – in fact, a post-apocalyptic world, from the look of it. Again, Bookmark the page I’ve linked to if you want to keep track of this product.

The Consortium setting makes a big deal about the fact that all records of the past were lost when the generation ship crash-landed at the beginning of their history, leaving Earth as a half-mythical unknown. They don’t know why the ship left Earth, or if they are the only one. It wouldn’t take too much effort to unite the two settings – perhaps the effort of constructing the ships bankrupted society, leading to the ultimate breakdown in law and order? Or maybe there was a cataclysm but some were spared? Or perhaps it was not so easy, and the last of humanity aren’t just struggling to survive, but to launch a golden hope for a new home for humanity on another world?

The possibilities are endless.

ERA: The Empowered (in development)

Era: The Empowered is a superheroic offering. ERA supplied me with a copy of the rulebook primer as it currently stands – I think it’s in its final form, but I’m not sure*. This is essentially the “core rules” for the superheroic variation. But with the science of the Consortium, I’m quite certain that paranormal abilities are within their capabilities, and, of course, Shades and Phantoms (not to mention the aliens) could fit very easily into an Empowered game setting. Once more, I have provided a link to bookmark for news.

* I hope not, as some of the character generation explanations are not as clear as they are in the other supplements, and there’s no real example of the “power trees”. But “Final Rev2” appears in the internal title of the PDF, so I suspect those, like the technologies of the Consortium, will have to wait for a full Core Rulebook.

Synergies and Common Patterns

These products (at least, all the ones I saw) all share a unified core system, as explained earlier, and a fundamentally similar layout and set of production values, each enhanced or tweaked stylistically to fit the target genre, and yet clearly part of the same product “family”.

Each can synergize and supplement the others in various ways, and the more of them that you invest in, the more bang you get for each buck (or pound). And that makes each of them an even more attractive proposition.

Super-spies and Super-heroics are a natural match, provided that power levels are not too discontinuous – and the commonality of the game system means that “The Secret War” and “The Empowered”, in particular, are a natural match.

The Final Analysis

“Era: Consortium – The Secret War” ultimately can’t rely on synergies to be value for money. Fortunately, as the success of the Kickstarter shows, it is more than capable of standing on its own merits.

With backer levels that actually yield product starting as low as $6, can you not afford to take a look? Here, once again is the link to the kickstarter page.

Tavern Tales

cropped excerpt from an image by Chantal DeAngelo

A cropped excerpt from an image by Chantal DeAngelo / Tavern Tales

The second product that I have for your consideration is “Tavern Tales” by Dabney Bailey. This is a very interesting product for many reasons, not least of which is the flexibility of character creation. A talking dog is no stretch at all, as the comments from playtesters show, so there really are no constraints on your imagination.

Tavern Tales was released into an open beta about two years ago. Since then, Dabney has been working closely with the community to polish, improve, and expand the game.

One of the playtesters, Wesley, says “…I can say with absolute certainty that this game is unlike any other; it offers you unrivaled creative license to play what you have always wanted to play. It strips away the unnecessary mechanics that muck up systems while emphasizing cinematics and creativity at the same time, allowing you to really get into your character, sit back, and play the game.”

image by Chantal DeAngelo

One of the images by Chantal DeAngelo / Tavern Tales

Gameplay promise

From the Tavern Tales website: The core mechanic in Tavern Tales is called a “Tale,” which highlights the game’s emphasis on storytelling. Outside of the dice rolling mechanic, Tavern Tales uses virtually no numbers whatsoever. The game focuses on cinematic, exciting effects. Your power comes from your ability to affect the story, rather than from numeric bonuses like “+1 damage.”

Image by Chantal DeAngelo

Image by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

The Kickstarter further describes the game system: “Rather than using the classic ‘race+class’ combo of other RPGs, Tavern Tales give you access to a huge list of themes like Undeath, Dragon, and Thievery. Each theme has traits, which you can purchase for your character. For example, Undeath traits let you do things like come back to life after you die, or drain a creature’s soul. This no-limits freedom gives you the power to build the character you’ve always wanted to play. Here’s a very small sampling of characters you can build at character creation:

  • Any classical archetype like mages, rogues, barbarians, paladins, etc.
  • A flying, fire-breathing dragon.
  • A druidic pirate who sails a living treant-ship.
  • A blacksmith who wears steam-powered golem armor.
  • An intelligent psionic dog who communicates telepathically.
  • An undead lich who can’t be killed unless your phylactery is destroyed.

Which all sounds very promising, doesn’t it?

The Core Mechanic

So let’s take a look at that Core Mechanic. When you want to do something, you roll 3d20. In most cases, you take the middle result, ignoring the highest and lowest; some circumstances mandate using one of the highest or lowest result.

That’s a very interesting concept, mathematically. The lower your lowest roll, the more scope there is for your highest roll to be close to the mathematical average result; as a result, the middle roll is almost certain to be somewhere in the middle, average range. It’s as though there were a pressure from both sides pushing toward a moderate result, neither spectacularly high nor low; but without ever quite being able to completely eliminate the possibility of an extreme result.

A full analysis is way beyond the scope of what time will permit. I did a few sample rolls and got middle results of 6, 8, 4, 12, 4, 17, 14, 17, 14, 9, 11, 17, and 9 – which averages out to 15.2, but is hardly a big enough sample to give really valid results. What is does show is that extreme results become less likely, while average results remain virtually unchanged in absolute terms – which, in effect, makes them more likely, in relative terms.

image by Chantal DeAngelo

A cropped excerpt from one of the images by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

In ten rolls, there should have been at least one result higher than 17 or lower than 4 – but these were “censored out” by the die roll mechanism, because in order for a ‘3’ to be the middle result, for example, it requires another of the d20s to have rolled a three or lower – and that only happens 15% of the time. The combination will only happen three four-hundredths of a time – and that’s ignoring the need for the third die to be four or more (which will almost always happen).

Free Playtest PDF

Both the website and the Kickstarter page are unique in offering as a download a free rough draft of the rules. You may then ask, why back the Kickstarter? The page itself answers the question: “The final product will be substantially more polished, and will include much more content.”

I’ve checked and both sources link to the same file. This is the closest thing to a “test drive” that I’ve ever seen offered by a fundraising campaign.

The Forum

A quick skim through the kickstarter makes it clear that there is an active and enthusiastic gaming community behind this project. There is a forum on Reddit which is clearly busy. Threads include “Questions regarding Barrier”, “Questions about minions 1.01”, and other rules clarifications that will undoubtedly feed into the final product. The game’s creator is, as you would expect, one of the most active users of the Forum, and the fundraising campaign clearly invites participation by both backers and tentative backers.

Image by Marcel Goriel

A cropped excerpt from one of the images by Marcel Goriel for Tavern Tales

Interestingly, the only link to the forum on the website is an unassuming reddit icon alongside the other social media buttons – tweet, like on facebook, etc. So this is close to being a “hidden extra” (whether it was meant that way or not).

Production Values

With nothing more than the plain-text “rough draft” of the rules to go on, it’s hard to assess the production values.

There are two indicators, though, and those are pretty conclusive in my book.

The first is the website itself, which is straightforward but very slick in appearance. The links at the top of the page simply take you to different anchor points on the main page.

The second is something shared by both the website and the kickstarter page: what art has been produced so far is absolutely gorgeous, as you can see from the limited selection reproduced.

Cropped excerpt of an image by Chantal DeAngelo

A cropped excerpt from one of the images by Chantal DeAngelo for Tavern Tales

In fact, don’t rely on the limited-resolution shrunken-in-size renditions to make up your mind: go take a look at the site and the kickstarter page!

The Kickstarter

To do that, of course, you will need a link, so here it is.

In terms of value for money, I have to say that the price per page is higher than that being charged by Shades Of Vengeance, and that might mislead some readers into making an unfair comparison. This is the first Kickstarter for this product, whereas the Era: Consortium supplement is an established and growing line. In effect, backers of “The Secret War” are the beneficiaries of past investment by previous backers of the game system. As a result, volume discounts on the production costs would be far easier to negotiate for Shades Of Vengeance.

So far, the fundraising effort has raised promises of over $8000 – which may be only half of the funding target, but is roughly eight times the commitment so far to “The Secret War”. That tells me two things: comparing these two campaigns is like comparing grapes with grapefruit: they may both be fruits, but that’s where the comparisons end!

You do have a little more time to make up your mind about Tavern Tales – as of this writing, 16 days, 11 hours, 40 minutes, and 26 seconds – so go check it out.

A further bonus

In their own ways, both Tavern Tales and Shades Of Vengeance reinvest in the gaming community. Tavern Tales, as the much smaller startup, does so on a smaller scale, through the forum and the commitment that it carries to improving, and expanding on, their product. This gives you direct access to experts in the game and the game author on an ongoing basis. Think about that for a moment (and if anyone spams them because of it, I’ll be really ticked off).

Shades Of Vengeance, on the other hand, help others realize their own creative endeavors, employing their experience and obvious success at fundraising to produce things like comics and independent games.

When I first started outlining this article, I was struggling to find a unifying thread that would tie it all together. In retrospect, that connection seems obvious:

Both are products by gamers for gamers.

And that brings me neatly to product #3…

Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider

Pathfinder Bloodbound cover

Pathfinder: Bloodbound
by F.Wesley Schneider

I mentioned this product the last time I did one of these fundraiser roundups, last November. At that point in time, it was not yet published, and simply sounded promising.

This is the first novel by one of the co-creators of Pathfinder. Paizo are another of those game companies that “give back” to the game community, and this is a definite product by one gamer for others!

Well, my review copy arrived late last week…

Preliminary Impressions

The book is physically larger than I was expecting, and the gloss on the cover gave the whole thing a very comfortable solidity. The font is also slightly larger than is common on many modern books, which made it very comfortable to read.

The first page is a frontispiece excerpt from within the book and it’s an excellent launchpad, imparting flavor and contextual space before you even read the first word of the ‘real’ novel. This might be a design consideration from the Publishers, Tor Books, and it’s a technique that I have seen misused horribly in the past – usually by a poor choice of excerpt (I have even seen a publisher give away the plot twist!) – but in this case, it works very well.

So far, I haven’t had time to do more than skim-read the first chapter, so my first impressions are about all I have to go on. What I can say is that the style is very vivid and easy to read, conveying the essentials of a situation with a minimum of dressing, which keeps the pace moving along. Schneider’s style is very easy to read, and he has a knack for both setting and characterization that is fairly uncommon, and that all works very well with the design and layout choices of the publisher.

So much so that my skim kept bouncing through paragraphs only to find that I had missed something important and had to back-track.

I’ve read other novels where you could scan every second paragraph and still get the gist of what was going on; this isn’t like them. The editing has been done to a very taut standard, and there is very little wasted text as a result. This is a book that demands to be read, not skimmed.

Analyzing The Amazon Reviews

One of the defining characteristics of this novel is a shared-first-person perspective. Some people love this, some people hate it. It’s a very gamist technique, demonstrating that the author has gotten deep under the skin of his protagonists, and inviting the reader to share in that experience.

There has been one negative review which was based entirely upon an extreme dislike for this technique. Aside from that, the book has received entirely 4 and 5 star reviews – at least one of the latter being, in part, because of the use of this technique.

For me, the lesson is clear – if you don’t mind the technique, you can enjoy this book, but if you dislike it, you won’t.

Further Reflection

Which raises a very interesting question: to what extent are concept and delivery entwined in an RPG, generally?

I think that exactly the same principle holds: a given technique won’t make you enjoy content any more than it merits, but may impair the capacity to engage with that content. You can have the greatest plotline or characters or setting in the world, but none of that matters if the content is drowned out by the shape of the message.

There are no universal rules about delivery style, though tradition creates some expectations. A James Bond film wouldn’t be the same without the pre-title action sequence, for example, which may or may not have any relevance to the main plot (depending on which film you are watching.

However, genre creates a preference for some styles over others, and individual plots may also do so. A political thriller almost-universally needs a slow-buildup in which the players and their respective personalities and circumstances are made clear before the point of conflict arises. Crime stories can have either low-octane or high-octane beginnings.

This is all about the emotional pacing of the story, making sure that fatigue doesn’t set in, and that things nevertheless build to a satisfactory climax. (For more information on Emotional Pacing in RPGs, I refer the reader to my two-part article on the subject – Part One, Part Two).

There are a number of techniques that you – or a novelist – can use to set the emotional starting level of their plot to whatever the combination of genre and plot demand:

  • the excerpt, which most RPGs don’t have available because players change the story as it is played;
  • omniscient narration, in which a narrative “framework” is provided by a cosmic voice-over man, much as Rod Serling used to do every week on the Twilight Zone;
  • omniscient perspective, in which players/readers are told of an event that their characters/the protagonist cannot possibly witness, but which they will come to know about;
  • an ordinary day, in which a slice of life is used to contrast normality with abnormality, and peace with danger;
  • the mid-action parachute, in which the adventure begins half-way through an action sequence (usually but not always irrelevant to the main plot) that is designed to kick-start the adrenalin;
  • the voice of doom, in which another cosmic narrator tells of a prophecy of some sort or of a threat that is going to materialize, or of the effects that the day will have on the protagonists.

That’s just a small sampling, there are many more. Sometimes, the context of the introduction doesn’t become clear until the denouement!

This isn’t the primary subject of this article, so I’m going to leave the discussion at this point, save to admonish GMs to think about the opening sequences of their adventures a lot more than most do.

Getting back to the point, then, the style of this book may put you off; but if it doesn’t (and I expect fewer gamers to have problems with it than the general public, simply because they are used to the shift from in-game perspective to player / game mechanics perspective), it’s definitely worth thinking about if you like a bit of Gothic fantasy adventure. Available now from Amazon Books for Kindle and paperback.

So There We Have It

Between that diverse collection, there should be something for just about everyone. So I’d like to end with a roundup of the relevant links from this article:

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Bidding For Characters (and related metagame alternatives)


photo credit / Jason Morrison

Inspiration can strike anytime, anywhere, sparked by some completely unexpected collision of thought and random sensory experience. There have been several articles here at campaign mastery with such origins; this is another, sparked by a random comment made during the pre-game conversation and socializing that normally takes place before a session of my Zenith-3 campaign. The comment itself is completely irrelevant; it was simply a springboard into a new metagame-based approach to character generation that I thought worth sharing.

When I first started gaming, there were two metagame approaches used for character generation.

Old Method 1: At-Home Generation

Everyone gets told what the game system is, and generates a character at home. The first time they find out what anyone else has is when they get together to play for the first time.


The GM may have (as I recommend in many other articles) given the players a brief description (or even a substantial briefing document) of the campaign that he intends to run, providing at least a modicum of direction to the players as to what characters will fit in.

A second variation has the players failing to generate anything more than mechanics – stats etc – and leaving the character’s personality to emerge during the course of play.

The problem:

This approach accurately simulates a group of strangers thrown together by happenstance. In terms of breadth of adventuring potential, though, it can be a nightmare; the campaign may demand at least one wizard, or an elf, or whatever – and there isn’t one. Everyone might turn up with Rangers (hey, I was once part of a rock band in which all 13 members wanted to be the drummer – and none of us had ever played any instrument! I ended up on Bass Guitar…)

The GM has no idea what he’s going to get. His campaign needs to engage the characters anyway, as though it had been written for these characters and no-one else. It’s an impossible burden.

That’s why most GMs quickly come up with Old Method 2, if they weren’t taught to use it from the start:

Old Method 2: At-The-Table Generation

Everyone gathers around the game table and generates their characters on the spot, usually after a short briefing on the campaign from the GM, who is there to answer questions as character generation proceeds. There is interaction between the players as they create their characters, and they all have an idea of what each other is creating and can deliberately seek out diversity between themselves. At the same time, the GM can hear those discussions, and can begin refining the campaign accordingly.

The problem:

It sounds wonderfully Utopian, doesn’t it? It often falls apart in practice, though the cause may vary with game system.

In D&D, Pathfinder, and other such systems, not all classes are created alike, and some require a lot more time to generate a member. That leaves the other players – and the GM – twiddling their thumbs. In a points-buy system like GURPS or the Hero system, many players agonize over where to spend those last two points, taking forever to dot the i’s and cross the T’s of their character design.

It’s enough to drive a GM back to method #1…

Newer Method 3: Phased Introduction

When I ran my TORG campaign, I deliberately sought a third path to character creation, based around the deliberate restriction of options.

To understand it, you need to at least understand the fundamental background of TORG, so I’ll diverge from discussing what I did long enough to fill you in: This bad dude known as the Gaunt Man created a conspiracy amongst a handful of extra-dimensional realities to invade the Earth because it was abundant in something called Possibility Energy, which could be used by those invaders to reshape reality to their own benefit. England was transformed by the invasion by the Fantasy realm of Aysle; The east coast of North America was unrecognizable after being transformed by the Lost-World-styled Living Land; France was dominated by a Cybertech-oriented interpretation of a medieval theocracy, the Cyberpapacy; Japan was dominated by Nippon Tech, a hyper-capitalist society full of Manga-style high tech, ninjas, betrayal, the Yakuza, and small groups of insurgents fighting for their lives and independence; Indonesia/the Pacific became the stronghold of the Horror-based realm of Orrorsh, ruled by the Gaunt Man himself; and Egypt was reshaped into the Pulp/Superhero “New Nile Empire”, a blend of ancient Egyptian motifs and theology, weird science, and four-color action. The alliance, quite naturally, didn’t last, and the “High Lords” of each of these realms began to conspire against each other, and (in some cases) with internal rebellions.

There’s a lot more, but that’s all you need to know to understand the campaign.

I started the campaign before the invasion of Earth, and set the initial campaign within the Fantasy Realm of Aysle. The PCs were initially charged with hunting down a rampaging dragon of unprecedented size and power. This was a quest that took a year of fortnightly adventuring, and as they pursued it (and saw the power of Corruption – think “the dark side of the Force” – spread over the land), they discovered that it’s power was a contrivance by one of the factions of the court, allied to a stranger (The Gaunt Man, which the players knew but the characters didn’t) as a means of undermining and ultimately overthrowing the ruler of the Realm, enabling the Realm to join the invasion of Earth. Ultimately, they defeated the Dragon, but were too late in doing so to prevent the coup.

That brought the campaign into Phase II, in which the players were the linchpins of a conspiracy/rebellion aimed at ousting the usurpers and restoring Pella Ardinay to the throne. Of course, the usurpers were well aware of the danger of a counter-coup, and had arranged an assassination in such a way that they had plausible deniability; the PCs were able to prevent the assassination but were caught in a trap set by the Gaunt Man (who didn’t fully trust the competence of his allies) and frozen in time.

When they were released by the trap, five years had passed; the invasion of Earth had now taken place, but the dethroned Ayslish ruler had regained her throne with the aid of the rebellion established by the PCs and had reached terms with the “Core Earth” Monarchy/Government of England.

That brought the campaign into Phase III, in which the PCs began to travel the Earth and the other realms trying to understand the invasions and how it could be won, once and for all. The whole campaign was laid out as a “Grand Tour” of the invading Realms, each of which had it’s own set of natural laws and internal logic.

Okay, so that’s the campaign in a nutshell. Now consider the implications for character generation.

In Phase I, the characters had to be Fantasy Staple characters. Fighters, a Mage, and so on. I also specified that they had to be Human, since that was the dominant species in Aysle.

In Phase II, a character could retire and be replaced any time the player wanted, and a more diverse selection of Fantasy races were available after the PCs had made contact with the race in question. He could also transfer up to half his earned experience (Possibility Points, used to alter reality) to the new character – but there was a catch: if the new character died, he would be replaced with the earlier character, but any transferred points, AND any earned subsequently, would be lost. In the meantime, the old character would become an NPC to be put “on ice” within the campaign. If the player elected to continue with their original PC, and died, they would have to generate a new character and would lose ALL the Possibility Points accrued by the old character. This encouraged a trade-in without forcing it on anyone; staying with their original character would give them a more effective PC, but it was betting the whole wad on each hand. Oh yes, and only one character could “upgrade” per adventure.

In Phase III, a character could retire and be replaced, but would have to be a native to wherever the PCs were at the time, using the same transfer rules; or could be killed out and a new “local character” generated. That’s how the PCs, bit by bit, came to consist of a Dwarven Mage, a Masked Hero, a cloned Ninja Assassin, and a walking plant-priest with Cybernetic Implants.

There’s one common principle embedded in this technique, and that is for the players to become at least somewhat familiar with the environment through their old characters before they got to generate a character deriving from that Reality. This was my way of educating the players about the game world, and it worked very well. Sadly, the campaign folded – well, technically was suspended, but it has never resumed – just as the PCs were on the verge of getting the information and tools they needed to really start changing the Status Quo in a major way, playing three of the High Lords off against each other (Nile Empire, Cyberpapacy, and Nippon Tech), defeating the High Lord of the Living Land, and developing a weapon that combined all five of those realities’ technology – which was when it was going to be discovered that the Gaunt Man had escaped from the prison in which he had been placed during the 5-year interim, leading to a final showdown for the whole box and dice.

So that’s option three: phasing characters in based on what is available, and controlling that availability through Plot. “Join the campaign! See the world! Go to interesting places, meet interesting people, and decide whether or not you want to be one of them!”

I took a different approach again when setting up the original Zenith-3 campaign…

Newer Option Four: The Structured Team

Because I wanted to be sure that each character was different, and wouldn’t tread on each other’s toes too much, I listed the essential character archetypes and specified that once a slot was taken, no other character could use that archetype until every archetype had at least one representative – and it was first-come, first-served, in order of asking to join the campaign. As it happened, there was no conflict, and everyone got the archetype that they wanted: a brick, an energy projector, a martial artist, a psionic, a gadgeteer, and a detective.


I employed the same approach to setting up the first Fumanor campaign, with elements of the Phased concept from the TORG campaign. Classes were restricted in choice (but always more than there were PCs) and non-human races were only permitted after milestone events that added them to the choices available. The initial adventure was two humans from the country on their way to the big city to join the Adventurer’s Guild, their respective townships’ mandated contributions to the common good; they were subsequently joined by an Elf and a… I don’t remember now, to be honest. Another human, I think. Later, a human was transformed into a Halfling.

Once again, the plot dictated what choices were available, but which of those options a player chose to explore and exploit was up to them. The biggest difference was that there was no trade-in; if a player seriously wanted to change race or class, it was a Big Deal (but there were ways of doing so).

Each campaign enlarged the pool of options available – most of the core classes were soon on offer, and races now available are Human (Three very different cultures), Elf (four varieties), Dwarf, Minotaur, Drow, Halfling, Orc, Ogre, Verdonne (a more agile Treant), and Dwarfling. On top of that, they also had a Mummy for a while, but that didn’t really work out for them.

The technique, on the other hand, worked very well.

Which brings me to my new idea…

New Option Five: Bidding For Characters

There are eight simple steps to this process.

  1. Once again, the GM lists the archetypes or classes that he considers essential. These can be grouped – “Sorcerer/Wizard”, “Barbarian/Fighter/Ranger/Paladin”, or whatever; and also notes any that do not fit the game world that he or she has in mind.
  2. He/She may also specify available races, and may set a maximum or minimum number of each – “At least one Elf and one Dwarf, no more than two of either” is as valid as “all humans” or “all Trolls,” for that matter.
  3. He provides this as a list to the players, who go away and design a character concept for each of the archetypes/classes, an idea of what that character will be like – personality, motivation, personal history, future development, plotlines desired, and so on. Each player then submits his proposals to the GM. These are the player’s “bids” for that role within the adventuring party.
  4. If there are any mandated races, the GM starts by ranking each of the proposals for that race, from most interesting or campaign-appropriate to least interesting or campaign-appropriate. Whatever archetype/class was specified by the bid is thus allocated to the player, and none of his other proposals are required. Repeat this step until the minimum number of representatives required of each race is complete.
  5. Excluding any bids whose players already have an archetype allocated, the GM then ranks the remaining ideas for the first empty archetype. The best idea gets the winning bid, and is excluded from further consideration. Repeat this step until every archetype slot has at least one representative, or you run out of players. Maximum racial representation limits may rule some proposals out of consideration.
  6. If there are any players without positions allocated, simply pick the most interesting proposal from that player.
  7. Review the assemblage. Will they work well together? Will they compliment each other? Will their plotlines give different characters the opportunity to participate? Are there interesting potential connections? Does the character give the GM ideas (write these down)? If not, review your choices – it might be that the second most-interesting/appropriate option somewhere down the line will produce a better character group. Work backwards to do this until you reach the step where the character that fits least-well was allocated, change that allocation, and proceed from there. Some of your choices may remain the same, but you have a bunch of new suggestions to consider, so it’s also possible that none of them will end up matching. Continue juggling the roster until you have the most interesting campaign foundation possible.
  8. Notify the players of which of their submissions has been accepted.

If the players have done their part correctly, they will only have made any effort on the class/archetypes that they are most interested in playing. Ideally, they will list a character for every role that will appeal to them, but realistically, I know better. The result is that the player is guaranteed to receive a choice that he will enjoy playing, and since this choice has been made to better integrate with both the PC group and the campaign world, it will automatically be a better choice than any that could be made “blind”, and even more fun to play.

It might seem like the GM has a lot of work to do, but realistically, the process is designed so that he doesn’t have to read most of the proposals. The benefit for him is that the character choices will suit the adventures and campaign that he wants to run, something that might happen by blind chance – just as someone will eventually win the lottery. The odds might be about the same, too.

An example (following the same steps)

There are four players for a new D&D/Pathfinder campaign.

  1. The GM specifies the archetypes that he needs as “archer”, “muscle”, and “spellcaster”, and that he wants three character proposals from each player, one for each of these roles. What else the character can do is up to the player and the standard character generation procedure.
  2. The GM decrees that he needs at least one Dwarf and one Elf among the PCs, but no more than that. No more than two submissions by any given player should be the same PC race, either.
  3. The players take these requirements and any campaign briefing and create their character “bids:
    • Player one proposes a Human Fighter, a Dwarven Fighter, and an Elven Druid.
    • Player two proposes an Elven Ranger, a Human Barbarian, and a Dwarven Cleric.
    • Player three proposes a Human Rogue, an Elven Fighter, and a Human Mage.
    • Player four proposes an Elven Paladin, a Half-Orcish Fighter, and a Human Cleric.
  1. The GM starts by looking at the Dwarven proposals. He has two: a Fighter in the “Muscle” archetype and a Cleric in the “Spellcaster” archetype. The latter offers some interesting ideas about the relationship between their habitats and lifestyle and their theology, the former is fairly routine. Player two wins the bidding for a spellcaster.
  1. The GM then looks at the Elven proposals. He sets aside those of player two, leaving him with three: a Druid in the “Spellcaster” archetype, which can be ignored for the moment because the campaign already has a spellcaster; a Fighter in the “Muscle” category which has interesting background and plot suggestions; and a Paladin in the “Archer” archetype, which is an interesting and unusual combination, but which would not fit into the campaign as well. Player three wins the bidding for Muscle.
  2. So the bidding for the Archer comes down to players one and four. Player one’s Human Fighter proposal has a dark secret and feels a serious need to atone for his past, a fairly strong characterization; Player four is proposing an Elven Paladin, which would provide an interesting contrast to the Dwarven Cleric. Both are strong proposals, and the choice would come down to which would better fit the campaign (if the plan is to focus on theology, player four would get the nod, if not, it would be player one, as this would enable the campaign to cover a greater range of adventures) – were it not for the “no more” maximum limit on Elves. So player one has won the bid.
  3. That leaves only the decision of what Player 4 will be allocated. The Elvish Paladin has already been rejected, leaving only a Half-Orcish Fighter and a Human Cleric. The latter is fairly humdrum and would cover much of the same territory as the Dwarven Cleric; the former is intriguing, especially with the cultural proposals that have been offered with it. So player four is allocated the Half-Orcish Fighter.
  4. The GM reviews the party: A Dwarven Cleric (spellcaster), an Elven Fighter (muscle), a Human Fighter (archer), and a Half-Orcish Fighter (muscle). Two fighters up front, one at the back (who can move forward in a pinch), and one who can be either in front or in the back depending on the need. The GM decides that it’s an interesting party and will bring out interesting perspectives on the game world; and also notes that the Elf is the closest thing they have to a rogue, thanks to his innate senses – but that he would be compromised in that role by his focus on Strength over Agility. Since he didn’t list that as one of the archetypes explicitly, that doesn’t matter – in this campaign.
  5. With the decisions made, the GM informs the players of which characters they should generate. Of the twelve proposals, he’s had to look at nine. He also indicates to players two and three that they should generate the Barbarian and the Mage as backup characters, respectively. He tells players one and two that neither of their other proposals will work, and they should come up with something else as a backup choice, should anything ever happen to his primary character.
One Final Step:

Lastly, while it might seem to the GM that yielding the best possible combination of interesting characters and a better fit between PCs and Campaign are their own reward, nevertheless he should provide some sort of concession or reward to the players to assist them in actually rendering these designs rather than leaving them completely at the mercy of die rolls.

If I were doing it, I would permit the players to use the “roll 4 dice and choose the best three results” character generation technique, but furthermore, would allow that “extra dice” to be moved (before rolling) to another stat up to three times in the process for stats that the character really does need to be high if the character is to be effective within their selected niche. So a character could end up with one stat being “roll 7 dice and pick the best 3 results” while the others are all “roll 3d6”, or there could be one stat at “roll 6 dice and pick the best 3 results” and another that retains its initial “roll 4 and pick the best 3”, leaving 4 stats at “roll 3d6” – IF one of their character proposals is accepted.

It’s that simple – and should yield better campaigns, more interesting PCs, and more interested players, every time.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 4: About Players


Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. I plan to complete the series in blocks of three articles, with fortnightly spacing.

I’ve read a lot of nonsense and enlightened theory over the years when it comes to players. It all seems to posses a grain of truth and yet to somehow miss the mark. Here’s the real truth: a lot of the activities involved in an RPG can be entertaining and viscerally satisfying, with each individual enjoying some parts of the process more than others. The single most enjoyable part of the process will vary, from week to week, from character to character, from campaign to campaign, from GM to GM, and from player to player, and articles that attempt to define, analyze, or otherwise codify a “type” of player are always equally misleading and valuable as a result. And that makes them dangerous to use as a guide to what your adventures should contain.

I put most of the problems down to oversimplification and attempting to pigeonhole complex personal characteristics. And yet, there remains that nagging sense that such classification systems seem to make sense, at least partially.

Another problem is that most of these classification systems fail to distinguish causes from effects. If my character is primarily designed for combat, my day won’t be complete unless there is some combat – anything else generally means that I’m not getting my share of the spotlight. Players can and will tolerate a limited amount of that, especially if they are engaged in other ways, but it’s a little unfair to characterize someone as a “power gamer” if their focus is on their character’s combat effectiveness if that is defined as the central thrust of the character archetype that they are playing. Some of the characterization of the players that such classification systems provide is self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words.

The most enjoyable part – factors

Before I go too far, let’s look at those different factors (and one or two additions) that I have mentioned in a little more detail.

Day-to-day variations

Sometimes, a person will feel like blowing off steam; sometimes, they will enjoy putting on someone else’s persona; sometimes, the intricacies of a plot will fascinate. People change with their moods, and those are affected by their state of mind and the experiences they have had in their last week.

These also have a fundamental impact of the characters that they create – if they felt like just letting rip with something destructive in the week when character creation takes place, they will build a combat monster. Thereafter, they are typecast in that role – which is fine if this mood is a regularly-recurring theme within their personality, but not so useful if that particular week was an aberration.

Campaign Variations

Some campaigns will lend themselves to different types of engagement. Others are more universal. If you’re running a zombie apocalypse. there won’t be much room for being a generous, giving person, or for deep politics. Shooting things, hacking at things with an axe or chainsaw, and blowing stuff up – that’s going to be far more prevalent. Nor will there be a lot of scientific insight. On a sci-fi campaign, science, logic, and deduction are pretty much going to be expected week-in and week-out. Fantasy needs to feel fantastic, a sense that anything can happen within the constraints of the campaign concept parameters. Superhero campaigns require the PCs to be the good guys on a regular basis. Pulp campaigns need to have a strong action-adventure element, and Pirates campaigns have an even stronger need to swagger and swashbuckle. Each of these campaign types (and more besides) may appeal to an individual for different reasons at different times, and be totally off-putting at other times.

Character Variations

I’ve already touched on this. Some characters have a natural function within the group setting, and what the player will enjoy more than anything else is fulfilling that natural function in a way that speaks to their personal predilections. If the roleplayer in the group has the ‘combat monster’ of the party, he will want to bring that roleplaying element into the combats (whether he realizes it or not).

When the character’s role within the group aligns with the players personal predilections and the character is regularly given the opportunity to perform that group function, the player will generally enjoy playing that character more than if there is a misalignment in one of these ingredients.

GM Variations

Every GM is an individual person with their own strengths, weaknesses, tastes, and style. Once the players recognize those attributes within the GM, they will find that certain types of game activity play to those strengths and produce a more enjoyable game, while others will simply frustrate. Players who sign up for one of my campaigns, for example, know that there will be great depth within the campaign, and it will never be simply a combat slugfest; that plot and story will be the fundamental drivers of everything that happens; and that characters will be rich and complex in characterization (often more-so than my ability to express those personalities in-game). That means that combat monsters tend to find little challenge in my games, because the combats are often easier to win than they technically should be. Those strengths and predilections inform the choice of genre that I make, and the capacity for enjoyment that is available within the game for any particular type of character. The more that the player’s choices play to my strengths as a GM, the more engagement there is between us in-game, and hence the greater the potential enjoyment that results.

Adventure Variations

Some adventures make the players want to do certain things more than others – a particular villain might get under their skin, so that all they want to do is flatten him, for example. Or the GM may bring a character to life so vividly that interacting with that character becomes a primary reward.

Player Variations

Players do tend to have particular preferences for all sorts of things, from different adventure types to different group roles to different character archetypes. Some players enjoy making sure that each of their characters is radically and fundamentally different to each of the others; some like to stand out from the majority of the group, seeking spotlight time through distinctiveness; some have a marked predilection for playing endless variations on the same basic theme or themes.

Existing Classification Systems

Before I go any further, I should provide a slew of links to the different player analyses that I found in researching the subject. I’ve already voiced my criticism, but they all contain an element of truth that makes it difficult to dismiss them out-of-hand. Any GM who wants to satisfy his players should at least look them over before proceeding, so that we are all proceeding from a common foundation. All links will open in a new tab/window.

Glen Blacow in an article in Different Worlds #10 (Steve Jackson Games, 2001), formulated a list of 4 types of player. Robin D. Laws, in Robin’s Laws Of Good Game-mastering, expanded this to six, and subsequent contributors and discussion have added a seventh. A number of variations have been proposed in different articles and publications through the years. You can read the list of seven, and their defining characteristics, at

EnWorld has a thread which extends and modifies these definitions into ten types. have attempted to codify player types according to three more fundamental properties: Dramatist, Gamist, and Simulationist, combinations of which yield multiple player types, which is sometimes referred to as the Threefold Model. This took place within a newsgroup discussion of player types on You can read about the three player types on Darkshire’s website, and it’s well worth reading; in many ways, it represents the state of the art of understanding players.

Ron Edwards has devised an alternative formulation in a 6-chapter treatise, called the GNS Theory, and it is equally a contender for “state of the art” honors. You can read it (each of the chapters, plus the introduction, have a separate web page) at “The Forge“. It’s longer and a bit more technical than the Threefold Model.

Wizards Of The Coast developed a 2-axis analysis of player types based on customer surveys to help better target their products. It’s appealing in that any individual can occupy any given point along each of the axes. You can read about it and view the graph on Sean K. Reynold’s website. The graph is fairly self-explanatory, and yields a five-fold classification system for player types. I definitely think this is on the right track in contemplating player types as being on a continuum between polar extremes, and recommend readers take a look.

Amagi Games list no less than 16 types of pleasure that players may receive from their gaming experience on this web-page. I’m not sure about the names for the different types of pleasure and where they have originated, and at times the writeup can feel like it’s talking about computer games more than RPGs, but there’s a lot to commend this list. If your campaign can provide all these different kinds of pleasure, it’s probably a winner – but I suspect that this is an extreme that’s only achievable in theory. Nevertheless, being aware of these is definitely a step in the right direction.

A richer classification system

I don’t think it’s fair to be so critical without having something better to offer as an alternative. I have devised a classification system that I consider the most definitive on offer.

It’s based on three premises:

  1. That different things can appeal to the same person when placed in a different context;
  2. That game properties can be defined only in terms relative to either an extreme or its extreme opposite that are based on the types of game activities that yield a particular type of pleasure, and in which any given value between and including those extremes is equally valid in terms of providing enjoyment for some potential player;
  3. That any given individual doesn’t occupy a point on any given axis, but instead occupies a region; if you were to rate each axis on a 0-10 scale (with 0 and 10 being the two extremes, and 5 being the exact midpoint), a given individual might enjoy that aspect of gaming from 3 to 6, say, or 2 to 5, or 8 to 9, or even 2 to 8. Boundaries can be strict, but they are more likely to be fuzzy – which means, taking a 3-6 range for example, that the ideal is actually 4-5, if a game, an adventure or a day’s play rates as a 3 or a 6 in that respect they can still enjoy the game if they are in the right mood, but that aspect of the game is beginning to intrude on that pleasure, so they won’t enjoy it quite as much; outside that range 1 step again – a 2 or a 7 – they can still have fun, but that is despite the relevant aspect of the game, and potentially even diminished by it; and one step further than that is definitely a step too far for their tastes. See the diagram below if that’s not clear.

range on axis

Based on those premises, I have identified 9 axes of game content. Some exist in isolation, others can only be understood in the context of one or more of the others, but they all fit the criteria established. They are:

  1. Immersion in Character: from Persona to Tactician
  2. Immersion in World: from Participant to Observer
  3. Immersion in Concept: from Thinker to Action Man / Actor
  4. Immersion in Drama: From Actor to Action
  5. Immersion in Conflict: From Gritty to Clean
  6. Immersion in Plot: From Novelist to Jock
  7. Immersion in Interaction: From Second Skin to Omniscient
  8. Immersion in Amazement: From Fantasy to Simulationist
  9. Immersion in Heroism: From Altruist to Self-indulgence
Players Are Complex Creatures

Before examining these in detail (or at least, defining them), I wanted to point out that players are people, and people can be very complicated. It’s entirely possible for someone to like one particular activity in one particular context and dislike it intensely in another. For example, getting deep into one particular character’s psychology and thought patterns might be a lot of fun because of the personality or originality of that character, while the same player finds the exercise dull with characters that are more “stock”.

Or, the player might normally be a roleplayer of the “Actor” variety, enjoying interaction with NPCs, but in one particular Genre, they enjoy the role of being more of an Action Character who does things because the subjects of discussion don’t interest the player and are therefore tedious.

You can have players who enjoy the sense of wonder in Fantasy but find the science in science fiction to be overly technical and uninteresting – and so prefer a character who doesn’t have to deal with those technicalities and can just get on with creating mayhem on the battlefield.

In technical terms, if you map the axes in 9-dimensional space (something that’s only possible in a computer or in theory), such players would have multiple “locii” or bubbles of preference – and some would require additional labels, because there’s nothing explicitly labeled “genre” in the 9 parameters.

Don’t fall into the trap of pigeonholing people too explicitly!

One word of warning before we begin – a caveat, if you will: I’ve tried not to let my personal style and tastes interfere with an objective position in discussing these player/game traits, but may not completely succeed. Assess them with that in mind, and don’t let your own preferences and capabilities color your judgment as to the validity of any of these approaches. I may not be able to decorate a cake but can still recognize and appreciate the artistry of those who can!

1. Immersion in Character: from Persona to Tactician

The Character Axis runs from deep immersion in Persona to virtually zero immersion in Persona, in which the world is viewed more as a tactical playing field held at arm’s length. If it makes no difference what sort of character you are playing, and everything is viewed as a game or a tactical exercise, then you have a very low Immersion in Character.

Game system choice can be critical to this axis; some game systems mandate more intensive mechanics and those naturally drag campaigns toward the Tactician extreme. Other games explicitly reward actions taken in-character, so that no tactical decision should ever be made without consideration of the personality of the character, and they pull campaigns in the other direction.

Genre is less significant on this axis, but GMing style and strengths are a definite factor. The more focus the GM places on detailed settings, the more a campaign will tend to favor a Tactician over a Persona. The more the focus is on plot or personalities, the more a campaign will favor a tendency to Persona, i.e. exhibit a strong demand for Immersion in Character.

2. Immersion in World: from Participant to Observer

There is a lot of overlap between this axis and the last one. A Participant interacts with the game environment, engages with it, manipulates it, and directs his involvement with it, seeing it as a constantly-evolving place; an Observer sees the world as a static diorama, where nothing changes very much, and where most details that are not immediately relevant to the situation at hand can be ignored completely.

Genre is completely irrelevant to this axis, except insofar as a particular combination of world immersion may be favored by an individual within specific genres and not others; this is more about how adept the GM is at bringing the game world to life around the players and making it responsive to their interaction with it.

A lot of advice makes the erroneous leap of assuming that strong immersion in world is better than weak; this is only true if your goal as a GM is strong immersion in character, because the world provides the context for character. It is much harder to achieve strong immersion in character if you can’t achieve strong immersion in World, and the combination appeals to more players than the opposite combination. A lot of gaming advice focuses on achieving a stronger combination as a way of improving a campaign as a result, but there are more varieties of campaign (and of player) than that, and they are all equally valid to those who enjoy them.

3. Immersion in Concept: from Thinker to Action Man / Actor

Some players enjoy expanding their understanding of a universe and its’ intricacies; others don’t like deeply conceptual or philosophic engagement and want to be doing something. Note that the “something” may be either roleplayed interaction or simulated physical activity, ie Acting or Action; either is equally valid.

4. Immersion in Drama: From Actor to Action

The distinction between the two exists in the next criterion, Immersion in Drama. A strong immersion in drama is more about the players being akin to improvisational actors in a radio play; a weak immersion in Drama is about more visceral modes of enjoyment, whether that be rolling a lot dice, or beating the odds, or getting a high total, or simply thumping something until it says “ouch” – repeatedly and very loudly.

This is one area where player engagement tends to be all over the “map”; they may have a relatively weak preference one way or the other, most of the time, but in the case of any given individual there will be exceptions everywhere along the axis. As a result, the most successful adventures and campaigns tend to be those that demand a blend of the two approaches – a time for talking (in character) and a time for playing the action hero or doing something.

Nevertheless, GMs, campaigns, and even genres have trends one way or the other along this axis. Most Fantasy and Western trends toward the Action; Most Sci-Fi averages around the middle but only by swapping from one extreme to the other; Most Pulp also favors the extremes, though the action elements either occur with greater frequency, greater intensity, or both, and the actor elements tend to be about getting to the next action sequence. Super-spies follow much the same pattern. And so on.

GMing style also introduces a trend; I enjoy, and am good at, GMing Drama, and enjoy less, and am less skilled at, Action. My campaigns naturally play to my strengths.

Here’s a really good test: If you can successfully GM a game in which you are given stats for the NPCs but no personalities, you are strong at Action; If you can successfully GM a game in which you are given personalities but no stats, you are strong in Actor. As you can tell from the recent examples that I have posted, I sometimes have minimal stats or none at all for the featured villains in my Superhero campaign, so I fall naturally into the latter group, as I said earlier. I can only roleplay a stat block by translating it into character terms, and will frequently ignore a stat block if it is contradicted by my visualization of an NPC’s personality.

I have seen other GMs who were/are the complete opposite, utterly incapable of running a combat sequence without first defining the numbers, but excellent at GMing once they have done so.

5. Immersion in Conflict: From Gritty to Clean

Once again, there is a level of synchronicity between this axis and the last, so much so that a lot of people treat it as being a further extension of the Immersion in Drama characteristic. Under that model, the definitive points on the Drama axis run “Actor – Abstract Action – Realistic Action” or even “Actor – Cinematic Combat – Simulationism”. I think these are entirely separate qualities, and that Cinematic Combat and Simulationist Combat are equally valid traits or trends for a campaign; the preceding axis (Immersion in Drama) relates to the relative importance of combat to the game session, regardless of the mode of representation within the game of that combat.

To emphasize this, I have deliberately “reversed the polarity” of the extremes so that the extreme that most people think of last is the one listed first.

Gritty combat is combat where you can smell the cordite and hear the wheet of the bullets as they fly past your ear, and every detail has to be delineated carefully and precisely; “clean”, “abstract”, or “cinematic” combat doesn’t worry about the sand between your toes or the specifics of caliber and muzzle velocity, it focuses on “look and feel and SPEED” instead. As I wrote last year, in my 3-part series on Cinematic Combat, they both have their place, times when one will serve better than the other.

So this is about trends. If 99% of the combats you run are detailed and precise, you tend toward the gritty end of the spectrum; if 50-50, you’re in the middle; and if, most of the time, you incline towards drama and the cinematic style of combat, you’re at the “clean” end of the spectrum. Similarly, player preferences can trend this way or that.

Genre can be surprisingly important to this preference. The more trouble a player or GM has getting his head around the defining characteristics of a genre – the science in Sci-Fi, the fantastic in Fantasy, the supernatural in Call Of Cthulhu – the more they will want the numbers and impacts to be nailed down so that they have a greater measure of control over them, and that pushes the preference toward the gritty end. The more readily they can absorb those things, the more satisfied they will be with a “cleaner” approach, permitting the advantages of the cinematic style an opportunity to make themselves felt.

An example from real life: A former player of my acquaintance, Dennis Ashelford, once came to me with a character concept for one of the spin-offs derived from my main Superhero campaign: a character who can alter the Permeability and Permittivity Constants of the Universe. He had mentioned the concept to others and drawn only blank looks (which I imagine a number of my readers are also sporting right now); I was the only GM he knew who “got” the implications instantly. “That would let you change the speed of light in a vacuum in a controlled manner, which would alter relativistic effects and also – assuming that the energy total in a beam of photons remained constant – would change the amount of that energy that would be expressed in either shorter or longer wavelengths. Ordinary Light could be used to trigger remote controls, you could alter the electrical potentials between two materials so that even turned off at the switch they were activated…” and went on to list another half-dozen applications of this power, Dennis growing more excited with every word. No-one else “got” it; they would have needed to have those applications spelt out in black and white on the character sheet in order to run a game with that character. I got it, but had him do that black and white spelling out for three reasons: one, I assumed that he would have different levels of control over the different applications; two, I assumed that some would take more out of him than others; and three, it simplified the “interpretation of circumstances” part of the process of administering combat, freeing that part of my mind up to process other equally-worthy matters.

6. Immersion in Plot: From Novelist to Jock

I have to admit that I struggled to find an appropriate term for the extreme that is the opposite of “Novelist”. “Jock” isn’t quite right, so don’t read too much into it. (I almost named it “Audience” but that’s not quite right, either).

When the storyline matters, that’s immersion in plot, and it requires that the players be participants in the shaping of that plot before the storyline can matter; if they are mere observers, following the linear plots of the GM, then it doesn’t matter how interesting and compelling the narrative is, players can’t immerse themselves in it. But that’s not to say that campaigns with low levels of Immersion in plot are bad or inferior; that’s only true in the case of this one specific cause of the low level of Immersion. If the plot is nothing more than a dialogue- or combat-delivery mechanism, is simply a navigational route into whatever trouble the PCs have to battle this week, that’s a low immersion in plot, because you can ignore the plot and not miss anything important.

I sometimes think that this axis can also be equated to the inherent degree of situational evolution within a campaign. The more things change, the more plot-driven everything is, and hence the greater the demand for immersion in plot if the campaign is to be successful. If the campaign is more “monster of the week” in nature, and the rest of the game doesn’t evolve very much if at all, then the plot doesn’t matter and there is consequently a low immersion. This equates “high continuity” with “Novelist” and “serialized” with “Jock”. But I have come to the opinion that the relationship is more complex than that, mostly as a result of my recent article, “The Rolling Retcon: how much campaign history is fixed?,” which took a good hard look at the concepts of continuity and serialization.

7. Immersion in Interaction: From Second Skin to Omniscient

There is a very strong resemblance between this trait and the second one listed, “Immersion in World”. When there is a high immersion in Interaction, you wear your character like a second skin, and everything is treated as though it were happening to you personally. When there is a low immersion in Interaction, it’s as though you were watching the game unfold from on high, with virtually no involvement at a personal level.

The resemblance between these extremes and those of “Immersion in World” (Participant and Observer, respectively) almost led me to remove this from the list, but before I did so, I had to ask two specific questions: Could you have a player who enjoyed roleplaying his character in a game in which the world was not well-delineated? and, Could you adopt an omniscient overview perspective on a world that was well-delineated, that engaged you? The answers were yes, and ‘not sure’, respectively – and that to me shows that there is a difference in the two types of Immersion even if one extreme of one (Observer) was virtually indistinguishable from one extreme of the other (Omniscient). More, it occurred to me that truly strong engagement with the game world would distract to some extent from complete immersion in character (and vice-versa); and that was confirmation of the decision.

The two can be rendered synonymous by defining strong immersion in World as “strong immersion in world as the character perceives it”; so the difference between the two is the difference between first- and third-person engagement in the world. That, in turn, defined for me the combination of strong engagement with the World and an Omniscient degree of engagement in Interaction – changing that “not sure” to a “yes”.

Immersion in Interaction is very important to me; this was the aspect of gaming that initially appealed to me as a player. The notion of becoming someone else, who didn’t have the same problems and baggage that I had in my personal life at the time, not only gave me relief from those problems, it was an irresistibly compelling source of pleasure, and one that no other activity available to me had to offer. If I’d been taught to play a musical instrument, I might have become a professional musician; if I had been given an opportunity to write something for publication, I might have become a professional novelist; if I had been presented with an opportunity to join a theatrical association, I might have become an actor; all three of those would offer the same appeal. Instead, I found gaming, and here I am.

Which is a way of saying that this axis tends to be very one-sided-or-the-other, very polarizing – there are those who can’t enjoy playing without a “Second Skin” focus, and those who can, with very little overlap between them. More than any other single factor, the games I have played in and not enjoyed had a low threshold for Immersion In Interaction.

When your character is ‘having a moment’ that you want to roleplay and the GM shifts the focus to someone else, the degree of frustration that is felt corresponds to the strength of your desire for Immersion in Interaction. It could be slight (low need) or intolerable (very high need) – and that makes this one of the most critical traits in terms of matching content to player desires, and hence the success of a game. For some players, in fact, virtually everything else can be on ‘the wrong side of the spectrum’ and the game will be acceptable, even enjoyable, provided they get their immersion-in-interaction fix. For others, it’s less important.

8. Immersion in Amazement: From Fantasy to Simulationist

‘Wait-a-minute,’ I can hear someone say. Didn’t you use the term “Simulationist” when describing the extreme of high immersion within Combat?

Yes, I did, but only in the context of a term that other people might apply. From my perspective, Simulationism embraces both gritty, detailed combat AND a low immersion in Amazement.

‘Fantasy’ is also a slight misnomer, just to compound the situation.

Immersion in Amazement is about the pleasure that is to be derived from appreciating ‘Cool-without-explanation-being-necessary’ to ‘I need to understand it before I can treat it as anything more than colored lights’. A high fantasy content might be “Engage the warp drive, Mr Sulu” or “I cast a spell on him” or “the bridge gives way” – it’s look-and-feel over content. A low fantasy content might be “Engage the matter-antimatter space-warp drive” or “I target my spell using the law of similarity and the clay effigy I made earlier” or “the load over the south-eastern pillar is too great for that rotted structure to sustain; with a tearing, ripping sound, it gives way, collapsing the span of the bridge from that end like a ribbon falling into the river below, and scattering those crossing it into the water like nine-pins.” Mandatory specificity of detail, no matter what the genre, is simulationist; the greater the trend toward Fantasy, the more of those details that can be, should be, and will be, glossed over.

9. Immersion in Heroism: From Altruist to Self-indulgence

The final factor is the one most closely allied to the mechanics of some game systems, and taken for granted in others. It’s also potentially the easiest to understand.

I thought about calling this “Immersion in Morality” which – in some respects – is closer to the an accurate description. Some players can only enjoy playing characters with a certain minimum level of darkness, while others are fine with very black-hearted characters. Some are only comfortable in a world in which morality is very black-and-white, while others enjoy the nuancing of shades of gray.

I also considered the possibility of a tenth axis, but decided it was unnecessary; self-indulgence was inherently amoral. I can’t think of any games in which you have both a strong moral code and PCs who routinely break that code; only when there was an absence of investment in being the hero were players free to walk the darker side, either as outright villains or as the morally ambiguous. Nor could I think of any way of structuring a campaign in which moral issues were central that did not posses a strong immersion in Heroism, because they all focus on questions that don’t matter to the morally ambiguous; it is only the strength of the moral code that gives such questions their force.

A strong immersion in Heroism produces the pleasure of doing good deeds, being heroic, and receiving the acclamation that is accorded to heroes. A weak immersion in Heroism produces the pleasures of self-indulgence, of not needing to try to do the right thing all the time. They can co-exist within the same game continuum because even in a campaign that gives license to self-indulgence, the characters can be compelled by the needs of personal survival to act in the common interest – but the characters are only interested in acclaim to the point where they can ‘spend’ it for their personal advantage.

The Practical Application: Classification Of Game / Adventure

Readers might be tempted to think that they should decide each of these characteristics for their campaigns so that potential players can judge their level of interest. Not so. That would mean that every adventure was a slight variation on a theme, and would become dull rather quickly. In fact, I would contend that no more than six of these should be predetermined characteristics of a campaign, and possibly as few as four, leaving the remainder to combine in various ways as different adventures.

Ah, but which four, five, or six? That’s a more complex question.

If there is any point of unanimity amongst your prospective players about what sort of game activities they enjoy, that should be a predetermined characteristic, and should be supported by the game system where that makes a difference. But that will probably only account for one or two of the axes, maybe three.

Next, we have the GM’s own preferences and skills to consider. If you aren’t good at certain types of game, your campaign design will reflect that and de-emphasize those aspects of your skillset that less developed. If your plots tend to be relatively simplistic, you would not expect strong immersion in plot. As a general rule of thumb, any characteristic in which you are reasonably comfortable with both extreme options should be fixed, if it isn’t already. Normally, that would account for three or four of the axes, but there will almost certainly be some overlap with the first criterion of judgment, the players. So it could be as few as one, and is unlikely to be more than three additional fixed determinants.

Finally, its back to the players; if there is no unanimity, but a strong preference toward one extreme or the other, make up the difference up to those six predetermined factors. The rest are where you will derive the variety within your adventures.

The Practical Application: Recruiting Players based on preferences

The alternative approach, when you have a large pool of players from which to recruit, is to specify only the items decided by GM preference, and by campaign concept, and leave it to those players to decide whether or not the idea holds sufficient appeal.

There is always a strong temptation, if someone has left an existing campaign, to recruit someone to replace them who enjoys the opposite of the departed player in terms of whatever their reason for leaving might have been. That means that if someone left because Investment in Heroism was not high enough for them (and they didn’t like not being able to trust the other players implicitly), seeking a player who enjoys the morally gray or the dark side might be a priority. If a character left because they walked the morally ambiguous line and the other players demanded a high Investment in Heroism, the desire might well be to recruit someone of like mind, even if they didn’t fit other areas of the campaign.

The Practical Application: Designing Campaigns / Adventures based on preferences

I love Immersion in Concept, and a lot of my campaigns focus heavily on it. My Co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Blair, has a deep dislike of what he calls “Cosmic” adventures, ie adventures which explore the Concepts in which the campaign is immersed; he would far prefer combat or character interaction. He tolerates a limited amount of Immersion in Concept because he enjoys the character interaction that is always an equally-strong force within my games (and likes playing his character). Which means that I need to focus on character interaction in any adventure that is primarily about Immersion in Concept so that he has something to enjoy. My other players enjoy Immersion In Concept, either in moderation, or in two cases, quite strongly, so Blair is the one that has to compromise a little. It’s just another aspect of sharing the spotlight on an adventure-wide scale.

This is an example of using these axes to determine the requirements of an adventure or campaign around the desires of your players. By leaving the Axis of Immersion In Concept free-floating, or even only trending to one extreme, I am determining that some of the adventures will demand a high Immersion in Concept, while others will demand almost zero. Some adventures will be “cosmic”; others will be down-to-earth.

My campaigns tend to have a strong Immersion in Plot; players who are less interested in that type of Immersion will either need something else that strongly appeals to them about the campaign, or they will leave – if they even join the campaign in the first place.

It’s also worth stating that absolutely none of these decisions are final and set in stone. You can have one adventure in a blue moon that invests heavily in a look-and-feel element that contradicts a more routinely-simulationist approach, for example; but, using these axes, you will know that the adventure will need to be especially in accordance with player preferences in several other areas to compensate.

That’s how to use these for adventure plotting: Decide on the basic premise and outline of the adventure, and then look at what additional requirements are imposed by the need to satisfy everyone else at your table.

Player Surveys

At their heart, what most player surveys is trying to get at are answers to the questions “I do/don’t like a strong Immersion in ____”. The problem is that most of them require interpretation, and possibly discussion; and not all players will take them seriously. They are very hard to make useful, and even harder to make interesting, and even harder to actually use.

What’s more, it’s not enough to make changes based on survey results, you have to be seen to make changes. Speed of response is critical; if you aren’t going to change things as radically as necessary immediately, you may well cause more trouble than you solve.

So, if I were to design a player survey these days, I wouldn’t ask a lot of questions the way some of them do. I would specify the campaign genre, and possibly the premise, and then simply draw ten bars across the page, with the extremes labeled 0 and 10. The first question asks how much the genre and premise appeal to the respondent (0 to 10); the rest simply list the types of immersion and ask how much the player enjoys games that emphasize that immersion. You could also label the extremes, if you wanted to. The final question is which of the above ten items is most important to you?, or perhaps, “which two”.

That takes most of the interpretational problem away, and permits an immediate response. It gets right to the heart of the matter.

Zones Of Intersection

If you were to plot the average responses from such a survey against the ratings fixed by the GM, you would find that there would be some areas of overlap, and some that don’t. Doing such a comparison on an individual basis might well be labeled “what [player] will probably enjoy most about the proposed campaign”.

Those areas of overlap are what I mean by the term “Zones of intersection”, and they form a reliable guide to how healthy that combination of players and campaign will be.

Zero Zones Of Intersection

No-one will be all that interested in that campaign, or anything resembling it. Something fundamental needs to be different, probably several somethings.

One Zone Of Intersection

This campaign will start and sputter to an extremely rapid halt. Some players may be so turned off by it that they might leave the hobby; they will certainly find other things that interest them more.

Two-to-Three Zones Of Intersection

This is a mediocre campaign. It might not thrive, but it can be habit-forming – if you emphasize the things people like over the things they don’t. Sooner or later, though, there will be an adventure that doesn’t hit the mark for anyone. If it happens sooner, the campaign will probably die; if it happens later, momentum may enable you to coast through, learning from the experience.

Four-to-Five Zones Of Intersection

This is a typical of a good campaign. Four-to-five common areas in which the campaign appeals, and making sure that each player has something in each adventure that they like, and you have a good chance of success in the long-term.

Six Zones Of Intersection

This is just about the perfect campaign. There’s enough that people like that you can explore just about any adventure, even contradict one or two of the zones of preference from time to time, and still present an enjoyable adventure. At the same time, you aren’t so constrained that there is no variety in the adventures you can tell, stylistically or in tone. It’s also rarely achieved.

Seven-to-Eight Zones Of Intersection

While it might seem like this is even more perfect than six, in reality this number of Zones Of Intersection indicates problems that will prevent longevity. If longevity of campaign is not a goal, then go for it! The problem is that there is not a lot of variety of adventure possible within the one or two areas of flexibility. That means that you will regularly be violating one or more player’s preferences with your adventure designs, effectively reducing the number of actual zones of intersection to “any four or five at a time” of the promised “seven to eight” – and, after a while, it begins to feel like the campaign is forever “just missing the mark” and is just B+ in grade. Good, but the promise was greatness, and this will only deliver a fraction of the time.

Nine Zones Of Intersection

If unfulfilled promises are a problem for those promising greatness, what of those who are promising gaming Nirvana? For a single-shot campaign module, this might be the gold standard to aim for; the rest of the time, the campaign won’t last – but will be epic while it does. Ultimately, though, it will be remembered not only for that greatness, but for how it all fell apart.

Why? Maintaining each of these standards is an effort for a GM. The more they enjoy an approach, the more of that effort they can tolerate, but it still takes its toll; and having nine zones of intersection sets too high a standard to be maintained.

The Prep-time relationship

Here’s another way to look at it: You can maintain three zones of intersection without a lot of effort – a single night to plan the next week’s adventure and you’re golden. But you will have to improv a lot.

Each additional zone adds a week to the basic prep time (assuming that you can only spend one night a week on prep), and every multiple of three doubles the existing prep time burden before that addition.

  • Four zones: an extra day for a total of 2. Some weekly games can manage this, most fortnightly games can manage it.
  • Five zones: three days. A few weekly games can manage, some fortnightly games. If the GM wants a social life beyond gaming, this campaign can only happen monthly.
  • Six zones: seven days. A weekly game requires the full-time attention of the GM; a few fortnightly games might manage, but realistically, you’re only going to be ready to run once a month. And your social life will suffer.
  • Seven zones: eight days. That social life has just been obliterated. Game prep is what you do on the weekends, every weekend. Not even doing game prep full-time is enough to sustain a weekly campaign any more.
  • Eight zones: nine days. That’s as good as saying ‘running the campaign fortnightly is a full-time job’ – because days spent playing don’t count for game prep.
  • Nine zones: 19 days. That’s as good as saying ‘running the campaign once a month is a full-time job.’

The reality is that whatever target level you set, shortcuts will be needed, whether you want to take them or not. So aim for one level less than your available prep time, and that’s the quality of game you can reasonably hope to provide.

Will there be exceptions? Inevitably. Both this and the Zones Of Interaction analysis in the preceding sections are nothing more than rules of thumb.

Here’s the bottom line:

To some extent, it’s true (and always has been) that the best way to prepare for being a GM is to learn how to be a player first – then analyze what you liked about how the GM did their job and why they have made the choices they have made. What needed greater emphasis? What was over-done?

But even if you’ve never played an RPG in your life, you can still succeed as a GM if you learn one basic lesson about players and made it central to everything that you do when behind the screen (physical or metaphoric):

Give every player a focus on something they enjoy in each and every game session, and your game will be a success. Predefining some aspects of the game to achieve that in the majority of cases frees your attention up to the task of being creative in all the other areas. The rest takes care of itself.

And that’s why the nine-axis theory is a better tool for understanding players: because it’s all about what those players want, and what you are going to be comfortable delivering as a GM, day-by-day, campaign-to-campaign, adventure after adventure, one day’s play after another.

The next part of this series will focus on Characters (I hope I can think of something to say!) and will appear in a Fortnight’s time – I intend to alternate this series with standalone articles.

On a completely unrelated note

Dirk of Shades Of Vengeance has been kind enough to send me review copies of several of the company’s products, including one that they are currently seeking funding to publish through Kickstarter. I haven’t had time to do more than skim the Kickstarter page but what I’ve seen is intriguing. The art looks amazing, if the game is at the same standards (and it looks to be) then this is definitely worth attention, and the premise is interesting. If you are interested in Sci-Fi based gaming (whether it be political games, action-adventure, or even something verging on the superheroic) make sure you check it out. They have already reached 200% of their funding target and there are still 13 days remaining in the campaign – so you are as guaranteed a product as you can be, it’s only a question of how many stretch goals will be unlocked!

I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to do a more substantial review, but I’ll try to sneak one in over the next week or two. In the meantime, go take a look, and back them if you like what you see as much as I do – and tell them that Mike at Campaign Mastery sent you!

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Pieces of Creation: Mictlan-tecuhtli

Mictlantecuhtli by Anagoria Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Image “2013-12-24 Mictlantecuhtli anagoria” by Anagoria – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Click on image to view license.

The last installment of The Great Character Giveaway features another villain from my Zenith-3 campaign, who could easily be adapted for Science Fiction or Cyberpunk use. It would take a bit more work to convert to a D&D/Pathfinder application, but the results – a living flesh Golem held together with healing potions – would be so interesting that it might be worthwhile.

The primary use to which this character was put in my campaign was as the villain in a locked room mystery. I’m going to avoid going into that too much – it’s too campaign-centric to be of much value to anyone else – but some description of it will be necessary.

I want to start by acknowledging my sources. Mictlan-tecuhtli is heavily derivative of the antagonists of the first two Novellas in Larry Niven’s “The Long Arm Of Gil Hamilton”, “Death By Ecstasy” and “The Defenseless Dead” which was later expanded into a larger collection of Gil Hamilton stories, Flatlander. Mictlan-tecuhtli combines the illness and need of a Loren with the rejection factor of an Anubis.

Okay, to the locked room mystery…
Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

The Mystery (in brief)

The earth in this campaign world keeps its convicted criminals in a teleport beam, perpetually bouncing them between The Moon and Alpha Centauri. While in this state, if there is an energy shortage, an individual can be randomly tapped for energy, aging them – so the longer you stay in the beam, the more you age, and the greater the chance that you won’t survive the experience. For these reasons, sentences tend to be about 1/5th the duration we expect in our culture. Instead of 20 years, you would get 5 years in the beam – and would emerge 20 years older. There is no biological decay while in an energy state, and the energy state doesn’t experience perceptible duration, so for the criminal, no time seems to have passed – he’s just instantly older. The world won’t have changed very much, which is believed to help the ex-convict reassimilate into society, and he certainly doesn’t get to interact with harder criminals or become ‘big man’ within his cell block. There’s absolutely no romance in a conviction, it’s all been squeezed out.

Bureaucracies are the same everywhere: no matter how much you protect against it, mistakes still happen. One such mistake led the Lunar Authorities to release the wrong prisoner – instead of a British Shoplifter who had completed her sentence, they instead retrieved Julian Greco, an Italian art forger, who wasn’t scheduled for release for another 7 years, real time. However, the body that came out was not that of Greco, but was rather that of Enrico Garcia-Finch, a Mexican engineer from the equivalent of NASA who had disappeared 7 months earlier. What’s more, Enrico’s body had quite clearly been deceased, with most of his organs removed, prior to his being inserted into the beam. Earth now had minimal holding capacity for prisoners, barely enough to hold those coming and going; they didn’t have the capacity to house even the convicted murderers in the beam, never mind the thousands held for lesser offenses. So they needed answers, fast, before public confidence in the criminal process was completely undermined, forcing the release of tens of thousands of convicted criminals back onto the streets.

The mystery was how someone had breached the most secure facility in the solar system to implant the body without it being noticed – and how many more were there?

To cut a long story short, the criminals used a very clever dodge. There were always ways to insert someone into the transport beam, if you were clever enough, but not without leaving a telltale energy trace. The only way to prevent the total energy being held by the system from increasing by 2 million Gigawatt-hours – the equivalent in energy of a 180-lb man – was to firstly remove the person who was supposed to be there (Greco) and replace him, then doctor the records of the incarceration. In fact, the criminals were even cleverer than that, building a fake set of the materialization room and putting their victim into the beam instead of the criminal who was supposed to be incarcerated in the first place, using the stationery supplier’s website to replace the official footage with their fakes.

For a while, the PCs thought that whoever was behind it had discovered a novel way to hide the remains of their organlegging operation, selling get-out-of-jail-free cards to anyone wealthy enough to afford one as a side-benefit – and well-connected enough to know of the opportunity. The criminal never advertised the service. In fact, the ‘rescued’ criminals also went into the Organ Banks – ensuring their silence forever; there was sufficient money in Organlegging that there was no need to take the risk. Similarly, it was cheaper and safer to bribe a corrupt judge than pull off any technical jiggery-pokery with the teleport beam.

And that is the defining trademark of our villain – maximum return and security for minimum exposure through finding and exploiting the gaps and seams in the system.

Mictlan-tecuhtli (Pavel Dimitri Chirkhov)

Pavel is a Russian man, exposed to contamination from the Chernobyl meltdown while in the womb [the Campaign is set in 2055], causing multiple organ failures over time, saved by transplants in the early 21st century. Became a doctor/bionanotech programmer through his fascination with what was happening to him. Developed pioneering new techniques as his replacement organs began to fail, contaminated by the radiation still within his system, especially the cesium and iodine absorbed into his bones. which enabled his life to be saved once again, but had to borrow money from the Russian Mafia to pay for the surgery.

Became addicted to painkillers, which cost him his job and medical license in 2035. With no other way to repay his debt, he went to work for the Russian Mafia in 2036, but the income he received was a pittance compared to his debts, which compounded monthly. Debts – and threats – began to pile up.

In 2045, his organs again began to fail, and as he was now a wanted criminal, he could no longer seek legal transplantation, and couldn’t afford it anyway. Resorting to Organlegging, he hacked the Civil Service database and identified a number of potential donors. He then discovered that his pre-natal radiation accident had given him abilities which could be used to subdue potential victims, enabling him to test their rejection profile for positive organ matches. When he found a suitable donor, he removed their organs, finding innovative ways to dispose of the bodies such that it would be years before they were discovered, but was never completely satisfied on that front. Because these activities were not authorized by his Russian employers, he adopted the nom-de-guerre Mictlan-tecuhtli, after the Aztec god of death. He also had his skin tattooed to hide his identity and his surgical scars.

Over time, he developed an elaborate costume to further confuse his identity, based around a skull-and-headdress mask and body armor, which helpfully concealed various external assistants for his still-failing organs. From the Russian Mafia, he gradually recruited a gang of thugs who he enhanced with transfusions of his own blood and with surgical implants. These fanatics half-believe that he is the real Aztec deity because of Mictlan-tecuhtli’s powers. They wear elaborate death-paint when operating in the field and have Aztec-style tattoos somewhere on their bodies. In particular, he recruited those who were suffering from organ failure and whose life he could save with illegal transplants – because he controls the supply of the transplanted organs, they need to remain loyal or die. This also confuses the trail because it means that there are multiple rejection profiles in operation, protecting his identity at the expense of making his operation more prominent.

With the proceeds from the organlegging, over the last 5 years he has been able to pay off his original debt to the Russian Mafia. They don’t know where the money is coming from and don’t especially care.


Mictlan-tecuhtli has learned to grow brain cells from stem cells which he creates by inserting extracted DNA from other individuals into empty cells. By injecting these into his cortex, he now has approx 1,000 “shadows” of minds within his own brain, managed and kept in line by nanotechnology. He can use these as subsidiary brains like a second processor in a computer, handing them a task and doing something else while he waits for an answer. Because these shadows are in total sensory deprivation, they never get distracted and focus exclusively on the task in hand. This also means that any psychic phenomena that are applied to him have to affect all 1,000 minds. He can even use this to put his body on “autopilot” if his main cortex is KOd somehow, essentially operating on instinct even when unconscious. This gives him the reputation and nickname of the man who never sleeps, “el hombre que nunca duerme”.

On addition, he has the following abilities:

  • Low level martial arts, Gets 3 actions / rnd instead of the usual 2
  • Spiderman-like Agility 75
  • Strength 75, usable at range, inanimate objects only
  • Superleap x3
  • “Death Burst”, turns 50 mana into 5d6 NND Explosive
  • “Soul Drain”, reduces active Chi of the target by 10d6 and redirects it to (a) END 1:2 (b) STUN 1:6 (c) HP 1:10 or (d) Chi 1:1
  • “Tijera”, divides a being into two halves which fight each other
  • “Electrical Touch”, 3d6 RKA + 5d6 EB linked, continuous for 3 rounds
  • “Muerte eye”, 10d6 Mental Attack forces target to witness death of loved ones and friends, 1 round, diminishing 1d6/round
  • “Anicos Fantasma” 1d6RKA + 5d6 Transform, shatters forcefields turning half the active points into Zero-Range EB, usable at Range
  • “Imbue”, grants 6 followers 25 STR 25 AGIL 2d6 HKA +50HP STUN
  • “Steal Life”, Drains followers HP by 5d6 and redirects it to (a) END 1:5 (b) STUN 2:1 (c) HP 1:1 or (d) Chi 10:1


Most of those powers are unnecessary. In fact, the only reason I gave him powers at all was to justify his followers fanaticism and make sure that the Psi on the team didn’t solve the mystery too easily; beyond that, he needs only some means of stunning his victims. The central premise of the character is someone who needs to perpetually steal body parts in order to keep himself alive, and who is incredibly clever at discovering the weak points in systems and exploiting them. It follows that conversion is not so much about his powers and abilities as finding some analogue for the skill at, and use of, transplant surgery.

For that reason, I don’t think it necessary to explain too much about the Game Mechanics involved; you can get the gist of what they do, and that’s all you really need.


I used an edit of this image by Alvarez Tequihua to illustrate Mictlan-tecuhtli to my players – essentially removing the parts that showed a human body. I used this image from tattooshunt to illustrate the gang tattoos. And I represented Mictlan-tecuhtli under the mask with a photograph of Jason Walter Barnum which I think I found by searching for “tattooed face“.

About The Name

I inserted a hyphen into the name to make it easier for me to pronounce. The actual Aztec Death God’s name is the same but without the hyphenation.

I hope my readers have enjoyed the Great Character Giveaway, which is largely an excuse to share the best creations from the last year within my games. As content from a working game, with real, practical limits on the GMs prep time, it also gives me a chance to demonstrate some of the advice and techniques that I have offered here. Starting next week – if all goes according to plan – this Thursday will revert to standalone RPG articles, vacating Mondays to make room for the continuation (on a fortnightly basis) of the Basics For Beginners series.

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Ask The GMs: Building on opportunity

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to get more of the ATGMs backlog dealt with – which has been the case for a few years now. Each year, I’ve done better at satisfying it, but not well enough. Things improved when I started asking the other GMs that I play with, but that also became a problem at times when I couldn’t get an opportunity to pose the question. To do still better at answering this requirement, I’ve decided that if I have a clear answer to offer, from time to time I will go ahead without waiting to consult others. After all, if they have anything to add, there is always the comments space.

Today’s question is all about resource management in RPGs, at least in the opinion of the person asking the question – and that’s where his problems really start…

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from Tchaico, who wrote:

“Hello, GM’s of the world. The game world I DM is heavily militarized. One of the players managed to became the commander of a small base, and is working to expand it. I wanted to know how can I handle this situation, since the core rulebook doesn’t have any guidance on finances, recruitment and overall base management.”

It’s said that every problem is an opportunity in disguise, and certainly that’s the case this time around. This is a classic case of not needing to be an expert in everything, just being an expert in faking it!

What Do You Need?

Okay, so your base commander wants to expand his base. What does he need? In order, from the top of my head:

  • Justification
  • Authorization
  • Accommodation
  • Supplies
  • Support Infrastructure
  • Budget
  • Administration
  • People

Let’s talk for a minute about each of these, because they each present an opportunity for roleplay, even for entire plotlines. And that’s the key; you don’t want the game to bog down into resource management, you want to use the player goal as a vehicle for plot. Doing that doesn’t require you to be an expert in finances, recruitment, or base management.


The first thing that he has to do is get authorization for expansion, and that means making his case to one or more superiors in the chain of command. These people will be aware of a much bigger picture than the PC will, and decisions will have been made on the basis of administration priorities within the context of that bigger picture. Whatever the size the base currently is, both physically and in terms of manpower, that’s considered to be as much as can be provided in terms of accomplishing whatever the bases’ mission is.

Every facility has a purpose, and that purpose defines how many people are required, what resources are provided, and so on. There are only so many to go around, and command will want to know why the manpower he already has is not enough.

This puts the onus on the player to be the expert, not the GM. He needs a convincing reason to expand the base (beyond his own ambitions).

So, if he makes a good case, the dominoes start falling to deliver him what he wants, right? Oh, if only the real world worked that way. I suggest you start by trying to track down a copy of the Season 5 West Wing episode, “Full Disclosure” and pay special attention to the plotline regarding the Base Closure Commission.

What that story illustrates is that politics plays at least as important a role in military decisions like base expansions as strictly military considerations. It has probably done so since the time of the Romans, if not longer. So let’s say the Base Commander comes up with a reasonably convincing military justification for the expansion of his command (and submits all the proper forms, filled out correctly, to his military superiors). The Base Commander has just volunteered himself to become a political pawn in Government Politics.

Rather than stick their own necks out, especially if such military expansion is going to be politically sensitive (and there’s no fun if it’s not), they will instead simply make an appointment for him to try to convince someone outside of the military. Even if they are not convinced, his command might send him to make such an attempt anyway, because the attempt serves their own political purposes, even if it’s just a distraction or a bargaining chip – something that they are willing to trade away in return for something they want even more.

And so, one plotline naturally evolves into another, as the PCs have to get involved in the murky world of politics. Even though the world is described as being more militarized, that does nothing to mitigate the politics; it simply means that there is likely to be another service branch or two for the actual military forces to compete with for funding and dominance, because there is never enough for everyone to get everything they want.

Bearing in mind that you never want to say “no” outright to the player, this is the story of how they come to get an in-game “yes” (I would make it clear out-of-game much sooner that they will get a “yes” if they don’t absolutely stuff things up). That’s when the fun really starts.


Once a “yes” comes through, it’s almost certainly not going to have an immediate effect. It will be a matter of an increase in appropriations in the next annual budget. Military commands, on the other hand, don’t work like that; it’s almost certain that an increase in base size will also mean an increase in responsibility. Perhaps so much so that the PC will be replaced by a more senior Commander. It wouldn’t be the first time that it has happened.

From a plot point of view, this is a great way to fill in the time before the next appropriation – with the increased funding for the Base – comes through.

Of course, “more senior” doesn’t necessarily mean “more competent” – or “honest”, for that matter. You want to make it completely clear to the players that this is a political appointment, and that accepting the new Commander is not a valid option.

There are three ways to get rid of an unwanted commanding officer: Force them to retire, force the military command to retire them, or arrange a “health problem”. Investigation, conspiracy, politics, intrigue, and even subterfuge are all tools that the PCs may need to employ.


Once the PC is back in command, and the appropriations have come through, he has a delicate tightrope to walk – there will almost certainly be an increase in operational demands, effective immediately, even though the expansion in capability required to meet those demands has not yet occurred. But that’s not considered to be an acceptable excuse for failure to complete the mission for which you were placed in command. So if the demands are impossible, the PCs only escape is to convince his CO’s superiors that it’s the CO’s fault.

But it’s easy to complicate this situation. That immediate CO might well be the biggest supporter of the decision to expand the base – lose him, and what one budget giveth, the next can take away.

The best answer is to achieve the impossible, or so it might seem. These are PCs, after all. Well, if they do, that’s a persuasive argument that the expansion isn’t necessary, after all. No, the PCs have to deliberately fail but do so in a manner that protects their political support within the command structure – and that’s not all that easy to achieve.

In the meantime, before any new troops can be sent, they will need somewhere to sleep, and that means that new barracks and officer accommodations will need to be built, and that means that land may have to be appropriated from outside the existing base. That makes the expansion plan, and the base CO, new enemies.

And, of course, the construction of new buildings will have to be completed, but that’s a relatively dull activity, so keep it in the background.


Before new people can be sent, the base will need to receive the necessary supplies to keep them equipped and ready. At first, it might seem as though there are no plot opportunities here, but there are – hijacked shipments, for example, or smuggling contraband into the base. Also, this will be the first brush with the military bureaucracy within this grand plotline; and they a mythically incapable of delivering what you order. Ask for field manuals and you get toilet paper; ask for mosquito repellent and you get arctic-weather gear. That might not be the stuff of a major plotline, but it would make a reasonable subplot.

Or you could have something really suspicious delivered by error as the hook into a more substantial plotline…

Support Infrastructure

Four tons of potatoes have just shown up at your front door. The problem is that you don’t have enough room to store them. Or cook them. Or serve them to the men if you have the increased manpower that you’ve requested. Heck, you probably don’t even have enough garbage disposal services to deal with the aftermath.

Every element of infrastructure from parking to portaloos will need to be increased. And there needs to be room for that. It’s also not good enough to simply add space somewhere else; the facilities have to be positioned where they are going to be needed. You might need to move the rec halls to make room for a larger mess hall, and move the parking lot to make room for a bigger sick bay.

A military base is essentially a small, self-contained town, one in which nothing is produced and everything has to be trucked in. So take your typical small town and imagine the strain if the population were to increase 30, 50, 100% – overnight. Everything from the brig to the barber shops will have been constructed with a specific base population in mind, and you now have to keep everything functioning while expanding that infrastructure to cope with the anticipated influx. The bank may need a bigger vault, and more security, simply because there are more paychecks that have to be cashed.

On top of all that, there can be knock-on effects. Power usage and water needs can increase more than a simple numeric increase. Officers often bring families with them, for example. That may require anything from preschools to swimming pools. Some of these facilities may be located outside the base and made available for the general public, easing any lingering tensions that resulted from displacing people from their homes to acquire the needed space for expanding the base.

The problem is that not a lot of this makes for an interesting adventure. Achieving that requires you to view these changes as a trigger, or as an opportunity for someone. For example, security is necessarily compromised when you have outsiders coming into your secure facility. I’m sure the military organization / government has enemies; why not have one of them exploit the opportunity? Or maybe it’s simply some criminals who see the bank as a softer target as a result of the continuing development of the facilities?

Such ideas are a great way of “name-checking” this phase of the expansion.


How many businesses fail because they don’t get their budgets right? Or expect their costs in Month 12 to have any relationship to their costs in Months 1, 2, or 3?

A lot of them, is the answer. Possibly too many. 70% of new businesses fail within their first 12 months of operation, here in Australia. While there might be some variations in that number from one nation to another, I doubt that those will amount to more than ±5 or 10%, barring extraordinary circumstances like being in a war zone. While there are a number of reasons for this, including being insufficiently distinguishable from the competition, or expecting things to always stay the same, one of the big 5 is the inability to lock down a profitable business model.

Well, a military base isn’t expected to turn a profit, but it’s also not supposed to make a bigger loss than has been budgeted for, and it absolutely cannot be permitted to fail. But budgets are frequently drawn up on the assumption of efficient usage; not many bake in any margin for getting systems up to speed. That means that any mistakes made early on have to be balanced out by savings somewhere else in the operational budget – and that means taking shortcuts to get back on budget.

Quite often, these decisions are taken at a departmental level, well below the actual commander, who has no idea that one (or more) of his administrations has flubbed their budgets and are cutting corners – not until that corner-cutting has an adverse consequence, anyway. All he knows is that they have reported that they are within budget.

Note that it’s almost as big a sin to come in under-budget as it is to exceed your budget – do that, and your appropriations might be reduced next time around. So there is a limit to how conservative someone can be.

It’s a recipe rife for a train-wreck to come out of nowhere and land on the Commander’s desk for solution. And remember, it’s not good enough for him to claim ignorance; it’s his responsibility to know, and he is deemed to know under military law; unless he can pin a deliberate deception on someone, he is likely to be held responsible for anything and everything a subordinate does.

That gives you two avenues for a plotline: the first is paranoia on the part of the Base Commander, with or without good reason; the second is for just such a budgetary land-mine to fall into his metaphoric lap. You don’t have to be an expert in administration or management; simply finding out what corners the Commander is going to cut, and judging by feel whether or not that’s enough, is all you have to do. The idea is not to focus on the problem, but to focus on the consequences of the response. Don’t get caught up in bookwork and accountancy!


Finally, everything is set up and ready, and people start to arrive. You aren’t an expert at recruitment? Who cares? The PC isn’t doing the recruiting, these are generic military people who have been recruited and trained elsewhere, and will number all possible personalities who are drawn to this occupation. Most of them are just going to be faceless and generic NPCs; but there will be a few who are more interesting, and who you create in greater detail.

The important point here is to make them interesting characters first, anything else second. Give them lives, give them personalities, and let those personalities emerge in the course of interacting with the PCs.

There might be someone who was given a choice – the military or jail. There might be an enthusiastic jar-head. There might be someone with strong Republican views and someone who is just as passionately liberal. There will be someone who’s geeky, and someone who doesn’t want to be there, and someone who sees the military as their only escape from a bad situation of some sort. There will be someone with serious personal problems and someone who is unfit to be there as a result – alcoholism used to be the go-to for that sort of thing but these days it could be anything from domestic abuse to being addicted to porn to gambling debts. Someone will probably be a mole for one of the superiors or political figures involved earlier – because the new Commander is either an up-and-comer and threat to his job, a possible protégé to be used as an asset to further one’s own career, or in over their heads and a potential liability through the connection to that authority figure.

Create mini-stories built around these individuals that can spill over into actual game-play. It might be nothing more than a bit of filler (two of them coming to blows over something trivial) or it can be something altogether more serious (a General’s son being caught DUI after a hit-and-run – did he do it? The PCs want to exonerate him if they can, or find absolutely iron-clad proof of guilt. Anything less places the career of the CO at risk).


Remember that every subordinate’s problem is also his boss’s problem if it starts to affect his work. And that mistakes and problems when there are lots of weapons around can be fatal to someone. That’s how NCIS, and JAG before it, keep replenishing their stocks of stories. Every NPC that gets brought into the base as a result of the expansion is potentially the hook for a new adventure. Like any other small town, there will be crimes, and accidents; there will be cases of murder, and corruption, and arson, and fraud. You don’t need to know anything about Command; the Commander is essentially the Mayor and the Judge in a small town full of armed people.

Going Forward: Expectations

So that’s how to handle the request to expand the Command. The real fun can start once that request has been approved and implemented. Aside from all the personal stories that will intersect with the Commander’s Desk simply because he is the Commander, there are four specific areas that will be fertile adventuring ground in years to come.

The first of these is expectations. The command who approved the enlargement of the base will expect the base to be able to carry out a specific ongoing mission as a result – and that can be the foundation of adventures because expectations are not always realistic.

So far as his superiors are concerned, that mission gives the Command capacity to do certain things, and that makes them a resource – one that can be borrowed or usurped for their own needs.

Going Forward: Internal Reactions

Every ally you make tends to earn you at least two enemies, at least when politics is involved. Some of those enemies will be nominal allies – for example, if the base expansion has come at the expense of some other base’s needs, there may well be resentment or outright hostility. If the base commander convinced a political figure to champion the cause of expanding the facility, the enemies of that political figure become your enemies – and you will be tested to determine whether or not the association can be rendered a mistake.

Your allies will seek to take advantage of you. They may seek to test you. With friends like that, who needs enemies? But enemies you will have, anyway.

Going Forward: External Reactions

No militaristic government can stay in power without an enemy. Enemies pay attention to what their enemies do, and are prone to assume the worst. They will have noted the expansion of the base and will want to know why – and will have very dark suspicions about it all. They will want to do something about all that…

Going Forward: The Peter Principle

It was in 1981, I think, that I first encountered The Peter Principle, and was immediately captivated by the elegance of the concept. In a nutshell, if you are good at your job, you get promoted out of it into a new job. When you are no longer competent enough, those promotions stop; and, provided that you aren’t absolutely hopeless, you will get stuck in that position.

Now think of the Peter Principle as applying to the subordinates within your command. If they are any good at their job, they will get promoted and taken away from you, to be replaced – by definition – with someone not as competent. If they are being promoted into the job from elsewhere, they aren’t going to be as competent or experienced as you would like (though they may improve once they find their feet – in which case, they, too, will be taken away from you. The personnel bureau – or its military equivalent – will keep trying until they do find someone incompetent.)

Of course, you are still expected to complete any missions assigned to you successfully and in an expeditious manner. Having newly-promoted people is not an excuse.

There must be a constant temptation to undersell the value of your good people in their fitness reports so that you get to hold onto them. But that’s a serious offense under military law – if any of your subordinates complain about their fitness reports you will be investigated, and if there’s any merit to the complaint, you can and will be court-martialled. “Conduct Unbecoming An Officer,” or its’ equivalent, is the most likely charge, and that’s a command-ender if proven. Even the accusation can be enough to stifle a career. Most officers quite rightly recognize that the risk is not worth it.

The Bigger Picture (for the rest of us)

As you can see, opportunities abound in the situation described by Tchaico. So why couldn’t he see them, and what are the real challenges that he faces?

I think the clue is in his final sentence, when he states, “…the core rulebook doesn’t have any guidance on finances, recruitment and overall base management.” I think the perceived need to know what he was talking about without any guidance from the rulebook intimidated him into thinking that this was a serious problem, when it really isn’t.

No rulebook will ever have all the answers. GMs need to be able to fake expertise when they don’t have it – see ““The expert in everything“. If your rulebook doesn’t cover a situation and you aren’t confident enough to improvise a solution, look for some other sourcebook or adventure that you can use as a resource. Do a Google search for RPG “In command” and see what you find. A similar search for “RPG Military Base” might also find useful reference sources. And check out my advice in A potpourri of quick solutions: Eight Lifeboats for GM Emergencies – some of it is directly relevant to what I think the real problem here is (or was).

The real challenge, in my book, is making sure that the other PCs have something relevant to do, making sure that it’s not “The Base Commander and supporting cast show”. There are two real solutions to this problem, which is far more difficult, and which can afflict any campaign in which one PC decides to construct a stronghold. The first is to make sure that each of the other PCs get caught up in the major plotline – there are some plotline suggestions above in which the Base Commander will need to employ every resource he can trust. The second is to make sure that each of the PCs have their own plotlines that run concurrently with those of the Base Commander. I suggest you look at my article Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign? for further guidance.

GMs should NEVER permit themselves to feel intimidated by any plot situation engineered by either themselves or the players. It’s better to do your best, and fail – and learn something – than not to try at all. If there’s a situation you aren’t sure how to handle, look for the opportunities inherent in it and focus on them, ignoring the situation itself as much as possible; then it doesn’t matter how little you know about that situation.

Next in this series: Iceberg plotlines – can they work in an RPG?

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Pieces Of Creation: Maxima and Minima

Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

This is the second-last article in the great character giveaway of 2016. Today I present a pair of more traditional supervillains whose main interest lies in the way the character’s abilities are structured to make them exceptionally effective. These won’t translate as well as some of the past offerings into other genres, I’m afraid, but the general principles definitely will.

As a standard of comparison, this pair were more effective as a partnership than a villain with a straight 25 dice in an attack power. That’s a force multiplication through clever design of at least four-to-one.

Preliminary Sidebar: Force Multiplication

Not familiar with the notion of force multiplication? It’s a measure of the effectiveness in combat when deployed with support from another unit of some weapon or force of men relative to the sum total of the weapons or force in a pure and isolated setting. The military use it when discussing the effectiveness of air and artillery support, tactics, and so on. For example, adopting a defensive position within a castle, in the Middle Ages had a force multiplication effect on the defenders of anywhere from 2-4, depending on who’s performing the analysis. That means that for an attack against the defenders to be just as likely to succeed as if they were simply standing out in the middle of a field (with weapons at the ready, of course), you need to attack with from 2-4 times as many. Personally, because they were such a game-changer, I think the 4 comes from a pre-gunpowder era and the 2 is a post-gunpowder era when both sides have cannons – but that’s only an opinion; it makes sense to me that way, but others might disagree.

It’s often helpful to think of tactical situations in this way. For example, surprise generally has a force multiplication factor of x1.5-2. That’s the same, in D&D terms, of a CR one-to-two less. So if the intent is a surprise encounter while the PCs are sleeping, and you would normally use CR12 to give them a fair fight, use CR10 or CR11. On the other hand, using CR12 keeps the encounter (just) within the usual bounds of permissible threat – the PCs will probably win, but it will be a much harder fight.

The math of Force Multiplication is complicated and largely devised after-the-fact to reflect real-world military experience. Two factors, each of which double the effectiveness of a force don’t multiply – they combine to something closer to x3. Some factors can interact to increase one or both, and other factors can mitigate an advantage even while providing it’s own force multiplier. Some of the relevant factors can be what would normally be considered intangibles, like esprit de corps. I haven’t studied the subject, and don’t think it’s particularly relevant; what I know about it comes from General Knowledge, some boardgames, and mentions in books like Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. What’s important is the concept, and adapting it for RPG use.

I have adapted the concept for use in designing and constructing superpowers & weapons AND the adventuring context in which they are used. The encounter with Maxima and Minima took place in a crowded stadium, and the effects of their powers on the crowd definitely handicapped the PCs while increasing the pressure on them to perform quickly, and not to make mistakes.

Minima & Maxima character illustrations

Click on the thumbnail for a full-screen image (2Mb). Created using the online Hero Machine and some digital editing.

The Set-up: Matthew Müller

It’s important to the origins, motivations, etc of these characters that you have a little bit of background. In recent times, the team has come under fire from the religious right in the USA, and in particular from the most popular televangelist in the world, Matthew Müller.

“Last week”, the subject was the relationship between Zenith-3 and Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Runeweaver is a “self-confessed” practitioner of black magic, and, according to the Televangelists, you only have to look at Blackwing to know he is a demon given flesh, and that’s all proof that Vala is an agent of Satan and Z-3 are in league with the devil. Leading the charge was televangelist Matthew Müller, the single most prominent fundamentalist Christian on the planet. But there were opinion columns in several fundamentalist newspapers by several different authors, letters to the editor in mainstream media, and a number of callers to talk-back radio, and it quickly becomes a trending story on social media which was then picked up by the 24-hour news services. There was an immediate public reaction: Hostile telephone calls to the team, none threatening directly, nothing that was actionable, but all predicting doom and gloom for the team, eg variations on “The lord will punish you” or “The fires of heaven will smite you”.

As a result, the team were glued to the transmission as they wait to find out what the “operating environment” will be for whatever confronts them this week.

The sermon was more indirect than they expected, but even more worrying. “Salvation” is the core subject, and the primary message is, “What good does it do to save your life if it imperils your soul?” Although it is never said outright, the implication is clear – Matthew Müller is telling his followers to refuse Zenith-3’s aid, even if it puts their lives at risk. Flipping through the other channels, it’s once again clear that this is a concerted effort by the Televangelists and their Roman Catholic Master in the Vatican, Pope Gregorivich the second.

Things went from bad to worse as the government went to bat in support of the team (who enjoy an official relationship with them), done in a way that helped further the government’s agenda at the expense of making matters worse for the team, as the team’s AI informs them:

“Prince Richard”, the heir to the Imperial Throne, has just issued a press statement from his Cambridge home, deploring the interference in civil matters by quote “certain self-appointed evangelists” and incitement to civil disobedience. However the language of the statement overall has inflammatory overtones.

He goes on to state that ‘I have communicated this opinion to the Champions [which is what the team are known as, locally] on behalf of the Crown, and that St Barbara is of like mind on the matter. We feel that while the souls of their congregations are a matter of legitimate concern to such zealots, the *LIVES* of those congregations are the jurisdiction of the civil authorities entrusted to protect them such as the military services, diplomatic corps, police services, fire brigades, ambulance-men and doctors, IMAGE – and the Champions. I have directed Lawyers within the relevant public prosecutor’s offices to determine whether or not inciting refusal to be rescued from a dangerous situation constitutes being an accessory to any criminal act that injures a citizen through the refusal of timely assistance.’

(While it was true that he discussed the subject with St Barbara, the leader of Zenith-3, she did not authorize any public statement, and the Prince specifically requested that *she* not make one. It follows that she cannot now make a statement in contradiction to this without accusing the Prince of deliberately lying to the public. Moreover, the statement implies that Champions policies are determined in consultation with the Palace, and that the team is implicitly an arm of the Crown, rather than an independent body, and that the two consult frequently).


One of the team’s members, Blackwing, was preparing to “kick out the ball” at a Soccer Game (in this reality, “Football” (Soccer) is the number one game in the world, including the US, but it has acquired some strange traditions from Baseball (this is the equivalent of “throwing out the ball”), some strange terminology for the positions and plays from “Football” (Grid Iron), and permits full-body tackles of the player with the ball as an incentive to keep the game moving).

At the same time as Blackwing makes his way out to the center with the ball, to kick it to the defending goalkeeper in an appropriately show-business way, the team’s headquarters are monitoring a conversation on talk-back radio that has just taken place:
Radio Microphone old style

Announcer: “…and good morning, you’re on the air on WBAP Texas talking to Alan Salcedo, What’s your name, listener?”

Feminine Voice: “My name doesn’t matter, I’m calling to give you a tip on a breaking news story, Alan.”

Alan: “Okay, what’s this hot tip?”

Female: “I just heard two people talking about an attack on the Demon Blackwing at the Mercedes Superdome in New Orleans this afternoon. I don’t know any details, but I thought someone should know about it.”

Alan: “And where did–” There is a click as whoever the caller was, hangs up. “Hello, Caller? Caller? Can you hear me?”

Third Voice, heard in the distance: “She’s off the line, Alan. I’m calling the Police.”

Alan: “The voice you just heard, listeners, was that of Patrick Franks, my producer. So, to recap, we have an unconfirmed report that there will be a religious-extremist attack launched against a member of the Champions who we already know is making a public appearance in just a few minutes. And remember that this afternoon you can hear the Dallas Cowboys take on the Indianapolis Colts, live on your Sports Central Radio, WBAP! And now, let’s take another call. Good Morning, you’re on the air…”

“That conversation was broadcast one minute ago”, reported the AI. “According to my data-banks, WBAP operates on a two-minute delay, so the threat was actually received approximately three minutes ago. I have accessed the live coverage of the game at the Mercedes Superdome, and Blackwing made his public appearance a few seconds ago, right on schedule. There appears to be some sort of public reaction…”

Minima and Maxima

  • Minima: Farmer, Eastern Texas
  • Maxima: Assistant D.A, San Antonio
  • Minima: Submissive to Maxima, Generous, Honest, Religious
  • Maxima: Dominant, Determined, Ruthless, Religious
  • Minima: 5th generation USK* farmer, European origins (German/English/Norwegian)
  • Maxima: Spanish/Mexican, Daughter of a former USK Ambassador to Spain
    * USK = Kingdom Of The United States Of America
  • Minima: Roman Catholic, Devotee of Matthew Müller
  • Maxima: Roman Catholic, Devotee of Matthew Müller
  • Minima:

    • Reduce Dice of Effect per Active Pt to 20% normal, round up, affects all unprotected characters.
    • Reduces PD & ED to 10% normal, round up, affects all unprotected characters.


    • Reduce air resistance to electrical potential over a progressively larger volume – first attack 1d6 electrical, second 2d6, third 4d6, and so on. Maximum is 12d6 electrical.


    • One on each wrist: Left: Minima is protected from the effects of Maxima’s Powers.
    • Right: Maxima is protected from the effects of Minima’s Powers.
      NB: Gadgets supplied by Matthew Müller’s “Christian Science Institute”.
  • Maxima:

    • Multiply END cost x6, affects all unprotected characters. Excess END cost is paid by all conscious allies of the affected character within Line of sight and by the affected character equally. (Effectively 5x Normal END cost, divide by # PCs conscious to get extra END cost each).


    • Super-STR (STR 60)= 3d6 Kill + Concussive Force Release (3d6 Kill), Reroll 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, Stun Multiplier d8+4, all Vs PD.
    • Flight (Platform), Usable with others, 30”.


  • Minima: To destroy the Witches and Demons and their allies in “The Champions” (Zenith-3) more because he wants Maxima’s approval than out of personal conviction.
  • Maxima: To destroy the Witches and Demons & their allies in “The Champions” (Zenith-3) because she believes the teachings of Matthew Müller & the RC church.
  • Minima: Minima is totally besotted with Maxima, and will do anything to protect her.
  • Maxima: Maxima has a crush on Matthew Müller, and will do anything that she thinks he wants. She is intelligent enough to realize that this affection will never be consummated and has accepted Minima as the substitute choice ordained by God.
  • Minima: Psychologically vulnerable through his relationship with Maxima. His physical stats are above human norms but he relies heavily on Maxima’s passive protection in combat and staying back from the front lines.
  • Maxima: Maxima is psychologically vulnerable and can be manipulated by her “relationship” with Muller. While her physical stats are above human norms, she relies very heavily on Minima’s protection in combat, despite being the front-line attacking force of the duo.
  • They both lose their abilities if too far removed from each other’s vicinity, but don’t really know what the maximum separation that can exist between them is.

They say that opposites attract, but this is an extreme case. Minima and Maxima met via an online dating site for Catholics and discovered a mutual respect for the teachings of Matthew Muller. They began dating and attended church services together. At a virtual service which Muller conducted by televised link – something he does regularly, enabling him to “be” in 50 places of worship at once – they experienced what they describe as “an ecstasy,” a vision of heaven, standing side-by-side before “God”, who told them that a painful time was coming for the world and that he was going to grant them powers to represent him on earth in the battle to come. When the vision faded, their powers had awoken. After the service, they reported to the local priest and representative of Muller, who arranged for them to be tested at Muller’s “Christian Science Institute”. While they never got to full grips with the powers the two now posses, they consider this a bona-fide miracle and developed – by trial and error – mechanisms that grant the duo immunity to each other’s powers, based on designs shown to them but not understood by the pair whilst “in Heaven”.

What’s Missing

Can you spot the elephant in the room?

I didn’t – not until we were actually in play.

Aside from their nom-de-plumes, what are their names? I had to come up with the answer on the spot so that they could use appropriate levels of intimacy and emotion in their dialogues with each other. Rather than foist my choices – which weren’t created with my usual forethought and rigor – upon anyone else right away, I’ve decided to come clean here – and to preserve the write-ups just as I used them in play – just to show that no matter how much experience you have behind the table, you can still fail your “spot the blindingly obvious” check.

Ready for this? He’s a hick farmer, and the subservient partner (though he does most of the pre-scripted talking for the pair), so I named him Larry Hicks, Jr – Larry for the flavor of the US South, Hicks for the background, and Junior for the implied subordinate personality it carries.

She was Americanized Latino, a self-made professional, educated, independent, and the fiery dominant member of the relationship – so “Maria Conchita Gomez,” pronounced Marr-iah at her insistence. Three Latino names, presented in a stylized and individualistic way, and she always spoke in a very firm, very calm, tone of voice.


Minima’s powers are the critical ones to the effectiveness of the pair – you don’t have to know a lot of the game mechanics to see that.

His first power reduces the effectiveness of every power or weapon that could be used against the pair. This is a passive ability, meaning that it just happens around him.

His second power increases the PCs’ vulnerability to attacks ten-fold. It’s also a passive ability.

His third power starts off being equivalent to an electric fence and rapidly increases to the output of a small electrical plant – which is nowhere near the power levels of real lightning. But the side effect on ordinary people is lethal from about 3d6 on – which is roughly equivalent to a bullet.

Her first ability means that anyone who attacks, or tries to run away, will become exhausted far more quickly. It also means that the first attacks of the PCs – which, given a threatening buildup and the crowd, should be near the top end of what they normally use – will have virtually no effect, being reduced first by her ability and then by his.

The result is that her 3d6+3d6 strike definitely ‘rang the bell’ on the group’s toughest single member, the guy they stick in the front lines to soak up damage, and a character who has shrugged off 40d6 (rolled a little poorly) in the past. That’s an attention-getter.

So it’s a pair of 1-2 punches: one ability makes the characters vulnerable and the second exploits that vulnerability; another pair of abilities makes the PC counteroffensive far less effective, and sticks the more vulnerable member of the partnership behind the protection of the other member, to boot.

Judo Construction

This is an example of what I think of as “Judo construction” – taking a character’s strengths and using it against them. How would you apply this principle to D&D?

Consider the impact of heat-based attacks on characters in frigid conditions who are dressed appropriately to those conditions. Or heat-based attacks on characters in very hot conditions that they are already struggling to cope with, if it comes to that. Or a situation that makes characters in frigid conditions think that it is suddenly very hot.

A character who relies on Elven equipment might come up against a character whose equipment is invulnerable to the effects of Elvish Weapons (the Dwarves would make those, if they could, given the usual relationship between the races). This is Magic, the “rules” can be anything you want them to be.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt; so you don’t give such equipment to every Tom, Dick, and Troll that stumbles through the door, you save it for an encounter where it is both logical and it matters. You need, for the sake of plausibility, to give the hostile character an in-game reason for having this as his preferred equipment, and you need a suitable backstory for how this equipment came to exist in the first place, because it is uncommon.

The effect is akin to a dwarfed Goblin wearing a Belt Of Giant Strength – it’s the last thing anyone expects, unless you drop hints that give the game away.

Similarly, I won’t be using characters with the type of abilities displayed by Maxima and Minima in every battle. This was a one-off (and there’s more to the story to come, of course – the writeup is very vague about how they came to posses these powers, while explicitly implying that Matthew Müller’s “Christian Science Institute” is actively researching ways to oppose the PCs. That is what makes their use in this (otherwise meaningless) encounter significant.

The only other reason for this encounter is as a trigger for the further development of the PCs ‘relationships’ with the Crown Prince and Roman Catholic Church under “Pope Gregorivich II”. In other words, I had a plot development that as a byproduct led inevitably to an encounter of some sort, and this fitted the bill.

As with several other characters that I have presented recently, I could have made this duo weaker but I wanted them to be able to go toe-to-toe with the whole team of PCs, and gaged their combat capabilities accordingly.

He sounds nasty. He looks nastier (I don’t think I can show you the images, but if I can find them again I can link to them!) His name is almost unpronounceable. And he is the last in this line of Character Giveaways. He is Mictlan-tecuhtli, and he is the subject of the intended final part in this character giveaway – next week!

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The Rolling Retcon: how much campaign history is fixed?

Photograph provided by / Marek Bernat

Photograph by / Marek Bernat

When people talk about campaign continuity, they usually adopt one of two positions.

There’s the strict continuity model, in which everything that has ever happened is fixed – but not as permanently as most people think – or there is the loose, episodic continuity in which there is a static condition defined as ‘normal’ to which everything sets, or reset, at the end of each adventure – which is not as segregated as most people think.

In fact, both ‘extremes’ are compromised in terms of the key defining characteristic of each, as I will demonstrate in the course of this article. There is also the third alternative that I personally advocate, plot arcs.

And there is also a fourth, somewhat fuzzier option that may fit your particular campaign needs even better than any of these approaches, and` while I personally am not a huge fan of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull it out of the cellar in which I keep it chained – if I thought it the best solution for a particular campaign.

The subject, then, is campaign continuity. Buckle in – it promises to be a bumpy ride.

“Strict” Continuity

It’s remarkably difficult to find a definition of what “strict continuity” actually means anywhere on the internet, at least in RPG terms. I found definitions in other areas: the psychology of dreams, consciousness, television, computer games set in the same universe, and many more besides – but everyone more or less seems to take it for granted when discussing RPGs that people will know what is meant.

So here’s a working definition: “Strict continuity is the trait of inertia of situation.” That means that if you leave a book on the table in an RPG, it will still be there when you come back unless an identifiable someone has moved it in the meantime, an event that can be assumed to have taken place because of the absence of the book. It means that characters don’t change conceptually from one encounter to the next – if Longforlorn walks with a limp due to an old axe wound this week, he will still walk with a limp due to an old axe wound six years from now, and the scar will even be in the same place on his body. It means that time keeps moving even if a PC isn’t there to see events evolve, and that PCs can leave a situation and know that it will have evolved when next they check on the current state of events. It means that any consequences or repercussions of choices will continue to play out, even those made in ignorance or error. It means that whenever the PCs encounter something or someone new, that person must be assumed to have always been there, and if it was logical for the PCs to have learned of their existence at a prior time, some reasonable explanation must be offered for their failure to have done so. And it means that events, once they have taken place, are fixed and immutable (with exceptions); only interpretations, perceptions, contexts, and understanding of those events can change, not the events themselves.

There’s a discussion thread archived at indie-RPGs dot com in which “Valamir” offers:

quote start 45
“If winning a conflict is to have meaning, it must create, at least in the moment, a truth…[which] MUST extend forward [in time/into the future].”

Sydney Freeburg replies, in the same discussion,

quote start 45
Traditional RPGs place a great deal of discretionary power in the hands of the GM. Most importantly, this power operates without resource constraints, in that the GM does not have to “spend” anything to make his (more rarely her) judgments stick: Therefore imposing a GM judgment has zero cost (in game-mechanical terms; quite possibly not in social terms) that impedes the GM’s ability to impose additional judgments in future. Further, this power operates without a resource economy, so that the GM’s use of power in one instance does not transfer power to other people to use in other instances, so the (im)balance of power remains static.

quote start 45

Less obviously, both traditional strong-single-GM RPGs and freeform “commie” roleplaying without a GM rely fairly heavily on the participants’ judgment of “what should happen” according to some standard of realism, logic, fidelity to the source material, proper story arc, [or] whatever.

Both these quotes seem to reflect an understanding of strict continuity as “continuity in which events, once they occur or are established as having occurred, are immutable.”

Adding this statement to the definition seems to produce a fairly robust statement of definition:

“Strict Continuity is a metagame trait of an RPG campaign in which the campaign exhibits inertia of situation, i.e. a causative and logical connection between in-game experiences in which events, once they occur or are established as having occurred, are immutable.”

The Retcon Necessity

The quoted discussion comes from a discussion thread entitled “Retcon: Threat or Menace?”. The central theme of the discussion is that a retcon, or change to something that has been established in the past, is a bad thing.

I can’t help but agree that they can be, when the reason is GM laziness or carelessness. The “truth of events” that “Valamir” mentions is imperiled by revisions to in-game events; by altering these events, you are cheating the players of the meaning, significance, and achievement of their hard-won past victories, or of the logical basis upon which their decisions and actions were based, without giving them the opportunity to change those decisions and actions to something that they consider in hindsight to be more correct under the changed circumstances.

Gregory’s point is that because there is no inherent cost or restriction within the game mechanics for the GM doing so, the capacity to retcon is inherently poisonous to the trust between players and GM, and contains an inherent potential for unchecked abuse, either at the hands of the GM directly, or indirectly if he gives in to pressure from some other strong personality at the game table.

All of which is true. Nevertheless, I would contend that Retcons are sometimes necessary, and can be performed fairly if approached in the right way.

Successful Retcons

A successful retcon, in my book, is one in which the players are not cheated of their victory. Said victory may be rendered less complete and total than they thought it was at the time, but they still achieved a victory and enjoyed the rewards that came from it.

That means that there are very limited circumstances in which a retcon is permissible, for example a Retcon to plug holes in logic and explain or justify choices that, in hindsight, make no sense either in external reality or the internal thought processes of a character – fine. I discuss other justifications for retcons in subsequent sections of this article; but I wanted to include one here to establish that they can be justified.

Having established that a retcon is required (for whatever reason), the next step is to determine what needs to be changed. Often, this can be simple, even trivial; the interval of game-time in between the event being amended and the current game-time give plenty of room for dominoes to fall and butterfly wings to have flapped, all you need do is secure the survival of that butterfly. But you must never change anything that a PC did, without the permission of the player, and must never interfere with any situational element upon which they might have based a decision. Whatever changes you make have to be invisible or irrelevant to the PCs that were involved at the time.

That eliminates probably 90-plus % of the possible changes – but it also eliminates 99% of the causes for complaint.

Maintenance of strict continuity requires that the ramifications of the amendment – which are the reason for the amendment in the first place – must be such that they can have had zero perceptible impact on any subsequent in-game event, and would not have been discovered by the PCs prior to this point in time.

This additional requirement is much trickier to achieve, and probably eliminates 99% of the remaining possible changes. It might be that it eliminates all of them – in which case a second retcon might be needed to bring about the net effect that you want to achieve. For example, if the change were to have one of the villain’s henchmen survive a seemingly-fatal (at-the-time) attack by the PCs, and make his escape, it might be necessary to have some third party intervene to rescue and heal the henchmen in some manner not noticeable by the party at the time (who were distracted by taking down the henchman’s boss, after all), and who left a corpse dressed in what appeared to be the henchman’s clothing at the scene in order to fool the PCs. Such a double-retcon – the rescue and the deception – makes the henchman’s survival not only logical, but operates to convince the PCs of the opposite, and in no way robs the event of its truth, or the PCs of their victory.

Of course it would have been better for the GM to have decided that these events were occurring at the time, permitting the characters to act upon the true reality if they had detected it; but, as a retcon to cover for the GM forgetting that the henchman had been killed, or not realizing the necessity to the broader plotline for him to have survived, I would consider this entirely acceptable. It doesn’t disrupt the past events, it simply adds to them.

Finally, in his post-game remarks to the players – and every GM performs social niceties at the end of a game session, it’s human and polite – the GM should come clean and admit to the retcon (if he didn’t do so in-game). The social cost to his air of infallibility provides the “cost” that is required to prevent this being an “easy out” for the GM. We work hard to appear infallible, even when we aren’t, and when we claim otherwise; but all demigods should be willing to accept having feet of clay occasionally. It reduces the divide between players and GM, making it easier for them to bond as people. RPGs are, above all else, a social activity performed for fun – and that’s easier when you are a group of friends sharing a common pastime.

Use these guidelines and procedures to retcon only when you have to and you will have few complaints, save from the most ardent purists. And they are likely to be complaining about something, anyway. These practices make the retcon the servant of continuity, and not its abuser.

‘Mistooks’ Happen

And so to the question of justifications for Retcons. The first is fairly obvious: everybody makes mistakes, it’s the price of being human. These mistakes have to be fixed when noticed – which is usually whenever they become important, and not at the time.

The purpose of this type of retcon is to ensure the “Truth” of the event by correcting circumstances in such a way that they validate the in-game outcome, and hence do not rob the players of the significance of their choices.

History is only as good as the reporter

It’s not always necessary to retcon the event; historical events can only be as accurately reported as the reporter can perceive events. There are all sorts of distorting factors. First, there’s the question of spin by whoever is creating the story that gets reported to the public, and that ultimately forms the foundation of our understanding of an event. Second, there’s the question of bias on the part of the reporter, and editorial bias/manipulation. Third, there’s the willingness by the public to accept the account of events described to them, and how the story plays into or flies in the face of public bias. Fourth, there is the perceived trustworthiness of both source and channel; there are some people who would not believe the sky was blue if the government announced it, simply because of who they perceive the government to be. And fifth, the possibility of outright deception must also be considered. Any interpretation of events is inevitably colored by bias; the best that you can hope is that these biases cancel out to present something close to the true picture.

I came across this story while researching this article. It’s now almost a year old, but still just as relevant. Fake news stories are still being believed and promoted as genuine, and too many people wouldn’t know satire if it walked up and shook hands with them. The situation is not helped by the belief many hold that the mainstream media are themselves distorting the news on behalf of their owners. Even the mainstream media sometimes get taken in by these fake news sites, and they are supposed to be the experts!

Under these conditions, especially when it comes to pivotal world events like wars, its hard to accept any version of history as gospel. Even when you know what happened from a certain point forward, understanding why things turned out that way is often just as important; and changing that doesn’t require any changes to past events.

Ultimately, the accuracy of historical events is inherently limited by the capacities of those documenting the event. Historians aren’t usually present at the event they are documenting, and if they are, it us usually under circumstances which leave the source open to accusations of bias; they are forced to rely on documentary ‘evidence’, and thereby place their trust in the honesty and perceptiveness of the source.

History assumes that the historian is unbiased and omniscient. What a pack of nonsense! Even in strict continuity, the past can need to be reinterpreted as new information comes to light. In the last few years, almost every history of World War II has been rendered out of date, for example, first by the release of documents from the former Soviet Union, and secondly by an economic analysis of the Nazi state.

Example: Stalin, Germany, and Japan

Hitler always had his eye on Russia and was profoundly opposed to communism, as stated in Mein Kampf and illustrated by many of the policies implemented when the Nazi Party came to power. Stalin knew this as well as anybody, and was completely sure that Germany would eventually turn against Russia. Why, then, did the pair become unlikely allies with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact?

First, it gave both sides what they wanted most at the time – it freed Germany to focus its aggression elsewhere, and it gave Stalin time to militarize and prepare for an anticipated attack by Japan, who had made multiple attempts to obtain the Siberian mineral reserves by force in the past. When Stalin’s intelligence finally established that Japan did not intend to invade the USSR, relations between the two became progressively weaker as Stalin became more assertive. Ultimately, Hitler broke the agreement and invaded; Stalin deployed his forces in such a way as to trade space for time, not in the expectation of winter, but to redeploy the reserves he had built up in the East to the West.

Had Germany faced only the forces that they knew about on the Western Front, the possibility of another sweeping success of the sort achieved elsewhere was very much more certain, and this is one of the primary reasons for the confidence of victory before cold-weather preparations would be necessary. It was those additional forces that delayed victory long enough for Winter to take hold, sealing the failure of the invasion.

Ironically, it was the USSR who Japan looked toward to act as a third party to organize a negotiated settlement of hostilities with the US when their defeat became inevitable, but Stalin opted instead to declare war almost at the last minute, entitling the USSR to a share of the spoils without actually having to do much to earn them, and permitting the US to pursue its doctrine of demanding unconditional surrender.

It’s only when you understand Stalin’s concerns, his intelligence operations to answer those concerns, and what he knew when, that the USSR’s role in the Second World War can be understood, and hence the defeat of Germany. Everything in the history books prior to those intelligence revelations being assimilated was educated guesswork. Those revelations revised the events by revising the context within which the events took place, explaining things that were otherwise fairly inexplicable.

Example: The Nazi Economy

I wrote about this about 9 months ago (has it really been that long already!?) in Shadows In The Darkness – The nature of True Evil.

To quote from that article,

quote start 45
Blair started by raising Nazi behavior during World War II – the concentration camps, the systematic abuse and slaughter of groups that the Nazis disapproved of. Nazis are favorite villains in the Pulp Genre because the things they did were so vile by any reasonable moral code. There is no question that the Nazis were absolutely ruthless in pursuing their agenda, and that the agenda in question was villainous, but was this an example of True Evil?

Until recently, I would have answered yes; but a recent documentary has shed new light on that ruthlessness in my mind. The Nazi regime was spending money that it didn’t have in order to prop up their economy, to such an extent that they ceased publishing their annual balance of trade and budgets. All the Nazi big infrastructure and rearmament projects were funded with money the Nazis didn’t have. Nor could they simply sell debt to other countries in the form of government bonds and the like; no-one wanted to buy them. The Nazis even resorted to secretly buying their own government bonds to give the impression that the economy was in far better shape than was really the case.

In order to keep the regime afloat, to raise enough money to meet the public payroll and fund their ongoing projects, it was absolutely necessary to dispossess a large percentage of the population of their property and valuables, or to raise taxes to disastrous levels. Choosing the first course rather than an act that would have seriously undermined their credibility as managers of the economy, it remained only to select the targets – and these were (of course) chosen on ideological grounds. The mentally ill, homosexuals, criminals, Jews, Eastern Europeans, those of mixed blood – the list of targets goes on. The Concentration Camps enabled these groups to be maintained for a pittance for use as slave labor, saving further costs in the infrastructure and munitions industries.

This resulted in short-term gains, but did not solve the systemic problem; some form of ongoing program of conquest was inevitable, enabling them to loot and pillage other economies in order to keep their own afloat. Some analysts have suggested that when Poland was invaded, Germany might have had only enough money to pay the military for another week! The first thing that the Nazis did when capturing a new town was to go to the local banks and empty them of currency, valuables, and precious metals.

Even this wasn’t enough; as the war dragged on, and especially once the Eastern Front was opened, agriculture was suffering from the lack of manpower, and from the diversion of resources such as fuel into ongoing military operations. Memoranda have been found in which the resources being allocated to the care and feeding of those incarcerated in the camps are repeatedly reduced, and it becomes clear in some of them that a massive reduction in the population being held was necessary to reduce the drain on the economy. There were further benefits, from the Nazi perspective: these measures reduced the number of guards required, freeing up manpower for military action elsewhere, for example on the Russian Front. The “Final Solution”, as horrid and despicable as it was, is thus shown to be an extremist form of economic ruthlessness filtered through and cloaked in ideology.

While they were in power, the Nazis never released economic data to the public. In fact, the national ledgers were top secret, and reports deliberately destroyed by the regime. This perpetuated the myth of the efficiency of the Third Reich, winning them support and approval in the US and elsewhere. It was only when some of the supposedly destroyed records were uncovered in recent years and studied by economists who were able to model the financial state of Germany in the years preceding and during the war that the truth began to emerge.

This in no way justifies or excuses Nazi atrocities; but it does explain where Hitler got the money for his military buildup and continued investment in cutting-edge military projects, something that had always puzzled me, given how bad things became when the Wiemar Republic became one of the first modern state to experience Hyperinflation.

NB: It might seem that the figures quoted in the relevant section of the Wikipedia article are contradictory – the text talks about inflation hitting 3.25 x 10^6 %, with prices doubling every 2 days, while the bullet point summary beneath quotes a peak rate of 29,525% in November, 1923. They aren’t actually contradictory; the 10^6 number refers to an annual inflation rate, while the 29,525% rate is a monthly rate of inflation. If hyperinflation continued at that rate, compounding, for an entire year, the annual inflation rate that results would be 4.388 x10^31 % – so 3.25 x 10^6 % shows how “good” the other months were in comparison to how bad things (mathematically) might have been.

Don’t understand scientific notation, or just find those numbers hard to grasp? Try them the long way:

  • 29,525% increase in prices per month
  • 3,250,000% increase in prices per year
  • 43,880,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000% increase in prices per year

Personally, I don’t think that last number is any easier to understand. So try this, also from the Wikipedia article: A 5 million Mark coin would have been worth US$714.29 in January 1923 and about 1 one-thousandth of a cent by October of that year.

(The scary thing is that this is not the record for hyperinflation. There have been worse economic collapses. And what has happened once can happen again…)

Bottom-line relevance to the retcon

The bottom line is this: bias, incompetence, assumption, incompleteness of facts, and romanticization of a situation by a reporter or historian can contaminate understanding of an event even by those who experienced it so completely that the truth, when eventually revealed or discovered, is tantamount to completely revising the history of the event.

There is a popular aphorism by George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I prefer my own variation: “Those who do not understand the past are incompetent to shape the future.”

But an RPG is an imperfect simulation of a world, one that is manipulated for entertainment purposes by the GM. If the GM was omniscient and perfectly prescient, he would know exactly what was needful for future plots at the time of an in-game event, and could pull strings appropriately. Since he is not, the best he can do is create dangling plot threads that he can pull on when he needs them; and, when that fails him, his only recourse is to reinvent the past a little. And that’s retconning.

The Erroneous Assumer

The other source of misinterpretation is the incorrect assumption. Assumptions always frame and color the understanding of any event, and you can only properly interpret the reports and analysis of such an event if you know, and can allow for, the assumptions that have been made. This is often difficult, firstly because they usually aren’t put in writing, and secondly, the distant observer can only guess at the level to which these assumptions have influenced the reports of events, and so do not know how much correction is required.

For a start, observers generally assume that what they are seeing is real, and not some calculated deception. That’s what lies at the heart of the Potemkin Village deception – and at the heart of most magic acts!

Another frequent assumption is that if someone has a reason to lie, they probably are lying. Still another is that people are consistent – a habitual liar never tells the truth, and a truthful person never tells a lie. There are assumptions about what is physically possible which often mislead. Wishful thinking is often a factor, and so is the other side of the coin, prejudice of any sort. These days, racial profiling applies assumptions about real or fictitious characteristics to individuals deemed to be of a particular racial profile. Oh, and most people will assume that an expert knows what they are doing!

Some people assume that there were no moon landings simply because it was such a difficult undertaking – while relying on NASA information as the basis of their assessment of the difficulties. And some people assume they understand something when they don’t.

The power – and danger – of assumption is most clearly demonstrated to me by the Monty Hall Problem, which always comes to mind when I think of this subject. In essence: There are three boxes or doors, one of which leads to a prize. After a choice is made between them, one of the other doors is opened to show that it did not contain the prize. If they are then offered the chance to change their mind, most people won’t take it; they will assume that the presenter knows they have chosen correctly and is trying to lead them away from the prize, and they will also assume`that there is no advantage to changing their minds as to which door leads to the prize. For these reasons, few (if any) will switch.

In the newspaper column which made the problem famous, even after the correct solution was revealed, many readers refused to believe switching is beneficial. Approximately 10,000 readers, including nearly 1,000 with PhDs, wrote to the magazine, most of them claiming the answer was wrong. Even when given explanations, simulations, and formal mathematical proofs, many people still do not accept that switching is the best strategy.

It’s easily shown that it is – You originally had a 1 in 3 chance of making the right choice, which means that there is a 2/3 chance that you chose incorrectly. One of those other choices was then eliminated, meaning that all of that 2/3 chance of winning is behind the door that wasn’t originally chosen – so you double your chances of winning by altering your choice. But this is so counter-intuitive that many find it hard to accept. Paul Erd?s, one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, remained unconvinced until he was shown a computer simulation confirming the predicted result.

I first encountered the problem as part of the TV show Numb3rs, and it is the explanation given there that I have described above. Shortly thereafter, I saw episode 177 of Mythbusters, entitled “Pick A Door”, in which the problem – and the prediction that most people would not change their choices – were put to the test and the result confirmed. But I found their explanation harder to follow than the simplicity of the one from Numb3rs, so that’s the one that I remember.

Getting back to the point, then, assumptions can be determined to be incorrect months or years after the event, and doing so completely transforms the context of the event and hence its outcome. Particularly suspect is any statement which can be framed as “the only possible explanation”, or “the simplest explanation” because Occam’s Razor is misinterpreted or misapplied all the time. It’s usually misquoted as “The simplest possible explanation is usually the truth”, and that right away is where people go wrong; it should be, in the modern vernacular, “The simplest possible explanation that accounts for all the known facts is usually the truth – if you know enough of the facts.”

To completely transform a past event, you simply have to replace an assumption with a fact that contradicts it – and (to keep this retcon fair) make sure that the fact could not have become known to the players any sooner.

Strict Continuity is a nonsense

The only possible conclusion from all this is that “strict continuity”, as most people think of it, is nonsense. Strict Continuity is not fixed; it heaves and rolls and comes unglued at the seams, only to be stitched back together again. Nor is the retcon inherently contradictory to strict continuity; used properly, it can be the structural adhesive that holds a strict continuity together.

Where does that leave our definition? Surprisingly healthy. Let’s look at it again: “Strict Continuity is a metagame trait of an RPG campaign in which the campaign exhibits inertia of situation, i.e. a causative and logical connection between in-game experiences in which events, once they occur or are established as having occurred, are immutable.”

None of the retcon methods discussed alter events once they have occurred or are established as having occurred. They transform the understanding of events, they can radically alter the interpretation of events, they can even make the event more complete by providing facts that weren’t known at the time – but the event itself remains unchanged.

“Episodic” Continuity

The other end of the continuity extreme is “episodic”, also known as “simple” or “loose” continuity. Believe it or not, it’s just as hard to find a good definition of this type of continuity, yet – once again – everyone seems to know what is meant by it. TV Tropes divides it into two phenomena – the Reset Button and Status Quo Is God – and points to the flawed assumption of “No Ontological Inertia” that is exhibited by many TV shows that employ this type of continuity. This is the assumption that cause and consequence are somehow connected, and if you undo the cause even after the fact, the effects will vanish. Defeat the villain and whatever damage he has done will be somehow undone.

These are all pieces of the puzzle, but by focusing on them exclusively, one can’t help but form the impression that they are dancing around the definition, or its absence. If you try understanding the root concept of episodic continuity using these as references, you end up not being able to see the forest for the trees – even though you know that it’s there somewhere!

So let’s start with a basic definition as would apply to a TV series, and then modify it for the unique application that is an RPG campaign (TV didn’t invent the concept any more than it invented the serial continuity now referred to as “strict” continuity, but its a format that everyone recognizes): “Episodic Continuity” is a property of any television series in which the status quo is reset at the end of each episode (from time to time, the status quo itself may be redefined without violating such continuity; these redefinitions may or may not take place on-screen as part of a specific episode).” That’s a definition that covers every example that I can think of, from CSI and other police procedurals to M.A.S.H. to The Simpsons. It clearly delineates the differences between such programs and shows like “Lost”, “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, and “24”. This even covers some reality TV series, like “Pawn Stars”!

Adapting this definition to an RPG campaign, we get, as a proposed definition:

“Episodic Continuity” is a metagame property of any RPG Campaign in which the status quo is reset at the end of each adventure to a defined benchmark which is subject to periodic redefinition, which may or may not be reflected in specific in-game events.”

That means that aside from the content of that benchmark, nothing can be taken for granted; if a book is placed on a table in the course of an adventure, that book is assumed to have been put back on the shelf (or wherever) by the start of the next adventure. It means that characters don’t change conceptually from one encounter to the next – if Longforlorn walks with a limp due to an old axe wound this week, he will still walk with a limp due to an old axe wound six years from now, and the scar will even be in the same place on his body. It means that time can be assumed to be suspended if a PC isn’t there to see events evolve, and that anything he does witness may or may not become a permanent change in the status quo. PCs can leave a situation – a tavern, say – and know that it will be exactly the same if they go back to it at some future time, unless it has been altered by a “benchmark update” in the meantime. It means that consequences and repercussions of choices will generally not persist beyond the end of an adventure, even if made in ignorance or error. Characters and situations can be invented and inserted as part of any given plotline and removed when the plotline is complete. And it means that events of the past can be completely reinvented (with exceptions) provided that the benchmark is not violated.

Continuity Of Characters

Right away, it can be seen that this model requires PCs to occupy a privileged position within the context of reality. PCs do not reset at the end of an adventure; they continue to exhibit strong continuity insofar as they retain experience points earned, continue to suffer from injuries received, retain any possessions obtained, and so on.

Continuity Of Setting

But the flaws in the strictly episodic approach don’t end there. The game setting continues from episode to episode. PC continuity rubs off on NPCs to some extent; any evolution in an NPCs relationship to a PC tends to ‘stick’ unless this would interfere with the “benchmark status quo”. So an NPC can have an argument with a PC in this adventure and then buy them a drink in the next, provided those actions are consistent with both the benchmark relationship and the in-adventure developments. Any changes that do take place tend to be evolutionary in nature, not revolutionary.

Episodic continuity in a television show is useful because it means shows can be aired in any sequence. Audiences can tune in and know what to expect without valuable screen time consumed with a “previously on” voiceover. Surprisingly, it can be bad for an RPG in it’s most theoretically-pure form for the exact opposite reason: because anything not canon within the series can be altered on a whim, players don’t know what to expect. They have no foundations beneath their characters that they can rely on. (It follows that retcons are far worse in Episodic continuity RPGs than they are in strong-continuity campaigns even though one of the primary justifications given for the episodic approach is to enable changes to take place as necessary to create an entertaining adventure).

Sequels Will Happen

Under strictly episodic continuity, once a villain escapes or is captured, they vanish into the haze and are never heard from again. No adventure can ever reference a past adventure. There is no such thing as a sequel. Which is absolute nonsense.

Reboots are a Big Deal

The only way to achieve true perfect episodicity is to completely reboot the game after every episode, with whatever changes are necessary to accommodate the next adventure’s story. Any contradiction is automatically redacted in favor of the latest form of history. But such reboots are a lot of work, more than most GMs would contemplate.

Why are they so much work? Because the GM can’t take anything for granted, either. Any element of the background can be changed to better accommodate the new adventure; the only thing that’s established is the immediate world around the PCs. Cities can grow – or lose – entire suburbs, if necessary. The only mandate beyond protecting the “benchmark”, and being fair to the players with these retcons, is that the players need to be told everything that they need to know in order to make decisions before any decisions have to be made.

If you change the nature of Dwarves, you need to decide whether or not you also need to change the nature of Elves, and even if not, you may have to reinvent Dwarven society from the ground up. Or, in a more realistic scenario, if the party are to encounter a segment of Dwarven society totally different to any they have met before as part of the adventure, that society needs to be fully rendered by the GM for the adventure and then gets thrown away because it isn’t part of the game “benchmark”.

Episodic Continuity is a nonsense

The only possible conclusion is that Episodic Continuity does not isolate adventures half as much as the definition implies. Every character and most parts of the game setting continue, unchanged, and the very fact that characters can earn experience or improve skills, gains that are not thrown away at the end of the adventure, signifies that “perfect” episodic continuity is totally out of the question. We can’t even come close, really – unlike a television show like the Simpsons.

If truth be told, even in the world of television, there’s no such thing (outside of shows like The Simpsons) in which there is not some element of continuity. True episodic continuity, as a rule of thumb, is like Absolute Zero: a theoretical ideal that can never be reached. Even in the Simpsons there are continuity elements – Sideshow Bob’s stories, for example, show a clear continuity from one to the next. Episodes will sometimes reference past episodes – so the “reset” is not always perfect.

Loose Continuity

What most GMs refer to as “episodic continuity” is nothing of the sort. It is instead a “loose” continuity in which the primary objective is to keep adventures as self-contained as possible. Relationships with a consistent “supporting cast” continue to evolve while remaining essentially unchanged. How does this fit our definition of “episodic” continuity? What are the major differences?

It’s clear that the primary difference is in the “reset” to a “defined benchmark”. We could amend this definition very easy to define “loose continuity”:

“Loose Continuity” is a metagame property of any RPG Campaign in which the status quo is reset at the end of each adventure to an evolving benchmark.”

And, to be honest, that definition fits a number of the TV shows previously classified as “Episodic” – the NCIS franchise comes to mind, for example. The biggest difference is that the benchmark evolves more than is revised – though such revision is possible.

This also opens the door to retcons within the continuity when necessary. Anything that is not directly or indirectly defined or dependent upon that evolving benchmark can be retconned if necessary, again provided that the retcon itself is done in the ‘ethical manner’ described earlier.

Campaign Plot Arcs

There are a couple of benchmark positions midway between the “loose” and “strong” continuity models, and the one that I tend to use most frequently of all of them is the campaign plot arc. There are other names for this – Johnn Four refers to them as “loops” and talks about “Loopy continuity”.

Campaign Plot arcs come in two varieties, depending on how the arcs are linked. The simpler model is to have each group of plot arcs be “episodic” in nature, ie internally self-contained; within that plot arc, strong continuity is observed, but each group of adventures exhibits loose continuity. It’s as though each adventure was comprised of related smaller adventures, with the larger adventures having loose continuity overall, but experiencing “bursts” or “bundles” or “temporary periods” of internal strong continuity.

The diagram below will hopefully make this more clear.

plot arcs with loose continuity

One campaign, made up of three Bundles of adventures or “plot arcs”, of 4, 3, and 4 adventures (of varying size) respectively. Subplots extend from one adventure to another but at the end of each plot arc, all the subplots are resolved. Note that it’s possible for one plot arc to be a single adventure.

For example, the Adventurer’s Club campaign follows this sort of continuity. We started with the “establish the PCs” plot arc, which segued into the “The FBI Takes Over” plot arc, which has segued into the “Too Old In The Tooth” plot arc, which will leave the PCs as the acknowledged leading troubleshooters in the world. The rest of the campaign then deals with them in that position of prominence, and all the problems that it brings.

The other sort of Plot Arcs are joined in a more “strict continuity” fashion, with subplots crossing from one plot arc to another. This essentially means that the principle that defines the plot arc is something other than plot – it might be one particular problem hanging over the heads of the PCs or one particular theme or tone, or some sort of common element.

The diagrams below will hopefully make that clearer. The first shows the same campaign illustrated with added subplots spanning plot arcs, and the second takes away the internal subplots within each plot arc to just show the inter-arc connections.

plot arcs with strong continuity

inter-arc subplots with strong continuity

More complex continuity structures

Of course, there is no need to actually have each plot arc occur in sequential order. You can have the first adventure of plot arc #2 follow the first adventure of plot arc #1, then go back to plot arc #1, then start plot arc #3… The arcs thus become simply a way of “threading” connected adventures together.

For example, In the Zenith-3 campaign,

  • the first phase existed to establish the basics of the game world and some of the relationships that would matter later in the campaign;
  • the second phase, which it entered in the past year has made the party aware of a major crisis that is looming, in which allies will become enemies and enemies will become allies.
  • In Phase Three they will gain more information about what is coming and why.
  • In Phase 4, they will begin encountering fallout from those who hope to take advantage of the situation, and learn still more;
  • …and in Phase 5 they will begin to deal directly with some of these wannabe cosmic powers.
  • In Phase 6 they will learn the full story of what is to come, and in Phase 7 they can use that information to actively pick sides, recruit allies, and make plans.
  • Phase Eight is about preparations for the event, and Phase Nine is the event itself.
  • There are then a handful of epilogue phases which bring out the consequences of the event both personal and professional and how it has transformed the campaign universe.

These phases are divided by landmark events that change the relationship the PCs have with the event, gradually shifting them from a position of “there’s nothing we can do, if it happens it happens” to “it is our destiny to be central to this event and it’s up to us what we do with that authority.” The lines between phases are realistically blurred, and not every adventure (especially in the first five or six phases) will be about the event, but slowly it will become the dominant focus of the campaign, which is currently on the personal problems and lives of the PCs.

The phases also contain very different numbers of adventures, becoming shorter each time. Of course, there are also a number of plot twists and turns along the way (at the beginning of the campaign, a status quo was outlined as the starting position for everything to follow; by the end of it, not a single thing should be exactly the way it was except the PCs – and they will have been changed by the experience of being at the heart of these changes. Or it could take a left turn somewhere that I didn’t see coming!)

A fourth solution: the Rolling Retcon

But, now we come to the whole point of this article: A fourth solution that also lies somewhere in between strict and loose continuity.

This idea was inspired by Marvel Comics editorial policy in the 1970s and 80s, which held that “everything has happened in the last 7 years unless specifically dated”. So all the early events, like the Captain America stories from World War II, were fixed by virtue of the connection to a specific historic event, but everything else evolved in date over time. In 1972, Peter Parker was bitten by that notorious spider in 1965; in 1975, the date of the bite had progressed to 1968, and by 1980, the bite took place in 1973. That was how marvel explained that Peter Parker took so many years to complete high school, and was still a university freshman, and other such continuity problems. Of course, if you simply counted the number of times the seasons became wintery, or the number of Christmas references, this theory was quickly shattered, and over time there was a problem with trying to compress more and more into a single period of time.

Having read what I’ve written so far, it can be immediately recognized that this is an attempt to resolve the conflict between strong and episodic continuity. In essence, it is the principle that The strength of continuity is inversely proportional to the interval since the event.

Applying this to an RPG simply means that there is a fixed period of “recent past” which should be altered only with great care, but that things get hazy when looking further back in time. I would suggest that this effect commences one adventure ago.

Fixed Signposts

Of course, not all events are created equal. Some are more pivotal than others, and need to be treated with greater respect. The major events should remain constant within the campaign. But really, how many players whose characters have reached seventh level really care about the details of what happened in the encounter that gave them their third payout of experience?

Meandering Byways

Everything in between these fixed signposts CAN change if necessary. That still doesn’t mean making capricious changes; it does mean that minor corrections, especially when supported by plausible mechanisms, are entirely acceptable.

The Flaws: A house on shifting sand

The rolling redact undermines certainty on the part of the players. In essence, it robs the campaign of a strong foundation and hopes that the structure itself is strong enough to hold together. Every time the GM retcons something, he pulls another nail out of that structure; at some point, the strength will be sufficiently undermined that it will all fall apart. Which is also what will happen with this metaphor if I carry it any further!

The GM can protect his campaign from this problem to some extent by applying the common-sense restrictions already recommended for retconning – don’t do it unless you absolutely have to, don’t mess with the fixed milestones, and employ the “best practice” technique for retconning already provided.

But even with every safeguard in place, this campaign option remains more vulnerable to retconning than either of the extremes because it relies more heavily on the cohesiveness of recent events to hold it together, conceptually.

The Flaws: The Tangled Skien

Most campaigns can be deconstructed in terms of falling dominoes – a does b, which leads c to do d, which leads e to do f, while a is doing g. Think of a flowchart: take away a major domino, and even if you replace it with something that makes sense in the context of the current adventure, it can make a nonsense of something else.

That is the major danger posed by retconning, regardless of continuity model chosen; you change something, and that logically changes a whole string of things that eventually produce the current situation that you want – but, like the infamous butterfly crushed by a time-traveler, there will be all sorts of side-consequences unless the change is carefully contained, and that in turn can affect something that is supposed to remain fixed.

Campaigns Suited To the Rolling Retcon

There’s one particular type of campaign genre that seems especially well-suited to this type of continuity model, and that is a Time Travel campaign. The rolling retcon is a great way to simulate the minor consequences of changing the past.

No Easy Answers

What’s clear is that every campaign continuity structure is an imperfect compromise. Practicality states that most campaigns tend to be closer to having “strict” continuity than theory would necessary admit, but they all require a certain level of flexibility. The more historical content that is fixed, the more pressure there is on the GM to get everything right the first time, something that is impossible to an imperfect human. The only solution is to choose the alternative that best describes the sort of campaign you want to run – and make certain that the players know what to expect.

This was supposed to be a nice, quick article. I wondered why it was taking so long to write, and thought perhaps that the heat of the Australian summer was affecting my ability to write more than I thought. Uploading it revealed the truth – this is an 8000+ word monster, and I didn’t even notice. Oh, well.

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Pieces of Creation: Énorme Force

Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

Oh boy, does this character have a conceptual history. It started with needing another villain for the Paranormal War (which I told readers about in the last installment of Pieces Of Creation) and being short of time. So I took a villain from one of the many supplements I had for the Hero System who was just a fairly generic brick (and whose name I now forget) and melded the character concept with a homage to one of the mainstays of the X-men comics of the 80s, Colossus, again looking to add an unexpected twist while playing on player expectations based on the visual of that hero. But the character lacked sparkle, he was too generic, and barely able to hold the attention of one PC, never mind a whole team of them, for an entire encounter. There simply wasn’t enough substance or depth.

So the character needed some serious cosmetic surgery for his next appearance in the campaign, when he was to function solo against the group. So I began seasoning with other ideas. I threw in elements of Earthmover, a villain from Villains Unlimited, the Heroes Unlimited sourcebook by Kevins Long & Siembieda, and mixed with elements from another Marvel Comics character, Thunderball, all of which were filtered through elements of the origin story of one of the PCs in the campaign, Blackwing.

Blackwing was an L.A. Cop from the East Coast who migrated in search of his sister, who had fallen into the clutches of a weird cult somewhere in California. In a fortuitous incident, he uncovered a Demon Base (a variant on the Organization from the Champions RPG) base and led a successful raid on it. In the course of that raid, he came into possession of a suit of magical armor that the Sorcerers were doing something to – whether creation, perversion, or attempted destruction was never clear – and for some reason, he instead of logging it into evidence, he chose to put it on, transforming him into the Novice hero, Knight.

What the character didn’t realize was that he was admitted to the team as much so they could keep an eye on him as anything else, because his story simply didn’t make sense, and yet he believed every word. Strange abilities began cropping up almost immediately, like the time the armor absorbed a blaster shot instead of simply deflecting it, or the time it swallowed a bad guy whole.

In an effort to help the team understand how their powers worked, another character named Warcry (who went on to be the focal point of his own campaign) began to analyze their powers. The results were strange almost from the beginning, and what became clear was that Knight didn’t want anyone else to wear the Armor – and was reluctant to even take it off. An attempt to measure the thickness of the armor was the straw that broke the camel’s back as Knight transformed into Blackwing, a Stony superheroic Gargoyle – with no observable Armor at all.

Over the years since, bit by bit, things have become clearer. The armor exhibits a sort of Siren Call that seduces compatible individuals until someone puts it on. Doing so imprisons the wearer in a pocket dimension, whose boundaries appear to be the individual wearing the armor and which embed subconscious instructions to protect against discovery of these facts. So Knight became the shape-changer known as Blackwing.

There’s obviously a LOT more to the story than this capsule review can contain (and more that even the player doesn’t know yet!) – but this gives the basics and the conceptual elements that were incorporated into the character being presented here as “Énorme Force”.

On top of all that, I threw in some original ideas of my own! But all that additional content went into the character concept and background; superficially, at least from a distance, the character still looked like ‘Colossus’. Up close, there are pronounced differences.

I spent quite a lot of time working on an illustration for the character. I took an existing illustration in high resolution and “embedded” screaming faces throughout the “shine” – so subtly that you at first hardly notice that they are there at first – and then can’t stop seeing them. Once again, I wish I could show the full image to you, but I can’t for copyright reasons. You’ll have to settle for a series of small extracts from the original.

Like Mortus, the encounter with Énorme Force started off following the script I had outlined but then went off on a wild tangent, as the PCs managed to release ‘Énorme Force’ from the curse, reforming him – or at least, so it seemed. Yes, the character was sincere – but that’s not the end of the story. The character is – now – too good to let vanish back into obscurity within the campaign!

Rendered Colossus image by JaspervD showing "ghost" effects

great results like these are only possible with a great foundation. The Original image by JaspervD can be found at this URL. No claim of Copyright is exerted by me over either the image or the character’s appearance. Hopefully, they agree that this display constitutes fair use! All told, some 65 images of people screaming/in pain were integrated using the ghost effect.

Énorme Force: What the PCs Knew or Could Learn from team files

Énorme Force is an unconventional blend of brick/martial artist/psi/mage. His true identity has never been discovered.

His body is composed of, or wrapped in, bands of an organic metallic compound which contains “cells” or small pockets, each of which confines one of the different fundamental energies and bridges the gap between these usually incompatible forces by permitting the effects of manipulating one to act on the intervening metallic biostructure, transmitting effects from one cell to its neighbors by resonating with the initial effect. Fortunately, most of the potential benefit is tied up in simply holding the unstable conglomeration together. Nevertheless, he manages to pull off a few tricks.

Although from a distance the armor appears smoothly polished metal, when you get closer, it can be seen that the armor actually has a very finely detailed embossing of people’s faces – and the these faces are alive and moving. The armor is literally the bodies of innocent bystanders that have been twisted, deformed, and transformed, and who exist in total agony. These ordinary people function as involuntary ablative armor for the villain. Anyone attempting to reach Énorme Force’ mind psionically connects instead with these tortured souls, whose agonies form a psionic defense with what is effectively a psionic damage shield as well as causing most people to refrain from attacking to cause physical harm. In terms of his actual physical strength and defense, Énorme Force is actually a somewhat second-rate brick.

Énorme Force is believed to have no real understanding of how his powers work, and has never revealed how he came to possess them.


NB: The following analysis is strictly theoretical, but is the only explanation found to explain the diversity of capabilities that Énorme Force has demonstrated.

Énorme Force manipulates space. He manipulates souls. He manipulates bodies. He manipulates energy blasts. And he takes control of the powers of others he encounters, though he can only control one power belonging to each person at one time. The subject is free to use any other power he may possess so long as it is not in the same multipower being controlled by Énorme Force. It is also believed but not confirmed that a power must be used against him or possibly in his presence before he can control it.

One fundamental energy becomes active, causing resonances in the metallic cell walls, which pass those resonations on to the other two energy forms, where the effect can be further manipulated.

A quick nibble at the campaign physics: In addition to the physical forces and the energies they produce (which includes the atomic and chemical), there are four known additional types of Force, each of which can also manifest in various forms of Energy.

Temporal Force is the Energy Of Time, and has a number of sub-varieties (refer to this article on Time Travel, the second part in a three-part series that I wrote back in 2010 for more information if interested), but it isn’t relevant to this character’s abilities.

Arcane Force is an energy field created by all living things, and exhausting it brings that life to an end, so it is also known as the Force Of Life. It is the most easily manipulated of the fundamental forces (also known as the universal forces, because they are not confined to a single space-time). It can be stored in objects and otherwise manipulated in various ways, and is the most flexible of the forces. Living things radiate it, but for reasons still not clearly understood, there is an energy flow that connects those living things with the world around them in a non-uniform way.

Chi Force is energy of the soul, and is the most mysterious. Martial Arts can manipulate Chi in one of three ways: altering the martial artist, altering the way the martial artist interacts with the environment around him, or altering that environment directly. These are progressively harder to achieve, and so Chi Force is also known as the Energy Of Self.

Psi Force is energy of the mind, and is the product of sentience, capable of the transfer and discovery of information. Because everything reported by the senses must be interpreted by the mind, Psi Force is sometimes referred to the Energy Of Perception.

While these forces can manifest in various energy forms, manipulated by various tools, and converted from one to another in specific ways, they are normally completely incompatible, and any given being can only be a Mage, a Psi, or a Martial Artist, never more than one. Énorme Force hints that this prohibition may be less universal within the campaign than first thought.

Applications against Zenith-3:

(Think of these as examples):

  • Stretch Blackwing like taffy, make Blackwing attack another PC
  • Make St Barbara’s Energy Blasts fire at random in random directions (toward bystanders) or trigger her flight – or shut it down
  • Turn Vala’s Psi attacks on Defender
  • Turn Defender’s Chi Strikes on Vala
  • Re-target Runeweaver’s spells

Defeating Énorme Force:

The key to defeating him will be to trick him into controlling the wrong power so that an effective power can be brought to bear on him. Indirect attacks work well. Moral issues mandate a preference for carefully-metered nonlethal attacks.

The Secret Origin Of Énorme Force (that isn’t a secret any more):

Énorme Force was born Adoghe Lionel Ngouabi in the French (Middle) Congo (western central Africa) in the late 1960s. As happens from time to time, tribal violence erupted in the region and Adoghe was captured and sold on the black market as a slave to another tribal warlord after seeing his son killed by the raiders. Security was lax, and he escaped, returning to the village of his birth to find the township empty and in ruins, his wife and daughter missing. Knowing that this was a normal response to raids – the populace fled into the jungle in all directions and returned only slowly and when they had no other option, hoping that their attackers had moved on in the meantime – Adoghe settled down to await the return of his neighbors.

The next memory that he possesses is fighting as a mercenary somewhere else in Africa, he’s not sure where. His relationship with and the behavior of those around him suggest that he had been doing so for some time. He knows it was sometime after 1974 as he heard someone singing a popular song by the Fania All Stars, amongst the most popular musical performers in Africa at the time.

Some time later – with no memory of the intervening years – he recalls stealing a suit of armor from a European castle (Germanic accents) but he doesn’t know who they were or where things took place. Cornered by his pursuers, he was left with no choice but to put on the armor and hope that it protected him from their weapons. He braved the waiting force when cornered, and witnessed the armor absorb the bodies and souls of one of his would-be attackers to form a shield against another, who was also then absorbed. His life since that time has been miserable. He never slept soundly again; the cries of the imprisoned echo through his mind incessantly, disrupting his sleep and bringing him close to madness; he suspects that his lost memories are of such times of insanity from which his subconscious shields him for his own defense. In those periods he can recall, most of the time he finds himself in situations with no comprehension of how they developed; he also believes that it is not entirely clear who controls whom, himself or the armor.

More years are then blank, filled only with broken and scattered fragments of memory, until he found himself in the USA in his armored form, a hunted man, offered refuge by Crimson Claw, organizer of the Paranormal War. Crashing out of that contest early, he was free to wander and made his way aimlessly to Bosnia, which is where Ragnerok found him. Over the last five or six years (it’s now May 1987 in the game continuity) he has tried to make his way in the world, seizing opportunities as they present themselves and making desperate choices when he had to.

More than anything else, he just wants his nightmare to end, to get out of this suit of ‘damned armor’ and go home to Africa so that he can locate his wife and child and leave all the bloodshed and victims behind. But the suit won’t let him, driving him relentlessly on to another conflict, another battlefield, and more victims. Nor will it let him end his own life – he’s tried, he’s sure of it, even though he can’t recall doing so. He sees himself as an antihero and victim more than a villain; though he may have done some villainous things, it’s far from clear how much self-control he has.

A behind-the-scenes note:

The periods of blackout are essential to the character. Over time, you can get used to almost anything, even the tortured souls of those you have ‘imprisoned’ – but because of the blackouts, these are experienced afresh each time.

What became of Énorme Force:

Zenith-3 were able to break the curse, releasing Adoghe from his living hell. He appeared not to have aged a day since putting on the armor, even though that was getting on for 20 years ago. The armor itself now consisted of nothing more than the transformed souls and flesh of his victims, who were freed as a result, causing the ‘organic metal’ to sublimate into nothingness. Adoghe was left to find a ship going to Africa who was willing to let him work for his passage.

What will become of Énorme Force:

Who knows (well, I do, but the players don’t). But there’s clearly a lot more to his story, and so far, the similarities between his story and those of Knight/Blackwing have yet to hit home for the PCs.


Altering the idea for use in other genres should not be too difficult. People wear armor in all sorts of campaigns and (depending on the transormative mechanism) this rather nasty idea could be found in anything from D&D to Cyberpunk by way of Horror. There are a few obvious unanswered questions, but that would just make it easier to adapt Énorme Force to suit your campaign. Have fun and make your players squirm…

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Creating A Building: A Metaphor and Illustration

Castle Peles in Romania photo by / Ivana S

Castle Peles in Romania photo by / Ivana S
Built as a summer palace during the years 1873-1914.

This article started as an example and additional content for last week’s discussion of Visualization, but that article evolved in a different direction, and this material no longer seemed to fit. So I pulled it to give both the room they needed.

Six Questions To Create A Building

Everything happens somewhere.

In order for any event to occur in an RPG, we need to specify somewhere for it to happen. That means that we have to create a LOT of locations in the course of a campaign, or even a moderately-large adventure.

Most of those locations will be buildings of some sort, simply because that’s where you find people, and that’s where you find objects of interest, and therefore, that’s where things happen. I have a set checklist that I mentally follow whenever creating a building, and that’s – at least nominally – the subject of today’s article.

  • What’s it for?
  • How big is it?
  • Who built it?
  • Where is it?
  • What’s it made of? And lastly,
  • What does it look like?

Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? And notice that the last step is to visualize it – so that I’m ready to describe what I’m seeing, mentally, using the techniques described in the Visualization article and the series on Stylish Narrative.

But this series of questions is even more useful than meets the eye…

What’s It For?

Everything has a purpose.

But that’s a very loaded proposition – the creator may have had a quite different purpose in mind to the current inhabitants, who may have a very different purpose to that of the DM.

Each of these purposes will shape, or reshape, the structure of the building in question. The purpose of the creator will dictate the fundamental “bones” of the architecture. The purpose of the current owners/occupants will change the way that the spaces in between those fundamental bones will be filled, and the fascia that is applied. And guiding the decisions of both, from behind the curtain, will be the plot needs of the GM pulling the strings.

My personal experiences include working in an office space designed early in the 1970s which had been adapted to house clusters of cubicles – from almost everywhere inside the building there was no direction in which you could see an unbroken view of the outside, and when you were working in one of those cubicles, you were cocooned like a monk in his cell. And I saw what happened when they redesigned the space to take down the barriers between the workstations that comprised each cluster, orienting them so that everyone could see the outside in some direction – it felt like the building had grown 50% larger, there was suddenly so much space around each person.

I’ve also worked in a 19th-century wool-store that had been refitted as a data processing center – desks side by side and facing each other, each with a computer screen and a book-stand – and noticed how the original purpose of the building defined where the supporting columns were located, and how large they were, and how these became the hubs around which modern utilities like phones and power supplies could be run, and so dictated the way that the building functioned in its new role.

I’m not a big watcher of renovation/home decoration programs or magazines, but it only takes a passing acquaintance with such sources to recognize how large a transformation can be achieved with relatively minor changes – and yet, if you look closely at most such transformations, you can still perceive the lingering echoes of what was there before, even if they now have to be assessed in a new context that obscures that original design.

Purpose is one of the most important defining characteristics. At the same time, it’s often the easiest to put your mental finger on; it’s then “simply” a matter of interpreting those purposes into design, layout, and decorative elements. It’s hard to get that right – but it’s fairly easy to spot when it isn’t done correctly, because the space will make no sense once you look at it with a little perspective. The biggest mistake that most people make is waiting until they are about to use the space in a game before doing so.

How Big Is It?

Size matters (just ask any Dr Who fan about the TARDIS).

Size has two major effects, plus a third superficial one, that need to be noted and accommodated.

The first effect is that size dictates what can happen conveniently and efficiently in a given space. If the space is too large, then people will either be overwhelmed by it, or so separated that communication becomes a problem. Either way, efficiency and convenience suffer.

The second effect is a corollary to the first. If an operation is in a space of any particular size, it’s because they think or thought that they would need that space. If an insurance company occupies a 16-story skyscraper, they will need every single one of those floors for something. If a Hardware store occupies one-and-a-half acres (and at least one in Sydney does – I know because I helped set up the shelves and stock for it at one point) its because they have that much hardware that the space will be full. If they didn’t need as much space, they would relocate to cheaper premises, or never have moved into this location in the first place. If there wasn’t enough space, again it’s unlikely that this location would have been acceptable.

Let’s go back to that Insurance Company for a minute, which I know about because I worked for them for a number of years. The ground floor is all about customer service. There’s a floor for each branch of insurance, and a floor for senior management, and a floor for IT, and one for the computers themselves, and a floor for computer security, and a floor for the staff cafeteria, and a floor for training, and a floor for the printers that produce the renewal notices, and a floor for building maintenance, and a floor for the air-conditioning plant and elevator power. I count that as being 10 floors, so there have to be four major branches to the insurance operation (in fact, there were more until some were moved into a neighboring building). And one of those remaining floors is shared with the call center and switchboard, and another is shared with an internal library. And that’s with a number of key functions outsourced, like graphic design. Each floor has meeting rooms, and secretarial stations, and middle-management, and bathrooms for staff use, and security stations. At 14 floors, it was bulging at the seams. All that exists to service one floor of customer service, and a number of branches.

I see this go wrong all the time in home-brewed locations because in any operation, 9/10ths of it don’t show to the outside world (well, maybe it’s more like 1/2, but you get the point). People place something in an immense castle, with no thought of what will fill it. It happened with Assassin’s Amulet, too – the original map, though beautiful, gave few suggestions as to the purposes of the individual rooms. It was more-or-less assumed that the GM would fill things in himself – back before Johnn and I became involved. It took a lot of creative effort to allocate functions to all the internal spaces.

Gothic Ceiling by / Andrew Smith

Gothic Ceiling by / Andrew Smith

The final aspect of size is that it is equated to grandeur – but only if you can successfully convey a sense of immensity, and that’s more easily said than done. Even photographs often fail to capture it – as someone who has both seen the real thing and gone looking for photographs that adequately express the incredible size of the California Redwoods, I can assure you of that! Either the immense height is not adequately captured, or the physical size of these trees is shrunken; it takes a camera with the ability to pan up to begin to put scales into perspective.

To some extent, the same thing takes place with buildings; rows of windows can provide a useful tool for estimating height, but they come in so many shapes and horizontal sizes that they are an unreliable guide in that dimension. And even then, ceiling heights can throw you curve balls by increasing the size of windows/glass panels more than you realize.

Visually, the easiest way to convey immensity is with richness of detail. That simply doesn’t work in a communications mode that is serial in nature – the spoken/written word, for example. And yet, anyone who knows anything about Hollywood trickery knows that this, too, can be deceptive; it works because the mind makes certain assumptions about the size of small details, and so enlarges its comprehension of the space containing those objects.

And, in fact, it’s those relative sizes being incorrect that tends to give the game away when we look at miniatures; there is a mental discontinuity between the scales that makes the image an obvious miniature (the other photographic flaw is the rate of blur with distance, which our minds interpret into how far away the camera was). Still more cues include the detail of rocks and the sharpness of shadows.

Size is one of those tricky things to get right, and getting it wrong can totally blow the credibility of what you are describing. So I place thinking about it early in the creative process.

Who Built It?

You can’t really think about an original purpose without thinking about the original creator – the designer/architect/builder/decorator combination that caused the building to exist the way it is. Each will leave his own distinctive stamp on the structure in many ways.

That’s a level of detail that most GMs don’t go into – myself included, under normal circumstances. But even beyond that, there are different periods and styles in architecture, and those are also quite distinctive – and those I definitely pay attention to, because they tell me what a lot of the details will look like.

One page that I have bookmarked and refer to often is Wikipedia’s Graphic Timeline Of Architectural Styles. Each of the architectural styles is linked to the appropriate Wikipedia page, making it a great way of quickly connecting to an appropriate style – and if you use “open in new tab” or its equivalent in other browsers, you can skim and go back immediately if the results aren’t what you want.

Of course, there is absolutely no rule that says that architectural styles in a Fantasy world should look like those with which we are familiar, and defining a common architectural style can be a great way of unifying players’ perceptions of a culture in a fantasy game. Maybe the major buildings all have minaret-style domes made of glass, while the smaller ones reflect that design element in the shape of their doors (very Arabian) with stained glass inset above the lintel and rectangular stained glass panels along the sides of the main entrance of the building. This may be part of their religious iconography, a representation of the halo around their deity (or one of their deities). Throw in outer walls with sides canted inwards at a 10-degree angle or so, and you get a formalized representation of a tent, which starts to hint at the history of the culture.

In other words, if our cultural history doesn’t apply, I strongly recommend that you invent one for your campaign – even if you crib from real sources and apply a blender.

This, of course, is even more important and essential (and even harder) when you’re dealing with a future-based setting. The best futuristic sci-fi movies have a consistent architectural theme or two that makes it possible to identify a set photograph of even a movie that you haven’t seen before as belonging to the show/movie. Star Wars certainly has it. Tron had it. The City Of the Daleks in the 70s Dr Who serial had it. Blade Runner has it. Star Trek started to get it in The Next Generation and certainly had it by the time Deep Space Nine and Voyager rolled around.

One of the keys to future architectural style is not changing things too much. The doors on the original starship Enterprise were immediately recognizable as doors; that was necessary because it was a 1960s audience who was viewing it. Compare the cutting edge architecture of today with what people of 100 years ago thought the future would look like and, while there are some similarities, there are also a great many differences; the forecasts are less bound by function and far more simplistic in style, far more compromised to be recognizable by their audience.

Making sure that the building that I am mentally creating either fits the architectural style of the period in which it was created or one of the older ones, or is famous for not observing the fashion (notorious might be a better term) is an important step in creating the building because it connects the building with the culture and history of those that created it.

Where Is It?

Every somewhere sits in an environment (I was going to write, ‘every somewhere is somewhere’ but that’s starting to get too Baroque!)

The location can be either more important than “who made it” or less, or sometimes both at the same time. Which is to say that function will almost always trump form, and function in this case means adapting the style to suit the environment. What happens is that in the essentials, the purity of a style is compromised where necessary; but if it is not essential, the style will dominate the design.

Major impacts that may need to be accommodated include rainfall intensity, flooding, snow, high temperatures, earthquakes, wildfires (also known as bushfires), surface erosion, and strong winds. The more frequently these occur, the more strongly they will influence or even dominate other considerations when designing/constructing structures.

Which brings me to a side-issue that needs to be made at this point. I won’t go into it too deeply – I’ll do another article at some point digging into things more substantially – but this will serve as a primer for that article.

The impact of severe climate is the product of two different facts: the severity and the frequency with which that severity (not more nor less) can be expected to occur. Multiply these together, and add up all the results, and the total is the risk of complete failure that the building faces. If any of those risks exceeds a threshold level based on the expected lifetime of the structure, the design will need to mitigate or otherwise allow for it.

For example, let’s look at flooding. We’ll take 100 years as a typical expected lifetime. Once every ten years, low levels of flooding can be expected, so the likelihood is that it will need to withstand that flooding ten times in its lifetime – this obviously has to be taken into account in the design of the structure. Once every 25 years, moderate flooding will be experienced – so that’s 4 times in the expected lifetime. The major structure would probably take this into account, but that’s about the threshold. Once every 50 years, the building may experience severe flooding, but you probably wouldn’t factor that into your design.

Why? Because one-in-fifty-years events don’t come along like clockwork. What this really means is that the risk is greater than 50-50 that such an event will occur within 50 years of the last such event. Each subsequent half-way step toward 100% risk also multiplies the timescale by the number of steps, so the likelihood is 50% at 50 years, 75% at 100 years, 87.5% at 150 years, 93.75% at 200 years, and so on. There is a reasonably high chance that the building will never experience this problem within its 100-year projected lifespan, so unless there is some reason to expect the risk to go up, you wouldn’t expect to allow for it.

Standards have greatly changed in this respect over the years. These days, the risk to the building is secondary to the risk that the building may pose to others should catastrophe strike. Liability rules over Existence, in other words, and liability risks tend to be much higher with larger modern structures because it’s risk-per-person. The risk to an individual might be low, but multiply it by thousands and it quickly overtakes the risk to the structure as a design consideration.

The other change that has occurred is that absolutism has been replaced with an estimated repair value, and that is compared with a more flexible threshold, the estimated total value of the building. Putting everything in terms of dollars has only happened in the latter half of the 20th century, though it existed as an emerging trend for a century or so prior, but it has the virtue of being a more black-and-white real-world outcome. But we’re wandering off the point of relevance to this article.

If only it was as simple as adding structural or design elements to meet environmental survivability requirements. Quite often, solving one problem compromises capacity to deal with another. You don’t need to be a professional architect, but you do need to be aware of these potential compromises when imagining your structures – and, once again, the risk of the building becoming unusable dictates relative impact on design.

What’s It Made Of?

A secondary impact of location is in availability of construction materials.

Some constructions deliberately utilize non-local material simply because they are hard to obtain and hence evidence of commitment and importance, so what is not available is just as important as what is common.

Furthermore, different construction materials have different requirements in actual usage. Certain types of roofing materials require different levels of support from the structure because of their weight, for example; and in some places, snow loading can potentially exceed the weight of the roof if the design doesn’t take into account the need to shift that weight. (That’s why roofs are pitched at steeper angles in snow country. But these are bad for cooling – so flat roofs are preferred in higher temperature environments. Neither of these are the horizontally strongest designs, those tend to be at about 45 degrees of pitch – so those are what prevail in areas of strong wind. Flat roofs, on the other hand, have much greater potential vertical strength – so these are more prevalent in tornado-prone areas).

Whoops, I seem to have wandered back into the previous point – but that’s okay, because they are very strongly associated. Getting back on point, then, the stronger a frame has to be, the heavier it is, and the more strongly it needs to be held up/held together by the vertical parts of the frame. That’s a truism that becomes less relevant with advances in steel in the early 20th century, so this is a stronger factor in older buildings.

The local church in the town where I grew up that I attended as a child doesn’t need columns to support the roof – but it does have tremendous wooden beams spanning the entire structure, about a foot square in cross-section. They must weigh close to a ton for every 2-3 feet of length – and they are quite long, at least 60′, so each beam must weigh 20-30 tons, maybe more. There are at least 12 of those beams – so the foundations have to support more than 400 tons even without figuring the foot-thick stone walls into account. For comparison, there are complete multistory Japanese castles that are estimated to weigh that much. That’s about the weight of a fully-loaded 747 Jumbo, and the weight of the largest industrial excavator ever built in Germany, and the weight of the Locomotive that powers the Orient Express. The walls need to be made of such heavy stone in order to support both themselves and that load.

What’s It Look Like?

Once all the practicalities and historical contexts have been taken into account, all that’s left are the surface superficialities.

Yet, these are often the most visible elements of the design. Designers and decorators never seem to like being forced into anything by practical realities and go out of their way to hide the compromises that they are forced to make, simply because they are compromises with reality. In another structure where they are not necessary, the same decorator would quite happily incorporate the look of the very design features that they have just hidden, simply because they aren’t necessary.

How do you hide necessary design features? You make columns look like statues, you sheath walls in some entirely different construction material, and sculpt nooks and crannies and shapes into the walls. In short, you turn them into decorative features and build the rest of the appearance around them.

A number of structures are also over-engineered to provide scope for design features. For example, castle walls are designed to withstand siege equipment and cannon-fire; that necessitates walls of a certain thickness, but would you ever be comfortable in a structure designed to be only just strong enough to protect you? There’s always the chance that someone would get in a lucky shot, or build a better siege weapon – so you would engineer your outer walls to be at least three times as strong as they needed to be, if you could; four or five times would be better. And then it occurs to you that if the walls are going to be that thick and strong, you could build a secret escape passage into them and they would still be more than three times as strong as they need to be…

The Derivation Of Answers

The mental design process runs a lot faster than this article may have conveyed. Ultimately, it comes down to making six decisions – so somewhere between 3 and 12 seconds is enough time for me to envisage a structure, even without allowing for “typical” structures short-circuiting the process. With such shortcuts – and they only come with experience – I can imagine and describe a tavern, or a cottage, or a skyscraper, about as quickly as I can bring the word to mind.

What’s more, because they occur more frequently, the more common a structure in a game, the more readily such shortcuts come to mind – with experience.

What I have learned over the years is that spending those few seconds – or even, for a less experienced GM, maybe ten or twenty seconds each – thinking about each of the six questions gives me a strong foundation for making snap decisions about anything else that may come up.

You can improv only as fast as you can think, and this process lets me improv about as fast as the words can come out of my mouth. On a more complicated structure, I might need to spend a little more time thinking about it to achieve this – but a pause of 5 or 6 seconds is barely noticeable, and is easily covered by rolling a few dice and pretending to count them up. And if you can make the results of that dice roll relevant in some way to your subsequent description/narrative, so much the better, and you will never be caught out by your players!

A Building Without Walls

What may surprise people who haven’t thought about it enough is that the same process can be applied to other sorts of locations. A clearing in the forest or jungle, for example. A swampy hollow. The entrance to a giant anthill. Any location can be treated as “a building without walls” and the same process applied – though some of the questions might need tweaking, or a more metaphoric interpretation.

For example, let’s think about a forest clearing. What’s it for? A potential danger or trap, a passage for forest animals. How big is it? About 3 meters (10′) across, surrounded by brush and heavy trees. Who built it? There are three possible reasons for a clearing: first, there used to be a tree there, but it was destroyed by lightning/fire; second, there may be particularly dense stands of trees to east and west, reducing the light reaching this spot, and inhibiting growth there; or third, the soil may be especially poor there by chance. Deliberate construction doesn’t appear on the list, but might be a fourth – trappers did do that, I believe, to make their traps more accessible. Where is it? A thick forest in a cooler climate. What’s it made of? The brush to either side includes nettles and thorn-bushes, so the clearing is relatively confined. What does it look like? A span of mossy earth and plants a few inches tall surrounded by thicker undergrowth and dense stands of tall trees that keep the area in shade. Clearing done!

If you eliminate the need for walls, anywhere becomes a building, and the same tools, the same six questions, can make answers flow as needed.

The Building Of A Metaphor

The utility of those six basic questions doesn’t stop there. A more liberally-metaphoric interpretation of those questions enables the same technique to be used for just about anything you can think of.

For example, let’s build an off-the-cuff encounter for our clearing, in a D&D/Pathfinder setting.

What’s it for? A local noble feels threatened by recent events and has placed a guard here to try and drive the adventurers off. How big is it? Enough to trouble the party, but not realistically to defeat them. Who built it? Baron Mars Aeppin, who was forewarned by a seer of the party’s coming. Where is it? A clearing in the forests to the southwest of the Baron’s castle. What’s it made of? One knight and his two harpy allies who are perched in the trees that overgrow the clearing. And finally, What does it look like? A knight in polished ring-mail stands ready in the center of the clearing, a shield on one arm and his sword drawn and pointed at his feet, signifying his readiness for battle but an initially non-belligerent stance; the heraldic device on the shield is an inverted red “V” against a yellow background and a black eagle in flight above it (note that I am deliberately using a visual description and not technical heraldic language). The knight is Sir Reginald, the Baron’s brother, a nobleman himself who hopes to inherit the childless Baron’s estates one day. The encounter clearly invites a parley with the party, but one that could turn hostile immediately if the party do not accede to the Baron’s demands that they withdraw from his lands.

From this beginning, an entire plotline could easily be improvised – all the ingredients are there. The seer’s prophecy is self-fulfilling; by acting to bar the party, the Baron invites their attention (they would probably have ignored him otherwise). The seer therefore has an agenda of his or her own – she has Sir Reginald enthralled and if she can engineer the Baron’s downfall, she can claim the estates through him, using them as a stepping stone. The only question is where the Harpies fit in – they are unlikely allies, there is a story there.

A basic and simple plot, but one fully capable of diverting a party for a day’s play – and one that took about as long as typing “from this beginning, an entire plotline could easily be improvised”. A couple of seconds more thought might enable the seer to be linked into existing plot threads within the campaign, and the characters to become a bit more rounded than their current one-dimensional state – but you’ve got lots of time to do those things as play progresses.

So learn the six questions, understand why they get asked in the order they occur, and the apply general principle of practicalities to superficialities/personalities to your GMing day-in and day-out, and, and not only will your repertoire expand enormously, but you’ll have more time to create those memorable oddballs that don’t fit the usual patterns and focus on running a good game in which everyone has fun. That’s a lot of reward for a small effort!

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Pieces of Creation: Mortus

Sydney NYE 2007 image by / Jenny Rollo, Text effects by

It’s that time of year again! Sydney will usher in 2016 at the same time as this is being published – but this image is of 9 years ago, when the show was a lot smaller than it is now!
Image by / Jenny Rollo
Text effects by Logo and Graphics Generator.

Pieces Of Creation Logo version 2

Continuing the great character giveaway, here is an interesting (and nasty) villain from the Zenith-3 campaign, which can be easily adapted for use in a wide range of genres. He may not have quite the same impact in any world in which the PCs do not seek to avoid the death and suffering of others, however.

Introducing ‘Mortus’

‘Mortus’ is an homage to a great character from Marvel Comics, ‘Thanos,’ who (as just about everyone should know) figures to loom large in the Marvel Movie universe Real Soon Now. While, in my campaign, he goes by the same name as in that source material, I’ve changed it here for publication purposes.

Mortus behind the curtain

He first appeared in my campaign as a generic Brick in the Paranormal War plot arc (which was my ramped-up version of The Great Supervillain Contest (the Champions module by Dennis Mallonee, available in original printed form from Amazon for close to the original price, or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG) in which the name was used purely for shock value – the players hear the name and have their characters show up for the fight loaded for bear and packing death – only to find that he’s a (relative) pushover. They kept waiting “for the other shoe to drop”.

When they defeated him, he was rescued by the villain behind the Paranormal War, and quietly dropped out of sight immediately thereafter. At the time, he couldn’t even tell the PCs why he had happened to choose that particular name – “it just sounded impressive” – which is just a fancy way of saying to the players that I had spent my creative efforts elsewhere at that point.

When the time came for him to reappear in the 2015 adventure, “Mixed Emotions”, leaving that as empty ‘negative space‘ paid off, big-time. This was a different group of PCs, and a different campaign (sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to the original campaign which was conducted simultaneous with it’s historical prequel, both of which were sequels to the campaign I used to playtest the game system – are you all keeping up, in the back of the room?) Because of these differences in campaign, and the fact that ‘Mortus’ was expected to carry the attention of the whole team (instead of having one-on-one parity with a single member), I needed to ramp him up considerably.

So, once again I trod the familiar philosophic ground of Death (from the original name of the character), and Life, and interesting ways of entwining them. Anyone who has read Assassin’s Amulet will know that this is familiar territory to me, creatively. Fortunately, it’s a creative space with a lot of elbow room, and I was able to find a new idea. What’s presented here is the result.

Doing the artwork (which I can’t show here for copyright reasons) was fairly simple – I only had to take everything that was blue on his existing costume and render it green, then everything gold and render it blue – and Matt instead of high-gloss. I also worked hard at making his face more gray and less purple. Two images were done, based on the work of other creators, so I can’t show them here. One emphasized a more skeletal and ‘deathlike’ face, the other was introspective, almost tender, and rather more sympathetic in tone.

The encounter started off the way I expected it to run and then went wildly off-script, as the PCs decided that ‘Mortus’ was too big a threat for them to simply chase off. This resulted in them undertaking something breathtakingly cosmic – but I’ll get to that in a future installment – that was built into my campaign plan but wasn’t intended to happen until the last third or so of the campaign. Fortunately, I had my rough notes ready – and the outcome’s effect on the character was so extreme that I was able to shuffle the resulting potential ally off into the sunset to reassess his life and come to terms with the new reality of his existence. He was so radically transformed that it’s fair to suggest that this will be the only appearance of the character as described in the campaign.

Mortus: Official (i.e. What the PCs knew, even if the players didn’t):

Mortus emerged during the Paranormal Wars, seemingly just another brick out to make a name for himself. He emerged as something of a conundrum. He is urbane, cultured, civilized, self-effacing, almost humble, sociable, friendly – and profoundly psychotic – in a rather friendly way.

He has no memory of his origins, and seemed to have little purpose beyond examining all the ways life could be lost in meticulous, ruthless, obsessive detail. His heart didn’t seem to be in the contest, but nevertheless he made it a considerable distance into the conflict with sheer physical force and brutality. At some point he appears to have decided that further participation was not of interest to him, and abandoned the contest before it was revealed as a trap; it is not known whether this is a sign of greater intellect, better instincts, or a reflection of his personal obsessions.

Mortus’ Costume:

(Refer description given previously). The colors of Mortus’ costume are the “Blue of Purity” and “The Green Of Life” – his own descriptions.

Mortus: The True Story:

Mid-way through the Paranormal Wars, Mortus discovered an obsessive fascination with life and and how death could be delayed or turned aside. Losing interest in a contest in which he felt he stood little or no chance, he absented himself without notice from the competition and began studies which would make a Nazi “doctor” squeamish.

Mortus doesn’t want personal power. He never uses flunkies or assistants, preferring to do everything himself to ensure that it is done correctly, and he will take as long in his preparations as he feels necessary. His plans are all small and relatively petty, at least on a cosmic scale; easily satisfied by individual deaths and mutilations. This makes it easy to underestimate him. He is far more than a Mere Brick.

Until recently, he thought he was an experimental clone of Behemoth*. His vision is noble: “If we can conquer death, and master the forces of life, all those we have lost can be returned to us. There will be no more suffering the agonies of isolation and grief. How many people were killed in the First World War? How much more difficult would the powers at large have found it to justify such slaughter if the Archduke Ferdinand had been restored to life? It is too late for that conflict, and yet the question lingers: how many more may be saved in the future from a reduction in causus belli? And even if the price proves to be the life of another, how many volunteers would there be for such an operation? It has always been said that the death penalty would not bring back the victim of a murder; what if that were no longer the case? There are those who contribute more than their share to society; how many of those can be maintained by donations of life from those who waste their lives, when the final moment came? How much good might they do?”

Mortus is a villain not because he is a bad guy, but because he is an utterly ruthless and psychopathic good guy – on his own terms.

Mortus: The Truth Within The Truth:

Slowly the truth has been eating at his ignorance like a cancer:

There was once a cosmic entity who decided for reasons of its own to bond with a mortal. In the process, the entity came to love the mortal’s mate as much as the mortal did. In time, the mate was poisoned by the radiations emitted from the cosmic experiments and studies of the duality, and eventually died. Both part of the entity became consumed by insanity of different kinds, growing out of their grief; they decided that they needed to know all about life and death in order to conquer the latter for all time.

For eons he worked, yet still the ultimate secrets eluded him. There was never enough time for a completely comprehensive analysis of the subject, never enough time for the research required. He had long ago run out of willing subjects, but that triviality would never stop him. Now he faced the death of his universe, his work still incomplete, and he decided that this was unacceptable. If only he could be trusted, then what he needed was more of himself. Many more. And so he divided himself, and scattered his facsimiles throughout the spacetimes, where they would linger and grow. Beginning as mere bullies, they would mature in power and knowledge as the inherent obsession manifested, until they had learned all they could – at which time they would be re-merged into the collective consciousness of the original. An infinite number of cosmic entities, all working to their utmost, throughout space and time – surely one of them would discover the secrets of Life?

Even the name “Mortus” is not of the villain’s own choosing, he has come to realize. It was bestowed in another space, another time, for one who committed genocide on an unfathomable scale, and resonated throughout the multiverse, subconsciously infiltrating the psyche of every other “Mortus” analogue.

All of this makes a lot more sense to those familiar with the comics appearances of Thanos if you substitute the original name back into the above and then read between the lines…

* Behemoth was one of the founding PCs in the campaign. A “smart brick” who was a genius at building things and less so about understanding how they worked, the theory behind them, or what the limitations would be that resulted, he ended for several years of the campaign being replaced by an evil clone of himself that he had created in his own efforts to prepare for the accidental death of a member of the team – including himself. After virtually destroying the life and reputation of the original through increasing irrationality and petulance, the clone was killed in a dramatic act of defiance, triggering the automated systems that were supposed to release the clone from its stasis – where the clone had incarcerated the original. Hey folks, guess who’s back from the dead? There’s a lot of irony in ‘Mortus’ thinking that he was another Behemoth Clone, under the circumstances…

Introducing Mortus In-game:

Before Mortus himself makes an appearance, his handiwork should become known. Find a war zone (i.e. where people won’t be missed). Locate a village within that war zone. Depopulate it by abducting the entire population in their sleep – those who are awake are left behind to raise the alert. Over the next 24 hours, have the missing who were in good health reappear – with slices extracted from them, or horrible disfigurements, or missing vital organs, or whatever else you can come up with. Examination will show the time of death to be the exact moment that they reappeared – so everything they experienced took place ante-mortum. At the same time, several of those who were suffering from serious infirmities or incurable diseases/conditions when they were abducted will also be returned – alive and completely cured.

Hypnosis permits a character to posses the brainwaves of sleep (and hence be amongst those abducted) at some future point, while ensuring that the ‘sleeping’ character can awaken instantly to meet the mad surgeon/scientist, Mortus.

I found some of the descriptions of Delgonian “torture” in various Lensman novels to be useful reference in describing the ‘treatments’ inflicted by Mortus.

Mortus: Powers & Abilities:

Again, note the lack of stats. These were whatever I needed them to be for the adventure, depending on what the PCs tried to do – and whether or not I thought it would/should work.

  • Immense STR
  • Immense Stamina
  • Incredible Durability
  • Naturally accomplished HTH combatant
  • * Genius in all known fields of science and engineering
  • * Can absorb & release vast amounts of cosmic energy, enough to destroy most mortals
  • * TK
  • * Telepathy
  • * Matter Manipulation
  • * Master Strategist

Mortus also possesses a teleport chair of his own design, named “Sanctuary” which is capable of:

  • Space Flight / FTL
  • Teleport
  • Force Field Projection
  • Weapons creation and automated firing
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Telepathic Link to ‘Mortus’
  • * Time Travel
  • * Extra-Dimensional Movement (EDM)

* Denotes a power that Mortus is only slowly becoming aware that he has, and which he has limited control over.

GM’s Notes: Defeating Mortus:

To drive Mortus off, all that needs to be done is to disrupt whatever experiment he is currently running. He will then go elsewhere and start over. Defeating Mortus is another question – it’s almost impossible. At best he can be captured and temporarily detained.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the PCs found a way to go beyond that “at best”. Full marks to them.

The Philosophy Behind Mortus:

Mortus exemplifies a couple of simple philosophies taken to the ultimate extreme: “The End Justifies The Means”, and “Being Cruel To Be Kind”. In order to perform any sort of experimental surgery or practice any sort of experimental or risky medical procedure, you have to be able to justify it in terms of the lives that will be saved from what you will learn, regardless of the outcome of this one attempt. By definition, that means that procedures more likely not to be harmful will almost certainly not be successful.

Science tends to be very sure of itself, very affirmative in its predictions. Medicine is often thought of as a science, but the reality – as exemplified over many seasons by the TV series “House” (now available in a single box set containing all 8 seasons) – is that it remains as much of an art as a diagnostic science. Individuals are just too different, one to another, and the biology and chemistry and psychology of the individual is too complicated for simple analysis.

Mortus, as a concept, pushes those facts to the extreme. Any pain or loss he causes can be justified if it advances his cause, the elimination of sickness, pain, and death. The key to his self-justification is to learn as much as he possible can from his experiments. Intervention by others merely changes the scope of what he can possibly learn. One of the stratagems proposed by the PCs (and quickly rejected, I might add) was to threaten his database of collected results; I was prepared for this option, with a canned response from Mortus: “Then you will be the ones who will rob their sacrifice of any meaning, not I; I will simply have to start again. Who will be the true villains if you do this? On whose head will fall the suffering of those who might otherwise have been saved?”

By deliberately making Mortus an urbane, calm, and even warm individual, it only highlights the barbarity of most choices of possible response. This villain’s very existence makes the PCs – and the players – feel like philistines, out of their moral depth, children throwing stones at the glasshouse. Finding a response that the players can live with requires them to get to the nitty-gritty of what both they, and their characters, really believe – if there is any doubt whatsoever, Mortus will (metaphorically) crawl through it and get under their skin. His demeanor and philosophy accomplishes that, while ensuring that they have enough time to fully explore that territory.

Comparing Mortus and Lon Than:

Lon Than was presented in the previous episode of Pieces Of Creation. He explores the moral ambiguity if “War for the prevention of War”, in the context of the imminent Second World War, and the fears that many felt heading into that conflict. This ambiguity is at the heart of the Pulp genre; violence to prevent violence is justifiable and even heroic, when done in the name of a worthwhile cause, and by those standards, Lon Than is a hero.

And yet, the character and the debate that his existence creates never feels as deep or as personal as the debate that Mortus inspires, even though there are many thematic similarities between the two. They both explore the concept of villainy being a line that cannot be crossed, no matter how morally justifiable such a crossing appear, and in the process, investigate the question of “what is a hero and what is a villain?”. I once suggested that the scariest villain was the twisted might-have-been, because they “play with the primal forces of why the character is who they are.” Lon Than and Mortus are the sort of characters I had in mind when I was writing it…

I was originally going to present another character as well, a not-especially civil gentleman now going by the name Énorme Force. At the last minute, I decided that either his presence (especially last on the bill) would either overshadow that of Mortus, or Mortus would overshadow his – and so pulled his appearance for a subsequent article, when the Great Character Giveaway continues. Until then, I wish everyone a safe, happy, and prosperous New Year.

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