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Ethics For Sale? – The Role of Native Advertising

Unlikely News

Will news stories like this become more than a typo?

There’s a new trend in online news that is creating waves. It’s called Native Advertising and it’s already all around you. And that means that it should be part of any modern-era or near-future game.

What is Native Advertising?

There is a current affairs programme in Australia that watches the media for exaggeration, error, and – at times – outright fabrication, without fear or favor. It’s called (not too surprisingly), Media Watch. On Monday April 21 they featured a story on the show about Native Advertising, and reported at some length the current controversy about the practice. You can read a transcript of the show (and possibly view it online) at the Episode 12 page of the show’s website. Watching the episode, I had a few thoughts on the subject beyond those offered, or quoted in the reports.

Native Advertising is the practice of advertisers sponsoring content to appear on news sites, not just advertising. Sounds simple, almost trivial, doesn’t it? But the more you dig into it, the more significant this change in behavior appears – at least to some people.

A summary of the controversy

Stories and articles on a news provider’s main site that look and feel just like the stories around it but that are actually paid for and often produced on behalf of an advertiser blur the lines between advertisement and news story. The characteristics identified by Junkee’s founder, Tim Duggan, and quoted by Media Watch are:

  • Quality content,
  • Inspired by a brand, and
  • Delivered ‘In-stream’.

“Quality” in this context simply means that it has to look as interesting as any other story on the site, and be as indistinguishable from it as possible.

The big problem is that mainstream news sites are being forced to adopt the same practice by the need to stay competitive. There’s the Guardian and the BBC in England, the Washington Post, New York Times, Time, and many others – they are all doing it. In November last year, the Wall Street Journal identified the trend and warned, “…as the push toward native ads gains steam, the already murky distinctions between ads and non-ads will only get murkier. Not long from now, most of the paid messages you encounter online will be dressed up as unpaid messages, and figuring out which is which will be an ever more difficult task.”

The implied criticism is that advertising is being dressed up as news, compromising the independence of the media upon which we increasingly rely for information.

The second part of the criticism is that the media outlets hosting this ‘news’ are selling their credibility, or at the very least, putting their credibility on the line. And that can go horribly wrong, as The Atlantic discovered last year when it presented seven pages of ‘Sponsor Content’ for the Church of Scientology, producing howls of criticism.

And some are simply concerned that they are selling this credibility for peanuts, for insufficient revenue to actually keep the media operation financially viable. If the major news institutions fail, and many of them are doing so, all that will be left will be sites offering paid advertising dressed up as content.

Advertising disguised as content is not new

For years now, advertisers have known that an ad that’s catchy enough or interesting enough can go viral, and that’s been the holy grail of many an advertising agency. They soon discovered that they were more likely to succeed if their campaign didn’t look like an advert. People are less inclined to engage their “cynicism circuits” if what they are being presented with looks like programme content, and hence the claims by the advertisers look and sound more credible.

The theory is that everyone wins – the audience get entertained, the advertiser draws attention to his brand, and the hosting site draws traffic, enabling it to sell advertising to others. And if you can generate enough buzz that the story gets picked up by mainstream media, the rewards that you reap are many millions of times what you would expect to get for the same costs expended in traditional advertising.

It’s even become entirely normal for advertisers to try out their advertising ideas for mass-market campaigns using “vectors” such as YouTube (which became really interesting during the last couple of election campaigns here in Australia when the major parties started doing so). At the same time, advertisers were trying to get traction with the viewing audience through traditional media by trying to make their ads look more like content, at least here in Australia. I’ve no doubt the same trend was experienced world-wide.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of agencies geared to producing traditional advertising absolutely sucked at producing anything that really looked like independent news; we were obviously seeing advertising, and the efforts to circumvent cynicism only drove it to new heights for a lot of people. So, as soon as social media platforms became businesses funded by advertising revenue, it became inevitable that they would make the leap from content distribution to content creation, setting up in-house advertising departments. If anyone knew how to create and package something that would appeal to their audience, they did.

From this perspective, all that’s really happened is that agencies have become much better at making advertising watchable/readable. Remember that the goal of native advertising is to provide and publish an advertisement that is indistinguishable from the content surrounding it – and the publishing institution sets the standard for that content. If they publish rubbish, the advertiser can publish rubbish. If they publish impartial and factual information, that’s the standard that the advertising has to reach as well.

What Native Advertising amounts to, ideally, is product placement in news sites.

Content being paid for by advertising is not new

It’s been the case for over a century that advertising revenues are what fund newspapers. Subscriptions have been a secondary revenue stream for quite a long time, now. The problem that established news organizations have is that the advertising revenue is drying up. It was always possible to publish a newspaper that was fully-funded by advertising, but for three big reasons, this didn’t happen:

  1. Subscription Revenues were the traditional base, and provided a bottom line that was always there, where advertising could be fickle at times;
  2. Independence and Authority are attributed to information that we pay for; and
  3. maintaining the fiction that subscription revenues paid for the newspaper enabled the news outlet to assume a position of editorial authority over the advertising, in other words to pretend that they were independent of the advertisers.

Journalistic Ethics are all predicated on the theory that news production – content – is independent, and can be held to a higher standard. Every movie or story about breaches of journalistic ethics all center on the compromising of that standard in favor of some vested interest, whether that be an advertiser, a business that is also owned by the owner of the newspaper, or politically motivated.

But, in reality, this is a polite fiction and has been for a very long time. As soon as individuals became wealthy enough to both own (or co-own) a newspaper and another business, independence of the news was compromised.

The Net Effect: Direct Connection

So what is the actual effect of Native Advertising? The reality is that it weakens that fictional distance, and requires advertising to rise to the standards of the remainder of the journalism being published. It removes that fictional bulkhead between advertiser and publisher and acknowledges the reality for all to see – provided that the journalistic standards are upheld.

The Ethical Jungle?

But that’s a big proviso, and always has been. Businesses the world over since the second world war, and since the 1960s and 70s in particular, have been focused on short-term profits rather than building for the long term, and so have governments. That’s the reason our cities have crumbling infrastructure. The conflict between a media outlet publishing something critical of a particular organization or not doing so because they advertise in the outlet has always been a conflict between the short-term (keeping the advertiser happy) and the long-term good of society (impartial and unbiased reporting of the true story).

In this brave new world, that’s not so very different from the old, will publishers be less inclined to impartiality?

Controversy and sensationalism makes for good viewing and good reading, and unless its lethal to the target, produces nothing more than a blip on the profit-and-loss sheet. The only exception is (sometimes) when a company is accused of activity that the social zeitgeist of the time has deemed unacceptable. Many companies who successfully spin corporate mistakes emerge stronger than they were before; the key is to be seen to act to correct whatever the problem was.

So I don’t think they will be – most of the time. And on those few exceptions, where a mismanaged company or political office really could go under as a result of a bad story – think Enron & Watergate, respectively – a diversity of advertisers insulates the publisher of the content to a large enough extent that they have the choice of sacrificing their credibility or telling the story. If the business affected is part-owner of the media organization, they may even make enough through additional sales/clicks of the story to compensate for the brief diminution of share price.

There is, in fact, a counterforce trying to manufacture controversy for the media attention that it brings. “Company in crisis” makes for a great news cycle – if it’s followed, a day or two later, by “Company saved” or “Company solves problem”.

So the ethical landscape may have become a little more tangled, a little more complicated, but by no means has the ethical battle for independence of media been lost. The real enemy of independence of media are plutocrats with dominance over a large segment of the populace – Citizen Kane in the guise of Rupert Murdoch – because that subtracts from that “diversity of advertisers”.

Campaign Mastery & Native Advertising

Long before there was a name for it, I’ve been employing Native Advertising here at Campaign Mastery. Some of the articles that have been posted here have been paid for, either by gifts of review copies or direct funding to my bank account. But I don’t have a problem with that, and neither should you, because the editorial requirement is that each of these articles is as useful and relevant to the readers and site objectives as anything else that gets published here. In other words, it has to be a good article first, and a sponsorship platform second.

When I accept a product for review, I make it clear that it will be an honest review, with no sugar-coating. And it’s the policy here to state outright if we were given a free copy to review, so that if there is any bias that results, our readers can take that into account. Our < href="" target="_blank">Policies page puts it plainly and simply – if there’s a link to a service or product or website in an article, readers should assume that there might be a vested interest. And if I write something that someone disagrees with, I’m more than happy to offer them an opportunity to rebut, either as a comment, as an addendum to the original article, or in a new article.

Nevertheless, everything I’ve ever said about a site that I’ve linked to, or the content of that site, has always been 100% genuine. There’s been no distortion, and I’ve even refused some offers because I wasn’t certain that Campaign Mastery could stand behind the product being offered – the last occasion was just a couple of weeks ago (and no, I’m not going to name names). I’ve also never accepted any offers of ‘ready made’ articles provided by sponsors – and there have been quite a few such offers over the years – because I was not convinced that the article would be of value to the readers.

In a nutshell, Native Advertising has never been a problem here because I (and Johnn, back when he was part of the operation) were always aware that what we were offering up was our credibility. The rule of thumb has always been “would I be happy reading this if this were not my website?”

The Potential Negatives

Yes, there are potential negatives to Native Advertising. I can’t escape thinking about various advertising campaigns over the years that have fabricated laboratory testing results, or even entire institutions, to give their claims credibility. Fortunately, we have a history of penetrating consumer affairs television here in Australia that delights in exposing such nonsense. Everything from health foods to dietary supplements to insurance fine print to toothpaste to shampoos to … well, you get the point – starting back in 1984 with a series called The Investigators, which was so successful that it was pinched by one of the commercial networks.

Currently there are three shows that dominate the subject matter in Australia: Media Watch (who inspired this article), Gruen Planet, and, especially, The Checkout (the links are to the Wikipedia pages for these shows, for those who may be interested, here are links to the shows’ respective home pages:

A potential erosion of standards and a further erosion of editorial independence are the obvious dangers. Increasing cynicism on the part of the public is inevitable, regardless – the genie is out of the bottle – and that will have its own social impact. If the quality of journalism is compromised downwards to meet the advertorial target, that’s a problem. Centralization of power over media content is a huge problem, and by directly linking advertisers and content, could become even worse. Potential exposure to opportunities for corruption on the part of journalists will increase. Members of the public with a story to tell or a whistle to blow may be less inclined to take it to the mainstream media, and that would be a definite negative. And a trend towards sensationalist journalism, “balanced” by fluff journalism (21 cute puppy pictures, 20 celebrities who have lost weight) is another potential problem.

The Potential Positives

But there are potential positives, too. Diversity of sources can mean diversity of opinions. Funding of genuinely independent journalism can be strengthened. The quality of advertising, to the point where it is worth paying attention to, would be a massive benefit.

There’s always going to be someone who will do the wrong thing, given the opportunity to do it and get away with it. So long as journalists have the funding to uncover those wrongdoings and the editorial permission to tell others about it, journalistic integrity is secure.

The Cynical Assumption

I always consider the possibility that any positive story about someone or something is the result of advertising, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. When I read a buyer’s review on Amazon, I always assume that – at best – their tastes and mine might be different, and at worst, they may be biased (either for or against). Such reviews inform my decision to buy or not to buy, they don’t make that decision.

I also consider the other side of the coin when I read something with a negative slant. I want information; I can’t trust an opinion unless I know and respect the provider of that opinion. Information, however, lets me make up my own mind.

And that’s the thing that makes those advertisements dressed up as TV ads obvious: They promise information and then provide opinion. That broken promise immediately triggers my cynicism, and I therefore immediately discount the opinions and become prejudiced against the product in question.

The Ethical Blueprint

The one thing that separates the possible positive outcomes from the possible negative ones is having a strong ethical blueprint. And there are five simple parts to achieving the positive and avoiding the negative. These are things that the content publishers have to provide;

Editorial Policies in black and white

Media sources need an editorial policy that’s spelt out in black and white for all the world to see, and you need to ensure that all content, regardless of its source, is subject to that policy. That’s why I published “The Ethical Reviewer” way back in February 2012. In terms of this discussion, you might find the section “The ethics of paid articles” (near the end) to be especially relevant.

More Than Mere Words

Media outlets need to have that policy be more than promises and hot air – they need to be willing and able to back it up. That means that a clause needs to be in the agreement for the publishing of externally-sourced or -funded stories that requires the content to adhere to the editorial policy and permits the removal or redaction of content that doesn’t measure up. Furthermore, you have to have full editorial control over the content. What you are defending with these policies is your credibility. You don’t want to sell it – but you might be willing to lend it out if the content merits it.

Biting The Hand

There will be times when honesty compels you to bite the hand that feeds. If something is rubbish, a media outlet has to be willing and able to say so. If a bank is ripping off their customers, you have to be able to tell the story. And you have to make that policy clear to the content providers whose material you are publishing or disseminating. The far more difficult question to answer is whether or not you should continue to accept advertising or sponsored content from that source after you have publicly castigated them; to my mind, that depends on exactly what they have done wrong, and what they are actually doing to correct the problem (not just talking about doing something to fix the problem). A mea culpa is not enough.

I would love to see confidentiality agreements in settlements and verdicts outlawed. I don’t think it will ever happen. Forcing businesses to admit publicly to wrongdoings and mistakes, and putting some sort of scale on those mistakes, can only force companies to try and find an option to put a positive spin on the settlement. Challenging a verdict becomes more expensive than being seen to do the right thing – unless you are absolutely convinced that you did nothing wrong, and not just in the legal or regulatory sense. If you do something wrong, try to fix it – not cover it up. If you have subordinates, it’s your responsibility to make sure that they are doing the right thing.

And anyone submitting a paid-for or sponsored article – or even a product for review – has to accept that the media outlet reserves the right to be critical of them or their products, if warranted. Explicitly.


Rivalries are rife in business. Any article that is critical of a product, institution, or service must be insulated from any claim that it is even slightly jaundiced because of such a rivalry. When a media outlet accepts an article, they have to be especially wary of this, even by inference.

Disclaimers and attribution within the article are not necessarily enough, but they are a start.

Verifiable Facts

News is about providing verifiable facts. If an article is an example of Native Advertising, any claims that it makes have to be backed up with Verifiable Facts provided to the publisher, and which the publisher is free to utilize as they see fit. You can say anything you are legally-permitted to say in an obvious advert; Native Advertising has to be held to a higher standard. In fact, it has to be held to the same ethical and journalistic standards as the rest of the content.

The Impact on RPGs & Fiction

Okay, so we’ve dealt with the social commentary regarding this not-so-new phenomenon, at least for the most part. If anyone is reading this for my real-world opinions on the subject, you can skip this section and the next, if you want.

Conflicts of journalistic ethics always make for a good, dramatic, story. Exposure of social propaganda or criminal activity, regardless of the source, is always a compelling narrative – when presented the right way. Whistle-blowing will always generate headlines. Native Advertising, in terms of telling adventure stories in an RPG or story, is simply another element that has to be taken into account, or may be the direct cause of the conflict, another window into the story.

If describing the Native Advertising impact is absent, it will noticeably detract from the verisimilitude of the story. A lot of such fiction is all about assuming the worst case, and pitting some individuals against those responsible in a quest to reveal the truth; that won’t change. The violation of ethics in journalism, or the misleading of the public, factor into a huge number of plotlines. This exploration of the perils, pitfalls, and possibilities of Native Advertising have given the writer/GM all he needs to integrate the phenomenon into his plotlines.

The Impact on the Gaming Industry?

When I was developing the background to my Zenith-3 campaign, I thought about sending letters to some of the major corporations, asking where they see their company and their products in fifty years time. What pie-in-the-sky projects do they have tucked away that might come to fruition – never mind the functional technicalities, I don’t need those, I can fictionalize them. I didn’t do so because (1) I couldn’t afford it at the time, and (2) I was unsure of how many responses I would get.

Native Advertising within a near-future RPG could be the answer. Get Toyota or Ford to provide a vision of the future, and put it in the section on transport. Get Panasonic or LG or Sony to write about the future of consumer electronics. Include their content, and maybe some pretty pictures, and help to fund the product.

A fantasy RPG is a trickier proposition, but even there, it could be done. Organic Foods. Energy Drinks. Pharmaceuticals. Hardware suppliers. Tool manufacturers. Remember, too, the proposition that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic” – so talk to those high-tech firms about the future, strip away the how-it-will-work and wrap some fantasy trappings around it. Want to create a new take on a hive mind? Talk to a manufacturer of computer network devices like Cisco about autonomous devices controlled by a network.

Sooner or later, it might just happen. The more mainstream acceptance of RPGs there is, the less unwilling corporate entities will be. And think of the cross-promotional potential. “The car of your fantasies”. “The Thirst Of Adventure”. Getting those companies to promote their involvement promotes your product at the same time.

Is it selling out? Maybe. I don’t think so. Would the legal complications be so extreme as to prevent it from ever happening? Maybe. Possibly even probably. Do I think someone will try it, anyway? Definitely.

The Impact on all of us?

Native Advertising could be beneficial, or it could be a disaster. Or it could be somewhere in between, with elements of both. There’s not all that much that is new about the concept, when you get right down to it. Will there be a few trainwrecks along the way? Sure. But there will also be some genuinely uplifting social benefits from time to time.

The Media Watch episode makes a point that “young people don’t seem to mind”. Despite a cliché that suggests that older people are more inclined to be cynical and world-weary, I think the younger generation are actually more prone to apply cynicism to everything they see – and don’t care. If someone’s going to be taking advantage of you anyway, you may as well be entertained in the meantime.

Or maybe I’m just being too cynical.

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Dream A Little Dream – using Dreams in RPGs

Moon and cloud

There are lots of things that the GM can do with dreams in an RPG. Trivially, he can use his own dreams as inspiration, but that’s not what I’m talking about in this article. No, this time I’m going to discuss all the things that a GM can do with a Character’s dreams.

Probably the most important things to note about dreams is that they derive directly from the characters, and that they don’t have to make sense. Compress time, Distort space, Exaggerate dimensions, Use metaphors like they had been bought in bulk. Turn molehills into mountains and mountains in Mount Olympus. Character abilities can be totally unrealistic one minute and completely forgotten the next. Check the lyrics of “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” – it’s a roadmap of what’s possible in dreams.

Tales Of Reality

I’ve divided the functions that dreams can provide to a GM into two categories. The first is all about the GM shedding light on things that have really happened within the campaign.

Alternative Explanations

Players can easily add two and two together and get five. The PCs have their pet theory about why and how something has happened, and are about to commit to action based on that theory. Rather than the GM coming out and telling them “there’s something you’ve overlooked”, he can let them go about their business and slip the alternative explanation into a dream that one of the characters has. Or even divide it into parts and give a number of PCs the different parts.

When the players can afford to lose a day or three chasing down the wrong avenue without the villains gaining total victory, this is often preferable. It lets the PCs discover their error at something approaching the eleventh hour (assuming they heed the GMs warnings), raising the drama and tension of the plotline. Only if the action the PCs were about to commit themselves to would be irrevocable would I resort to INT checks with the winner being told outright, “there’s a possibility that you may have overlooked…”. This, of course, constitutes their first and last warning; if they choose not to listen to it, the shape of the campaign changes, and I start looking for an adventure idea that shows the consequences of their mistake, then another on how they can start to undo it.

Things that have been overlooked

In a busy campaign, sometimes plot threads can be forgotten. There are times when that’s desirable, and when I go out of my way to try and pose a series of distractions to the players, making the assumption that if the player doesn’t remember it, neither does the character. But there are times when I don’t want a plot thread to be forgotten because it is going to tie back into the current situation at some future point. Dreams are a great way of reminding players of things they may be overlooking in their current analysis of events.

Things (that should be) on their minds

There’s no rule that I know of that says a GM should not help a player to play his character. When players choose expediency over a priority that I feel should be important to the character, a dream sequence can be a great way to warn the player that his character has, or should have, something else on their mind. Use symbolism and metaphor and rephrase aspects of the situation as often as you can. Incorporating some of the preceding day’s events is a useful technique for implying that the issue is nagging at the PC’s subconscious, and not simply repeating the same bottled message over and over again.

This technique also works well when the player simply ignores some plot development that the character, as described by the campaign background, his personal history, and the player, should be paying attention to.

The way it might have happened

A dream can be a great way to slip information into the players hands when there is no other way they could possibly get it. When I do this, I often like to present a second, false, explanation in another character’s dream, or mix and match parts of the two stories. This represents the characters’ minds struggling to put together an explanation for the way things might have happened.

In some campaigns, and where the events are especially significant, I might assume a limited form of psychometry – the event was so terrible or so important that the land itself remembers what happened and whispers the story to the PCs in their dreams. If this is happening, I will usually signal it to the players by having several of them share the same dream (though they will have to figure out for themselves that it was the same dream) – I will describe the dream sequence in notes simultaneously delivered to each of the players, or give part of the dream to one player and the next part to another (and not necessarily in chronological order). This takes what would otherwise be narration by the GM and renders it interactive, and a source of roleplay the next morning.

h5>The Way Things Used To Be
It can be useful at times to use a dream to highlight and contrast the current situation or location encountered by the PCs with the way things used to be. Coming across a ruined castle in a desolate wasteland? Fine, a great setting for a small adventure! This is a way of slipping background information to the players that avoids large chunks of dry exposition by presenting a more dynamic vision. It should be long on tone and mood and general imagery and pageantry and short on significant events and dialogue; the point is to show what things used to be like, not how they became the way they are. This immediately sets up the mystery of how things went from A to B, which can unify otherwise disconnected and disjointed encounters. Nor is it necessary to be all that accurate – this is the character’s imagination conjuring up scenes.

Where there is a risk of players assuming that this is the way things actually were, I will slip a few obvious discrepancies into the dream sequence. Putting towns on the wrong side of a moat (or having the moat surround the town rather than the castle), making all the trees semi-tropical instead of what should have been in the climate presented, and so on.

This danger is especially high when one character dreams of the way things were, while another’s imagination conjures up scenes of the destruction. Make the two dreams deliberately incompatible, or overtly impossible, to stress that they should not be taken literally. And remember, dreams don’t have to make sense!

Tap-dancing in a minefield

Another way that I employ dreams in my campaigns is to warn players of the (possibly unnecessary) dangers that their current course of action entails. I simply pick one of the ways in which their plans could go horribly wrong (if possible, one that’s different from the one that I have in mind) and present it in glorious 3D to the character’s mind’s eye.

I will frequently go heavy on the metaphor and symbolism in part of the dream sequence and prosaic in another, when this is the message that is to be conveyed. “You are all dancing a complicated waltz with (the enemy and his minions). The villains disperse into wifts of smoke, but the dance continues, and you find yourself in a circle with the other PCs facing each other’s backs. The dance steps are very difficult to remember and you keep getting them just a little bit wrong; they seem to be having the same difficulty. Your hands, as required by the dance, alternatively stretch out to the sides, reach forward to touch the back of the person in front of you, raise up high into the air as your hand swivels about its wrist, or drops to your side to clutch the hilt of your weapon. As the music reaches a crescendo, your hand drops and grasps the hilt, but this time you draw it from its sheath and in the final move of the dance, you plunge it into the back of the comrade directly in front of you, as they do the same. You look down at the blade projecting from your chest, and observe the spurt of blood before you all collapse, the dance at an end. As the world begins to darken and your life ebbs away in pools of radiant red, you notice the orchestra who have led this dance – it is you and the other PCs, and they too have collapsed over their instruments above swelling pools of blood.” At which point you awaken from the nightmare with a half-strangled gasp, sweating profusely. – so the enemies the PCs are pursuing or plotting against are will-o-the-wisps and the PCs are responsible for each other’s demise, their own worst enemies. The next night, it might be combat with the enemies, who – as the final thrust is made – fade away to be revealed as another party member. And as many other variations as I can think of, on subsequent nights, until the players get the message.

The Nagging Conscience

Players will sometimes have their characters do something or permit something that – according to the background and makeup of the character – they should not. Even though the character may get away with this at the time, I will often revisit the event through dream metaphors until the character does something to assuage their conscience. This is actually the first application of dreams that I employed, and used to be a warning to a character that they were treading dangerously close to an alignment shift.

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

The subconscious can often put clues together that have not even been consciously noticed by the individual. When I adjudge that the characters may have seen enough activity on the part of an enemy for this effect to be a factor, I will sometimes drop some additional hints as to his nature and activities in the form of dreams/nightmares. Not necessarily accurate, almost certainly distorted and incomplete, but these clues can nevertheless provide a structural skeleton for the assembly of a more robust profile of the enemy. This can be a great way to shortcut the discovery process, the ‘getting-to-know-you’ phase of the conflict and accelerate the plotline.

Nightmare scenarios

Nightmare scenarios are a great way to explicitly describe the stakes that are on the table in an adventure, especially if the characters don’t seem to recognize the seriousness of the dominoes that the GM has lined up. These take the worst-case outcome, inflate it to melodramatic proportions, personalizes it to the character, then feeds it to him. Done properly, it can make the players utterly paranoid about failure, almost paralyzed with uncertainty and yet driven by the immediate need to take dramatic action.

Urgency and dramatic action always make for an exciting game session, don’t you agree?

But there is a warning to be sounded: more than any other type of dream application, this can turn around and bite the GM, hard. If the prospective outcome of failure turns out to be radically less than the nightmares would have it, players can downgrade the importance of not only this application of dreams but all applications. Once they stop trusting the information being presented to them, the whole campaign can be adversely affected, because it will then begin to spill out into other areas of the GM-players relationship. Radical action on the part of the GM can salvage the situation by inflating the actual consequences beyond what even the antagonists were expecting, and making sure that the players learn of these additional consequences, but sometimes these are too obviously tacked-on afterthoughts, or don’t come to light in time.

The surest sign of this problem manifesting is when the players begin to express the dream sequences in terms of the GM attempting to railroad the campaign or the plotline. So watch for that! You want to guide, shape, manipulate, and inform – not dictate. At least, not most of the time – there are a couple of limited exceptions to that general rule that I will address in due course.

The inner struggles

Finally, when the character has, or should have, something on their minds – an impending decision of some seriousness – having nightmares about indecision or wrong choices can and should reflect the gravity of the stress the character is supposed to be under. Once you have established this principle a few times, this can then also be used to inform characters that an impending decision that seemed trivial might have deeper ramifications that they aren’t appreciating – in other words, using the dream sequence as a vehicle for GM hints.

Psychic Communications

The other way of using dreams is to give the characters information that they could not possibly obtain (in time) by their own devices.

Beyond their ken

For example, the characters might experience events from far beyond, either contemporary with them or from the past. If you need some sort of flimsy logic on which to hang such dreams, the concept of psychometry provides it – the events being experienced all occurred in the same multiverse/cosmic structure as the one the characters reside in, and so the characters were able to pick up the ‘emotional resonances’ of the events.

Alternatively, some witness may have found a way to ‘broadcast’ the events as a warning to whoever was capable of receiving it.

Cries for help

Which brings us to an application of dream messaging that is an obvious progression from the previous one – someone dropping a dime on the PCs in the middle of their dreams. I normally like to start this sort of dream sequence with something more normal and prosaic in nature – a normal dream with no particularly significant content – and have the “invasive” dream sequence “infuse” this normality bit-by-bit.

Message in a bottle

A variation on the cry for help is the “message in a bottle”. Because the implication is that this dream content is packaged and bundled as a unit, it normally comes on all at once, radically reshaping every element of an existing dream at the same time. I also find it useful to include some metaphor for entering a different world – being pulled beneath the surface of the water, passing through a curtain, entering a tent, or something along those lines. Alternatively, something that metaphorically (or literally) depicts the opening of a bottle or container and the new dream surging out – or even the bottle/container opening itself no matter what the character attempts to try and keep it in place, signifying that the character is helpless to avoid the message. What they then do about it is another question.

And that’s an important consideration for both this and the preceding dream communication – there should (eventually) be something clear that the character can do, or is supposed to do, about the situation. This may or may not be stated explicitly – my general preference is to leave the characters with more decision room, but there are times when the action required is just the first step with many to follow offering the character the chance to change direction, so it becomes more important to actually put their feet on the path to the adventure than it does to give them the choice to step off it just yet.

Instructions from Beyond

Gods are busy people, and would have all manner of workarounds for the problem of “Cant Be Everywhere”. One of those workarounds is almost certainly going to be speaking to their followers (or other people of significance) in their dreams. When this type of dream is underway, it is important to demonstrate that the deity/being responsible has total control over the dreamscape. Within the dream, the character should be a rag doll – the implication that the being responsible is conveying as a subtext is that he, she, or it would have no trouble doing the same in real life. That subtext might be accurate, or nothing more than intensive P.R. – that’s up to the GM and his world/campaign design. Whoever’s giving the orders not only wants to be obeyed but expects to be obeyed, and without hesitation.

In the cold light of morning, of course, the players may have entirely different ideas. I use this as often to have the villains threaten the PCs as I do to have their nominal superiors issue instruction and advice, in the full expectation that the players will turn around after the dream and tell each other “He’s nervous about us.”

There’s a lot more that needs to be said on the subject of obedience to dreams, and the implications of this type of dream. Firstly, whoever is doing this is smart enough to realize that the players may choose to disobey, and would plan accordingly (unless this level of arrogance was a deliberately-placed blind spot in the NPCs personality). Secondly, anonymity may be a thing of the past – or the dream may have been targeted without knowing who was going to be at the receiving end. Thirdly, there is the implication that if the Gods (or whoever) really is this powerful, the problems and enemies that they face must be equally dangerous – which might just be the only message that the GM is trying to convey with the dream. Finally, by softening the notion of “giving orders”, this permits these celestial beings to interact on a social level with the PCs in a way that could never really happen during “awake time”.

During the first Fumanor campaign, all sorts of beings were vying for the position of the Last Deity. Hastor, one of the more subtle contenders, strove to persuade the characters by being sociable during their dreams – and systematically pointing out, one after another, why his fellows could not be trusted with the position. These chats, in Hastor’s great Banquet Hall of dreams, proved vitally informative to the PCs, giving them information that could not be obtained any other way about the prospective contenders. In fact, Hastor was their leading candidate for a very long time as a result – only when the PCs discovered that they had a means of altering one aspect of the other contenders to make them “suitable” did Arioch come forward. Before that discovery, he was in last place amongst those who had declared their interest. In effect, Hastor’s attempted manipulations told them exactly what needed to be changed about each of the contenders, producing a whole different card game at the climax of that campaign.

Temptations from the Other Team

I’ve preempted discussion of this possible application in the previous section, I’m afraid. Dreams offer an ideal way for really powerful enemies, who are so inclined, to try to buy the PCs off. This should take the form of one of those dreams in which each PC seems to have everything he could possibly want – wealth, comfort, luxury, pleasant company, companionship, knowledge, power, respect, authority, fame. And, at the peak of the dream, the voiceover announces, “and all this can be yours, All you have to do is…”

The smaller and less apparently-significant that required deed is, the more tempting the offer is. “I don’t want your soul; I’m overcrowded here as it is. Just do me one small favor…”

Practical Considerations

Having established the great many things that dreams can be useful in conveying to the characters and hence the players, a few words on how you go about reaping these potential benefits are clearly in order. I have more than ten points to address under this heading, so let’s get started:

The Realm of Dreams

The place to start is the realm of dreams itself. Does it have some objective reality? What are the ground rules? Can anyone access it? Or is it a place that it uniquely private, a virtual world conjured by the activities within our minds? What are the value of dreams, anyway? Are they necessary for human psychological balance? Are there different classifications into which dream intensities can be categorized?

Most people have many dreams in a single night’s sleep, but rarely remember them. Of those who do remember their dreams, we rarely remember more than one in a single sleep period, presumably the last one to be experienced.

There are many unexplained and unproven phenomena associated with dreams – everything from Prophetic Visions to Levitation to remote communication. In terms of the game, I don’t care about the restrictions and parameters of the real-world dreamscape, if any can even be said to exist. The GM is creating a game world, and any resemblance to reality is either a happy coincidence or a convenient shortcut – a bit like mathematics, really. The GM therefore sets the ground rules for the dream reality within his game, what can happen there, and what can’t. It’s also within his purview to change those ground rules any time he sees fit – even in the middle of a character’s dream, if desirable.

Such decisions should always be an informed choice, and that requires the GM to at least have thought about the question in the first place.

What’s The Message?

It’s very easy to get carried away with dream symbology and creating the sense of unreality necessary for the player to distinguish between dream-sequence and actual events. The GM should always keep in mind the message that he is trying to convey to the player through the dream sequence, and make sure that it is not obscured. In fact, it should be the first thing that gets decided.

Matching personality to dreams

When I employ dream sequences within my games, I work very hard at matching the dream content to the personality, interests, and concerns of the character supposedly having the dream. Whatever the content may be, the character’s personality will dictate what elements of the dream are detailed and which are mutable or vague. I want the player to be convinced that this is something that the character might dream under the circumstances. This ensures that there is a noticeably different quality to those dreams that are “injected” from another source. It’s a subtle point, but one that can make a big difference to how the dream is perceived and acted upon by the player.

But I don’t sleep!

In many versions of D&D, Elves don’t sleep. There may be other races with the same trait. The first time you lay a dream sequence on such a character, nine times out of ten, you will get the response “But [Race X] don’t sleep!”

Every species has some form of sleep-substitute, usually meditation of some sort. This state of altered consciousness is exactly the same as sleep for our purposes, and is just as capable of carrying visions, dreams, and nightmares. But you can expect to have to explain this to the player.


Some dreams are presented as blocks of text, with the character’s actions and reactions within the dream specified by the GM. On other occasions, the GM may permit the character to interact with events inside the dream and make decisions about the dream-character’s actions. When you decide to permit an interactive dream, it’s important to remember that the results and effects will usually bear no relationship with any objective reality. In never – well, very rarely – permit the rolling of dice within a dream, it completely breaks the mood and blurs the lines between game reality and dream sequence.

It is when you permit interactions that it becomes especially important to have worked out the “rules and parameters” of the dream environment. I always envisage the dream sequences as occupying a Warner-Brothers-Cartoon reality. Gravity works except when its inconvenient to the GM. Common Sense gets left in the parking lot. Characters can parade around with swords sticking out of them without noticing, or without being bothered. Colors of things that don’t matter are muted, while the colors of the things that matter are unusually bright. Logic takes a back seat to plot, symbolism and metaphor. Landscapes rearrange themselves at will. Clouds can be made of eggs that crack open when they are struck hard enough. Things can and should get outright strange – think Twin Peaks at it’s most bizarre.

And that’s all the way it should be. There are some dreams where you feel in control of yourself, and others in which you are a helpless puppet – and that’s before we even get into ‘introduced’ dreams from an external source.

Laying it on too thick

I’ve said this before, but it’s so important that I’m going to come at the same message from a different angle: If you obscure your message to the point of impenetrability through too many layers of symbolism, metaphor, and weirdness, it will not be understood by its intended audience – and you may as well not have the dream sequence.

It’s almost as though that message should be the one thing that remains in crystal-clear focus throughout the experience, the rock of consistency that provides the backbone to the rest of events.

The Weirdness file

Some GMs might have trouble coming up with surreal imagery to drop into their dream sequences; I do, sometimes (other times it seems to come easily). As a crutch to lean on when creativity is a little thin on the ground, I maintain a file of surreal imagery – actually, a folder and a file, with both verbal and visual descriptions. Anything weird that I come across that seems to have something about it gets parked in that file. It might be something abstract, a particularly interesting way of subtitling a graphic, an unusual juxtapisitioning of different visual or narrative elements, whatever.

Before I started building up The Weirdness File, I used another technique that I still resort to occasionally. Pick three books at random, and open each of them to a random page, laying them beside each other. Reading one printed line from each book in succession as though the text ran across all six opened pages produces a nigh-on-infinite number of strange juxtapositions of visuals and ideas. Most of these will be nonsense, to be thrown away immediately, but a few will contain little gems.

Once you have two or three ideas, you will find yourself in the right frame of mind to carry the dream sequence to its conclusion without further stimulus. It’s getting into that mindset in the first place that’s the tricky part – and, once you’ve finished, getting back out of it!

A couple of other tips: I have the primary message that I want the dream sequence to convey written before I start; I do that at the same time as writing the rest of the adventure. I do the dream sequences completely separately whenever possible, to ease the problems of slipping in and out of metaphysical frame of mind. If I find that I need to do the dream sequence in sequence or am so inspired that I simply can’t resist doing so, I make sure that I take a break of a few minutes and read or watch something to reset my headspace.

Dream Interpretation

There are a lot of books out there on both historical superstition and modern theory regarding the interpretation of dreams. Don’t use any of it.

It’s all esoteric mumbo-jumbo so far as your audience – the players – are concerned. If you rely on these sources to translate your message into “dreamspeak” they will always miss the point.

The whole foundation of using dreams in any of the ways discussed in this article is that sometimes dreams represent an objective reality that follows the same basic ground rules as the rest of the character’s existence – but that is being perceived through a mind-bending hallucinogenic haze. So ditch the books on dreams and dream-meanings; craft your message as straightforward narrative, then cloak it in symbology and metaphors that the players will recognize – eventually. Then powder-coat with weirdness.

Dream Interpretation II

What do you do if, after all your efforts, the players dismiss the significance of the dream or are unable to interpret what you have presented to them?

The first is a much easier problem to solve, so I’ll deal with it in this section and leave the second problem for the next.

  • Before the important dream sequence, I make sure that I have already established the significance of dreams, by using a dream sequence in a preceding adventure.
  • At the start of that preceding adventure, I’ll make sure that the PCs hear someone talking about “The meaning and significance of dreams” – it could be a snippet of a talk show, or someone they meet on the street, or something said in casual conversation, or whatever. The key point is to make sure that the players have been told that sometimes, dreams are important.
  • Next comes the dream sequence in the preceding adventure. I will sometimes put this into the ‘hands’ of an NPC so that I can be sure that the character will talk about the dream and its content to the PCs, and sometimes not.
  • This is followed by the events of the adventure to which this initial dream sequence relates. Throughout this series of events, I will keep referring back to the content of the dream, as described to the players. In-game events get explained by clues in the dream, or explain something that was obscure within the dream. By the end of the adventure, I will have established two things: The significance that dreams will sometimes play; and a code-phrase that I will consistently use to signal the difference between important dreams and any others that might come along. The phrase that I use is normally “unusually vivid”, though sometimes “unusual” may be enough.

Repeat this process a time or two and you will quickly inform the players that dreams are important channels of information.

I have also tried the approach of supplying the key clue to a mystery confronting the PCs within a dream, and found that while this hints at the importance of dreams, it doesn’t emphasize the point enough.

A more successful technique has proven to be the shared dream – if five PCs have exactly the same dream, or each get part of a connected narrative, or dream of the same events from different perspectives, they will soon come to realize that it holds some significance, and hence, so potentially do ALL dreams described by the GM.

I rarely have to resort to such overt techniques any more. I have established these principles in several campaigns with players in common to each, so they know that part of my GMing style is to occasionally use the dream sequence when that is the tool that will best serve the needs of the plot.

Dream Interpretation III

Sometimes, especially if you’ve laid the distortions and metaphors on too thickly, the players simply can’t figure out what the dream was trying to tell them, or they will make an incorrect assumption about the meaning and hammer the dream narrative to fit. This is where the whole dream sequence tends to come unstuck.

If their misinterpreted version is not toxic to the plotline, I’ll let them run with it – but keep dropping hints such as “it doesn’t feel right” or “It feels like you’re making a mistake” or “It feels like you’ve missed something important”.

If their misinterpretation IS toxic to the plotline, that’s a sign of bad writing/plotting on my part, because it means the dream sequence was there to railroad the PCs into the adventure. It’s happened a time or two, you can’t learn this stuff from first principles without making a few mistakes along the way. When this happens, the ONLY answer that works is to come clean and get the pain over with. Give the players the “plain text” version of the dream and what it is supposed to mean, and give them some sort of benefit in compensation for your failure – then make sure that you wring every last drop of learning from your mistake that you can squeeze out of it.

Avoid explaining “Why” unless it’s important

Unless the dream sequence is an attempt at direct communication from a third-party within the game, dream sequences work better when the process behind them is unexplained. It’s all too easy for the players to become so distracted with the “how” that they miss the “why”, and the content that is being delivered. Let the players come up with theories to their heart’s content, but never confirm or deny it; leave that to the context of the content and of subsequent in-game events.

Make a point of the after-dream

Characters who experience a significant dream should usually be visibly affected by that dream. The other PCs should notice something a little different about the character’s demeanor or appearance the next morning. This is a cue to the player who experienced the dream to say something about the content. If they don’t take that cue, there’s nothing more that you can do about it, for now; that player is taking the responsibility for interpreting the significance all upon their own shoulders. But if they then use the clues dropped by the GM into the dream sequence to gain an advantage through an otherwise unlikely choice of action, or derive some other benefit from them, a perceptive NPC (or even a perceptive PC) might start to wonder if there was more to the dream than the character was letting on. This should be especially true when the primary goal is to establish the significance of dream sequences within the campaign because keeping the dream private at such times is directly contrary to the purpose for which the GM has inserted it into the adventure.


Like any plot or literary device, it’s easy to overuse the dream sequence, especially when you can do so many wonderful things with one. It can be very hard to recognize when you’ve gone too far. There are only two solutions to this particular problem other than waiting for someone to tell you that they think you’ve gone to that particular well too often.

The first is to make the dream sequence an integral part of the adventure structure. Every GM I know, at the end of an adventure, has an informal bull session talking about what worked and what didn’t, what was planned and what was serendipity. You can build such narrative into the adventure itself through a dream sequence. Alternatively, you can use a dream sequence at the start of every adventure to put the adventure and subsequent plot developments into context – sometimes the players will understand the dream sequence and sometimes it won’t be apparent until the end, if at all. This is the GM dropping hints about what the next adventure is going to be about, or was about (if done at the end of the adventure). This can work very well if done reliably, but it can also be very hard to do without becoming repetitive in your dream “style”. It also more-or-less mandates that you have plenty of playing time up your sleeve.

If you’re more pressed for playing time, or if there are large intervals between game sessions (more than a week), this approach just won’t cut it, and you’re left with the only alternative: once you’ve established that dreams can be important, only use them when they ARE essential. A lot of the time, you can put the key message of a dream sequence into the hands of a perceptive NPC; let them make the key observation that you want to deliver, and do it where everyone at the table can hear it.

The dream sequence can be a powerful weapon for the GM. It permits the presentation of information that the players could never get any other way, illuminate subtleties of personality, and be an in-game way for the GM to communicate directly with the PCs. But it blunts with overuse, and is very difficult to resharpen. Use it sparingly to bring the metaphysical into your campaign, and the world will feel a little more vibrant, complex, and interesting.

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The Premise Of Falsehoods – Luck Vs Skill in RPGs


There’s a debate that has been fought ever since man invented games that have an element of chance has been, “Is it better to be lucky or skilled?”

It’s a debate that has a number of unique resonances within the sphere of an RPG. How should a player or GM simulate a character who relies one or the other? How about a player – is it better for him to be lucky, or to be skillful? And how should a GM cope? What are the respective attributes of skill vs luck in a roleplaying setting – what roles do they play at a character level, at a metagame level?

The RPG Interpretations

Let’s start by thinking about what these two forces, luck and skill, mean in a roleplaying context.


A character’s luck is usually the same thing as “the player’s luck with the dice”. Some game systems incorporate a specific mechanism to separate the two with varying degrees of success; the Hero System gives the GM a capacity to override direct game mechanic results for a lucky or unlucky character, choosing an outcome that is more favorable to the character (good luck) or less favorable (bad luck). But the amount of such fortune or misfortune is Dependant on another roll – so ultimately this comes back to being another avenue of manifestation for the player’s luck.


Skills are usually manifested as the chance of successful use to achieve something, taking into account external circumstances and difficulty of task. There can be, and have been, reams of material written about the specific implications and mechanics of this confluence of randomness and target numbers, and I’m going to do my best to avoid getting sucked too deeply into that subject in this article, even though some contact with it will be unavoidable.

In other words, Skill – for a character – in an RPG is a numeric quantity assigned by the system and used to determine how much luck is required in order for the character with the skill to succeed in a task.

All the skill that’s in existence can’t (usually) manufacture success from a sufficiently bad roll, and even a complete lack of skill usually can’t prevent success if a character is especially lucky. So in a very real sense, luck is superior to skill in this context.

The anatomy of that “numeric quantity” is also of some relevance to the question. In most systems, this consists of two parts: A base value based on the character statistics that are employed in the use of the skill, and a second component that modifies that value according to two factors: the character’s education &/or training, and the character’s experience in employing the skill.

Raw Talent

This is usually what the base value from the character’s stats is interpreted as representing. Such an interpretation means that a character who is naturally suited to a task by virtue of their stats is more effective at using a skill than one who is not, for a given level of training. In 3.x/Pathfinder, when a Prestige Class lists a characteristic minimum requirement, I generally interpret that as describing a minimum level of raw talent in one or more critical skills; demonstrate that, and you qualify; don’t, and the class is a closed door to that character.

Education & Training

To the base level, characters usually get to add additional skill levels to represent their education and training in the skill in question. Some GMs also consider the character’s experience in using a skill to be a contributing factor, or a substitute for classroom training, enabling a skill to be increased in the course of play without requiring the character to attend classes. This also conveniently represents characters reading textbooks by the campfire at night (or the equivalent in a more modern campaign). Some GMs and some games actually require a player to keep track of which skills they have used in the course of an adventure and only permits those skills to be improved, or requires characters to pay more skill points to improve skills not used in play.

One of my friends and players, Ian Mackinder, used to run a Traveller campaign. In that campaign he required such tracking, but at the end of an adventure, characters could attempt another roll against skills used, and if they succeeded, the skill was improved by one, showing that they had learned something in the process. If characters fumbled or achieved a critical success in-game, they got a bonus to the “improvement roll” at the end of the adventure or an immediate improvement, depending on which incarnation of the game he was running. I think (from memory) that there was also a limit placed on the number of skills that could be improved as a result of a single adventure, but I’m no longer certain as to what that number was. And all this is being described from memory of many years ago, so I might be misrepresenting his generosity or lack thereof within the campaigns, but it still stands as an example.

The flaw in this system is that it becomes progressively easier to improve a skill, because you are more likely to make the roll. Requiring the character to fail his end-of-adventure check in order to improve would mean that it became progressively harder to improve, which might be considered more realistic.

Placing limits of any sort on improvement brings in another luck-vs-skill situation, this time at a metagame level: how to choose where to apply the potential improvements, assuming that they are limited in number. Improve a skill that you end up using a lot, and you succeed, whether the choice was & made intelligently (‘skill’) or by blind chance (‘luck’). Since luck is more fickle and unreliable, in this real-world/metagame manifestation, this is clearly one area where skill dominates luck – in the long term.

There is one other implication that deserves mention in passing: By definition, this makes the characters more capable of succeeding in the adventure they have just experienced; if the GM makes any sort of effort to make the next adventure substantially different to the one just run, there may be little immediate benefit from the improvements, unless they are a fundamental aspect of the character.

This brings into view still another luck-vs-skill aspect of gaming: If the players are lucky, the next adventure will offer them the opportunity to take advantage of their improved abilities, but if it is not (by a stroke of luck) so designed, they will need to arrange the circumstances, and make intelligent choices of action, in order to maximize the benefits acquired by the previous adventure.

Over time, a campaign will usually trend toward a certain style or end-point, and the more it does so, the more capability the PCs will acquire in the abilities that are most relevant to that conclusion. It can even be argued that by the simple virtue of playing to their strengths, players exert an influence over the style and shape of the resulting campaign. That’s food for thought, isn’t it?


Some systems declare a maximum to the level to which skills can be improved based on the character’s experience (usually, as translated into character levels). This reflects an important philosophic underpinning, implying that no amount of training can make up for a lack of actual experience, which sounds perfectly reasonable. Certainly, “armchair experts”, no matter how well educated, are generally considered to be inferior to those who have actually employed a skill “in the field”.

But there’s another, more profound, implication that is often overlooked: Expertise – “Skill” – can only carry an individual so far. Some tasks are so difficult that even being a genius in the subject is not enough; the character still needs that bit of luck, as well. And that gets very interesting, because a character with a skill of 8 is just as likely to roll a natural 18 (or a natural 3, depending on what is needed) on 3d6, as a character with a skill of 16 will. Or a 20 (or a 1) on a d20, or whatever the die roll actually is. That means that luck is an objective reality that is independent of every other factor – you either have it or you don’t – and there are any number of people who have fundamental disagreements with that philosophy in the real world (More on that a little later).

Nor are these the only ways to look at the whole issue of how best to simulate the two approaches, and the interplay between them.

Skill Unbecoming

Most rules systems place little or no restriction on how expert a character can become; where there are such restrictions, they are a blanket policy applied universally. Within those bounds, it’s entirely up to the player how his character develops, with no oversight or regard for whether or not it is reasonable for a given character to acquire a particular level of expertise.

Some systems do a somewhat better job of catering to the other side of that question – whether or not it’s reasonable for a character not to have a given level of expertise – by assuming or specifying the presence of “everyman skills”. The Hero System again springs to mind.

Given that most systems’ Skill mechanics can be described as “using skill to limit the character’s dependence on luck” – which also can be defined as “skill limiting the uncertainty of outcome” – this can become an important issue if campaigns go on for long enough. It’s a question that I’ve had to grapple with many times, and which has also cropped up in related contexts such as the impact of extremely long lives on expertise levels, discussed in one of my previous articles, The Age Of An Elf: Demographics of the long-lived.

In the house rules for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, for example, I explicitly established limits to the maximum expertise that could be acquired in certain skills until specific campaign events transpired. A certain level of expertise in Planar Knowledge can’t be exceeded until Planar travel becomes more than a theoretical capability, for example; Higher levels of expertise in Theology can’t be unlocked until certain treatises kept in secret by different churches are read, or the characters have direct experience that is the equivalent; and so on.

Sidebar: Of what use is Knowledge: The Planes?
If you look on the net, you’ll find a number of answers. According to Russell at computer science and engineering department of the University Of California (San Diego), it gives knowledge of outsiders. According to one user of, when this question was asked there in their forum, it works like Knowledge Geography for the planes. According to the SRD for 3.x, it covers knowledge of the Inner Planes, the Outer Planes, the Astral Plane, the Ethereal Plane, outsiders, elementals, and magic related to the planes.

None of these answers go far enough. I have two answers. The fist is one that I’ve never tried to use in a campaign:

Knowledge: The Planes enables a character to employ any other knowledge skill that the character may posses to gain answers about outsiders or the realms that they inhabit. The character uses the lower of the two skills to make such a knowledge check. The number of specific planes that the character can apply this ability to is equal to his total skill in Knowledge: The Planes. All other planes are at -4 for the purposes of this check. In addition, all outer planes are at -2, while the ethereal and astral planes are at +2. In addition, the skill can be used (with the modifiers stated) to determine the physical relationships of one plane to its neighbors.

If the GM can identify a valid application for a skill other than a knowledge skill, these principles also apply. For example, Perform (Music) might permit a character to recognize the musical forms popular in one of the outer planes.

In other words, if the character has Knowledge (The Planes) and Knowledge (History), then for each of the planes he nominates, he can make a check to know the history of that plane. If he doesn’t have Knowledge (History), then he can’t. Knowledge (The Planes) extends his existing knowledges to cover specific unusual locations.

The second is the one that I am going to use in my Shards Of Divinity campaign: (the players don’t know about it yet, because none of them have more then the most rudimentary knowledge of the planes: that heaven lies above the clouds, and that if you dig deep enough, you will reach Hades). Both of which may be nothing but Church Dogma. Oh, and they have visited the Feylands, the extra-planar home of the Fey, the co-existent space from which dreams and nightmares derive, discovering that one of them was a changeling, born and bred to become the new host body of the ageless spirit of the Unseely Prince…

Some Knowledge skills, esp. The Planes – are restricted.

Unless otherwise noted, until the PCs begin exploring other planes, Knowledge: The Planes has a maximum value of 4 ranks, and may only be used to determine whether or not the character knows the conventional folk wisdom on the subject as it pertains to the question at hand.

This skill confers knowledge concerning the physical and metaphysical properties of the planes, the inhabitants, the major cities, the politics, etc. For each point in Planar skill, the character may nominate one of his other skills which will then extend to cover the relevant subject within the planes with a skill modifier of -4 In order to use this skill, the character must spend at least 1 week within the plane in question or in the company of someone who has done so. After the character has spent an additional two weeks either in the plane or in the company of someone who has done so, the modifier is reduced to -2. Two further weeks of investigation eliminates the modifier.

In my Superhero campaign, I attempted to resolve this issue by increasing the cost of additional expertise as certain levels of expertise were achieved – with only limited success, I must admit. When writing the rules, my goal was to make it prohibitively expensive for a character to achieve the system maximum in any skill, and it’s in that respect the modified system has failed. It did achieve many other goals that I targeted, however, so only minor tweaks (and perhaps some simplification to make those tweaks more easily defined) are needed.

Nevertheless, in most games, and most systems, the simulation of reality is sufficiently imperfect to permit characters to achieve a degree of expertise that is unwarranted. Some have argued in the past that this doesn’t matter; in order to achieve those levels of expertise, the player creating the character has needed to divert resources (skill improvement points) from elsewhere, which can have a bigger negative impact on their prospects for success in an adventure more frequently than their heightened expertise will become a critical factor. Overspecialization leaves a character vulnerable, in other words.

To a certain extent, this is a plausible line of argument, but it falls down when a player is sufficiently skilled as to be able to rephrase or redirect circumstances to make these “skill hyper-levels” a factor more frequently than originally expected, or when the skill is something that sees a lot of function within the game, like Stealth.

From the Bottom, looking up at a mirror

Most of the examination of luck and skill in RPGs has so far focused on the chance of success, and that has provided some valuable perspectives. But what happens when considering the question from the perspective of failure? Will we learn anything new?

Well, the chance of failure at a given task decreases as skill increases, since skill is described in terms of the chance of success. So the chance of failure defines the set of possible outcomes of an action in which luck can rescue the situation, avoiding failure. In other words, the more that a character’s skill falls short of the situational requirement, the greater the scope for luck to determine the outcome.

The other side of the coin

Once again turning that on its head to look at an alternative perspective, let’s consider luck the primary factor and see how skill influences it. Obviously, whatever the die roll(s) result, it is either going to either be enough to successfully complete the task or it is not. In cases where the luck element alone is sufficient to achieve success, it doesn’t matter what your skill levels are, those are just gilding the lily. Where the luck element is insufficient, skill might be enough to shift the outcome to the point of success, avoiding an outcome of ultimate failure.

That’s a different perspective, all right. Mathematically and logically, it’s valid, but it is certainly counter-intuitive. Yet, it’s possible that a whole bunch of players think this way, at least subconsciously; this would be the most likely approach taken by “glass-half-empty” types, for example.

Aiming for success? Or aiming to avoid failure?

When the gap to be made up by skill is small, because of system mechanics, it will be easy for the two perspectives to meet, producing no discernible outcome. When the system puts a bigger gap in between – for example, in the Hero System a base skill level is 9 + (STAT/5), which produces a skill score on the same scale as the roll used to test it (3d6) – the two define a different approach to skill development.

The “avoid failure” group would establish minimum skill levels across the board in all skills that they found to be relevant. Failure in a skill check is justification for directing future improvement at that skill. In consequence, these characters (after much development) can do most things to a passable standard, but are ultimately masters of only a few – the few that have been most prominent within the campaign.

The “go for the win” group would accept that there are going to be tasks where failure can be tolerated; and that of the remainder, they don’t have to be the point-person for every skill. The demands can be spread amongst many different characters, and even augmented with NPC specialists when necessary. This enables them to focus on building up those few skills that are their share of the responsibility. Leftover skill improvements can be used to augment some general-utility skills.

GMs can run into serious trouble when they expect one philosophy to be employed and the players choose the other.

Impact on Group Relations
These two individuals have very different perspectives in terms of their need to be within a group. For the first, it’s not about how well you hit, it’s about how often – he is both more capable of going solo and yet needs the weight of numbers, and the occasional specialist, to back him up. The PC who focuses his development, in comparison, is more Dependant on others. A small group of specialists, each bringing their own expertise to the situation, produces an elite group – probably smaller in number – that can go places and do things that the larger but more generic group can’t. However (and this brings us back on theme for this article), the members of an elite group are all hostages to each other’s shortcomings. If, for any reason, their expert in X is not available – either through GM contrivance or player real-world circumstance – the remaining PCs can no longer rely on skill, and will have to trust in their luck, good or bad – and seek to minimize the consequences of their inevitable flirtations with disaster.

The differences in approach would also inevitably result in a very different flavor of campaign. The experts crash through problems (but half the problems they face are of their own making), and rely on the presence of each and every member of the group. Their fortunes can oscillate wildly as a result. The steady types don’t so much crash through problems as erode them, one piece of the puzzle at a time. No-one is indispensable, so the absence of an individual is nothing more than inconvenient.

Making the optimum choice
Number of players clearly holds a vital role in determining which of these approaches is optimal. Beyond a certain minimum, there aren’t enough experts to make up an elite force without gaps; this encourages development toward the “avoid failure” mode of character improvement, at least to the point of compromising elite capabilities somewhat. If the number of players fluctuate regularly, this also encourages such development. At the same time, there is also a maximum number of members of an elite force that can be accommodated without people stepping on each other’s toes, a problem that doesn’t matter so much when weight of numbers is the dominant PC strategy. While a larger group permits the “elite force” approach, spotlight-sharing encourages the more broad-based approach.

In most game systems, for some reason, the optimum number needed to sustain the elite-force model just happens to be somewhere close to the typical number of players – four or five; you could just about get away with three (not counting the GM, of course). What might that reason be? I suggest that playtesting encourages a trend in that direction; if such testing shows that this usual number is not enough, or is too many, that would result in negative feedback to the designers. The general principle of accommodating the “elite force” approach, however unstated, thus becomes embedded in the principles of “good game design”. But that’s getting a little off-track.

An Intuitive Play

So skill as a character can be viewed as dictating the window that luck has to operate within, as minimizing reliance on luck (and the attendant uncertainties), or as making the difference in the long term between failure and success in a string of attempted character tasks, while luck dominates the outcome of any individual attempt.

How about at the player level? Skills here include things like deductive reasoning, tactics, and so on – the things that enable a player to make the right choices of action for his character. Perhaps “right” is too strong a term – “optimum” might be more accurate – but you get the point.

Some players bring a lot of skill to the choices they make for their characters, both out-of-game (character development) and in-game (decisions). Quite often, the two go hand-in-hand, and the construction of the character will be optimized in such a way as to enable the player to make better decisions. This shows that growth in player skill with experience is not a linear relationship, but an exponential one. One of my players, Ian Gray, is a nightmare to GM at times, because he’s not only a very good player, he also puts thought and effort into not only his characters but the game overall, and not just when playing, but during the intervals in-between. Other players who can’t or won’t invest their attention so strongly and persistently always find themselves falling rapidly behind, sometimes causing friction between them. I can count the number of times I’ve genuinely managed to surprise Ian on one hand.

If Ian is the epitome of careful planning and premeditation, Stephen Tunnicliff used to be the exact opposite. As a player, he would ride his instincts, make choices because they sounded like being fun, and sometimes make silly choices – just to see what would happen. This unpredictability made him a different problem to accommodate – especially since his crazy plans would sometimes succeed, like the time he crashed two enemy jet fighters with nothing but a walky-talky (on the military band, but still)… The two made a great one-two combination in several of my campaigns, Stephen opening up unexpected opportunities and Ian exploiting them.

Ian exemplified a skill-oriented approach to the craft of being a player, while Stephen exemplified a luck-based approach. Every other player I have met has fallen somewhere in between these two extremes. They each required a different approach to adventure and campaign design; logic and consistency were all-important to Ian, while a sense of adventure and fun were necessary to keep Stephen contained (if it wasn’t there, he would make it himself, potentially derailing adventures and campaigns along the way). He was often both entertaining and frustrating at the same time.

Of course, Ian also found Stephen’s approach frustrating, to say the least, especially after his character got burned a few times by Stephen’s highjinks, and took it upon himself to “educate” him. Stephen emerged as one of the best overall players going around, as a result of this tutelage.

The Roll Of The Dice

Of course, not even Ian was immune to the depravities of luck turning sour, as I got both he and the referee concerned (the other Ian) to describe in When Good Dice Turn Bad: A Lesson In The Improbable. Some people still don’t believe this happened, but I was there, and know better!

Once again, the same pattern emerges, after a little thought and analysis. Skill makes the difference in the long run, over the course of multiple adventures, but is still not enough to obliterate the power of luck to swing an individual encounter or adventure. And the biggest differential between the two comes in the form of deliberate vs instinctive choices of action for a character.

The Wider Debate

Beyond the narrow confines of a roleplaying game there is the real world that surrounds us, where the debate over skill vs luck has been going on ever since man discovered gambling. I can imagine two Neanderthal hunters having exactly the same argument about which of them was the better hunter. “I am, because I know where the wilderbeasts go, and can track them to wherever the are today.” “No, I am, because I always find fresh meat when I hunt, without spending a lot of time looking for it.” “You’re just lucky, and one day your luck will run out.” Or something along those lines!

In the broader context, then, exactly what do we mean by “luck”?

Luck is a term used to describe events beyond the control of the individual that are either fortuitous or that present an unexpected challenge. Good Luck presents itself as better than expected outcomes or unexpected opportunities; bad luck as outcomes that are worse than expected or conditions that take away an opportunity that we thought we had.

You make your own luck?

But, if you ask most elite professionals, especially professional sportspeople, they will either tell you that there is no such thing as luck, or that you make your own luck.

If someone is offered a position with a company they have never heard of before, and for which they did not apply, is that a case of luck? It might seem so. But this is actually the outcome of years of prior effort, establishing a reputation or profile that the recipient didn’t realize that they had acquired.

I once applied for a position, which I did not get – but the general manager of the company was so impressed with my resume, attitude, references, and qualifications that he created another position on the spot for me to fill. That this particular employment experience didn’t work out well a few years later is irrelevant – I applied for the position because I thought it was within my capabilities, and I was offered the second position because of the accumulated benefit of years of prior effort. Nor was it by accident that I found the original position advertised in the first place; I was looking. It might be said that it was luck that created that original vacancy at exactly the right time for me to see it and apply, and if so, then “luck” can be simplified to “opportunity” – which is either squandered or taken advantage of.

Or take another arena that I know well, as both a fan and close observer for more than two decades, that of Formula One. Most of the teams don’t believe in luck; there is preparation, and resource management, and there are choices. The right combination of these elements relative to the other teams will create opportunities; and then it is down to skill and psychology to take full advantage of those opportunities. A component of the vehicle doesn’t fail by accident; it fails because a combination of engineering limitations, circumstances, and usage produces conditions which are beyond the capabilities of that component. “You make your own luck” is the belief firmly held up and down pit lane.

Luck as a reality

And yet, the experience in other fields seems to directly contradict this perspective, or – at the very least – it does not translate very well to some spheres of activity. Gambling is the most obvious example.

Take a card game. The systems that are in place at a casino, whether it is online or a physical reality, exist to randomize the deck of cards from which play proceeds. In some games, it is possible (if frowned upon) to employ card-counting techniques to identify patterns in an insufficiently randomized deck, or a deck which is bound by the restrictions of the cards being presented in a series from within the deck.

In other games, like poker, you cannot use such techniques. Instead, it must be presumed that over a long period of time, multiple variations on the same hands will occur (in fact, over a very long period, simply because there are so many possible combinations of hands). Much of the skill in poker variants such as Texas hold-em lies in narrowing the field of possibilities to the significant combinations (i.e. the ones that might be better than what is in the player’s hand) and assessing the likelihood of those hands having occurred, based on betting patterns and psychological reactions.

Once again, it can be considered that over the long term, skill will prevail, but on a hand-to-hand basis, luck will be the dominant factor. Where this gets interesting is that there are a limited number of hands that any given game can contain, based on each player’s chip count. Thus the game itself mandates the betting patterns that are synonymous with the two approaches: Players who ride their luck tend to be plungers, seeking to inflict decisive blows on rival chip counts that will shorten the game; while players who rely on skill tend to be far more calculated, and seek to both maximize the number of hands that they play in a game (which favors their abilities) and their return on any bets that they make, while minimizing their losses.

Or so it seems to me. But there are other viewpoints. For example, there is an interesting article at, which attempts to examine the question from a poker player’s point of view.

I love it when a site that you visit for one thing educates you about something else besides, or tells you an interesting story. Start with the story of the site owner, Shaun Middlebrooks and then, suitably prepared, check out the history of online gambling in the US (you have to scroll down a screen or so). As a bonus for my American readers, at the bottom of that page, there’s a state-by-state breakdown of the laws which also contains some interesting snippets, even to someone who doesn’t play poker online, but who is interested in politics & societies – and that’s every GM, or it should be. For example, the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, which is described as a scaled-down mirror of Las Vegas. That raises all sorts of questions in my mind – does that mean that the actual hotels are reproduced in miniature? If so, do they continually update it, as the Vegas Strip is under constant redevelopment? Or does it just mean that there is a town out there which consists of half-a-dozen reasonably major casinos and very little more? Either way, it sounds like a fun place to set an adventure!

In The Real World

So let’s have a reality check. I’ve already stated that a number of sports that are equal parts engineering and human performance, especially motor racing in all its forms, don’t believe in luck, but what about the rest of the world?

Well, starting with the Wikipedia page on the subject, it quickly becomes apparent that one of the reasons for the skill vs luck controversy is that no-one can actually agree on what “luck” actually is. The “Interpretations” section of the wikipedia page lists four possible definitions, some with variants:

  • Luck as a lack of control;
  • Luck as a fallacy;
  • Luck as an essence or supernatural force; and
  • Luck as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But I’m not sure that they have listed everything, and I want to explore some facets of the concept that aren’t necessarily facilitated by this set of definitions. Not that I necessarily have anything better to offer.

Blind Luck

The first point to be made is that in olden times, luck was viewed as an external agency or force that was subject to supernatural control. If a deity, devil, or whatever felt inimical toward you (or just wanted to amuse him or herself), they could inflict back luck on you. If they were encouraged with worship, donations, etc, they might become favorably disposed, and give you good luck. But the god of luck was often portrayed as being blind, meaning that he or she did not play favorites unless forced to by one of the other deities. This view was modified somewhat by Terry Pratchett in the guise of “Blind Io”, the current king of the Diskworld Gods.

The only aspect of this concept of luck to survive into modern times other than through superstition – that link is to a wikipedia contents page that will lead you in all sorts of interesting directions on the topic (a search on the subject of luck superstitions brings up a bunch of pages but no attempt has been made to correlate these into a concordance, the information is piecemeal) – is this concept of evenhandedness.

The core assumption of probability is that random phenomena do not play favorites. Each outcome is as likely as any other – but some outcomes can be categorized in various ways, and that permits the deployment of various analytic tools of the mathematical kind. This probabilistic assumption is the basis of most games of chance – everything from flipping coins to rolling dice to dealing cards. Loaded dice, card counters, double-headed coins, and marked cards are considered cheating because they violate this principle.

Sidebar: Random Number Function
A lot of programmers use the inbuilt random number generator that’s a part of most programming languages. Way back in the day, before I started using Microsoft operating systems, I decided to test the random number function built into commodore basic. I soon discovered that it wasn’t all that “clean” – numbers below 0.03 (3%) and above 0.97 (97%) were not showing up as often as they should. After a lot of heavy thinking, I came up with an algorithm that gave me flat probabilities to 6 decimal places – generate a random number, take the inverse sine of that number, multiply by 100 or so to shift the decimal point, and then drop off the integer. I tried multiplying two such numbers together and multiplying or dividing by 10 until I got to a value between 1 and 100, then lopping off the integer to get the random number, and was able to extend the accuracy to 8 decimal places (yes, I had to get a little creative with the programming to extract 8 decimal places from a system that ran to only 8 digits in a variable, but it can be done if you know your maths), and still with satisfactorily even randomness. Yes, a fair d100,000,000! But then I realized that if I had even 2-digit fair random numbers, I could string together as many of them as I wanted to get a result of any desired size.

I don’t know if this is the problem in modern systems that it used to be, but just in case, I thought it would be worthwhile. Or at least interesting to other programmers!

Luck through potential

When you have the capability to do something, you look for ways to use what you know. That means that it’s not luck when you come across a task that is exactly suited to you, though it can seem so. What’s more, if others know you have a particular skill, sooner or later, someone will have need of someone with that skill – so what can seem like serendipity isn’t luck then, either. But these are part of what we normally describe as “luck” in both mental and verbal shorthand.

Luck through experience

When people learn a skill, they also learn all sorts of other things that go along with it – something that RPGs are notorious about either ignoring or handling poorly, because it rapidly gets very complicated. For example, when you learn how to make furniture, you also learn other aspects of woodworking like measuring, and how to handle timber, and so on. That means that you build up a bank of basic skills as you live your life, and problems that once would have seemed insuperable or a major task in their own right tend to get solved almost without thinking about it – you just go ahead and do it.

It might seem like luck that your projects turn out correctly, time after time; it’s not. It’s the application of expertise acquired through experience. That’s why people who learn how to do things with tools are called a “Handyman”. But it can certainly look, from the outside, as though the more experience you have, the luckier you are.

Part of it is positioning yourself to take advantage of opportunities if one is presented. Do this often enough and you will score a “lucky” result – one that has nothing to do with your good luck, but may have something to do with someone else’s misfortune or mistake. But that’s not really “luck” either.

Luck through preparation

The appearance of success can be enough to lead to success. Proper preparations, for example outfitting yourself with all the tools that you need for a particular job and learning how to use them, can produce what appear to be strokes of luck. If you want a bank loan, don’t look like you slept on the street – dress up for the loan interview and appear to be successful. It may not get you the loan, but it can make the difference between an “almost yes” and a “yes”.

You are less likely to get ripped off if you seem to know what you’re talking about, and even less likely to get ripped off if you DO know what you’re talking about.

Luck through relationships

In the Mythadventures series by Robert Asprin, Skeeve comes across as being pretty lucky. It doesn’t seem to matter how tight the spot is that he finds himself in, he ends up walking away in better shape than he was in before it started. In “Little Myth Marker”, this luck is central to the plot (and some of the most interesting content of that particular novel, especially if you figure out who the bad guy is almost right away, like I did. Certainly, like all mysteries, on subsequent re-readings you are going to be focusing your attention on something other than the primary plot.

At least one of the characters comes to attribute Skeeve’s luck, for the most part, on the efforts put forth by the collection of friends and hangers-on that work alongside him to solve the problems he encounters (and who have often been inadvertently or mistakenly responsible for getting him into those problems in the first place). And why are they willing to do this? Because of the relationships that they have with Skeeve.

If a lot of people help one person out a little bit, the difference in their life can be profound, and it can seem like they have good luck. It follows that if we all help other people out, just a little, a lot of people’s lives get better – and that can provide opportunities for still others to benefit. If everyone tried to help everyone else out, the effect would probably be so diluted that no perceptible benefits would be realized; but if we target those who appear to need it most, they are elevated beyond the need for further infusions of this kind of luck, enabling us to move on to the next target of need. Eventually, through social participation, those who received this largess reach the point of being able to help others themselves, and society in general improves, which benefits (indirectly) those who helped in the first place. There is a cascade effect that can aggregate benefits beyond the individual recipient.

(Similarly, if we have a society in which not enough people help others as opposed to looking after themselves, there can be a cascading effect of negative “benefits” that harms the broader society. I sometimes wonder if this is enough to explain the social problems that we see around us today, if that’s where the innocence of the 50s and the optimism of the 60s went off the rails. But that’s an entirely separate discussion).

It’s not luck when a friend benefits because we’ve helped them; it’s a reflection of the relationship that has been established. It’s not even luck when an anonymous stranger benefits from the charity of others. But it can seem that way, when the help is not expected – and gloomy outlooks tend to lead to people not expecting help.

Luck through ignorance

Sometimes, the opposite can happen. You can attempt a task and succeed because you don’t know that it “can’t be done”. The more experience you have, the more aware of the mistakes and pitfalls you are, and the more you concentrate on finesse and quality of result. Beginners, who aren’t educated enough to notice these distractions, but who are smart enough and educated enough to solve one problem after another as they arise, can often succeed where their more experienced fellows will fail.

It can even be argued that awareness of the dangers, risks, and avenues of failure, are a distraction that prevents the experienced person from devoting his full attention to the task at hand, and that this alone can be enough to cause them to fail. I think that may be going too far, but it’s certainly a good explanation for the phenomenon known as “beginner’s luck”.

It’s not luck at all

It’s even possible to argue, based on the analyses that have been conducted throughout this article, that there is no such thing as luck. It’s not luck if your opponents are distracted or make mistakes or have made inadequate preparations. It’s not luck if you have a business that is ready to do a job and a customer wanting just such a job done finds your name. It’s not luck if you are presented with an unexpected opportunity.

Heck, even rolling a dice isn’t really luck. It’s an isolated result from a statistical grouping of such results, and attaching any profound meaning to an individual result is a form of self-delusion.

And yet, those individual results – in a sufficiently short term – can be significant, can bear unexpected fruit, and that’s because in the short term we’re talking about a closed set of results, while in the longer term, the assumption has to be that luck will even out.

Conclusions: Fallacies To The Left Of Me, Fallacies To The Right

Luck is the “Weak Nuclear Force” of the arrow of time. Significant, potentially even overpowering, over short distances / numbers of events, but eventually it will not be enough – if you keep playing.

So many manifestations of “luck” exist that are actually the result of skill and experience that you have to start to wonder if everything can be dismissed this way.

And yet…

Luck: An Undeniable Factor

Butterflies in Beijing can flap their wings, creating random atmospheric fluctuations, and these can propagate and trigger more significant variations, and if everything lines up exactly right, the weather changes. It’s not impossible for a lucky streak (or an unlucky one) to extend far beyond anything reasonable; it’s just improbable, and that means that it can happen. Try your luck often enough, and your luck will come up trumps – that’s the principle behind people buying a lottery ticket every week. Someone has to win, and you have just as great a chance as anyone else.

So luck is real. Random subatomic fluctuations and other sources of randomness can cascade into macroscopic differences, and the only way to analyze`these events is statistically.

Three Theories

I’ve avoided putting forth my answer on the whole luck vs skill debate throughout this article, because I needed to explain where I was coming from and how I had reached these conclusions. I have three theories regarding the interplay between luck and skill:

  1. Much of what we consider luck is the result of expertise, experience, or other non-random factors.
  2. Luck dominates the short-term or limited sample, skill dominates the long-term and unrestricted examples.
  3. Skill is an opportunity for luck, in the form of randomness, to have an effect.

They are not mutually exclusive. Asking which is better is like asking if it’s better to have a blue right eye or a brown left. So long as you can see through them, who cares?

An Unreal World

As GMs, we’re in the business of creating Artificial Simulations Of Imaginary Realities. This is an incredibly complex task, and an accurate rendering of such a world would be so cumbersome as to be useless, unfit for purpose. We make luck a reality within our games because it provides a means of shortcutting the impossible depth of simulation that is otherwise required. We can’t control the outcome of any given dice roll, and the system actually breaks down to a certain extent when we try (possibly to get rebuilt as a better version of the outcome from the point of view of one or other participants, but that’s a whole different can of worms).

We build Artificial Simulations of Imaginary Realities, bringing all of our skill to bear on the task. And if we’re lucky, that Simulation will be experienced by players who appreciate it, and participate in it, and in the process, elevate it beyond the standard imposed by the limitations of our skill. Skill or Luck? I’ll take a serving of each, thanks very much.

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The Blind Enforcer: The Reflex Application Of Rules


Cropped & edited extract from The Triumph Of Justice by Gabriel Metsu. Refer to the link for terms of reuse.

This article is the result of a confluence of many different vectors, from reading a review in the current issue of KODT of the original “Paranoia” RPG to reading an article at E Pluribus Unum about Twitter mistakenly suspending an account as a purveyor of spam. Setting aside the questions of anti-spam techniques and technologies and their application in this specific case, it raised an interesting thought in general.

Twitter, and the other social networks, are not public services; they are entitled to define whatever rules for usage that they like, and you can either follow those rules or stop using the service.

But these incidents raise a larger question. People write rules all the time, but when it comes to technology, they then encode these rules into Rules and make the detection of infringements the province of automated systems.

That’s fine, too – there’s far too much activity for human agencies to sift through it all, looking for red flags. But no algorithm is perfect, when it’s monitoring human activity. It can’t be; we don’t normally reduce to neat lines; there is always some fuzziness. And that becomes a problem when the same automated systems also initiate action.

The Need For Speed

And yet, there is a need for a speedy response to allegations of spam or other misuse of technology. Even an additional ten minutes can permit hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands more to be victimized by undesirable behavior. The obvious solution is for enforcement actions to be subject to human review – but not only would this be mind-numbingly dull, since most of the decisions would be correct, but it would be expensive. So the system in place relies on the occasional incorrectly-targeted individual requesting a review of the decision. Those who knowingly broke the rules won’t bother appealing because they know they will lose. You could even make the argument that appealing such an automated decision is prima facae evidence of innocence.

The Dimension-Regency Extrapolation

When I was creating the background for the setting of the current Zenith-3 campaign, Dimension-Regency, I extrapolated from systems that were being put in place in Sydney that not only automatically detected traffic infringements – speeding and running red lights – and automatically issued infringement notices to a future in which judicial decisions were made by Expert Systems in 2050. The discovery process produced an agreed-upon submission of facts, and these facts – and relevant arguments – were input into the system which produced a verdict. Appealing such a decision also needed to pass through this software – if the machine determined that there were valid grounds for appeal, or an unresolved point of law was identified, permission was granted to appeal to a human judge and jury. If no such reason was identified, the software refused leave to appeal and proceeded to a sentencing phase, which assessed the various relevant factors and produced a sentence that was informed by established social mores and lay somewhere between the minimum and maximum mandated sentences. Once again, permission to appeal the sentence might be appealed, using the same process already outlined.

The point was that 98% of lawsuits and criminal cases were resolved without requiring lengthy court procedures, cutting the court backlog massively.

What I didn’t realize until I read the article referred to in my opening paragraph is that this perfectly and precisely forecasts the rule enforcement procedures and policies employed by Twitter, and no doubt by other social networks, today. (At the time, there was no such thing as social media; I based a lot of my material on IRC, which was the social connectivity of its day.

Rules Without Oversight

Computers without adequate human oversight are a feature of movies such as Dr Strangelove and the Terminator franchise, to name just a few. It’s unnecessarily alarmist to view the shortcomings of the Twitter implementation of their rules and policies as the thin edge of the wedge, but nevertheless, the eerie similarities to those dystopian views remains.

So how does all this matter to RPGs and to GMs?

The RPG Equation

Aside from the obvious utility to sci-fi RPGs, there is, once again, the broader issue. One of the most significant changes in the last decade or two has been a move away from the philosophy that “the GM is always right”. This was stated explicitly in AD&D, was watered down slightly in 2nd Edition, and watered down still further in third edition to only being able to arbitrate when there was a conflict within the rules.

There is a very real debate that has raged throughout gaming (even on these pages) between the old-school philosophy and the new-school. I’ve made my position in this debate very clear on a number of occasions, and have also held extended discussions with my players on the subject.


Players like certainty. They like especially like certainty about the rules, the knowledge that they can have their characters attempt to do something and that it will be arbitrated according to standards that they both know and understand. The old school demands absolute trust in the GM by the players, and that is not always forthcoming, with good reason; every GM and player has suffered at the hands of apparent abuses of this authority. This produces a trend toward demanding that the rules, as written, must be enforced when clear, and let the chips fall where they may.

… vs. Control

GMs like certainty, too, but they also demand the authority to decide – based on the circumstances and campaign – exactly what that certainty contains. Nevertheless, the truth is that a GM who tries to force the players to his will risks having no players, just as a player who refuses to obey the GM risks being asked not to play again. Everyone is giving up a portion of their free time in the expectation that they will have fun, or at least be entertained. If that doesn’t happen, the game is in trouble.

And uncertainty makes for unhappy players; which means that every diversion from the written rules must be justified, and (even then) is on perpetually-shaky ground. So there is constant pressure on the GM to follow the rules as written, like some mindless automaton, and an increasing expectation on the part of players that the rules will be as written in the sourcebooks.

I don’t advocate players being at the mercy of GM whim, but I am convinced that the current trend toward the role of the GM-as-an-umpire has gone too far. When players can state, with peer approval, that they would never play in a game that has house rules, or never cast a spell that has been modified by the GM – both of which have happened to me in the past – there is a problem. Eventually, inevitably, like the situation reportedly facing Twitter, removing human oversight over the rules and their interpretation leads to trouble.

The Ironic Uncertainty

The irony of the whole situation is that a mindless and dogmatic application of rules – the only thing that a machine understands unless it is programmed very cleverly – has produced a situation in which uncertainty is dominant. When using a service in exactly the manner advocated produces an outcome deemed contrary to the rules, and hence a penalty, no-one is certain what they can or can’t do.

There are a lot of deep issues involved in this situation, Oversimplification of a situation to the point where black and white rules can be followed dogmatically produces inflexibility and cases “falling through the cracks”.

The Hierarchy Of Rules

I believe that there is, or should be, a hierarchy of GM rule authority. I’ve discussed this before – notably in Blat! Zot! Pow! The Rules Of Genre In RPGs. In it, I advocate:

  • House Rules Trump Official Rules
  • Simulation (i.e Realism) Trumps Rules
  • Genre Trumps Simulation
  • Plot Trumps Genre
  • Campaign Trumps Plot
  • Gameplay (i.e. Practicality of Play) Trumps All

It could be argued that Fun should ride atop this hierarchy as the ultimate trump card, but I reject that; these guidelines (and a lot of other GM advice) is all about making the game fun, so I don’t consider this necessary. It might also be argued that Justice or Fairness should be explicitly stated at some level, probably between Campaign and Gameplay, but – once again – I reject this; the assumption must be made that at each of these levels, the GMs rulings are fair, and indeed the whole purpose of this hierarchy is to be certain that fairness and justice has an opportunity to play a role, by explicitly considering situations in which a lower order of rulings might produce an unfair result.

Rejecting The Rules

Examining this hierarchy in terms of enforcement, it should be clear that there are three areas where GMs can and should override the existing and agreed-upon rules.

The first is when the rules dictate an unrealistic outcome (in terms of what is ‘realistic’ for the GAME world, which is not necessarily the same as what is realistic in the ‘real’ world); when this happens, GMs should forget the rules and dictate whatever outcome is ‘realistic’.

The second is when Genre trumps realism, even within the game world. This safeguards against flaws in the game world’s conceptual mechanics, and explicitly mandates occasions when the GM should override not only what is reasonable and realistic within the game world – and never mind what the Rules say. This is also an area where the players can have their say; while they aren’t always in possession of all the facts, and so cannot state unequivocally that a ruling is contrary to Simulation, the definition of what is and what is not canonical within the genre and sub-genre are far more open.

Practical Gameplay
The final point of appeal is to the question of gameplay. It doesn’t matter what the rules, or earlier rulings say – if its not a practical approach, the GM needs to short-circuit the process and get on with the game. It should take less than 2 seconds to identify whether or not there is an issue to consider at each of these levels, and no more than 30 seconds to make a decision – I would prefer to say less than 10, but sometimes it takes longer than that to find, never mind read, read the relevant sections of rules.

If it takes longer than 60 seconds, my rule-of-thumb is to decide what happens without recourse to the rules, running that decision through the above gamut (assuming that my ruling is a house rule). If you can manage to make a decision in ten seconds or less, then the entire process of arbitrating even the complicated situation should take a minute or so – not an unreasonable time frame.

An alternative hierarchy

Some people have suggested to me that the hierarchy itself is incorrect, and should read:

  • House Rules Trump Official Rules
  • Plot Trumps Rules
  • Campaign Trumps Plot
  • Simulation (i.e Realism) Trumps Campaign
  • Genre Trumps Simulation
  • Gameplay (i.e. Practicality of Play) Trumps All

This is a very interesting point, and one that merits further discussion. In a nutshell, should subjective in-game reality overrule plot/campaign, or can plot/campaign overrule subjective in-game reality?

I chose the first hierarchy over the second because a plotline can focus on the (temporary) overriding of established in-game reality, but it has been since pointed out to me that this simply enlarges the scope of what is permitted within the in-game reality by displaying a new phenomenon. It’s the difference between ‘subjective in-game reality’ and ‘established in-game reality’.

A Decision

After much thought, I have decided that the original hierarchy should stand, because it places the welfare of the campaign above that of the ‘realism’ of the campaign. Objective reality might say that a properly-maintained and prepared weapon will fire reliably – but if it is better (read “more fun”) for adventure or the campaign for the gun to misfire, then hang it all, it should misfire!


And that brings us back to the point of this article. A slavish adherence – a ‘foolish consistency’ as Emerson described it – to the rules of anything does more harm than good. Certainly, consistency is important, and should not be ignored by whim or caprice – but flexibility and an admission that circumstances alter cases, rendering some of them fuzzy, must be built into every decision-making system – whether we’re talking about Twitter rules, RPG rules, traffic tickets, mandatory minimums, or Skynet.

Sidebar: Recommended Reading
I couldn’t let this article pass by without plugging one of the best books I’ve ever read on the rise of machine intelligence and the inflexible application of rules: James P. Hogan’s The Two Faces Of Tomorrow (3.82 rating at Goodreads) – review. amazon page. And, most astonishingly, it was written in 1979, when computers were in their infancy. The science-fiction – and the science in back of it – still rings true today, 35 years later. And that’s very, very, rare. I give it a personal 4.95 out of 5.

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Writing to the limits of longevity

When you write, how long do you want the words, the meaning, to last?

Every minute spent writing more than is needed is time wasted.

Some writing is intended for almost immediate consumption, and will never be needed again. If we could be sure of remembering all our thoughts and plans, only the barest mention should be enough to bring them to mind, but memory is fallible, especially when distracted by other things, like players.

Other writing, for example most of the articles that have appeared here at Campaign Mastery, are intended to be evergreen, lasting for as long as they remain relevant, as close to forever as possible. Creatures and races that may be used in other campaigns or by other GMs.

And then there are writings that are intended to have a longevity somewhere in between. Adventure notes that may need to be referred to in writing a subsequent adventure weeks, months, or years down the track. Descriptions of NPCs who are intended to recur in future encounters. More traditional blog posts, or announcements of achievements or milestones. Most news has a finite lifespan, and then becomes history.

The three place very different demands on the writer or author, and very definitely have different pitfalls to be wary of. Nor are the dividing lines as neat and confined as these labels suggest; these are just points on an entire spectrum of possible target longevities.

Writing for immediacy

The immediate the intended consumption, the more than can usually be assumed – social context, relevance to current events, the meaning of a personal code used to compress the information, and so on. The greatest dangers involved are insufficient development, over-compression, memory failure, unexpected delays in delivery, and an unexpected need for subsequent longevity.

Insufficient Development

The first and most obvious trap is not doing enough, or perhaps assuming that you will be better at improvising the rest on the day. It’s all well and good to do the bare minimum that you think you can get away with, but if that judgment is erroneous or you are off your game, it can all come unstuck.

I always aim for a little more longevity and completeness than I think I need, a lesson very definitely learned the hard way. I make a checklist of the major topics and ensure that I have at least thought about each, and made at least one reference note – the tip of the iceberg when it comes to that topic – upon which I can build.


I’ve suffered from this a number of times. It is the mistake of assuming that you will remember what a string of characters Such as “*K16″ means when you come across it in you character notes, or that some cryptic reference that was obvious to you at the time you wrote it will still make sense when you get to the gaming table. In essence, it’s relying on memory to interpret some veiled reference, summary, or prompt.

The best solution to this is to have a system, and to write that system down, with a “generation number” – we’re all familiar with those, whether you recognize the term or not. “Version 2.4″ is a generation number, indicating the fourth minor revision after a complete rewrite. These are used for computer software all the time, for the simple reason that they (usually) work. The final pieces of the puzzle is to always update a copy of this master document, so that you have all the previous versions available, and to WRITE THE VERSION USED on whatever notes you’re making.

I would have to hunt for a couple of hours to find it, but I first started using this technique for public speaking, where certain basic symbols not part of the regular extended typeset – diamond, triangle, square, filled circle, etc – were employed to indicate “More forceful,” “Pause 1/2 sec,” “Deep Breath,” etc.

Memory Failure

Marginally Worse than having a cryptic clue that you cannot decipher (even though you are both author and intended target) is having no clue at all because you were sure that you would remember something “so obvious”. This is the sort of mistake that people make, learn from for a while, and then make again.

There is a quote from Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg (a very readable and entertaining book that I can highly recommend): “If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen”. That’s probably going too far in terms of this sort of writing, but there is at least a grain of truth to it – and it is certainly true of any writing intended to be viable in more than a day or two.

Making sure that each of the major logical topics has at least the hint of what I was thinking guards against this problem.

Unexpected Delays

More than once, I’ve prepared material in the expectation of using it on a particular date, only for the event in question – a game session or whatever – to be rescheduled, either by a day, a week, a fortnight, a month, or even a couple of months; and while I could understand and interpret that material just fine on the original “due date”, it was little more than gibberish when the rescheduled date arrived.

Having learned the hard way, if a session doesn’t go ahead, I use the time to expand a little on my written notes – not polishing or refining per se (though there’s often a tweak here and a nuance there as I go), but making sure that anything I expected to be able to remember gets written down. Even so, it’s astonishing how often I find myself drawing a complete blank, indicating a total memory failure.

When that happens, the first rule is: Don’t get frustrated, Clear your head for a couple of minutes, calm yourself, and then try to recapture the memories of doing the writing in the first place. What were you listening to? Was the TV on in the background? What was the weather like? What were you wearing? What had you just read? What had you just eaten? What had you just written? Quite often, recapturing any one memory of what had been forgotten is enough to lead you to other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, which fit together one after the other. You just have to find a starting point.

I have some additional, general, solutions as well, which I will describe in a moment.

Unexpected Longevity Requirements

So there was a throwaway NPC who appeared in your game five years ago, and to whom you never gave a second thought once their appearance in the plot had come and gone. Suddenly, you need for that character to reappear, or at least be referenced, because the PCs are going back to the scene – something you had no idea would happen at all.

Or perhaps, a month or two later, you find yourself wanting to describe an incident in the game in a blog or short story, and that character is the starting point for the incident.

You may be able to find the old adventure, with its compost of compression, shorthand, and cryptic notes that were perfectly meaningful to you at the time, or that might be long-gone. The information that you thought you would only need for a few days is suddenly needed again.

No matter how effectively you write what you need and no more, sometimes you can find that you actually need rather more than you thought.

Assuming that you can find your original, the techniques already described will help ensure that they are decipherable, and comprehensive enough to get into the ballpark. Any differences between the new version and the original can be explained as a consequence of the passage of time – if you leave any description of the intervening period loose enough that an incident can be spontaneously inserted. What the players most remember and what you remember might well be two quite different things, because you remember the version you created, and they remember the version that you delivered in play.

If the original has been lost, or destroyed, then you have no choice but to recreate it. And that’s a real problem when everything you did was only meant to make sense, or even just to exist, for a limited time-frame.

The one solution that is unacceptable because it is often unenforceable is “never throw anything away”, and “over-write everything”.

The general solution techniques below will help. But the most powerful tool you have when you really, really, need help are the memories of your players, and any notes they may have made, and any session notes that you might have. Use them!

General Solutions: Two Guidelines

There are two techniques that I use when writing for immediacy: Buried Cues and Development Notes.

Buried Cues

I always assume that I may need to expand the lifetime of a piece of immediate writing. While it is wasteful to spend time writing for greater longevity, that doesn’t mean that a note or two on what would be required to extend the comprehension lifetime is out of place. These are almost always related to context. For example, if I’m making notes about an NPC who I expect to be of little lasting significance and who is not likely to recur, the buried cues would be the relationships of the NPC to other NPCs in the plotline, the role of the NPC in the plotline, future goals or ambitions of the NPC, and any distinctive mannerisms or performance notes that identify the individual. These not only help you rebuild your understanding of the minimalist documentation that you have provided, but they provide the foundations for rewriting or revisiting the character at some future point. They place your compressed notes into a context that enables you to work back to the small-scale or to expand the writing back up to a larger scale.

Development Notes

If you make all of your development notes in a single book or in files kept in a specific folder, then you can go back to them if necessary. These will often be fragmentary and cryptic, bereft of any context whatsoever, but nevertheless, it’s better than nothing when you really get stuck.

It’s fairly normal for these to go missing (one way or another) before the final product does, especially if the notes were handwritten on a pad or something. Hence the solution of using a single workbook to archive all your development notes – you never know when you’ll need something from it. And you can always scribble notes in the margins at the time of development that – although useless at the time – can be dynamite months or years down the track.

Every unused idea is just waiting to be re-jigged for use somewhere else on some other occasion.

One of the great assets of computer-based documentation is that you can revise and edit without having to retype everything that hasn’t changed from scratch. This is also one of its greatest liabilities because it destroys the record of development. The solution is to maintain a generation numbering system – but be sure to follow it religiously, or you can end up with generation confusion which can be even worse than no records at all.

Writing for the Medium-Term

Writing for the medium term is a bit more involved. It requires more more substance, and more depth. Whatever you’re writing is something that you expect to have to refer to in the future. In order to keep this information accessible, you need to either have a consistent format for your compression, or you need to avoid compressing the content in the first place. What usually gets left out are explanations and context; it’s more a bullet-point summary. That means that the dangers that await are over-compression, under-expansion, assumptions, a lack of relevant context, and legacy standards.



It’s still great to be able to compact what you have written down to a single, easily-digested nugget. The great danger of doing so is that the mental algorithm that enables you to reverse this process, going from compressed thought to whole concept, may be lost. Compressing ideas and text in this fashion is more like reducing the file size of a jpg than it is creating a zip file, although the latter is more often the metaphor employed; the only way to shrink a jpg image without making it physically smaller is to throw detail away. This can be done to a certain extent without ever being obvious, or it can be compressed so much that obvious corruption takes place. The information that is thrown away can never be recovered, though it can be faked sometimes.

The picture to the right shows two views of the same photograph. The first was saved at high quality, the second at very poor quality. The second image may be only 5.7% of the file size, but it is totally worthless – it has been Over-compressed, too much has been thrown away.

Similarly, if you go too far in boiling your NPC’s personality down to its essentials, or the tactical layout, or whatever, you will lose details that may prove essential when you go back to use the information again. This creates additional work at best or can be completely humiliating at worst, when your players point out that if this was the way things were, none of the escapades they had been on subsequently would have been necessary. This puts you in the position of reinventing the wheel, on the fly, again (and while everyone is waiting on you) or having consigned half the campaign to the scrap-bin. Even if you get through this harrowing experience, the campaign may take years to recover.

Does that seem like overblown apocalyptic vision to you? Well, let’s consider your campaign to be akin to a novel. Somewhere in the early pages, the protagonist has an encounter with a femme fatale; this encounter launches him into a series of unlikely incidents that put his entire life into a spin cycle. Towards the end of the book, he encounters the woman once again, but the author has lost his notes; so instead of being a femme fatale, she is now a homemaker with two kids and a very happy marriage. This totally undermines the initial premise of the story, especially since if the protagonist at the start of the novel was the honest, honorable type who would never dream of getting involved with a married woman. If the author picks up on the problem, he can either try to recapture the original character, or he can add some lame justification for her pretending to be what she initially appeared to be, even though that is also in direct contradiction to the personality used at the end of the story.

Still not buying it? Okay, try this example: The bad guys operate from a nigh-impregnable fortress. Most of the plot of the story is about the protagonist finding a way to exploit the one area of vulnerability that he has been able to identify, recruiting specialists, questing for lost arcane arts, etc. Finally, the protagonist is ready, and the author sets out to describe the climactic confrontation. He needs the villains to have an escape route planned, but there’s no mention of that escape route in his notes, so he creates a new one – which is inadvertently a major hole in the security of the fortress, one which the protagonist was well able to recognize at the very start of the story (had it been there, then). It’s too late to alter the original description, that’s already been published, and besides, if that hole had been there, then, the whole story unravels; he has to either redo the fortress again, on-the-fly (in order to meet his deadline), eliminating the security hole, or his protagonist is revealed as an idiot who can’t see what’s right in front of him. The only quick solution, lame as it is, is for the security hole to have been engineered into the fortress in the intervening period – but what might have been a thrilling fantasy adventure is crippled by this problem of engineering contradictory needs into his fortress design. Knowing the need for the villains to escape (or at least the potential need), he almost certainly had some clever idea for managing this when he first described the fortress, one that did NOT create a security vulnerability – but the details were left out of the original notes.

Read some amateur locked-room mysteries, and you’ll quickly discover that this happens far more often than you ever suspected. All you can say when it does is “whoops”. And start thinking, very hard.

It’s one thing to eliminate extraneous details and capture only the essence of whatever you’re writing about. It’s quite another to fail to adequately document something that might turn out to be essential.

The only real solution is to be organized and have something written in every area of possible need from the beginning.


Almost as frequent is under-expansion of the compressed ideas. This happens in badly-written TV and movies a lot – an idea or scene gets compressed because it’s taking up too much screen time, or it’s too expensive, or it simply makes the movie drag at that point – but in the process, a plot hole is created because the essential information that was to be conveyed by the scene never gets mentioned or shown. The real culprit here is a failure to note what is essential and what is window dressing.

It doesn’t matter how great the original idea is, if you do not develop it enough to work out the kinks, it will fall flat. I can actually point at an example published right here at Campaign Mastery – the plot development technique given in the article, Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited. This started as nothing more than the title – which is a cool idea, promising lots of B-adventure fun – but it needed a lot of development and insertion of backstory, shown in the course of the article, before it became workable as a serious plotline.

When writing a novel, your notes on anything are typically more extensive than the information you ultimately convey within the story. Why? Because you develop the idea – be it a location or a character – before you know exactly what you are going to need. You may not go as far as drawing up architectural blueprints of the scene where the action is to take place, but a rough sketch to give you the layout of the building can not only make it a lot easier to write, it can save you from horrendous mistakes like putting a 30′ square kitchen into a 10′ x 10′ space. Or worse yet, putting 5 red dragons into a 10′ x 10′ room on the 10th sub-level of a dungeon, with no access to the open air, which a (very inexperienced) GM I knew years ago actually did. (Worse still, they were flapping their wings in agitation when the PCs opened the door into the room). You may now cringe.

Well, the leisurely pace of a novelist doesn’t fit the deadline pressures experienced by every GM who has a gaming session tomorrow to prepare for. We rarely have time to do anything more than is absolutely necessary (and sometimes not even that much). That means that we have to compress ideas and descriptions and dialogue and characterizations and what-have-you, especially when we’re making notes.

Under-expansion happens when we have a documented idea for something but don’t develop it enough to integrate it with the rest of the details of the something. It might be a character background not fitting with the personality profile of the character, or detailed descriptions of the decorations in a room that we know is going to be closely scrutinized.

I had another idea for an example but decided that it was unnecessary. But the idea is too cool, and too original not to mention it in passing. Somewhere in a room is a clue to something – the location of a treasure, perhaps. The room is dominated by a semi-abstract painting consisting of multiple daubs of brightly-colored paint in many colors – which, when viewed from the far side of the room forms an image – something like Children On A Farm by Camille Pissarro, shown to the left, and a closeup of part of that painting, shown below it. For a few days each year, when the sun is at the right angle (month and time of day) and the right color (sunset), the light transforms the image by changing the color of the paint, hiding some colors and making others dark or gray. Only then – like the tests used for color-blindness – can the hidden map or message be seen.

Development work needed before this idea could be used include: art movements in the campaign world, establishing the art style used (Impressionist), making sure the players know the defining characteristics of that art style, establishing color-blindness and the standard tests for it as obscure knowledge, establishing knowledge of the movement of the sun (something like Stonehenge used to identify the solstices would do it), making sure that whoever had the work commissioned had the wealth and knowledge to create the clue, and maybe even establishing the concept of secret writings and hidden messages. Then you need the story of the target, and why it was hidden, and the myths and stories that have derived from that secret in the intervening years, and how it was that the secret was lost in the first place.

Now, if you put all of that into the one adventure, the players are going to be able to put 2+2+2 together very quickly to solve the puzzle. If you spread most of that background out into other adventures as incidental information that the PCs pick up, it won’t be quite so obvious. Leave any of that development info out, and the mystery is unsolvable unless the players just happen to have the right information in their possession – not a good bet at all.

But the idea of a painting that holds a clue invisible but in plain sight until the light is in the right angle and is of the right color is such a cool variation on something that’s become a common trope that I had to share it.


Making assumptions about what the players will remember or know is a recipe for disaster. Equally hazardous is assuming that the characters will have been somewhere or done something between now and when a notation becomes relevant to the plot. But the biggest assumption of the lot is that you will understand what you were trying to remind yourself of, way back when.

It might be obvious to you at the time of writing what the significance of “Brandysnap Wine by the sunset moon” means (it doesn’t mean anything in particular to me) but for all its poetry, it’s going to be inscrutable beyond the point of comprehension a year or two later. A lot of the time, we build ideas around events in the real world, or in popular movies or TV shows; the smallest tip of the hat to these ideas is usually enough to bring them to mind for a while, so a brief or oblique reference is all that’s needed. But those memories fade with time.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this problem. Your cryptic self-reminder might well contain all the information that you need, but if you can’t interpret it, the information is almost as good as lost. The best answer is to annotate these snippets with the subject matter, as briefly and succinctly as possible. If I were to put the phrase “Color:” in front of the “Brandysnap Wine” note, suddenly it starts to make sense. If I were to put the word “Desire:” in front of it, ditto. Or the phrase “Fondest memory of husband:”. Or “Recurring nightmare – Drowning:”. Or “Recognition signal, agent X:”.

This isn’t a matter of over-compression; it’s about identifying what the compressed note refers to, rather than making the assumption that “I’ll remember/know what that’s about” – something people are especially prone to when the image is somewhat striking, as in this case.

Absence of Context

Even knowing the subject may not be enough. The examples in the preceding section all convey the context within the information provided, or imply it – you should have been able to tell that this hypothetical note was part of a character write-up in most of the examples (“Color” is not quite so obvious, though it was obviously part of a description of something).

But a note such as “Like Coventry” might mean anything. It might mean that a location specifically resembled some aspect of Coventry, the British city. It might be referring to an event – Churchill’s knowledge of the imminent German bombing of the city, decision not to evacuate, and subsequent tour of the devastation, spring to mind. Or it might be referring to the episode of Babylon 5 in which that sequence of events is discussed, or something else within that episode (be it an object, a slice of dialogue, a theme, or whatever) of the same name. Or the short story by Robert A Heinlein. There are dozens of possible interpretations, and even putting a subject to the note (“Character” or “Location” or “Event”) is not enough. There is an absence of context.

Wikipedia has this sort of problem all the time. They use disambiguation pages to give as many possible meanings as they can find so that people can pick the right answer – but note that the aforementioned Babylon-5 episode is not listed on the disambiguation page – perhaps because the episode was actually named “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”!

Making any sort of popular or cultural reference in your notes carries a lot of baggage with it, and you can use such a reference to connect part of that baggage to whatever it is that your notes refers to. If I refer to “Sideshow Bob” the context is clear, because he has appeared in the Simpsons so often that the character is iconic. But what if the character changes markedly after the reference is made – what if this reference actually derives from events prior to “Krusty Gets Busted”, back when Bob was just Krusty’s Sidekick?

Or what if the context is forgotten, as the relevance of the reference fades? “Description: Snake In Drag” might refer to the Simpsons episode, or it might refer to the character from Escape from New York played by Kurt Russell, but it more probably refers to the sequence in “Tango & Cash” in which the same actor dresses in drag to evade capture by the police – or to some amalgam of two or more of these. How many people have even seen “Tango & Cash” recently enough to make the connection?

I know that if I were to use the description “Ray Tango In Drag” to describe an NPC, both I and at least one of my players would immediately ‘get’ the reference and be able to visualize the character. The rest? I’m not so sure.

Or take a more obscure one: “Blackwater Redacted” tells me immediately what I need to know to describe a document, and why it has that appearance. But I’m the only person in my playing group that watched “The West Wing”, and I only recognize the term – which doesn’t actually appear in the episode in question – because I re-watch the entire series once or twice a year. (For the record, the reference points to the episode “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail”, which is itself a reference to the lyrics of “New York Minute” by Don Henley).

Context gives meaning. For short-term writing, a lot of context can be assumed; it’s part of the cultural zeitgeist of the time. For longer-longevity writing, context can’t be assumed, it has to be explicit – just in case.

Legacy Standards

I talked earlier about using a standard format for your notes and compression of ideas, about the need to use version numbers and retain old versions, about the ease of overwriting existing information when using a computer, and about the need to document which version of the standard format you used for any given set of notes.

Failure to do any one of these things leaves you exposed to this problem – where notes have been made in a standard format but you no longer have the key to that format.

I once wrote a character generator to make random NPCs for my TORG campaign. An entry as output read something like:

378 8 11 6 8 12 11 7 12 3=10 C6 13 T:Sci 4 16 DX:MW 1 9 UC 2 10 ST Cl 2 13 PR:Tr 1 9 WV 3 11 MD:Ap 1 13 Ar 1 13 TW 2 14 CH:Pe 1 12 Prsnlty: P:pansy S:arguementative T:extreme.

Because I was used to the system, and knew the format, I could interpret these easily. In fact, I used an additional routine to identify these strings and expand on them, so that the printed output read:

378 DEX: 8 STR:11 TGH: 6 PERC: 8 MIND:12 CHAR:11 SPIR: 7 Possibilities:12 Reality (SPIR)+3=10/- Corruption+6=13/- TAG: Science (MIND)+4=16/- DEX: Melee Weapons+1=9/- Unarmed Combat+2=10/- STR: Climbing+2=13/- PERC: Trick+1=9/- Water Vehicles+3=11/- MIND: Apportation Magic+1=13/- Artist+1=13/- Test Of Wills+2=14/- CHAR: Persuasion+1=12/- Personality: Primary: pansy Secondary: argumentative Tertiary: extreme.

This took an extremely compact form and expanded it to the point where I could still use it today (and occasionally do) even though I no longer run that campaign (I still have all my notes, though).

But, since the key to the translation was part of the software I wrote, if I had left the information in that compressed format, it would now be useless without a manual key (The Formatting routines ended up being 80% of the program) – it would be encoded using a lost legacy standard.

This is easy to prevent and almost impossible to solve once it’s happened. Prevention simply requires doing the things I listed at the top of this section.

General Solutions: Three Guidelines

I use three guidelines when working on something that I expect might need to be used a long time after the initial creation, in addition to the specific advice offered above.

Development Plans

I make notes about what I would need to do to take something written for the medium term and convert it into something written for the long term. What additional development would be required? What assumed knowledge would I have to supply? What needs further explanation? What assumptions does the character make about society and politics and magic and the phases of the moon?

What would I need to do to take the character, or setting, or adventure, out of my campaign and publish it as a standalone product?

Note that it’s not necessary to actually do any of this work – this is just a list of what would need to be done, as brutally succinct as I can make it.

This tells me what areas have not been fully developed, and hence (by extension) which ones have. It helps interpret what is there.

Context Notes

I liberally sprinkle my notes with references to the context, even if it’s redundant and unnecessary information now. “Refer B5 ep discussion how much is a secret worth?” makes explicit a vague reference to “Coventry”. I try to identify just where my ideas came from, and how those sources of inspiration are relevant – then make notes.

This doesn’t mean that my ideas are plagiarized. It simply means that “Reference A” helped inspire the idea, and that if I have to recapture that idea from scanty source material at some future point, refreshing my recollection of Reference A will help to place me in the correct frame of mind to interpret what I’ve got.

Draft Snapshots

I don’t save documents in progress within the same file all the time, nor do I rely exclusively on system backups. Every now and then, I will increment a version number and save the work to date in that format – then park that archived version somewhere else. This has two benefits: one, it gives me a place to go to recover information that may have been overwritten or destroyed; and two, I can track the development of ideas by comparing older versions with later ones. Quite often I will discard an idea because I think I’ve come up with something better, only to run into a brick wall – and discover the solution to the problem lurking in work that has since been discarded.

Every time I have gotten a little lazy about maintaining these “draft snapshots”, circumstances have eventually bitten me on the tail. Months of work have been lost on occasion as a result.

Writing For The Long-Term

Writing for the long-term is still more difficult. You can assume nothing, and have to explain everything – but at the same time, prevent the writing from becoming dull or boring. The needs of the intended audience change over time – in the short term, little-to-no context is needed; at most, a single reference to each relevant point is enough to get everyone on the same page and in a position to understand the content that you are trying to deliver. As time passes, the content may stay relevant – good advice is still good advice, and a good idea is still a good idea – but the reader will be increasingly dependent on the article being self-contained. External references may have vanished, game systems may have changed, best practices may have developed that are different to those in place at the time of writing. Your writing needs to stand alone, be fully self-contained, in order to make sense to a new reader.

More than anything else, four things drove this home to me.

Incident The First: Adapting The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti For Campaign Mastery

The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti was an adventure I had created for my Fumanor Campaign (D&D 3.x). Adapting it was quite a lot of work; I had to take out all but the bare minimum campaign background, which in turn had an impact on several of the encounters. I had to expand on the options available to characters beyond those in the original, where I had focused exclusively on the capabilities of my players and their characters. I had to remove the effects of any House Rules. Many things that required no explanation (because they were known to the players from earlier adventures) had to be explained.

While I expected it to be fairly straightforward when I started, in the end, about 40% of the content had to be written completely from scratch, and half of what was left had to be revised. The “public” version is almost 1/3 longer than the original was. And it’s still not at what I would consider “ready to publish” standard – though it’s now finished enough for another GM to run the adventure, there’s a lot of expansion possible before it could stand alone as a module.

Incident The Second: Writing The Background “Novel” For my Champions Campaigns

In some ways, this was incredibly easy, because it was simply documenting the solo game that I used to develop the campaign concepts and learn the rules system. The first draft – 130+ pages – was completed in a single weekend using a manual typewriter. I then started on the second volume, and got about 8 chapters into it, with the rest outlined; this was based on events in the first campaign that I ran in that game universe, set about a decade after the start of the solo campaign. In plot terms, there was about 2 1/2 years between the end of the first novel and the start of the setting.

Writing of the second went a lot more slowly, because a lot of the details needed to be reinvented; there were too many characters that were too derivative of published (copyrighted and trademarked) characters from various sources. This was also typed with the manual typewriter.

Then I started writing the third volume, longhand, from campaign notes. I got part-way through it, liberally reinventing plots and characters, before returning to revise the first volume, now using a word processor.

The original draft of the first volume disposed of the protagonist’s background in three or four shortish chapters, totaling about 16 pages. The second draft turned those into more than 100 pages, dividing the novel into two halves – a “long ago and far away” part, and an earthside 1945-1955 part. I intended to keep rewriting until I got all the way through it – but then I had to set that aside to work on the background to the new phase of the campaign. And these days, I no longer have access to that software or computer system – I would have to start afresh.

Most of what I have written is unpublishable. There are too many characters who are obviously derivative of others. Even today, many of the new characters that I am using would leave me subject to far too much legal exposure. A character named “Mento” with a helmet that gives him psionic powers? A character named “Colossus” with metallic skin? A character named “Thanos” who’s into death in a big way? For all that these are completely different concepts from the originals beyond these superficialities, there is way too much similarity for me to trust my luck. I wouldn’t even be comfortable making these characters available as PDF downloads here at Campaign Mastery.

The novels are all page-turners – my players and even people who have never played in one of my games have told me as much – and are full of interesting ideas and plot twists and compelling characters with fascinating stories. But they will never see the light of day aside from private distribution.

Incident The Third: Learning to Co-GM

Co-GMing is a tricky art. You need to communicate your ideas and assumptions to a far greater extent than most people realize. Even though I end up doing the bulk of the actual running of the game, there are times when my co-GM and I deliberately play off each other – one handling administration duties while the other plays an NPC, or even both of us playing different NPCs at the same time (which makes conversations far easier). But every word of the adventure is a genuine collaboration between my co-GM and myself, with both of us contributing ideas and deriving inspiration from each other’s suggestions. One of these days I’ll publish one of our adventures here at Campaign Mastery verbatim – no editing or revision, no introduction of PCs, nothing but what was actually on the printed page. Of course, we rely a lot on photographic illustration, most of which I can’t use here, because I don’t have the rights to do so. So I’m not sure how much people could get from it.

Incident The Fourth: New Player in a long-running Campaign

Nothing really shows you how much accumulated conceptual weight a campaign has built up than trying to introduce a new player. Even an experienced player can struggle. In fact, there is so much that you can’t give it all at once; it’s more than you can deliver, even if they could digest it all. So you deliver the bare bones, and spend a lot of time filling in blanks, at least at first.

Long-term Pitfalls

All these incidents demonstrate the major problems involved in writing for the long-term, and the all come down to a few fundamentals: Insufficient Originality, Assumption, and A Good Idea At The Time.

Inadequate Independence

If an idea is not your own, and is not in the public domain, you can’t use it. It doesn’t matter whether that idea is a character, a location description, even a pop culture reference. This is not the case when you are running a campaign – anything and everything is fair game. But the more you rely on the creativity of others, the more difficulty you will have extricating yourself from the entanglements that result if you try and adapt what you have written.

The best solution is to bite the bullet and be as original as possible right from word one. At the very least, it will prevent you from having to develop these things twice.


When I started planning the Orcs & Elves series, I had no idea of how much background information I would need to provide in order for it to be relevant to others. It was something that I needed to do (and still have to finish sometime, though the campaign-critical events have now been dealt with) but if I was going to take up reader’s time here at Campaign Mastery, I darned well wanted to make it worthwhile for those readers. That meant providing all the context that made the events described relevant to the players – readers at Campaign Mastery needed to know what the players knew, so that they could see how it tied campaign events together.

I failed to fall into the trap of assumption.

You can never be sure what your readers have read before. You don’t know what it is that they know and don’t know. It took weeks of effort and a series of 5 longish articles – plus a heap of downloads – before context was established.

A Good Idea At The Time

Some things seem like a good idea, but aren’t. In an adventure, when things go off the deep end, you can always retroactively rewrite the train-wreck. Players know it happens every now and then. Holes in logic can be glossed over or ignored completely. When you expect your written word to be of value to others years down the track, none of that is good enough. There can be no holes in logic, there can be no trainwrecks – even though you have more avenues for both to occur, since your audience is not the confined group of players/PCs for which a work was originally intended.

One of the best ways to save time and effort on a medium-longevity project is to target your audience. You can’t do that when your potential audience is the general public.

General Solutions

This is where it gets tricky. There are really only two solutions: An outside audience who can review what you have written pre-publication and point out what they don’t understand, or painful experience and plenty of it. Or at least, so most people would assume. In reality, there is a third: Publishing to a general audience a middle-longevity version, and asking what needs to be explained for it to make sense. What’s missing? What’s inadequately explained? What assumptions have been made about player or character behavior that might not be sufficient?

And there is a fourth: Time. If you leave something intended for long-term consumption to sit around for a month or two, and then look it over once again, you will see it with fresh eyes. This span is short enough that you will still have the answers, the context, and the explanations in your memory, but long enough that you will be able to identify every moment during the reading of the article/story/whatever that you actually need to refer to those memories because the written text is inadequately self-contained.

With surprisingly little practice, the delay required comes down to days, then hours, and then minutes. When I’m preparing an article for Campaign Mastery, one of the last things that I try to do is to read it – from start to finish. The need for final editorial tweaks, insertion of new paragraphs, rephrasings and clarifications, or even the replacement or removal of sections of the text become obvious when I do so.

Target Your Audience

The more immediate your written content is intended to be, the more it is intended either to be insubstantial, passing, and/or aimed at your own eyes. The longer you want your writing to be accessible, the more you have to take yourself out of the equation, the more you have to write for a complete stranger – one who knows absolutely nothing and has to be told everything. The big trick then is to have something worth writing about, and to be able to deliver that additional background and context in a way that doesn’t bore those who already know it while keeping it accessible to those who don’t. That’s the trickiest part of writing to the limits of longevity.

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Inversions Attract: Another Quick NPC Generator


You can never have too many quick NPC generators. Choice means that you can pull out the weapon most suited to the needs of the moment, achieving better solutions in less time and with less wasted effort. This article describes one that I often use when I need the NPC to have one specific character trait for plot reasons.

Fundamental Trait

The starting point is always the trait that you need the character to posses. This needs to be specified in a particular format in order to employ this technique: the trait must be phrased in terms of a personality attribute, and it needs to have a preceding adjective that is expressive – avoid general terms like “strongly” or “very”. You need to get a little poetic. You need to find a way of describing the trait in this fashion even if the actual trait is something other than personality-related.

This can be a little tricky the first few times that you do it; quite often the best way is to equate apples and oranges, i.e. select a personality trait to which the same descriptor that specifies the non-personality trait can be applied. For example, if you need a nimble-fingered character, the adjective to be applied is “nimble” but you need to apply it to something that can be demonstrated in role-play – “Nimble tongued” or “nimble tempered”, for example. The results can sometimes seem a little clumsy, but that’s okay – this descriptor is only for internal use.

Inversion 1: Adjective

And let’s put it to immediate use. What is the exact opposite of the adjective? Apply it to a different personality trait. You can get a little more creative here, and employ a little more creative license if you have to. If you were to start with “smooth”, for example, “rough” is the obvious inversion – but “prickly” or “sharp” or even “sticky” would be just as valid. The biggest trick here is to be really sure that you are describing a second and completely unrelated trait, and not something similar or related to the first – and that’s not all that big a hurdle, really. But it does specifically exclude the exact opposite trait, and that’s important to note.

Inversion 2: Trait

Next step, take the subject of the original trait – and it should now be completely obvious why it was specifically excluded in the previous step. Once you have that, add an adjective that is different from either of those used so far – even if it doesn’t make sense initially. Finally, work out an interpretation of that pairing that does make sense, by treating the new adjective-trait pairing as a metaphor or abstraction as necessary. “Sticky Anger”, for example, would clearly be a somewhat abstract description of someone who held a grudge and was slow to calm down, once riled.

The Combinations Matrix

It doesn’t take much effort to show that there are only six meaningful combinations of traits:

  1. Trait 1 alone;
  2. Trait 2 alone;
  3. Trait 3 alone;
  4. Trait 1 plus Trait 2
  5. Trait 1 plus Trait 3
  6. Trait 2 plus Trait 3

Deal with these, and we can forget the complications. So, what we need is a list of the specific combinations.

Four Key Incidents

Next, we need to determine how these character traits have influenced the character’s current situation by identifying four key incidents from his past:

Common Ground

First, an incident where two of the character’s traits worked in combination to achieve something that would not have happened without that combination. This could be getting the character into or out of trouble, or getting an opportunity. To describe the incident, there are five things that have to be noted: (1) how recently it occurred; (2) how it affected the character’s past circumstances; and (3) what are the long-term consequences? (Numbers four and five have to wait for a moment). These things should be noted in the appropriate empty space.

The more recently the event too place, the less emphasis there will be on the long-term consequences and the more impact there will be from the immediate consequences; the farther back into the past, the more the long-term consequences will have affected the character’s current circumstances and the more time the character will have had to recover from the initial impact; and, if somewhere in between, the immediate consequences will still be having an impact, but will be starting to fade in importance, and the character will be starting to plan his life around the longer-term consequences.

Having identified the way the trait combination has influenced the character, that should be synopsized as number four on the list; and number five details what the character is currently doing about the situation (if it was a problem) or what he plans to do, or is doing, to enjoy the situation or benefit from it (if it was not). In other words, what is he doing about the situation?

Because these are relatively simple questions in isolation, they are very quick to answer; but the value that they hold is greater than the sum of their parts. A surprising amount of depth can be revealed very quickly and with very little effort. And that’s a general principle that the rest of this system also exploits.

Trouble Ahead

The second incident is a time when one of his traits got him into trouble, but a second trait (or even a separate application of the same trait) got him back out of it. In essence, the same five things need to be documented. These are more about the sort of mistakes that the character has made in the past, and how he has gotten out of them, the life-lessons that he has learned from his past, and how he will react to future or current problems.

Once again, we have a great deal of information about the character crystallized into a single snapshot.

Indecision & Hesitation

Next, we need an occasion in which one of his traits caused the character to be indecisive or to hesitate, and an opportunity lost as a result. This is not only a hint at what the character fears, but also where his self-confidence was weak in the past, and may be again. Unless he has taken measures to improve his capabilities in that area since, of course. Ultimately, this event is about the character’s faults and failings. Once again, many key aspects of the character are revealed by this single quick snapshot.

Victory or Success

Fourthly, and the final element of the character’s background that we are considering, we need an occasion when one of the character’s traits was directly responsible for a victory or success. This could be a very small achievement, or it could be something with significance beyond this one individual. If the previous section illuminated the character’s capacity for, and reactions to, mistakes, this sheds light on the character’s first inclinations and responses, his first resorts when trouble strikes.

Other Known Factors

There are six other things that I list when creating the NPC. These come in two lists of three.

Three Broad Appearance Elements

I start with the three most obvious things about the character’s appearance, including what he wears, and how he acts. These visual or behavioral attributes should be obvious from a reasonable distance – from across the room, for example. They should also be as reflective as possible of the things already described; you want them to convey as much of the message of personality as possible, both to avoid the need for narrative, and to reinforce and reflect what narrative is necessary. Ideally, you want to convey the entire personality (or, at least, the essential parts of it) in nothing more than description and dialogue. Don’t fret if not all of it can be so conveyed; so long as you are aware of it, it will leak through in many ways, and having more depth than meets the immediate eye is a great way of making characters seem real.

Three Detailed Appearance Elements

Next, you need three things that are not visible at that distance, but that are obvious at closer range – when you sit down across the table from the NPC, for example. One of these should reiterate the same inference as one of the appearance elements already listed; a second should reflect one of the attributes that were not immediately obvious at a distance; and the third should be completely unrelated to everything else, a red herring if you will – because that also hints at there being more to the character’s story, and hence adds to the character’s realism and depth.

Applying Characteristics

For some characters, it may be necessary to then assign characteristic values. Use the information already decided as a guideline when this is necessary.

I have to say, though, that most GMs do this far more often than is necessary. I try never to assign a value to a stat until I actually need it; most NPCs in my campaigns never do. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?

Getting The Goods On Him

Finally, does the character have any possessions that you absolutely need to know about? What do those possessions look like?

An Example

Let us say that our plot requires the PCs to interact with a very formal individual – an upper class, old-money type. “Very Formal” doesn’t meet the requirements for our first trait, so we need to reinterpret it and encapsulate what we know into another form. (NB: I’m going to forgo explanations beyond this introduction until the end as this system so so easy I don’t think they are necessary).

Trait 1: “Perfect Manners”.
Trait 2: “Flawed Morality”.
Trait 3: “Slippery Connections”.
1 + 2: Perfect Manners & Flawed Morality
1 + 3: Perfect Manners & Slippery Connections
2 + 3: Flawed Morality & Slippery Connections

  1. Common Ground: Perfect Manners & Flawed Morality: A seducer of women using magnetism & politeness
  1. How Recent?: Ongoing for years
  2. Short-term/Immediate: Always chasing someone new, named in a divorce suit for the 4th time
  3. Long-Term: Past conquests, resentful at being used and set aside, come back to haunt him
  4. Current Position/Situation: Being pushed out of his previous social circles by past conquests who disrupt his attempted seductions of new targets; currently pursuing three women, one of whom is married to a person of Influence or Power.
  5. Response/Reaction: Seeking “next-big-thing” locations for his wooing, becoming known as a trend-setter, attempting to keep a low profile until the scandal blows over


  1. Trouble Ahead: Flawed Morality & Slippery Connections: Became entangled in a criminal enterprise, sold out the enterprise to protect himself
  1. How Recent?: About 2 years ago, trail about 9 months ago
  2. Short-term/Immediate: protective custody during trial
  3. Long-Term: first parolees about to hit the streets, payback on their minds
  4. Current Position/Situation: becoming nervous
  5. Response/Reaction: carrying an illegal weapon for self-protection, wants to hire a bodyguard, nervous around strangers


  1. Indecision / Hesitation: Flawed Morality: Missed a dream job because he was involved with the wife of the business owner
  1. How Recent?: Five years ago
  2. Short-term/Immediate: unemployment, unaccustomed hardship when it came out anyway & his allowance was cut off
  3. Long-Term: more willing to take a risk, resents having lost a good opportunity with nothing to show for it
  4. Current Position/Situation: self-reliant & independent
  5. Response/Reaction: now thinks it may have been the best thing that ever happened to him as it pushed him out of the nest


  1. Victory or Success: Perfect Manners: Charm and politeness have landed him a hosting job on morning TV
  1. How Recent?: A month ago
  2. Short-term/Immediate: Fame and success make personal conquests easier
  3. Long-Term: Bigger scandals are inevitable, they will be more public, and fame will make him an easier target for his former “colleagues”
  4. Current Position/Situation: Enjoying the first fruits of fame
  5. Response/Reaction: secretly becoming nervous and likely to overreact to possible threats

Three Broad Appearance Elements:

  • Magnetic Eyes
  • Immaculately Dressed
  • Fit & Healthy

Three detail Appearance Elements:

  • Charismatic
  • Wary of surroundings
  • Delicate fingers
Commentary on the example

This example really illustrates the effectiveness of the approach. The character that has resulted is not particularly likable, but is charming and seductive. He started out being wholly unlikeable (from an outside/modern perspective), a privileged rich kid and womanizer, but subsequent events have showed a hint of morality (in the service of self-preservation), a sense that he has suffered failures and setbacks as a result of his flaws, and is heading for an even bigger fall in the future, which palliates our sense of justice being served and engages just a hint of sympathy. I get the sense that he is smart enough to want to ditch the “personal protection” as soon as he can find a reliable bodyguard. The character is complex enough to be interesting, yet simple enough to be easily played.

Just as usefully, we can tell where he is likely to be encountered, who he is likely to be with, what he is likely to be doing, and how he will react to being approached by a PC. And it was fast enough to be done on the fly on a scratch-pad while the GM is running the game, or to be generated in advance if you know you’re going to need him. While a throwaway character, he has enough depth that the GM could happily have him make repeat appearances. You want to see what happens to him next!

The Same Example

To further demonstrate the power of the technique, here’s the same example again, showing how different choices lead to a wholly different character:

Trait 1: “Polished Formality”.
Trait 2: “Rude Heritage”.
Trait 3: “Dangerous Content”.
1 + 2: Polished Formality & Rude Heritage
1 + 3: Polished Formality & Dangerous Content
2 + 3: Rude Heritage & Dangerous Content

  1. Common Ground: Polished Formality & Rude Heritage: Used his silver tongue to parley his birth disadvantages (Mixed parentage born out of wedlock in the Middle East) into a free education and resettlement in a Western Country
  1. How Recent?: Sixteen years ago (age 14)
  2. Short-term/Immediate: Denounced by his birth nation, renounced by his father (a public figure with wealth)
  3. Long-Term: Anger & Resentment at being denied his rightful heritage by the race of his mother & circumstances of his birth
  4. Current Position/Situation: Has completed a law degree, active in student politics until graduation, demands radical reform of his birth nation
  5. Response/Reaction: Politically active (remotely) in opposition to the regime of which his father is a member, a radical reformer, a frequent “talking head” regarding Middle Eastern affairs


  1. Trouble Ahead: Rude Heritage & Dangerous Content: Targeted by domestic intelligence as a subversive & potential terrorist
  1. How Recent?: Nine years ago
  2. Short-term/Immediate: Awareness of monitoring, friends questioned by strangers, slight paranoia
  3. Long-Term: Resentment of being targeted in this way will further generalize distrust of authority
  4. Current Position/Situation: Resentment needs some triggering event to focus it into specific action, the lull before the storm
  5. Response/Reaction: Passionate defense of the ideals of his adopted country and dissatisfaction with the contrasting reality has made him more outspoken. When something happens to trigger his outrage, he will begin making speeches and organizing protest rallies, becoming a focal point of the protest movement.


  1. Indecision / Hesitation: Rude Heritage: Although resentful of his roots and the treatment they have caused him, he still struggles to throw off those fundamental lessons. The self-worth issues that resulted caused him to reject a girl that he felt very drawn to because of his unworthiness.
  1. How Recent?: Ten years ago
  2. Short-term/Immediate: An increase in attempts to gain peer approval to redeem his self-image
  3. Long-Term: Regret over the lost opportunity, determination not to be held back by the ‘failed teachings’ of his youth.
  4. Current Position/Situation: While thinking that he has come to terms with the situation, this only fueled his resentment toward the attitudes of his homeland.
  5. Response/Reaction: Actively trying to become more Western in every way, insists on being an ‘expert’ not a ‘spokesman’ on a wide range of issues, becoming more political in general


  1. Victory or Success: Successfully and very publicly challenged an attempt to deport a middle-eastern man on the grounds that his upbringing left him with diminished capacity to interact with a more modern society
  1. How Recent?: Eight months
  2. Short-term/Immediate: The legal success has bolstered his reputation and the clientèle of his small law firm. He has a number of personal liberty, public advocacy, and immigration cases on his books as a result.
  3. Long-Term: His public profile and success will attract people seeking to use his services and ideals for their own ends, which may be opposed to his personal interests, bringing about a personal crisis.
  4. Current Position/Situation: Overconfident, morally superior, even smug about his success. He can’t see the train-wreck coming.
  5. Response/Reaction: The character’s future teeters on a knife-edge. He could become a great reformer, a worthy politician, or the leader/spokesman of a terrorist cell. He could become a lawyer and mouthpiece for Wikileaks, or he could join one of the mainstream political parties, or even start one of his own. He has not yet thrown off the resentments and shackles of his upbringing and these can be manipulated against him. The exact circumstances under which the long-term effects described manifest, coupled with the atmosphere created by government policies and actions in the meanwhile, will frame his state of mind when the crisis comes, and hence the eventual outcome.

Three Broad Appearance Elements:

  • Slightly swarthy
  • Immaculately Dressed
  • Clean-shaven

Three detail Appearance Elements:

  • Heavy eyebrows
  • Passionate eyes
  • An air of being dangerous to cross
Commentary on the example

(Okay, I got a little carried away on this one). A completely different character from the same starting point (Very formal, upper-class, old money), this gentleman is the type whose very politeness is a weapon, and one that he employs very effectively to intimidate and dominate. Emerging from a challenged early life, he has smooth-talked his way into a very dangerous and precarious position. Will he rise above the trappings of his background, or will he become its ultimate victim? Like the first example, this is a character heading for a personal and professional train-wreck. Despite being an older man than the first example, in many ways, he is less grown-up. He has the potential to be any of several great men, or to become an even greater evil than those he opposes. Or will he fall, and then rise up to redeem himself?

Once again, this is a character with depth, and with a compelling story which is only in its early stages, great for either a one-off or recurring role within a plotline. We can tell where he is likely to be, who he is likely to be with, what he is likely to be doing, and how he will react to an approach by a PC.


And that’s really all there is to it. Like By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC and the system I described last week (Ten Million Stories: Breathing life into an urban population), it’s quick and effective, especially when you need a character to serve a specific function within the plot. It’s great power is that it constructs a story around the NPC into which the PCs will insert themselves. The NPC is not a static individual, his current identity is just a snapshot in the middle of a personal narrative. Give this method a try the next time you need a character to fill a specific pair of shoes in your game!

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Epigrams Of Life and Gaming: Selection No. 2

epigrams series logo-opt

About the “Epigrams Of Mike” series:

An epigram is a brief, interesting, memorable, and sometimes surprising or satirical statement. Usually under the hashtag #Musing, I have the habit of occasionally tweeting notions and thoughts and philosophizing; the 140-character limit of twitter (and yes, I know there are ways around that) by definition makes those tweets epigrams. I’ve been documenting the best of them (in my opinion) with the intention of discussing them here. Because I’m not constrained to 140 characters, I’ve been able to clarify some that had been compressed severely in order to fit twitter’s limits – but they are all still very short.

These can be thoughts that run deep, or that are succinct to the point of being razor-sharp. Taken all at once, they can be overwhelming, and each can receive less than the attention it deserves. So I’ve broken them into batches of ten or twelve. I’m not going to present them all at once, instead relegating this to the status of an irregular series. After each epigram, I will try to expand on the thought propounded, or discuss the point raised.

Not all of these are directly applicable to RPGs. But all RPGs involve people, and that makes them all at least indirectly relevant.


Diverse interests = diverse twitter followers = diverse perspectives. Call it the Insight equation.

I’m interested in a lot of different subjects. Science, technology, history, psychology, medicine, computers, philosophy, writing, aviation, disasters (and learning from them), music, urban myths, art, drama, crime, fantasy, sci-fi, comics, politics, anime, formula one, other motorsports, social media, and of course roleplay games. A lot of these other subjects have emerged from the latter hobby, and a lot more of them have fed back into that hobby.

Because I use the one twitter account for everything, the things that I tweet about are equally diverse, and my followers on Twitter reflect that diversity. Because they come at things from such wildly diverse directions, on any given subject you are likely to get a diverse spread of opinions. I have my own opinions, but I listen to all of these, because I find that doing so helps me make a more informed judgment of my own. I frequently gain insights as a result that would never be possible without such a diverse foundation, and I am able to transmit those insights to others.

What has been most astonishing is the crossover. I’ve had motorsport fans contribute to roleplaying questions and promote articles from Campaign Mastery that they found to be of interest. I’ve had RPG players discover formula one, or discover some fascinating new scientific discovery because I’ve told them about it. I have a lot of people who read what I tweet – and some who read what I write – not because they are into the hobby themselves, but because they are fascinated by what I write. That’s incredibly gratifying.

A lot of Twitter accounts are from people who seem unwilling to admit to more than one interest. I know some people who divide their lives up with a separate Twitter account for each interest that they may have. I think that both groups are missing out.

And it doesn’t just apply to social media, either. A diversity of friends in life outside of twitter, outside of social media in general, only adds to the richness of my life experience – and that makes me better at everything that I do, indirectly if not directly, eventually if not immediately.


We all have slightly different core values. It comes from being different people.

This goes to the very heart of what we mean by being an individual. It poses this rather existential conundrum in two respects. The trivial is the question of definition; let us say, for example, that I state (and show by my actions) that I value taking responsibility for my choices. What exactly do I mean by that? To what extent will I take responsibility – a private confession to anyone injured, a private confession to a third party, a very public sack-cloth-and-ashes display? Or no confession at all, except in my own mind and heart? Are there limits – things that I won’t confess to, no matter what? Things that will lead to one mode of confession but not another? Is taking responsibility about making restitution or learning from a mistake? And what happens when I am restricted in my range of choices by circumstance, or by other values? It must be clear that no other person can ever know exactly what I mean. We can agree upon a vague and general approximation, but that’s as far as it goes.

If that’s what I consider to be the more trivial contribution of the two aspects of the question, then the other one must be really major, right? Here it is: Relative Value Assessments.

I’m sure that some of you are now thinking “What? Mike’s lost it, he’s messed it up, there’s no way that ‘Relative Value Assessments’ is more significant than the question of personal definition.” But I stand by that assessment. Follow my logic, if you will:

“Relative Value Assessment” refers to the weight and priority we place on one value, and under one set of circumstances, relative to another. There are three contributing factors that lead to that assessment. The first is an inheritance from our parental figures in the course of our upbringing, especially the observations and events of childhood, shaped by the personalities and flaws of those parental figures. The second is the sum of our adult experiences, and the lessons (if any) that we have learned from them. And the third is the personality of the individual itself, beyond what has been derived from our past experiences as they are shaped by the other two factors.

The first two are essentially learned, or arrived at intellectually, and those are the only two that contribute significantly to the element of definition. But the third – that is something that is inherently you, something that defies comprehensive self-analysis, simply because there are so many circumstances which can factor into such a weighting. The personality may be shaped by learning and experience, but the personality plays no direct role in the question of definition; its sole area of impact is in the assessment of morality and relative value judgments. Everything that a character is, and feels, and has done, goes into the assignment of Relative Values. It is also more subtle and far harder to quantify and analyze, relative to differences in definition.

Relative Value Levels are the purest reflection of the internal complexity of an individual, and that makes Relative Value Levels more important in terms of individual core values, and in terms of individuality, than the matter of Definitions, which can be verbalized and articulated and discussed, with varying degrees of effort required, in a way that we can never articulate and discuss as a universal rule our personal relative value assessments. And that is the thought that is encapsulated in that simple pair of phrases.


Insanity is just a state of mind.

I don’t really remember the context that led to this thought, so I will have to reconstruct it. I do remember thinking that it was wrapping a more serious thought in a veneer of lightness and humor, and that it had a neatly-encapsulated double-meaning.

Insanity is not an especially helpful or diagnostic term, let’s establish that up front. It’s a buzzword tossed around by laymen to describe generically a whole host of issues, some psychological, some psychiatric, some biological, and some chemical in nature. It is this generic meaning that I had in mind when I wrote this epigram. In a nutshell, the term is used to describe any form of thinking that markedly differs from what the mainstream considers “normal”.

And that’s the problem. The standard is arbitrary, and based on consensus, not on rigid medicine or science. But we all think a little differently from each other, and we all sometimes have extreme reactions to sustained or traumatic stimuli. We’re all ‘technically’ insane (by this standard) from time to time. On top of that, we also use the term, or synonyms for it, to describe all sorts of other behavior. “I’m a little nuts before my morning coffee” – “Queue-jumpers drive me nuts” – you know the sort of thing. This denudes the term of any residual value that it might have held. That’s one of the two meanings – that the term itself is meaningless.

The other meaning is a little harder to grasp. There’s an implication in the aforementioned usage of the term that the sufferers are somehow flawed or weak and these are at least partially responsible for the conditions they suffer from – or at least, there was back in the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, when I was growing up, in exactly the same way that racism was justified under the theory that there were biological differences due to skin color. For some reason, that conditioning never “took” in my case, and such prejudice is something that I have struggled to understand ever since. I can do so, intellectually, to at least some extent, in terms of flawed reasoning and blind prejudgment, but simply can’t wrap my head around how people can seriously think that way.

The deliberate inclusion of the word “just” is meant to convey my total disagreement with the assessment from those days – and which I still observe from time to time – by trivializing the opinion of those people who still hold these dangerous and outmoded opinions.

Mental illness is a condition, triggered by some internal or external factor. With the right treatment – and we’re still trying to work out what those are – and with the removal of that factor (something we are only partially successful at) – sufferers can be just as “normal” as the rest of us. Which means that they are just the same as everyone else – they simply have a medical condition to cope with that affects them. And that’s the other meaning that I was trying to convey with this statement.


Which Quote Defines who I am? My own. All of them. QED.

There are people who try to start topics of conversation on twitter that get a lot of responses. There are lots of reasons why they might do so, and none of them are particularly important to this statement; suffice it to say that on rare occasions, one catches my attention, but more often than not, I find them to be superficial and empty of significance, a vanity exercise that doesn’t tell those who read it anything of substance.

On just one single occasion, one of these questions managed to tick both of these boxes, moving me sufficiently to respond. The question is the one quoted at the start of my response. Most people responded with standard snippets of pop psychology or quotes from famous people. A few interpreted it as asking which of their recent tweets best exemplified their personality or philosophy.

Well, I’ve written more than 350 articles here at Campaign Mastery, averaging perhaps 6000 words each (perhaps more), and at least 1000 responses to comments averaging probably 200 words each, for a total of 2 million words at a conservative estimate, and even if you put them all together they wouldn’t tell you everything about me. They would tell you a lot – even the ones that aren’t specifically about me or my life – but nowhere near everything. I can’t be summed up into a single catch-phrase or statement of philosophy, and I protest that oversimplification in others.

But rather than simply protest, or belittle those who responded with something specific, I chose to make the point with more subtlety and finesse.

It is sometimes said that “you are what you eat.” I disagree. But “you are what you write”? That’s a different story. If you are honest in your self-appraisals, you write from the heart as much as from the head – and everything that you write tells a little more about you.


Science Fiction is about the way the world will be. Space Opera and Fantasy are about the way we wish the world was.

Having protested at oversimplification in the previous item, I have to admit that this verges on committing that same offense. It’s true to a certain extent, but that’s as far as it goes. As such, I thought twice about making the comment in the first place, and thought about it a couple more times before including it here.

Science Fiction first. It’s an umbrella term encompassing such a wide diversity of material that it refuses to be pinned down. Anything that attempts to predict the future or the way technology or scientifically plausible physical phenomena will impact society or the lives of people is science fiction. Moreover, the accuracy of those forecasts is extremely pliable; subsequent scientific discovery does not invalidate it or remove it from the category. The science can be flawed, or even unexplained; science fiction encompasses “science fantasy” which has a premise science pulled and twisted completely out of shape. And it includes space opera, which falls somewhere in that spectrum of diversity, perhaps a little closer to “science fantasy” than hard science fiction.

At the same time, it’s not good enough to simply stick a rubber alien mask on someone and call the results science fiction – something that seemed lost on a lot of film and TV makers in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Nor is it enough to drop a lot of technobabble into a script and call that science fiction, either – not good science fiction, anyway. Everyone has their own definition, and the sheer scope is what caused us to be infuriated by comments like “I don’t like science fiction. I prefer [X]” – where X might be westerns, or action-adventure, or mysteries, or drama, or comedy, or romantic shows, or whatever, because Science Fiction can encompass examples of all of these genres, and some examples of those genres also happen to be science fiction.

Nevertheless, at it’s purest, science fiction is about the future and how it will affect people, and that makes it – even if only incidentally – about the way the world might be, in the best expectation of the authors. And that (hopefully) includes how the world will be. So the first statement is true – but only to a certain extent.

But the real point of the comment is the second part, and how it contrasts with a serious and sober attempt to foretell the future described by the first part.

The darker our everyday lives, the more we need a little light at the end of the tunnel. In times of economic distress and misery, music becomes harder-edged and more rebellious, because it provides a means of venting anger and frustration that makes life endurable. And such periods are when escapist movies and TV hit popularity peaks. We all need a little magic in our lives, and when real life denies it to us, we find it somewhere else.

Romantics don’t prosper in romantic periods, times of high adventure, as much as practical people who can make the romanticism work for them. But when the world is mundane and gray, we need a little color to brighten it. And that’s the (hardly original) thought that I was expressing with this statement.


You think you’re intellectually open and then you hear a 4-girl doowhop group performing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”…

This statement was triggered by a musical quiz show, which included the afore-mentioned doowhop group. Never mind that it just seemed so completely “wrong”, or that they did it very well; it was just so unexpected. No matter how intellectually open you might think that you are, there is always a new thought that is so radical to your experience that it stuns you, and that’s what this was trying to express.


Everyone’s entitled to, and receives, special gifts. Success in life is finding your uniqueness.

This is one of my personal core beliefs. Everyone is born with the capacity to do something better, more skillfully, more naturally (relative to the amount of training they receive) than others; if they are lucky, there may be many such things. To achieve satisfaction in life, all that is necessary is to discover what those innate talents are, and learn how to monetize them sufficiently that they can become more than a hobby.

Of course, it’s never that easy. Some talents will monetize easily, for example a knack in investing; others will not. Roadblocks of various sorts will undoubtedly occur along the way.

One of the key themes of the personal biography that I provided not long ago (Dice And Life: Bio of a gamemaster (A 5th Anniversary Special) Part 1 of 2 and Part 2 of 2) was that in many ways it seemed that (almost) everything that I had ever been naturally good at came together to create and sustain Campaign Mastery. Does that mean that there aren’t aspects of this that I find difficult? Not at all – I’m lousy on the business side of things, for example, and I lack some of the education in style sheets, making them a pain to work with. That just means that the job is bigger than the scope of my natural talents and expertise; it doesn’t in any way diminish the fact that almost everything that I’m good at is part of that job.

From satisfaction comes a level of success that you (hopefully) find sufficient. It may not be measured in dollars and cents – but the result is something that you are proud of, and that generates self-respect.


Like viruses, words breed explosively under the right conditions and lie dormant when food is scarce.

Any writer will understand this one. There’s a whole article that could be written based around using food as an analogy for whatever it is that produces the written word – inspiration as vitamins, and so on. When conditions are right, you can produce hundreds or thousands of words in the same time that it takes to force out a dozen in more impoverished literary circumstances.

And yet, that wasn’t what I had in mind when I penned this epigram at all.

The spoken word has power to “breed explosively” too, inspiring others. The hallmark of the great speeches of mankind’s history is the influence that each has exerted through subsequent years, often beyond the circumstances to which they were directly intended to apply. “I have a dream that all men were created equal” comes to mind as an example. These days, it’s about more than race, it’s about gender and relationships and the rights of all minorities. There are certain scenes in the West Wing that always remind me of the power of a great speech.

But that wasn’t what I was thinking about when creating this statement either.

No, what I was thinking of was the way an internet meme goes viral, and can then lie dormant until it is discovered to apply to an entirely different subject. Some memes, like cat pictures with witty statements, have found such broad application that they are still common, years after the first LOLCat appeared. But others have a more finite lifetime. One example was LOLCat-style images of Gollum, which were popular during the height of the Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy, died away, and then resurfaced with the announcement of The Hobbit.

Similarly, I expect a lot of old Star Wars -related memes to crop up again when the new trilogy first appears.

These memes flourish when they have something to say, and vanish when the subject has been exhausted; they require fresh topicality and a receptive audience to reinvigorate themselves.

It was while trying to formulate a general statement to describe the phenomenon in sufficiently short a space that I realized the other ways in which it could apply – that it was true about the struggle of writers to get into “the zone” where the words just flow out onto the page, to the viral spread of popular catchphrases like “Go ahead, Make My Day” or “[name], I am your father”, to the power of speech to inspire us for generations to follow.

Having such a broad application suggests to me that this statement may have hit upon one of the singular truths of human modes of communication, and one that puts the original subject into a broader context. That’s how it earns its place in this list.


If you learn from your mistakes, you need never fear failure; each is a steppingstone to success.

For me, it’s not enough to parrot quotes from various sources; you need to understand the meaning that each has to offer, and then to find a way to reiterate that meaning in an original way. The goal is to spread the meaning beyond the words. Often, the results are not all that inspiring, but occasionally I get it right, and come up with something that is worth sharing. “Learn from your mistakes” is a common-enough catchphrase, but it doesn’t have a great depth; it doesn’t self-evidently explain why you should do so. Perhaps it is assumed that we will all instinctively acquire that insight.

Enough people seem to fail to do so, despite near-certain exposure to the phrase, that I don’t think instinct is a reliable guide. So I reformulated it. I thought long and hard about leaving out the part of the epigram that follows the semicolon, but decided that while the result of doing so was more pithy and quotable, it made the same mistake as the original, it didn’t explain “why”. So I kept it in its slightly longer form.

This is something that I bear in mind every time I make a mistake (and it happens, I’m just as human as everybody else).

But this statement also puts success into a different context, by implying that the most successful people are those who have made the most mistakes – and learned from them. This is also something that comes to mind whenever I hear anyone described as an “overnight success”; the implication of such a description is that they have achieved that success without having earned it through struggle, perhaps bypassing the learning experience with natural talent.

I regard talent as “potential”; it still requires practice and mistakes and experience in order to apply it. Sometimes talented people put the fruits of their labors into public view before they have learned enough to do so; the results are things like songs with catchy choruses and excruciating verses. This is a phenomenon that occurs far more frequently in modern times, thanks to the internet; there is a greater requirement for self-criticism, and the ability to critique your own efforts impartially is also something that needs practice.

It’s never enough to describe something as “no good”, or to say “I don’t like [x]“; those opinions need to be justified to be assessed by others. And that leads back to my philosophy of reviews. A good review is one that gives me the information I need to make up my own mind, regardless of the opinion of the reviewer. A bad review is one that makes sweeping or bald statements and never explains them. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a movie or a TV show or a book or a piece of music.

“As a general rule, I don’t like Rap Music. But there are exceptions to that general statement, where the specific things that I dislike are overcome by things that I do like.” And that’s a great example of a bad review, because it doesn’t give you enough information to decide whether or not you agree. If I were to follow that up with a list of rap that I liked, you could place the statements into context. On the other hand, if I wrote “I find that most rap vocals create a conflict between the monotony of the delivery and execution of the lyric and the melodic attributes of the music, which often makes the whole unpalatable to me”, you have an immediate sense of what I don’t like about rap music, and what aspects of some exceptions are enough to span the resulting divide – songs with strong melodic components to the rap will be songs that I like despite their stylistic origins. From that statement, you can assess immediately how my personal biases have influenced whatever I’ve had to say about a specific work, or a specific artist. You don’t have to agree with me to make my statements useful to you in a review.


We like randomness in our lives only when we feel in control of it and its consequences. Is it an oxymoron?

Randomness – unpredictability – challenge – adventure. They all go together. Life would be very dull if there was none of it. And yet, we enjoy such things fully only when they are compartmentalized and controlled, when we can feel secure in the knowledge of our skills and our capabilities. You need confidence to cope with the unexpected.

Yet, we gain confidence by finding and overcoming the obstacles and challenges that are set before us. If it is never challenged, there is no way to determine whether the confidence is really justified.

It’s from this truth that the statement emerges, “Its when the chips are down and the odds stacked against you that you see what you’re really made of”.

In answer to the question posed, therefore, I would have to say “no”; the appearance of an oxymoron derives from the word “control”. It’s not so much a matter of “feeling in control” as it is having the randomness compartmentalized into areas where we have confidence. Take the most confident person out of their comfort zone and they will experience trepidation, uncertainty, and doubt. They may not let those emotions stop them, and may not even show them on the surface, but they will be present nevertheless.

Think back over moments when you were anxious about something – it might be a test at school, or while playing sport, or when you lost a job without warning – and ask yourself whether or not you felt in control of the situation, whether or not the challenge was one that you were confident of meeting. I think you’ll find a direct correlation between the level of anxiety and the lack of confidence you felt about overcoming the challenge.

We like to be tested – but on our terms and by our rules.

Perhaps this stems back to childhood; it always seems easier to gain the approval of parental figures with success than with failure. If it were left up to the child, we would never venture out of our comfort zones; but it rarely is. Other people are in charge of our schooling and our activities, and we are often pushed further than we are comfortable with. Analysis and understanding were my fortes, especially when it came to academic work; memorization was never high on my list, and any form of athletic prowess was a foreign country. I scored top marks in History in high school without remembering a single date. When it came to art, I was brilliant so long as I was left to go my own way; I enjoyed discovering the techniques of historical artists, but when it came to memorizing facts about artists and art styles, I was not great (to put it mildly). The consequence was that I sought ways of doing more of the things that I was good at, and less of the things that I wasn’t.

These same forces continue to influence us as we mature. The parts of the job that I’m good at vs those that I’m less successful at achieving influence the campaigns that I run, the adventures that I create, and the characters that populate those creations. Some aspects of the game get greater emphasis than others, as a result. Some players, who are also good in those areas, enjoy the games that I run; others, whose strengths lie elsewhere, prefer a GM that lets them play to their own strengths more.

Understanding this epigram, and its ramifications, is a window into self-discovery and self-understanding, into knowing why some things make us happy and some things are not what we consider fun, and into why we have made the choices in life that we have to live with. That makes it much deeper than it appears on the surface.


The best we can hope for is that at the end, we have made enough of a difference that we will be missed.

This somewhat maudlin epigram derives from reflections on the passing of a friend of mine (Remembering Stephen Tunnicliff) and reflecting on my own life and how I would be remembered if it came to an end. I’m proud of my achievements, but most of those no-one knows about. Most of my greatest victories and successes were won with no-one knowing they were even happening.

Success in life can be measured in many ways; Ebenezer Scrooge was clearly successful. Most success requires a substantial effort; very little is handed to us on a plate. That effort comes at a price, and it’s the consequences of the prices that we have paid, and how they have influenced others, that puts context onto our achievements. Scrooge was not a great role model, and neither was the children’s knock-off version, The Grinch. Their transformations came about as they became aware of their own mortality and the question of what mark they had left on the world was put to them, and they discovered that too much of their humanity (using the term loosely in the case of the Grinch) had been sacrificed to achieve their success.

When it comes to valuing success, the measurement is not made in objective terms – not in the long run, or from a retrospective position. A life is measured in subjective ways, in values, and the general consensus is that values are worth more than any material success. Material success improves lives only until the money runs out; it is a finite resource that is consumed. Values success can be spread for free, inspiring others to do likewise; it costs nothing, so it has unlimited growth potential. That means that the general consensus is justified, and that the real mark of success is in terms of the achievements in improving the lives of others.

Achieving enough in this respect that our contributions will be missed is therefore the ultimate goal for which we all should strive. Success in doing so is therefore the best that we can do with our lives.

If the previous Epigram concerned understanding the past, this is about preparing for the future, for a world in which we are no longer a part. And it puts a somewhat different spin on the oft-quoted statement “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Campaign Mastery has enabled me to touch the lives of a great many people. The Kudos and accolades that I receive from time to time confirm my own opinion that what I’m doing here is worthwhile. And that’s a great feeling to have.


Every moment of every day is one you’ve been waiting your whole life for – whatever you do with it.

This was another reformulation of a standard line – the same one that I quoted a couple of paragraphs ago – but this deliberately turns that statement on its head, to deliver its meaning from a different angle. The original statement is more concerned with not wasting time, with living life more fully in the future, and about taking advantage of opportunities.

But I regard every moment as an opportunity. I choose to spend some of them in enjoying myself; I spend some others in self-indulgence; and I expend some on the needs of living in a real world. I’ve often said that I have a lot of trouble doing nothing, or in spending time in places where there is nothing to do; that’s not “relaxing” in my book, because I am aware that each passing moment is one in which I could be doing something, and those moments will never come again; they are in finite supply with an unknown number of them in stock. It’s not enough to take advantage of opportunities that are presented to you; every moment is an opportunity to better yourself, to prepare yourself, to provide for yourself, to enrich the lives of others, or to enjoy yourself. And none of those – in reasonable balance – is time wasted.

This epigram is about valuing the moments, about connecting your past to your future.

You can never make a “clean break” with “a past life”, because you always carry the sum of your experiences – good and bad – around with you. Even if a total change in environment brings out aspects of your personality that you had never shown before – and that’s usually the objective of “a clean break” or a “fresh start” – the old experiences and what they brought out remain with you. You can acknowledge them, and learn from them, and turn a negative into a positive – or you can pay the eventual price of them with nothing in return.

I put a lot of effort into Campaign Mastery because I appreciate the time that my readers have to invest in order to read what I have written. I never want anyone to say that one of my articles was a waste of their time. Because that means that writing it was – so far as they were concerned – a waste of my time.

Value the moments. If you spend time reading something, find something to take out of it that is worth that time. If you spend time writing something, make sure it is worth the time that you have spent. If you play a game make sure that you enjoy it. Campaign Mastery’s goal is to help you do just that. Which is a great note on which to end this article.

This article might be finished, but I’m not out of epigrams yet. There will be more; all told, I have well over 100 insights like these twelve to share. Be sure to check out the next batch – whenever they appear!

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Ten Million Stories: Breathing life into an urban population


The sheer scale of a modern urban environment is something that we all tend to take for granted. It’s so hard to grasp it, because we only ever see the very tip of a very large iceberg – with far more than nine-tenths of it removed from our sight.

In any city there are the major highways, designed to speed traffic from place to place. Of slightly lesser importance are the smaller highways and major arterial roads, designed to carry lots of traffic in slightly less efficiency. And one step down from those are the major thoroughfares that carry substantial traffic in peak periods and somewhat less at other times of the day. One of the major thoroughfares of Sydney just happens to be located right outside of my front window.

In peak periods, perhaps 100 vehicles pass by that window every three minutes or so. As I write this, it is late at night, and I doubt that more than 100 vehicles would pass in an hour. With those peak periods occupying perhaps 6 hours of the day, and those quiet times perhaps another 6, it is possible to estimate an overall traffic flow:

Peak: 100 x 60 / 3 = 2000 per hour. Minimum: about 100 per hour, Both conditions exist for the same fraction of a day, which makes life simple. The average per hour over the combined period is going to be half the sum of a representative hour from each extreme – so (2000 + 100) / 2 = 1050 per hour. It can also be assumed that the transition between the two will be gradual, and so it can be said that the average for the other periods is the same as the calculated average – 1050 per hour. The daily total is therefore going to be 24 x 1050 = 25,200. On this one road.

Touching Immensity

Think about that for a moment, And let the awareness that each and every one of those vehicles has its own driver, each of whom has their own reason to be there at that particular time and this particular place. They may be on their way to work, or to a sporting event, or a social occasion, or going shopping, or taking the kids to school; it doesn’t matter. Every one of those journeys has at least one purpose.

Those purposes are a small fragment of a larger story, the life story of the driver. In many of the vehicles, there will be a passenger; in some cases, several. Overall, the average is probably 2 occupants. In addition to the two stories we have already identified each, we also have the story of their relationship with each other.

That’s an average of 5 stories for each of those vehicles, each and every day. 126,000 stories a day.

No man is an island unto himself, the saying goes. Each of those stories will also involve at least one other person, usually many more. Co-workers and teachers and shopkeepers and library staff; in the case of ambulances and fire engines, patients and victims; in the case of police cars, suspects and criminals and victims. The number of daily human contacts would have to average twenty a day, I would think. And each of those also has their own story, and the story of their relationships with their families. Twenty interactions a day, plus the other stories of those these other people interact with, brings the total to something on the order of 60 x 126,000, or 7,560,000 stories, and that’s easily a minimum.

Depth Of Tale

Some of these stories will be short. A moment of passing recognition, a purchase, a word of greeting. Some will be more involved. With so many, there are also bound to be some overlaps, perhaps as much as 1/3 of the total. So let’s call it 5 million individual stories.

One one road, each and every day.

That road is hardly the most heavily-trafficked road in the city. In fact, it’s something like #20 on the list, after all those others that I mentioned earlier. But I doubt that even the most heavily-utilized roads would see more than twice that amount of traffic in a day.

That’s ten million stories.

Only by building it up, step by step in this fashion, can an ordinary human mind begin to nibble at the edges of an awareness of the true size and complexity of even a moderately-sized city like Sydney (on the global scale).

A never-ending human drama

Interactions between these stories would never stop. There is far more than one story for every second of the day (86,400 seconds). The average is closer to 116 stories per second. Even assuming that 95% of these take place in the daylight hours, that still gives about 6 stories whose narrative is advancing, every second of every day, minimum.

A city breathes with the life of its inhabitants.


George’s Stories

Let’s take another tack. Let’s pick one individual – call him George – and list all the stories that he is involved in.

George works, so his job is one. He has co-workers whose lives he is involved in from time to time; call that two. He has a family; that’s three. He has a childhood; that’s four. He has a social life; that’s five. He buys things from time to time; that’s six. He has medical needs; that’s seven. He occasionally gets involved in his friends personal lives; that’s eight. He has ambitions, which he may or may not be working to achieve; that’s nine. And from time to time, the government, or its institutions, get involved in his life; that’s ten.

Most of these will be on his mind to some extent most if not all days, at least some of the time. His life is a soap opera, whether he realizes it or not.

Sam’s Stories

Why does this matter? And what’s the relevance to an RPG?

Picture this: in a simpler time, when cities were a twentieth the size they are today, a stranger rides into the city and approaches a local. It happens all the time in just about any fantasy RPG. Or perhaps we’re talking about a future, in which cities are five times their current scale, or more, and the person is flying in on his jet-pack. It doesn’t matter; the notion of interacting with a local – who we’ll call Sam – is universal.

“Tell me about yourself,” says the stranger, or perhaps it’s “tell me about the city” or “tell me about the government in these parts”. The exact form of the question doesn’t matter, because no matter what the starting point is, all ten or more of Sam’s stories interconnect and interrelate. Talk to him about any of them for long enough, and they will all receive at least a passing mention.

We have no reason to consider Sam to be anybody exceptional. And if he’s not exceptional, then he is a microcosm of the entire population to at least some extent. It follows that the astute listener can get a ‘feel’ for the entire city from talking to Sam for a while. Every subsequent encounter with someone else can fill in blanks and make patterns clearer, but really, Sam is representative of the city as a whole, by virtue of living there and being part of the shared experience of doing so.

Loaded Deck

There are lots of systems out there for generating cities. Mostly, they deal in architecture and political structures and the like. They may even deal in economics and social patterns. Unless you’re an expert at interpreting all these things, and more besides, though, they won’t tell you very much about what life is really like in the city.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a system in place for generating Sam’s part of the conversation, and, in the process, generating that feel for ‘ordinary life’ in the city? For taking those dull and dry factoids and bringing them to life?

I have devised just such a system. It requires nothing more than a deck of cards, the personality of the person being questioned, and the basic information and history of the city. This is as much about bringing those dry factoids to life as anything else.

The Technique

Step 1: Pick a suit. Extract all the cards of that suit from the deck. From that suit, remove the jack, queen, and king, leaving Ace (1) through 10. This group of cards will now be referred to as the Mini-Deck. The cards in the mini-deck correspond to the list of 10 stories that I offered a few paragraphs back. NB: if there is something unusual in the city with which the character could have encountered or have an opinion on, such as a significant minority race or slave market or whatever, consider them extra stories and put one or more picture cards back into this mini-deck to represent them.

Step 2: Shuffle the mini-deck and lay them out in a row or two if you’re short of space in front of you. This is the sequence of the conversation – but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Step 3: Remove one of the suits of opposite color to the mini-deck from the main deck and set them aside, face down. Add any cards removed from the mini-deck.


The basic layout gives the order of subjects that the local will talk about.

Step 4: Shuffle the rest of the main deck and deal one card off the top onto each of the mini-deck cards. Add the rest of these to the face-down discards.

Step 5: Black cards are negative, personal little disasters in the character’s life, bad news; Red cards are things coming up roses for him, good news. The higher the face value, the bigger the disaster or success. Take a moment to look at the distribution; has there been a preponderance of good news or bad lately? Is the highest-value card good news or bad? One high-value card can balance out a number of opposing low-value cards. Get an overall feel for what life has been like for this individual lately, and from his personality, work out how he is likely to react to those circumstances – what sort of mood he will be in.

Step 6: The hard work’s done! Now for the role-play. When the PCs ask their question, there may be one, two, or more “stories” that relate to that question. Pick the one from amongst this highest shortlist that has the highest face-value card on top of it, breaking ties or almost-ties with respect to the personality and overall mood of the NPC. Move that two-card stack to the front of the queue – then interpret that card combination into an on-the-spot story of woe or celebration (as appropriate).


This shows "subject #8" (friends, as unlikely as that may be for an opening question) moved to prime position in response to the question. To ensure readers could see what was going on, this does not show the “story status” cards from the main deck, even though they have been dealt at this point.


This shows the subject cards with the “story status” cards dealt from the main deck in place. It’s clear that subject #6 (buying things) is an unmitigated disaster – perhaps he has just been the victim of fraud – and subject #4 (his childhood) isn’t much better, but the character is doing OK on subjects #5 (social life) and #3 (family). Subject #8 (friends) could be better, and there’s a minor problem in the area of subject #1 (his job), but aside from that things are not going too badly.

The character will stay on any given subject until an opportunity comes up to segue seamlessly to the next topic across – in the case of our example, from 8 to 6 to 9 to 3 to 10 and so on. The PC(s) can nudge the conversation back to an earlier subject, or just let the conversation drift along. Each time you think you have told the complete story of one of the subjects, cover it over with a face-down card.


The tales of woe have been told, for the most part, leaving the local about to take solace in the parts of his life that are working. These topics may have been touched on already in the conversation, and that is certainly the case for #3 (family) and #2 (Co-workers) because that’s the only way to get to Subject #4 (a topic that’s now exhausted).

Notes: You don’t have to follow the indicated order slavishly. Let the conversation flow naturally. Strong experiences, whether positive or negative, may be repeated even if the character has nothing new to say – that’s the nature of strong experiences.

Here’s the list of topics again, for reference, and in a slightly more generalized form:

  1. Job/Occupation/Work
  2. Co-workers
  3. Family
  4. Childhood/expectations
  5. Social Life
  6. Money & Possessions
  7. Medical status
  8. Friends
  9. Ambitions, Goals, & Career
  10. Government & Institutions

Remember that you can add to this list as you see fit. Using the discarded cards, there’s room for another 16 subjects of discussion! If desired, you can also remove items from the standard list – if you are unemployed and have never had a job of any kind (not even begging or stealing) then you might have nothing under “co-workers” for example, though I would consider this to be unusual enough that I would leave category #1 in place!

The “Human Face”

Within each topic, you have the capability of personalizing and interpreting the dry facts of the city design by describing how the facts of the matter influence the life of an ordinary person living and/or working within the city. This brings the city to life by putting a “human” face on it. Instead of dryly discussing a repressive tax code with collection agents and enforcers, you invent a story. If it’s a positive one, it might be about how he avoided a potential disaster. If a negative one, it might be about his run-ins with one of those collection agents. If a really positive one, he may have actually scored one for the little guy; if a really negative one, his business might be about to fold. Or perhaps he would complain about the consequences of that tax code, yielding an unfair advantage to select operators.

There are some additional benefits to this approach. First, in order to get a neutral picture of the city, the PCs will have to identify and extract any bias that the speaker might have due to personality, social standing, politics, or circumstances. The lows will probably not be quite as doom and gloom as they are painted, and the highs are likely to be that little bit more euphoric than warranted, because people have a natural tendency to exaggerate. In order to identify and extract that bias, the PCs will have to relate to the individual as a person, working out the quirks and nuances of his personality, and even then they might not get everything right. They will have to roleplay, because anything else gets them less information, potentially leaving out things that they need to know. And they will never be completely sure that they have a comprehensive and unbiased opinion. The uncertainties involved make the city, and its inhabitants, more real and less easily pigeonholed, less sterile.

When and When Not

This is not a technique that I pull out every time the PCs roll into a new town. It depends on how big and complex the population are, and how long I expect the PCs to be spending in the location, and whether or not local issues are likely to sidetrack them from the main plot that’s going on. But when the stars align and you need to breathe life into a settlement, this is the best way I’ve found to do it.

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Strangers sharing ideas: RPG writings in a Collaborative World

A guest article by G.F. Pace
Additional contributions & Editing by Mike Bourke

White Flash, photo by Marcello99.

A light-bulb moment for this crowd. Image by Marcello eM aka Marcello99.

I recently moved to London from Italy. After a good beer (or several) in a London pub, I can easily imagine the environment in which Tolkien and Lewis (and so many of the other Gods of the fantasy genre) began to perceive the potential of the ideas bubbling away in the back of their minds. I can picture these men sitting around a huge table, drinking ales and talking about the beginnings of Elves or the hostility between Dwarfs and Giants. Maybe I can see this scene because I’m a Poli of the Clan of PoSch, but we’ll delve deeper into that matter in few hundreds of words. Take it as it comes, for now.

After a bunch of decades we are fully connected, online with a concoction of perfect strangers who write things on something called the Web (Hail Mother Lolth, pray for us sinners!), spreading ideas in random directions online for anyone to read. We could call it inspiration, or call it plagiarism, but the idea is persuasive: that creativity, imagination itself, is changing, manifesting new ways of sourcing its building blocks. We can now live in a Collaborative world.

The romantic idea of spending a lifetime manifesting and refining ideas into works such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Kafka’s work of the same name, Lovecraft’s magnificent scripts, or Tolkien’s papers from the dreams of an isolated individual now sounds clunky to us, people made of bits; in the modern world, it’s possible to discuss your ideas with professionals and be inspired by them, without even moving from your house.

That is the exact thing that happened to me a week ago, as I write this.

Crowdsourcing: A Personal Example

Before reading further, I suggest you to visualize in your mind Tolkien discussing his embryonic ideas with Lewis at the “Eagle and the Child” in Oxford. If you can construct that mental image for just a fistful of seconds, it will soon be useful.

In the last 3 months I have been wandering about, trying to find a group of players – actually, I prefer the term team – to try Numenera, the latest Monte Cook game. I had bought the books and consumed them greedily (I really admire Monte’s ideas). Briefly, Numenera is our world in a billion or more years, a setting filled with ultramodern steampunk concepts like Psi-powers and Nanotech.

As I always do, I started to imagine my own world, quite different from the basic model, because I wanted to do something that I can my own. As usual, I started to read something related to the settings, so I picked up some e-books by Philip K. Dick and started to read it. [If you do not know who-the-hell Dick is, you have to fill that black hole: if you like Modern settings, Dick's ideas will easily fit in your game]. After reading one of his short novels my imagination-engine roared loudly to life and I started writing a basic plot. Following a process suggested on this site by Mike – A folder for every file: My Document Organization for RPGs – I started to make a few tens of folders in my laptop and then I tried to fill them.

It occurs often that this engine abruptly shuts down on you; you can feel the inspiration draining from your mind, and the only thing that you can do is ask someone else a question related to your topic in hopes of re-firing that creative spark. Many times you do this only to fix your ideas firmly in mind – a lot of people don’t realize that the more mental channels you involve when working on a topic, the better will be the retention of the salient points within memory).

If you were a gentleman of the 1930s, and one of Tolkien’s friends, maybe you would have gone to a pub and sat with your own inspiration to share, in search of comment and analysis to improve the clarity of your thoughts.

In more modern times, we have the internet and can go to our laptop, take our beer and tweet something like: “#Brainstorming on a setting mental-illness-based. Any suggestion from PROs? @gamewritermike @DaddyDM @Digitalculture0 Maybe Clans or Tribes?”.

That tweet inspired this article. I had not yet decided which of the replies I had received to use as the direction for my creativity to follow, but that is not the point! These days, it is very easy to reach out and talk with experienced authors and great Game Masters, to share your experiences and problems, and to use their suggestions.

It can be seen as a new age in storytelling and directly relevant to RPGs. I personally like to share my plots and my subjects with other GMs, or with Players from outside my Team; I gain some different points of view, and improve the stubs of my ideas. On this specific occasion I was helped in many ways, with suggestions that contributed to everything from the Background of the setting to Character creation.

Crowdsourcing defined

Before we start to say discuss the main topic, it might be useful to define “crowdsourcing”.

Wikipedia offers as a definition, “the practice of obtaining needed service, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers”. This is a neat and clean definition, but it’s a little clinical. Here’s the reality: You share an idea and ask for input. If you ask the right people, you get many ideas back, which you can interpret and cherry-pick to fill the gaps in your own thinking. It’s collaborating at a distance.

It’s just like an RPG: the Mage does his spells, the Fighter slays foes on the battlefield, the Rogue is there to trick and steal, the Cleric to heal and commune with the Gods, and so on. Everyone does his part, and together those contributions combine to solve the problems they encounter.

Everyone involved in crowdsourcing only has to do only a small part of the big work, and the heart of the major work remains your own.

It is a nice idea, useful and easy to implement, and it carries many improvement to the starting concept. As Paul Valèry said, “Enrich ourselves of our mutual differences!”.

But there are pros and cons you probably have to face when doing something like crowdsourcing your idea, and before you embark on such an endeavor, you should be aware of them. And that’s what this article really concerns.

Your Idea Is Now Only Partially Yours

This is the first pitfall, and maybe the most important one to keep clearly in mind. You cannot control the direction the discussion will proceed, you can only try to assemble the resulting jigsaw into a coherent whole.

That is not so bad, because the outcome could be much better than you could ever hope to achieve on your own. Walter Benjamin foresaw in his masterwork “Das Kunstwerk in Zeitaler seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” the theoretical possibility of reproduction of every piece of art (Yes, I intentionally chose the scariest version of the title, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). Copying works of art is a simple thing these days, though even the simplest of reproductions is inherently “lacking of something”; no reproduction is perfect, though the differences may be indiscernible until examined with an instrument more powerful than the human eye.

Crowdsourcing takes an idea beyond the point of a simple reproduction of the idea seed, because while every participant makes a small contribution, the totality has a life of its own. ‘Original’ now has a new meanings. You can’t even claim as yours the part you exclusively wrote: it’s the total, not that core, that gives the total its weight. Think of it as a snowflake; each starts with the same core, a mote of dust; but each has its own unique pattern at the end of its growth. You could start with the same idea, expose it to three different crowdsourcing communities and end with three very different outcomes – provided that you somehow avoided cross-contamination of the idea pools.

The Leader Question

Every human relationship that involves more than 2 individuals requires – and creates – a Leader. (In Psychoanalysis, there is the concept of a dual relationship which describes the relationship between a child and its mother, which is emotionally symbiotic; qualities of that relationship tend to be repeated with every subsequent one-to-one relationship that the child enters into. The term leader doesn’t fit such relationships very well, so don’t apply the opening statement of this section too liberally).

Through over 100 years of study, we have learnt many things on the topic of relationships between people, though much more remains to be discovered, studied, and understood. As far as this article’s subject matter is concerned, it is enough to describe whoever had the central idea being developed through crowdsourcing should be the Crowd-Leader. When this is not the case, the crowdsourcing effort tends to run off the rails at a hundred miles an hour, a runaway accident looking for a place to happen. Control – and ownership of the conversation – should be relinquished once a question has been posed, but resumed when it is time to decide the next question to be considered.

Crowdsourcing for ideas is done everyday by many enlightened Leaders because, as psychology says, the Folk sometimes can reach deeper into a problem than an Expert, because their naivety make their thinking clear and free from prejudice. When you are stuck on a question, simply to Trust the Crowd!

Developing The Idea

The crowd-leader is the one who puts a topic before the “crowd” part of crowdsourcing, and thereby directs the avenue of exploration within the greater whole. After developing and incorporating the suggestions raised by my first tweet, quoted previously, I followed with another, which is a great example of the process: “@newbiedm @theangrydm @daddydm @gamewritermike Thinking about role of artifacts in a mental-illness campaign. Drive to madness or sanity?”

I know that some of you might think “What a useless question. For me is clearly [fill the blank]!”. That’s the point. I was stuck in conflicting and contradictory ideas of Madness-causing or Sanity-imparting artifacts and I wanted another point of view!

Thanking Oghma, Mike gave me proverbially exactly what I needed: “@crux_mm @newbiedm @theangrydm @daddydm Why not both? Used sparingly, sanity. But they are one-ring-style addictive, inducing worse insanity” This introduced a new topic into the collaboration, the thought of Addiction.

I am not worthy to hold the Leader’s scepter of such an assemblage of professional and experienced group of contributors, but I am nevertheless the actual Crowd-Leader because the initial project is mine. At the moment, at least; each of the participants, and any non-contributing onlookers are free to take the same seeds and grow a completely different set of snowflakes from them, discarding those things that don’t fit their own model of the ultimate gamesetting and campaign.

The CCC Rule A.K.A. Comparison: Collision Or Confrontation?

When you share your Grand Idea with someone you have to figure that there is a very real possibility that your thoughts won’t give the same sometimes-celestial sound in their minds as they do yours. And, also inevitably, someone else’s ideas will collide and conflict with your own. When you are thinking about a topic, in my particular case it was about the strength of a Hero, you have a narrow range of thoughts because you are working alone.

In the act of crowdsourcing, you must consider your Grand Idea as an opinion, a starting point, a seed, but not a final statement. We normally use the term Open-minded to describe someone that can change his Point of view, but delving deeper into our discussion of crowdsourcing, a more specific definition can emerge. Colloquially, that could be stated as “Someone that puts his own ideas into a mixer knowing that from the confrontation could emerge something better”.

It is fine for ideas to collide. It is not useful to the collaborative process for the people behind those ideas to become confrontational, and that is the inevitable result of attempting to own too much of the original idea; collisions become perceived as challenging the authority of the speaker, and turn into confrontations.

Many times, during the quick Brainstorming that occurred over the twitter channels, the topic shifted and improved in ways that weren’t even on my horizon at the time! From the people I consider professionals in their craft, I acquired the idea of an Environment-based illness, for example. A Hero could feel fear of the dark because something bad is hiding around, or on the other hand an Hero could feel fear in a moment and – after an appropriate check – that fear could result in something lurking in the underbrush!

My romantic way of thinking tells me that even Lewis and Tolkien, helped by a Red Ale, experienced collisions of ideas during the Inklings’ meetings. We cannot know the exact flow of their discussion but we all know the outcome!

I cannot recommend strongly enough that it doesn’t matter if a response is against or in accord with your preconceived ideas, because you, and only you, have the last word on what you use and what you discard. If there is an objection to one of your ideas, no matter how negative or vehement, treat it as constructive criticism and re-examine your idea for flaws; take this as an opportunity to enhance the overall construct and check your personal ego at the door (or, in this case, the keyboard).

Lifting Your Single-Minded Veil

In other words, crowdsourcing is a form of Brainstorming, teamwork that is performed with slightly different means and via a medium other than face-to-face. Commonly, Teamwork means something like “Work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole”, so if everyone does his share but contributes nothing new, at best the outcome will reached faster, not necessarily better. Every single topic of discussion can be approached by many sides; crowdsourcing at its best takes full advantage of this.

As a psychologist I know that the human brain is social. One of my ancestral predecessors deemed that we were actually a social animal, and that we NEED other brains to share with, to communicate with, to collaborate with. Doing so in a healthy social environment improves our internal sense of self-worth, of contribution, and produces feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.

The Limited Pathways of the Mind

It’s known to Psychology that a human can’t think along more than two or three conscious pathways, can’t concentrate on more than 2 or 3 things, at the same time, so as a single individual you can only view a few facets of a problem at the same time. Considering all aspects of a problem can therefore take a lot of your time.

As a team, problem-solving is more effective and consideration of the problem at hand more global and comprehensive, inevitably resulting in a better and more satisfying result. Even crowdsourcing on twitter with one or two chosen others provides sufficient cross-communication and inspiration to achieve all the benefits of team brainstorming.

Let me offer another example from the dialogue that I have been using to illustrate the process throughout this article. I was wondering why, in this setting, the habitat would be full of mental patients; my strongest notion was of a social experiment that had gone wrong or been forgotten, which excited my interest in psychology! After discussing that possibility for a while, Mike offered a tweet about a Genefood experiment inducing susceptibility to insanity. This idea fitted perfectly because the development of an aberrant psychological development takes a long time, and specific behavior can’t come out from nowhere, it takes time and works like an emergence system. Without delving deeper into some specific pathogenic mechanics, my starting point could potentially twist the setting’s mechanics; and at all times the basic mechanics of the game must be clear in a player’s mind, or the campaign won’t be fun for them). Mike’s suggestion greatly accelerated the time frame to the point where any medical response would be overwhelmed, while make the mechanics simple and universal. From that idea, creating the necessary mechanics for an on-demand pathology system becomes almost trivially simple (Evil grin)!

The Team is a good way to solve a problem you have. It’s an even better way to solve the problems you aren’t even aware of yet!

The Right Way: Shearing The Problem

Every kind of topic or problem is a sort of food for our brain. In evolutionary terms, the newest part of our brain is the neurocortex, and its aim is use all the brain functions to solve problems (and many other things, but I’m not writing a “Neurology Mastery’” article!). Problem solving is the concluding development of an extensive process that includes Problem Finding and Problem Shaping.

The most representative example of that high-complex process it the ability (perhaps not fully shared by everyone) to solve math expressions. There are many basic rules to follow in order to solve an expression and the fundamentally right way starts with Shearing the Problem.

Two approaches to collaboration

One method of implementing a collaborative process enables a group of people to create something new or to work to expand on a topic. Every participant can contribute to either a small part of the whole topic, or to a big chunk such as the question of Theology that arises in every campaign setting. The alternative is for everyone to work on the same topic together at the same time, so that multiple points of view can be brought to bear on that specific subject.

Continuing The Example

Referring to the actual situation being used as an example, we have discussed by twitter the presence of a “Norm Camp” or Tribe containing no mental patients in there, only “normal” people. We debated about the real meanings of the word “Normal” and it was suggested – again by Mike – that the Norms might be there looking for a way to cure the problem, or perhaps were the descendants of such a group from a time after the genetically-modified food had been identified as the source of the problem, who perhaps had a legacy of a distorted sense of healthcare; certainly, looking at the history of the treatment of mental disorders, practices now considered barbaric were not only condoned but celebrated and recommended – for example electroshock therapy (still employed as an effective treatment in more appropriate medical cases) and prefrontal lobotomies. While modern society has learned from past failures in its duty of care with respect to the widespread use of these treatments, those lessons could easily have been lost under the settings of a lost or abandoned interstellar colony, something suggested in earlier discussions.

Inspired by the flow of the discussion, I started from the idea of the twisted healthcare and arrived at the idea that the Norms could be the real enemy, if they thought that they were justified in taking extreme measures in pursuit of a cure. Their attitude would be, “They’re crazy, we lost them. I’m worried about it, they were our brothers, but they are only as animals now, an offense to our Scriptures! We can still cure them madness, with the blessing of [Insert the God's name here], but we cannot place the welfare of individuals above those of the entire population. We will do whatever we must!”

Theological Implications of this line of thought

To understand the content of this section, an earlier discussion point must be understood – the idea that each “tribe” suffered collectively from the same mental defect, had been somehow grouped together or been drawn together, or that the external agency functioned differently in different regions, perhaps based on the products being farmed in those areas – Mike.

Scripture is a work-in-progress topic. Mike tweeted a suggestion that the Mystic Clan suffered from what were assumed to be hallucinations, but were actually misinterpretations of actual glimpses by the insane of other realities. The Mystic Clan could be composed of Cleric, Priests, Druids and Shamans and their Master could be so damn schizophrenic, and so powerful, that reality could actually bend to conform to his hallucinations.

That was an amazing contribution because it was so far removed from anything I had come up with that I know I would never have reached it on my own!

The Wrong Way: Shearing Off

When a group (or, technically speaking, the group dynamic), starts to seek only harmony and conformity, a harmful phenomenon soon arises without any alert by the members: Group-Thinking. Despite it’s harmless and placid name, this phenomenon can become so entwined within the in-group that it could, theoretically, destroy the unity of purpose that is the very foundation of the group.

Actually, I misspoke: it’s not just theory, it can happen for real.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to experience a group breakdown; the only advantage, if any, of a psychologist in this circumstance consists in an understanding of group dynamics. But often you are too involved in those dynamics yourself to understand them from the inside.

When this happens, the Groupthink in a small group (and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s happening on the internet or live) isn’t much different of what happened during Nazism in WWII. The same dynamic can have many outcomes, even terrifying (so if you are a proto-dictator PLEASE don’t run a RPG session!). Okay, that’s a little extreme. The problem is that an individual can submerge his own sense of morality and independence of control, his capacity to think independently, to the ‘collective wisdom’ of the group, which in turn is following the group leader. When a member of a group begins to experience this, he becomes de-individuated and his critical thinking simply shuts down. His sense of membership within the Team starts to override his self of identity, and he identifies his own ideas as being the creation of the group, thinking of the ideas as born born by a single collective mind, almost a literal hive mind.

A real Team prefers respectful confrontation over cohesiveness. Science is built on the concept of challenging the obvious and establishing what the evidence proves; and successful crowdsourcing requires the same thing. Contrary to group-thinking, cohesiveness requires a severing of ownership of pet ideas (to avoid over-defensive reactions to criticism of the idea), but also the ability to think clinically about the suggestions of others.

The Smart Way: Thinking

Avoiding these dynamics isn’t as easy as falling victim to them, but there are many tricks that can help. Many of them are dependent on the size of the group.

  • The Leader, or the Team, can assign to each member a requirement for critical evaluation, and ensure that each participant has the opportunity to voice objections and doubts without fear of reprisal.
  • In big groups it can be useful to have at least two sub-groups working on the same aspect of the problem.
  • Every group’s member should discuss with reliable people outside the group or the project.
  • The role of the Devil’s Advocate can be be assigned to a specific member on a session-by-session basis; this increases and empowers each member’s critical thinking.
Critical Thinking

Education systems try to develop the capacity for critical thinking in their pupils everyday, almost everywhere in the world, because it is a critical life-skill. In the long journey to the creation of a new setting, or Campaign, your capacity for Critical Thinking will be your best friend. When presented with an idea, don’t love it immediately, but consider both its benefits to the end goal and look specifically for any flaws or contradictions to what has already been decided. When there is a flaw in an idea, put the crisis that would result in a blind acceptance of the proposal to the group; that’s the basic meaning of criticize. It is the simplest way to distinguish what can be a problem and what can be useful.

Choosing the right point of view isn’t artless, but every art can be learned.

Some readers might suggest that an idea can be both; this is a flawed notion. No idea can be useful and flawed at the same time; at best, an idea can be useful in one respect and problematic in another, or flawed but potentially useful if that flaw can be overcome. By putting the problem with the proposal before the group, you focus their thinking on the critical work of solving the flaw before the collaboration moves on to another subject.

Voluntary Work

Everyone who seeks to collaborate in Crowdsourcing their ideas should know in advance that the wage-free nature of the approach means they will face a high rate of absenteeism. This rate will only increase if you work with people that you don’t actually know in life, but only interact with in an online environment.

One of the basic principles of economics is “Individuals respond to incentives”, or in other words “Incentive matters!”. Without starting a deep dissertation on what an incentive could be, which would unnecessarily complicate the discussion because psychology-economy borders tend to melt together within the subject, we can say simply “no one will do something for nothing back”. In my attempts to involve Professionals in my project I obtained more negative than positive responses.

When you try to crowdsource ideas on a subject, you can’t blame anyone for poor or insufficient work just because you’re throwing your idea in the pond-mind of the crowd. The ideas are free for anyone to develop or implement however they see fit.

It should always be appreciated that anyone who does help is volunteering a measure of their time and abilities, and at the same time relinquishing their capacity to claim the ideas collectively developed as their own personal property. Many professionals will refuse to participate because there have been a number of occasions in the past where people have done so and then been sued for copyright violation after developing an idea that might be superficially similar in some respects. The accusation of Plagiarism can kill a career, so understandably, many writers will refuse to even read a submission from an outside source without written contracts – which contradict the essentially ad-hoc and spontaneous nature of crowdsourcing ideas. Only by declaring the output to be free for anyone, participant or observer, to use as they will – relinquishing all ownership of the work product – can you hope to avoid such future confrontations.

So why does crowdsourcing work?

There are a lot of things that can motivate people to participate in crowdsourcing despite the potential liabilities. These range from the altruistic, to a sense of community, to repaying a perceived social obligation (especially if they have previously benefited from crowdsourcing ideas, or hopes to do so at some future point), or because it offers them an opportunity to develop their own skills, or in the expectation of being able to utilize the ideas themselves, or even some combination. In none of these cases is any expectation of remuneration a factor.

But (and it’s a big But), a few people have been known to deliberately instigate or participate in crowdsourcing sessions with the intent of claiming the product of the work as their own for monetary advantage. So it’s important to be selective in who you approach to participate, and you should be careful to set the ground rules in terms of ownership of the results before the session gets off the ground.

And for those who participate, there is one additional reward on top of all those motivating opportunities listed already: you can never foretell how far the ripples can go, only that they will spread! Any tweet or submission can be the one that inspires someone else, or some other great work. There’s very little that can beat the exhilaration that comes from being able to point to something you’re proud of and being able to say “I made a difference to that” – whether the contribution is big, or small.

Help Is At Hand!

When you work in a team in a live situation, you will have booked meeting times and a daily plan for the discussion, and perhaps a yearly prospectus and fixed deadlines. This rigidity is a necessary part of the culture of collaboration, but it can suck a lot of the vitality out of the team. That’s one reason why brainstorming is normally performed in smaller sub-groups. One of the most enjoyable aspects of crowdsourcing by means of social media is the ad-hoc nature of the help you can get.

Every time you see a problem, or feel stuck on a view, you can ask the crowd and wait for a suggestion. Yes, you could argue about how good the answer might be; but, as we agreed a little while back, the last word about that kind of project is yours (Maybe that sentence can’t be trusted if you haven’t set your ground rules clearly enough). If you’re on twitter try to follow the #RPGchat hashtag a time or two, you will feel your eyes shining with inspiration after only a brief time, and it’s almost impossible to resist contributing your own excitement and energy!

Setting Summary

If you roll your memory back to the start of the article I mentioned in passing the PoSch clan. To keep the promise made at that time, I will explain in a moment the setting for what it actually is.

But first: Acknowledgement #1
I’m a psychologist who has worked, and am now trying to work again, with patients suffering daily with mental disorders. That means I’m very emotional involved with mental illness so it would never be my intent to make light of any other person’s misfortune. Everyone gets inspired by what feels and sees everyday, that’s all.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article The Envelope Is Ticking: Insanity In RPGs that was inspired in part by the discussions that G. F. has been using as an example throughout this article. I think he would approve of my quoting a couple of extracts from the concluding section of that article at this point to express Campaign Mastery’s position. Insanity is part of many games, and even moreso a part of the campaign that he is developing, but that does not mean that we need or intend to be offensive or insensitive to anyone’s situation.

I’m sure we all know someone who faces the challenges of a mental disorder, whether we know about it or not, and those sufferers have nothing but my full heartfelt support and sympathy in dealing with those challenges.


If you need help, or you know someone else who needs help, please seek professional advice, and the support of people who care about you.Don’t let yourself become just another statistic.


Acknowledgement #2: Many things were inspired from other sources, mainly “Clan of the Alphane Moon”, Philip Dick’s 1964 science fiction novel. And from hundreds of other writings because I’m a hunger reader, and derive inspiration from a range of sources.

All that out of the way, here’s the actual concept that has emerged so far:
On a unnamed planet, Earthmen placed many of their Mental patients to run social experiments and gene experiment in a heavily controlled setting. They divided the patients into Clans, each with a pathology in common, so there are the PoSch (poly schizophrenic), ObCom (obsessive compulsive), Para (paranoid), AntS (antisocial behaviorals), and so on to a number yet to be decided. There are many therapist and mental specialist forming the Norm Clan, who think they are normal, psychologically. For some reason, yet to be decided, the Earth government has forgotten or abandoned these people and left them to make their own lives alone in the universe. (Mike’s note: the very idea of “Earth” has probably degenerated into theology and myth, an all-wise and all-knowing Kingdom in the Heavens). The basic idea consists of a setting where the illness and the environment shape themselves contiguously to the perceptions of the “patients”; if someone fears the dark, the dark spawns something bad to haunt/attack him. I love the idea of Psionic and Psychic powers, so these would be a great part of the flavor. I wonder what a PoSch with these power what could do!

All of this is under construction, there is obviously still a great deal of work to do!


In this article I have tried to explain, partly to myself, the process that has produced this basic concept-in-progress; such a review can lend perspective that can be lacking when one is a participant in the process. But, implemented properly, that process can benefit others, and it is for that purpose that this article has been written.

Every Game Master knows how hard create a setting can be; but, in these modern days, you can find an helping hand easily on internet – if you prepare properly and take the right precautions!

About The Author:

“G.F. Pace” is Giovanni Felice Pace, a fantasy and RPG addict from the age of 13, when he first met D&D 3.5 and I created his first character. That was ”ZuLu”, a half-orc monk of Kelemvor, omnipresent in every one of his campaigns. He ran one campaign for 4 years and now is trying to run a D&D Next campaign through web 2.0 and to start a Numenera campaign. He is an Italian psychologist and loves to mix his studies with his game mastering to create substance, suspense, or simply to twist players’ minds. As a GM he is a lover of a free-wheeling style of play; if you have something in mind he can find a way to incorporate it (but don’t take that as a challenge, for the game’s sake!) Feel free to reach out to him through his twitter account, Crux_MM.

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Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 2


I didn’t want to split this article in two. You really need to have read part one before you can get full value from what’s below. So I’m going to assume that you’ve done just that, and don’t need a synopsis to refresh your memory, and just dive straight in…

Transitions & Global Emotional Flow

The ebb and flow of emotional intensity can be one of the most subtle and most important factors in the success or failure of an RPG adventure or campaign. It is all too easy for key scenes to fall flat because they have the wrong intensity. It’s easy for one scene or act to become decoupled from those that surround it.

Its all well and good to have the intensities correct in individual scenes, in individual acts, even in individual adventures; but if the transitions between each of these structural elements are incorrectly executed, the scene will fall flat. When that happens, the structural element loses its cohesion, becomes turgid and meandering, something that has to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Emotional intensity can’t be turned on and off like a tap; it is more akin to a type of pressure, that builds and then requires a release to lower it once again. That buildup can be rapid, employing a revelation or dramatic turn of events, or it can be an inexorable climb. Increasing an emotional intensity is relatively easy.

Lowering it is much more difficult, and is usually where the problems set in.

The worst possible approach is simply to start the new structural element at the desired emotional intensity and wait while the players or audience shift mental gears. It’s one thing to annoy and frustrate the PCs, it’s quite another to do the same thing to the players, and that’s the usual result of turning things down a gear just as they are gearing up and getting excited.

A resolution or release achieves a lowering, but these are not always appropriate to the action within the structural element. How do you achieve a successful lowering of intensity without one of these, and without the next structural element failing catastrophically?

Fortunately, there are a couple of tools available to achieve this.

Emotional Varieties

Emotions come in two basic flavors; think of them as heating and cooling. Heating emotions promote rising intensities of their own accord, while cooling emotions tend to promote a reduction in intensity. On their own, this fact is not enough to achieve the desired result, but used in conjunction with one or both of the other tools I’m about to describe, they get the job done.

The Substitution Of Emotions

The simplest technique for a transition between two scenes with superficially different emotional intensities is the Substitution Of Emotion. You simply replace one variety of emotional content with another which starts at the same intensity as that of the previous scene. Sounds simple, right?

If you’ve been building the emotional intensity and need to calm things down for a bit, simply drop in a cooling emotion starting at the same intensity as you had reached in the last “building up” scene and let things cool down of their own accord, releasing that pressure slowly rather than in a sudden burst.

This technique has become part of the Australian social ethos over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the phrase “work hard, play hard”. “Work Hard” builds intensity through accumulated stress; “Play Hard” sustains the same intensity, but permits a release of the intensity by shifting the emotional landscape. In terms of an RPG or a novel, if you’ve spent a lot of time building up an emotional undercurrent of fear, you can dissipate the intensity without dissipating that sense of fear by substituting a different dominant emotional state at the same intensity and then releasing that.

It sounds more complicated than it is.

But this is far from a complete solution on its own.

The Narrative Insert

Fortunately, we have a couple more tools in the shed. If the problem is going from high intensity to low intensity, as shown below, one of the tricks we have up our sleeves is the Narrative Insert.

emotional transitions 4

A narrative insert means that we skip a little of the action and have it happen off-screen, rejoining our protagonists a little later in the story, and filling in the missing period with a small section of narrative that is designed to bridge the intensity gap of the transition from one scene to the next, like this:

emotional transitions 5

This works just fine in novels, and in comic books, and even TV shows and movies. It’s also quite common to cut the low-intensity scene altogether and jump directly from the decision to act right to the beginning of the action; the audience has come to understand the various forms of cinematic shorthand that tell us “time has passed in between”. It helps because the narrative insert can actually be put into the mouths of one or more characters or into a second paragraph designed to put the new scene into the broader narrative context of the overall plot.

It doesn’t work as well in RPGs because players are reluctant to yield control of their character’s actions, and even more unwilling (most of the time) to be a mouthpiece for the GMs dialogue. The narrative shorthand is required to be different, therefore. But this technique can still work, simply by spelling out explicitly that each of the PCs has done exactly the preparation for action that they had said (in the previous scene) that they were going to do. Players will understand that you are compressing time somewhat to skip over the boring bits. (Personally, I think my threshold for what to cut out is too high, and I tend to leave in more than I should, but I’d rather be safe than sorry).

The Flashback Insert

There are other ways of achieving the same effect. Another technique that I have employed successfully from time to time is to skip directly to the new scene, complete with its incomparable levels of intensity, establishing what the new intensity is, and then briefly playing through flashback sequences the interval in between showing the players how their characters went from high intensity to the new, lower, intensity. This works because short vignettes of roleplay disrupt the constant buildup of any one emotional intensity, deflating the balloon somewhat. All this does is break up the gray-filled box into a set of smaller gray boxes and move them all into the beginning of the next structural element.

The Insert Scene

The final technique is simply to insert an additional scene in the form of the gray-filled box. This can give you quite a lot of creative control over the intensity; I have used everything from “cosmic visions” through to having the players “observe” a scene at which their characters are not actually present, ending with an NPC saying to the PCs “…and that’s what I think might be happening right now”. This final statement takes a puzzling “where are we?” sequence and reveals it all to be happening in the imagination of the PCs, a visualization of speculation on the part of an NPC that may or may not bear any resemblance to reality – but it fills the intensity transition “box” and delivers the characters to the right level of intensity for the next sequence.

The Tease

With a tease, you substitute a sequence of the same type and intensity as the one that the players are expecting but directed against another target. The result is a James Bond -style intro sequence – which has a resolution, and hence a drop in intensity – without changing the situation that produced the intensity in the first place. You may not be able to turn intensity on and off like a light bulb, but because the underlying situation hasn’t changed, the intensity can be regenerated relatively quickly. And, of course, if the situation should happen to worsen (or be discovered to be worse) before that happens, the end result can be an even higher level of intensity.

Pacing By Scale

Early in this article (in the first half, actually) I defined a series of scales. These were the Campaign, the Adventure, the Act, and the Scene, with the latter coming in several varieties, including, most prominently, the Battle. While those scales have received a mention now and then in subsequent discussion, what’s been more relevant so far has been the relationship between one scale and the next scale down, regardless of what the scales under discussion actually were.

It’s time to change that, and look at the pacing of emotional intensity buildup and release in more specific and practical terms. Once again, each scale will have a role to play in setting the parameters and boundaries for the subordinate scales – establishing an overall pacing pattern for a campaign also establishes, by definition, an overall trend across the range of adventures that comprise the campaign.

Pacing in Campaigns

In many ways, it’s easier to apply pacing at the campaign level than at any other. Because this is the largest possible scale, it simplifies the patterns to a fundamentally basic level. Or does it?

Establishing a pacing pattern at a campaign level offers a theoretical ideal, and an overall trend, but within that trend there are all sorts of bumps and hollows. While you can employ a campaign-level pacing pattern as a guideline, it remains an approximation, one that – in practical terms – has to be subordinated to the far noisier level of the adventure. Campaign level pacing can help determine how important the stakes should be in an adventure, how dramatic the events should be, and how meaningful that adventure should be within the scope of the campaign; but it can never serve as more than an imperfect and theoretical guideline. To be honest, if you view the campaign-level trend as a trace connecting the most intense points within each adventure, you can’t ask for too much more than that, and the general guidance already listed in this paragraph.

In the “Back To Basics” series, I looked at a number of fundamental aspects of campaign and adventure construction, starting with the simplest possible technique, then a more advanced one, and so on, all the way through to the most advanced practical technique that I had to offer. The idea was that each GM would read until he ‘got lost’ and would thereby find the level of planning that he was comfortable with employing at his current stage of development and with his current levels of experience and expertise. Part 1 dealt with plot structures within an adventure; Part 2 with assembling adventures into campaign structures. I also offered a simpler technique for doing so in Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited. Long-time readers may also recall the advanced technique that I suggested back in 2010 in Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow, which is worth bringing to the reader’s attention because it specifically discusses flowing emotional intensities at a campaign level.

emotional transitions 6

This illustrates the difference between theory and practice for a hypothetical 5-adventure campaign.The differences between the two are in red, the parts where the two agree are in blue. The first couple of adventures are fairly close; the third one is noticeably more intense than the goal level. The fourth adventure drops to a lull, after an apparent resolution at the end of the third adventure, and it looks like the campaign is all but over – but in the course of that adventure, it soon becomes clear that the PCs problems are far from over; probably the real villain, who has been lurking behind the scenes, is making his move. The resolution of the fourth adventure probably consists of establishing that, and once again, at its end, theory and practice are in close accord. Similarly, although there are some small differences, the final adventure of the campaign is reasonably close to the ideal model set out by the master plan.

In Summary:
Decide what you want for the overall campaign. Then use that as a guideline to individual adventures. It is more important that these connect seamlessly to one another to provide a sense of continuity of style than it is to slavishly follow some master blueprint.

Pacing in Adventures

Pacing within an adventure is a more complex issue. While adventures can be broken up into acts, it’s at least as common to break them directly into scenes without a collective principle to unite them into sub-adventures; and an awful lot of the best advice completely ignores an act structure. Whatever advice I offer has to function, regardless of the sub-structure of the adventure, which can vary in all sorts of ways. At the same time, I want to avoid getting general; I promised practical advice, and this is where it matters most.

So, with the caveat that what I’m about to offer may need a little interpretation on the part of the individual, let’s press on.

An adventure has an initial intensity that is defined by the conclusion of the preceding adventure and a peak intensity that is defined, in approximate terms, by the overall intensity map of the campaign. The critical question, is how to get from A to B?

In general terms, that’s already been described. First, get the initial level down to whatever intensity you need in order to accommodate the start of the plotline, by whatever mechanism you deem appropriate – whether that’s emotion substitution or a narrative insert with time shift or insert with flashback, or with the tease.

From there, it’s a matter of using the overall plan you’ve chosen from amongst the three basic shapes to map out – in general terms – how the structure within the adventure will proceed, then crafting the adventure from its constituent scenes or acts. This ensures that the adventure respects the overall intensity pattern without being hamstrung by it.

It really is that simple.

Or is it? When you descend to the adventure level, there is more to think about than just the overall intensity. For the first time, you can and should also start thinking about the type of emotional content. It might be fear, or uncertainty, or confusion, or determination, or just about any sort of reaction that you can have.

Individual Emotions
Individual emotions don’t function quite the same way as overall intensity, because you have to take into account the nature of the emotion in question.

Some emotions are complimentary, others are contrasting. What exactly does that mean? Simply this: a complimentary emotion is one that doesn’t break the mood of another emotion, while a contrasting one does. This adds two new wrinkles to the whole question:

  • First, an emotion can be complimentary with another, while contrasting with a third.
  • Even more complicated, circumstances can change that emotional relationship, so you can’t even prepare a table of relationships.

That’s not good news. That means that there’s no hard and fast rules that I, or anyone`else, can offer. But all is not lost; you can tell which category a given emotion falls into relative to another by its effects. Simply put, does the new emotional content kill the mood, or enhance it?

Take a jolly, happy mood, full of jokes. Moving into an action sequence can kill that mood if it’s all grim and dramatic, or sustain it by incorporating an element of slapstick. A romantic mood can be killed by either humor or by grim and moody scenes, but it can be sustained by melodrama and passion – even if the object of the passion is completely unrelated. A scientist who treats physics as a lover, perhaps, and speaks of having to seduce nature, tickle her fancies and tolerate her whims, before she lets her guard half down and reveals a hint of the mysteries she clothes herself in.

Scenes are generally written in a reasonably chronological sequence; when you start writing a new scene or a new act or a new subdivision of the adventure, no matter what format you are using for those divisions, all you need to do is think of the proposed emotional tone of the next subdivision for a few moments and then reread the last few paragraphs of the previous scene. If, on that re-reading, the scene suddenly falls flat, if you feel it’s too big a mental gear-shift to be seamless, then you know that the new emotion is contrasting rather than complimentary.

Complex emotional constructs
One dominant emotion followed by another within the same subdivision of an adventure is called an emotional construct. It’s a through-line of mood and tone that links two portions of the scene together. It might be assumed that contrasting states are to be avoided, while complimentary ones are to be encouraged, but that is an oversimplification; both are useful at times, when employed the right way.

To demonstrate this, let’s imagine that you have an adventure subdivision with a predominant mood, A (it doesn’t matter what that mood is). The next subdivision of equal measure alternates between two moods, one complimentary to A and one contrasting. Call these B and C, respectively.

Let’s now consider three different situations: one in which there is more B and less C, one in which they are roughly equal, and one in which C dominates over B, in terms of the effect on the intensity of mood A established in the preceding subdivision of the adventure:
emotional transitions 7

So what’s going on, here?

  • The first graph shows lengthy spans of complimentary B and short spans of contrasting C. The result is a steady erosion of the intensity in A that had been built up in the previous subdivision of the adventure while never resolving the circumstances that had led to the buildup of A in the first place. As a result, if the next subdivision again starts building A, it will very quickly resume its previous levels, but that very suddenness will make the awareness of A all the more acute. Another feature to note is that because the initial emotional content is complimentary to A, A will continue to grow through emotional momentum – in other words, through the players awareness of the preceding part of the adventure and the way it made them/their characters feel. Finally, it should be noted that contrasting emotions are far more disruptive of an established mood than complimentary emotions are supportive. Some readers might now be asking why you would want to do this? Why not simply sustain A throughout, neither increasing nor decreasing it, if the objective is to restore it to where it was? What has to be borne in mind is that people can’t sustain any emotion at an unremitting constant level; you get used to it. The intensity of any emotion is`either waxing and waning; you have to control it so that the intensity of the desired emotional impact peaks at the right moment. Which is a lot easier to say than to do.
  • In the second graph, there is a roughly equal ratio between periods of B and C. As a result, there is a steady decline in the intensity of A throughout this part of the adventure. Any subsequent rise in A will have more intensity to recapture, and so will not be transmitted as suddenly. What this shows is that by controlling the attention devoted to B and C, the GM/author can manipulate the rate of decline in A, and the abruptness of any recovery of A.
  • These effects are even more pronounced in the third graph, and it might appear that there is nothing more to be learned from examining it; that is not entirely true. The descending curve of intensity in A is much smoother, to the point where it could be argued that the brief moments of B might as well not be there. Unlike the situation in the first graph, where there were continued reminders of A through the complimentary B emotion, here B is used to only to punctuate an overall expression of C. This is probably a good point to also point out that there is a natural tendency for GMs and authors to think of these curves in terms of emotions that are useful for his story – fear and tension in thrillers and horror plots, and so on, and while a lot of focus SHOULD be devoted to controlling the delivery of those emotions, that does not mean that unwanted and undesirable emotions should not be mapped and controlled. On the contrary!
  • So what’s the fourth graph? This shows how the intensity in A can be manipulated in a more realistic way. The graph is identical to the second one, except that the final occurrence of C is replaced with a new serving of A, as the significance of the events taking place in the A and B periods suddenly compound with the preexisting A to suddenly ramp A back to somewhere close to the levels previously experienced. The yellow lines give some idea of how this might be expressed as an overall curve in A. This is exactly what happens when PCs are floating various theories as to what is going on and discussing their shortcomings between themselves. When they come across the one that fits, the discussion that follows develops a very different emotional tone; and (if the GM has done his job right), most times, they will find that they have underestimated the importance of what’s been happening. At last, they can see more than just the tip of the iceberg…
Pacing in Acts

There’s not a lot more to be said here. There’s not much difference between breaking an adventure into acts and breaking an adventure into scenes; nor is there much difference between building an act out of scenes and building a whole adventure out of scenes. All the same principles apply.

It follows that you need a reason other than emotional connectivity and content to go to the trouble of grouping scenes into acts – commonality of characters, or location, or a series of smaller mysteries or adventures that connect to each other in some way, or thematic material. There is one exception, and that is when each act deliberately has a very different emotional key, a sub-story that begins, develops, and culminates in each act. This is extraordinarily difficult to pull off because each of these different acts still have to come together to form a whole adventure. I’ve seen it done successfully just once: A scary act, a monster-movie act, an anime-robots act, and finally a love story act. And that should probably be all the clues you need to reconstruct the basic plotline!

So let’s move on to scenes.

Pacing in Scenes: Roleplayed Encounters

There are four basic types of scene, at least in terms of their emotional impact. The first of these, and in some respects the most complex, is the Roleplayed Encounter. The PCs consult an expert, or meet the King, or try to squeeze information out of the local police force, or, basically, any encounter-centered scene in which combat is not expected, and therefore what is expected is conversation, dialogue, and/or discussion – in other words, roleplay.

A little less than 1/3 of the emotional content of such a scene will derive from the relationship between the PCs and NPCs involved, but that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, because the NPC is not just himself as an individual, he is his reputation, and the relationship between the PCs and the organization that the NPC represents, and the reputation of that organization, and politics, and religion, and history, and social expectations, and (in some games) race and sub-race, and the list just goes on and on. All of those compound to create a foundation, and a context for the interpretation of what is said by an NPC.

A little less than 1/2 of the impact comes from what is said, the primary message being the bulk of that, and a small fraction being the side-chatter.

And the rest, considerably less than 1/3, of the impact comes from how the PCs react to what is said, and whether or not it probes any sore spots in their personalities.

You’ll notice that nothing has been said about the personality of the NPC. Does that mean that it doesn’t matter, at least in this context? Not at all; that personality not only shapes the latter contribution, it also plays a large part in the manifestation of the first, and finally, it colors everything that is said in the second. More than half the emotional impact derives from the personality of the NPCs involved; its just that those contributions are spread amongst all three elements of the scene.

Or, to put it another way, the primary modes of expression of that personality are (1) how it shapes his communications; and (2) past history of encounters with the NPCs. And both of those are already covered.

Emotional impact in scenes would be so simple if an NPC had only one thing to say! Alas, that’s never the case. Instead, they say one thing, and then another, and then another, and so on – and each of these can contain different emotional content, to at least some extent. An NPC can start off blustering, or threatening, or dismissive, or overly-enthusiastic, or any of a dozen other emotional states, and through the conversation can move from that to a completely different dominant emotion, and then to still a third. Or more. The longer the conversation, the more emotions can be evinced.

The most complex dialogue I’ve ever delivered in an adventure started with the NPC being dismissive, then becoming arrogant, then belligerent but surprised, then reverent, then lost in a sense of wonder, then fearful, and finally, accommodating almost to the point of subservience – at least until the then-current crisis was resolved. Throughout the dialogue, the PCs remained cool and calm, a constant point of contrast with the emotional journey experienced by the NPC – but without expressing it in their dialogue, the emotional impact on them was one of initial uncertainty becoming a blend of confidence and satisfaction by the end of the conversation! Ultimately, the NPC in question became a sometime-ally and sometimes-neutral character, having started off being the arch-villain of the campaign to that point! I’ve seen (and run) entire adventures with less of an emotional roller-coaster than this one piece of dialogue!

Pacing in Scenes: Combat

Combat scenes tend to be simple in comparison, at least in the mind of most GMs and players. And that’s a serious problem, because monotony is boring. It’s no coincidence that I opened [the first part of] this article with an extremely monotonous combat sequence recital.

A really good combat sequence should have pauses, and emotional development, with first one side and then the other on top, and plot twists – just like any other good scene. But, unlike differing emotional intensities in a roleplayed encounter (where the variation can be delivered simply by the GM roleplaying the part of the NPC), this won’t happen by accident in a combat sequence.

When I’m preparing a D&D Encounter, I run through a quick checklist of things to note. I provided this list in the section “Spell and supernatural abilities” of Taming The Time Bandits: Some Time-Saving Combat Techniques. In a nutshell, there are five things that I’m looking for when I glance over an encountered creature’s description of abilities, designed to enable me to make sensible combat choices on its behalf.

As the combat encounter proceeds, each time the creature gets to act, I will use the results as a guideline to the creature’s range of options. But I will also look at the combat environment. In D&D you always get to move a five-foot step, minimum. The last thing a creature wants to do is stay put, unless there is a compelling advantage or objective that requires it to do so; so the default assumption is that it will move. The question then becomes, “in what direction?” is there a location that limits the ability of the enemy to attack or that offers some other tactical advantage? Is there a location that offers a potential escape route? Is there somewhere that would enable the environment to attack an enemy on the creature’s behalf?

One House rule that I have toyed with the notion of implementing for quite some time is: If a creature (including a PC) gains an opportunity to make an attack of opportunity, it can choose to make an extra 5′ step instead. This can open up a lot of tactical options.

From an emotional intensity standpoint, there are a number of different levels of intensity available in the course of a battle, ranging from the desperate (high drama, high intensity) to the supremely-confident (high excitement, high intensity) with some very low-drama, low-intensity actions in the middle:

  1. Encounter does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory;
  2. Encounter does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of a single enemy;
  3. Encounter does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage;
  4. Encounter executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target;
  5. Encounter executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the first three items on the list;
  6. Encounter maneuvers into an advantageous position;
  7. Encounter maneuvers towards an advantageous position;
  8. Encounter rests or heals itself or does something that doesn’t have obvious effect in terms of combat advantage even if it does confer such;
  1. Primary PC combatant rests or heals himself or does something that doesn’t confer an obvious combat advantage;
  2. Primary PC combatant maneuvers towards an advantageous position;
  3. Primary PC combatant maneuvers into an advantageous position;
  4. Primary PC combatant executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the last three items on this list;
  5. Primary PC combatant executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target;
  6. Primary PC combatant does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage;
  7. Primary PC combatant does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of the encounter;
  8. Primary PC combatant does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory.

That’s all well and good if the combat is one-on-one, with non-combatant hangers-on. In most circumstances, there will be multiple attackers on one or both sides. The actions of these secondary participants can be considered a modifier to the above, shifting the significance of what the Primary Attacker (encounter or PC) is doing by a number of steps.

  • Secondary Encounter does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory: -5
  • Secondary Encounter does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of a single enemy: -4
  • Secondary Encounter executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target: -4
  • Secondary Encounter executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the first three items on the list: -3
  • Secondary Encounter does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage: -2
  • Secondary Encounter maneuvers into an advantageous position: -2
  • Secondary Encounter maneuvers towards an advantageous position: -1
  • Secondary Encounter rests or heals itself or does something that doesn’t have obvious effect in terms of combat advantage even if it does confer such: -0
  • Secondary PC combatant rests or heals himself or does something that doesn’t confer an obvious combat advantage: +0
  • Secondary PC combatant maneuvers towards an advantageous position: +1
  • Secondary PC combatant maneuvers into an advantageous position: +2
  • Secondary PC combatant does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage: +2
  • Secondary PC combatant executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the last three items on this list: +3
  • Secondary PC combatant executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target: +4
  • Secondary PC combatant does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of the encounter: +4
  • Secondary PC combatant does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory: +5.

The result is a scale from -12 to +12. The farther from zero a situation is, the more intense the emotional impact of the battle scene. Plus scores are positive for the PCs, negative scores are problems for the PCs. It should also be noted that even though this is described as a D&D system, it works with any rules.

A quick example: Secondary PC opponent executes a failed attack: +3. Primary PC executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target (4). Total of 7. The combination means that the Encounter should view the result as being equivalent to a threat of immediate victory (by some considerable margin), and react accordingly. Of course, if an secondary encounter achieves something dramatic on the battlefield at the same time, that changes the picture markedly; executing a successful attack on another combatant that does significant damage, for example, adds minus-four to the seven to get a net score of 3. The PCs could still be viewed as having a combat advantage, but it’s hardly a decisive one.

Note that I don’t use this as a system in actual play; instead, this puts a framework around what I do more instinctively. On closer examination, you will find that it bristles with deliberately undefined terms – who is the “primary PC combatant?” How much damage is “significant”?

But even if I don’t use it as hard-and-fast rules, its enough that I can choose enemy actions based on (a) their likelihood of success, and (b) the impact on the intensity of the battle, letting it rise and fall, with the advantage swinging back and forth, move and counter-move as each side strives to execute a strategy that gets them over the line, each basing their choices of action on desperation and urgency. Good combat should breathe, like a living thing!

When PCs do relatively non-threatening things in a round – maneuver, or heal, or rest – unless the encounter has a strong level of certainty that it can pull off a 4-or-5 rated move, it will also tend to perform a relatively non-threating action. When PCs perform a high-rated action, the encounter can either perform it’s own (restoring the status quo of the battle), or it can perform a neutral action, conceding some psychological advantage to the PCs but bettering its overall tactical position. If it can’t do either without risk of defeat, and the encounter hasn’t had enough time to breathe, that’s when environmental circumstance, or reinforcements, or some other battleground development, should alter things – especially if the encounter has a home-ground advantage, and can therefore know what’s going to happen.

Note that not all battles have to be epic struggles. There’s nothing wrong with letting the PCs have easy victories a lot of the time, if that’s the way the dice fall.

And don’t be afraid to incorporate non-combat elements, either. I once had the PCs encounter an enemy who would recite a line from a poem after each action. That had the players guessing – was it a clue? Would they miss something important if they ended the battle too quickly? One even dropped out of combat to write down what the enemy was saying, just in case! On another occasion, they encountered a Habilinth (don’t bother trying to look it up, it was an original). This creature had a devastating attack that could take out half the party in one fell swoop, but it didn’t use it. Instead, it looked to establish dominance with a lesser attack – if the PCs responded in a neutral or submissive manner, it would then become completely docile. If they responded by attacking it, they were a threat to its authority, and Blammo!

Full Battle
There are always two ways of handling combat. The first is full battle, in which all the relevant rules are in play, characters roll for attacks, do damage, and so on.

The second category is what I call “cinematic” battle. No dice; each character acts when they are supposed to and simply describes what they are doing, and I adjudicate the results accordingly.

The big difference is this: Intensive game mechanics tend to contrast with about half of the emotions you can name. Suspense; fear; light-heartedness; the list goes on and on. Cinematic combat permits the mood and tone that have been established to shape the combat, sustaining these elements, even enhancing some.

Cinematic combat treats the battle as a roleplaying encounter. Its ideal for things like barroom brawls, or where one side has significant information to impart. It also tends to take a fraction of the time. Whenever I write the potential for a combat sequence into an adventure, I always ask myself whether or not there is a pressing need for it to be a full-combat-rules encounter; if not, I ask if there is a clear benefit to employing a more cinematic style. If the answer to both questions is no, I rewrite the encounter until the answer is ‘yes’ to at least one of these questions!

Pacing in Scenes: Activity

Activity scenes are scenes in which the characters are doing something. It might be traveling, it might be watching a political debate or a sporting event, it might be browsing through the shelves at the local library, it might be reading old mission reports or a good book or conducting an experiment. It may be for a single character, or it may be for the whole group, or something in between. It can lead to any other sort of scene, even another activity scene.

By and large, activity scenes often have limited emotional content; and that’s another common mistake that GMs and authors make. They get so wrapped up in describing the activity and its consequences that they don’t take advantage of the opportunity to add emotional impact to the scene.

Unless deliberate steps are taken to enhance an activity scene with emotional impact, it will be at least partially disruptive of any emotional intensity that has already been established, simply because they focus on the practical.

The obvious question is thus posed: How do you do that? There are three techniques that I employ regularly.

The Narrative Technique
Method one is to treat the activity scene as a series of micro-sized narrative scenes – and I know I haven’t covered them yet. Suffice it to say that the same techniques described in the section on narrative scenes can be applied here in describing the action that the player specifies that their character is performing.

The Roleplaying Technique
Method two doesn’t apply in all circumstances, but it can be stretched to apply in a lot more than you might think. Simply treat the environment with which the PC is interacting as thought it were an NPC having a dialogue with the PC. If the character is reading a book, let them confer upon the words a delivery that conveys emotion – even if it is all in their heads. Have that tone react and respond to the reactions and responses of the PC doing the reading. Manipulate the environment if you have to, again employing the techniques of a narrative scene.

This is especially easy to do because any action scene is essentially a dialogue between the GM and the player. Most GMs, when describing such scenes, adopt a tone appropriate to that interaction, which is generally very neutral, because the GM’s rulings should not be biased, one way or another, or because the GM has a real-world relationship with the person they are speaking to. So speak to the character, instead.

The Off-hand Comment Technique
Again, this won’t always be applicable. Stray thoughts or a side-comment from another character (preferably an NPC) that perpetuates the emotion desired can work wonders. Minor actions can substitute for verbalized statements and will often be more effective. If, for example, fear is the emotion you want to maintain, have an NPC start whistling as though trying to keep their courage up, or asking the Priest/Cleric to bless them/forgive them their sins, or frequently glancing behind themselves, or staring intently into every shadow, or whatever. Don’t tell the players that the NPC is scared; simply have him behave as though he is scared.

Pacing in Scenes: Narrative scenes

Narrative is all about conveying information. Too many GMs focus on the information to be conveyed, and not on the phrasing and delivery of that narrative.

When describing an environment, view it through the eyes of someone feeling the emotion that you want to convey. Ignore or gloss over elements that don’t support that emotion, while focusing intently on those elements that do. Use emotion-laden choices of language: a sunset is not “red and gold”, it is “a sheet of gold dripping blood through wild slashes of cloud across the sky”. Thunderclouds aren’t “dark and threatening”, they are “oppressive” and “the color of nightmares in the dark”.

Don’t be matter-of-fact, be matter-of-mood.

The reason this works is because, when you’re experiencing a certain mood, you tend to look at the world as though it were “tinted” in that mood, and you focus on the environmental elements that correspond with that mood. By deliberately inserting that mood and tone into your descriptions, your players will view the world through those same tinted “lenses” – and assume subconsciously that the reason is because their characters feel that way, and alter their character’s mood to match, without consciously realizing it. Perhaps by a lot, perhaps by just a little – but the smallest raindrops can still deposit a surprising amount of water into a receptacle.

Employ as many nuances of language and vocabulary as you have at your disposal to convey the mood to the players while never actually coming out and naming the emotion that you want them to feel.

Remember, too, that humans ascribe humanizing characteristics to all the things around them, from the rustle of the leaves to the temperature of the wind to the “personality” of our tools. USE that fact; don’t rely on the players to imbue emotional nuance to the description of the world, do it for them, and let them draw their own conclusions about the state of mind of their characters.

Pacing in Scenes: Transitions

Transition scenes can be either especially useful, or a royal pain in the butt, in emotional-intensity terms. Travel exposes the characters to all sorts of environmental situations, from passing images of great beauty to scenes of threat and danger. More than anything else, though, transition scenes are prone to monotony.

Monotony can be toxic. An interval between scenes can either permit the current of an established mood to take root and grow, to permeate the thinking of the players and hence their characters, or it can stifle it.

Early in a campaign, I tend to roleplay every mile, because it gives me a chance to educate the players in the parameters of the world. Once I have done so, I start to cherry-pick transitions that can be used (via the narrative scene technique) to build and enhance whatever the emotion is that I want to intensify, or to put the brakes onto that mood if it seems to be peaking too soon. If I can’t find something to cherry-pick that will be supportive, I increasingly simply hand-wave the transition, and do a hard cut: “Three gloomy and mud-spattered days later, you crest a hill, the product of some past violent disturbance that lingers on the landscape like a festering wound, and behold your destination.”

In other words, if you can’t build the mood, or perform some other desired manipulation of the emotional intensity, cut straight to whatever is supposed to happen next. The early occasions are an overriding of this general principle for the express purposes of establishing the world, and stop as soon as that brief is completed.

You can do more to convey the mood you want by describing the journey in retrospective narrative than you can focusing on every detail along the way, except where some of those specific details add fuel to your “fire”.

The Effective Use Of “Meanwhile…”

Emotional intensity has a sort of inertia. It tends to keep doing whatever it was already doing if you shift the focus to somewhere else or someone else, unless that second scene’s dominant emotion is contrasting with that of the first. It follows that you can manipulate the intensity experienced by one character simply by establishing the trend you want and then cutting to a different character with a different player in a different scene; if the emotional content of the new scene is supportive or compatible with that trend, it will continue to grow (at least somewhat) and will be at a considerably higher intensity when you return to that first scene – provided that the gap between the two is not too large. Alternatively, you can relieve the pressure without reducing the cause of the intensity by cutting to a scene with a contrasting emotion; this means that you can quickly build that intensity back up to where it was.

“Meanwhile” can be used to intensify an emotion, or to let a character catch their breath. It all depends on two factors: how quickly you get back to the character experiencing the emotion, and how they as a player react to what happens in between.

Separating Players
If a “meanwhile” scene is contradictory in mood, you can contemplate taking the players concerned aside, or asking the players who were central to events prior to the “meanwhile” to step aside for a few moments. As a general rule of thumb, however, I DON’T recommend this approach, because it is fraught with danger. If a player isn’t at the table, who knows what stimuli he will encounter? Although I haven’t made a big thing of it, simply labeling emotions “complimentary” or “contrasting” is an oversimplification; there are degrees to which one emotion can be one or the other, depending on the circumstances. It follows that unless the emotion of the “meanwhile” scene is going to be catastrophically contrasting, you are probably better off keeping control over the situation.

There are only two reasons that I will accept at the game table for temporarily separating players from the group: (1) If the emotions in question are likely to be catastrophic to the mood I had built up (in which case, I would probably also have had the players who will participate in the “meanwhile” scene step aside during the buildup so as not to contaminate their moods); and (2) If the “meanwhile” scene is going to reveal information that I don’t want the players not taking part to have. It’s not a matter of not trusting the players to be able to separate player-knowledge from character-knowledge; it’s a question of how the information in question will shape the player’s thinking. Nine times out of ten, such separations will happen for the second reason; the first is relatively rare.

A brief note on flash-forwards

A Flash-forward is a variant on the Insert Scene, which was described a long time back in this article. Instead of “…that’s what I think is happening right now” it’s “that’s what must have happened” or something similar. Essentially, you are plucking a scene out of the future, out of context, and out-of-continuity, and using it foreshadow the emotion that you want to dominate, then employing a segue back to the start of the story. This is only a brief note, because (in a way), this has already been covered in another article. The risks of a flash-forward are addressed in The Perils Of Prophecy: Avoiding the Plot Locomotive, though many of the solutions to the problems won’t work in this application. The benefit is that it gets players thinking along the right direction from the get-go. An additional problem can be player’s determination to prevent the situation from reaching this point.

I sometimes get mileage by using a “vision from a parallel world” as the source of the flash-forward; that means that the degree of accuracy and relevance to events to the game world is always uncertain, and hence is a way of having my emotional cake and eating it too. But it’s still a technique that I employ sparingly at best.

The Impact Of Interruptions

I hinted at this topic when I discussed separating one or more players from the main group, a few paragraphs ago. But it’s time to take a closer look at it, because one thing’s for certain: there will be interruptions.

Interruptions are temporary disruptions of play, and come in four different sizes. Each has a different effect on the emotional intensity and prevalent emotional context that have been established in the course of play. In some cases, they can be manipulated to benefit the adventure; in most cases, they have to be endured.

A momentary pause

The impact of stopping long enough for people to use the rest room, or get a drink from the refrigerator, etc, is relatively minimal but is also largely dependent on what the players do during the interval. Conversation about what has just happened can continue to build whatever emotion the GM was trying to generate, but it also gives players an opportunity to think, and can derail whatever plans the GM had.

The natural points at which to call such breaks are immediately after revelations of some sort, or some dramatic twist. These are not always the best choices, though – if you expect and desire the PCs to take immediate action as a result, this timing is fine. If you don’t want that, if you want to emphasize the scale of what they are up against, or want them reacting emotionally rather than with forethought, it’s probably better to interrupt the intensity buildup than to wait until after the “trigger” gets pulled.

Out-of-game activity like side discussions that are completely unrelated to game, or that appear so, tend to have much less impact (even if contrasting) than an in-game interruption with contrasting emotion. It can even help players keep their heads from getting scrambled with emotion, permitting them to put a little distance between how they feel and how their characters feel – enabling them to enjoy the game more, provided they are good at separating player knowledge from character knowledge. They then drop readily “back into character” when the GM restarts play.

GMs should be wary of pauses, but not afraid of them, and should try to anticipate the need for them and schedule them where they will be least disruptive and most helpful.

A meal break

A meal break is exactly the same but on a larger scale. There will be some diminution of intensity, simply because it’s a bigger break. Anticipation can still build up intensity, but this is something that’s largely beyond the GMs control – sometimes it will happen, sometimes it won’t.

Every danger posed by a brief pause is amplified by the greater length of the break, and some are also increased in likelihood. I find it occasionally useful to get players to jot down a quick reminder of what their characters are thinking and, more importantly, how their characters feel, just before the meal break.

Meal Breaks are something that are hard to schedule; instead, I find it better to plan around them, especially if they are to interrupt play.

A deliberate intermission

There are times when a deliberate intermission is called for. It doesn’t happen often. There have even been occasions when I want to use such an intermission with a deliberately-chosen activity that will help enhance the context of what is about to happen. That might be anything from watching a short TV show or documentary, to listening to a piece of music, to bringing out snacks that relate to the culture that the PCs are about to enter. I even once had a player phone his girlfriend at a specific point in the adventure because I knew how he would react to doing so. That backfired when they had an argument, however.

On a couple of occasions, I have mandated that everyone play a board game or a card game for 30-60 minutes (even if that game went unfinished) just because it would help get the players into the right mood. And once, I planned a mini-party, with strict timing on when people would show up and when they would leave. And on one occasion, the players were in the middle of such a game when (without warning) their PCs arrived and found themselves in the middle of the game board – and bound by the boardgames’ rules!

And, on one memorable occasion, I orchestrated an intermission and a diversion for the player concerned; when he returned, it was to find that another GM had taken over running the adventure, and was now set up and sitting in the chair I had occupied!

The deliberate intermission is somewhere in between a momentary pause and a lunch-break in terms of impact, but is enhanced by the fact that it is deliberate and designed to (hopefully) achieve some particular effect that is beneficial to the game as a whole. Used sparingly, and creatively, they can be a very effective tool.

The End Of Play

Nothing disrupts intensity more than the end of play. By the time play resumes – be it a couple of days, a week, or a month later – whatever mood you had built up is gone, yesterday’s news.

On rare occasions, you can use that to your benefit. Most of the time, it’s like an earthquake – you can’t ignore it, you just have to figure out how to live through it.

Most of the time, I make no special preparations. My next most frequent approach is to prepare and/or deliver a synopsis of last time’s play that emphasizes the mood that I want the PCs to recapture, regardless of what the tone actually was at the point in play that is being described. On rarer occasions, I will have asked the players to note what their characters are thinking and how they are feeling, just as I suggested might be done every now-and-then before a meal break; this helps connect the players to the emotional intensity that I am trying to recapture at the restart of play. And every now and then, I will have prepared a preliminary out-of-game sequence to establish the right mood.

“Picture an afternoon sky, blue and clear except for a puffy white cloud, which is melting like ice-cream and dripping onto a giant skull with bullhorns. The grass-covered ground moves uncertainly this way and that, squirming underfoot. Your every tentative step carries the fateful sound of bones snapping and being ground into powder beneath you feet. The skull’s gaze is mesmerizing, like that of a snake; you can’t help it, you can’t look away. Imagine that a shadowy figure has crept up behind you, wielding a knife that is poised to strike, but you can’t look in that direction, you can’t take your eyes of the skull… that’s how your characters feel regarding what they have just been told by [name]; it is fascinating, forbidding, and horrifying in equal measure, and everything you were certain of has suddenly been thrown into question. You both can’t believe it and yet can’t not believe it, and it is lurking at your back ready to strike.”

Replacing Instinct with Awareness

Most GMs don’t think about the pacing in their adventures and campaigns in any depth, relying on their instincts as storytellers to see them through. Some have better instincts than others. I’ve seen campaigns run by imaginative, creative, and strongly communicative GMs which nevertheless feel completely flat because they got the pacing all wrong; every time the PCs started to feel revved up, he would throw cold water over their enthusiasm and the players feeling deflated, then he would have to artificially pump them up the next time he wanted them to get excited; only to repeat the entire process of failure when the snowball began to roll downhill. I have to admit that this is an extreme example, but it was observing that campaign (and playing in it a couple of times) that made me seriously aware of this subject for the first time, thirty-odd years ago.

GMs need to be aware of the effectiveness and accuracy of their natural instincts for pacing. The worse those natural instincts are, the more a GM needs to replace instinct with deliberate awareness and pre-planned intent.

The Thumbnail Trick

Instincts can be educated. In my early days as a GM, I came up with a method of doing so that immediately improved my games, pacing skills, and instincts. I left a bit of margin on one side of the page next to my description/notes concerning the adventure or the individual scene. In that space I drew one, two, or three square boxes, a little bigger than half and inch in size, freehand – they didn’t have to be especially pretty. The first one I labeled “overall” and the others (if any) I labeled according to the emotional reaction that I wanted to target – whether that was “tension”, “levity”, “intrigue”, “mystery”, “fear”, “threat” or whatever. Then I drew, in the box, a quick and simple graph of how I wanted the emotional content of the scene to develop; I then used that as a guide to my phrasing, how I responded to questions posed by the players, the forcefulness of my delivery, the way NPCs would act/react (within the context of their personalities), how I would manifest & interpret wild luck when it occurred, the descriptive language that I would employ to describe critical hits, the likelihood and morale of reinforcements, etc, etc, etc.

These were not unlike the charts that I have been using to illustrate this article throughout – though they were a lot smaller and generally simpler.

I also drew a line that halved a box, quarter to quarter, and filled one side as a reminder when a “meanwhile” scene was likely to be toxic to the mood that I had been building, or the scene contained information that one or more players was not to be told.

Awareness of what I was trying to achieve not only helped me to achieve it in the course of the game, it made me immediately aware of when something was said or done that violated or broke the mood, pinpointing areas where I had to improve.

So, if you think your pacing skills to stand a little polish – or a lot of improvement – or you just want a reality check as to how sharp your skills really are in this department – give it a try!

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Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1

Swing Swing Dodge Swing Scurry Duck Scurry Scurry Dodge Kick Swing Leap Swing Parry Swing Duck Swing Scurry Dodge Swing…

…it gets a bit dull and repetitive after a while, doesn’t it? Every adventure, every combat, heck, every campaign needs to have its highs and its lows, its frantic periods and its lulls of inactivity. It needs to have Pacing.

The more you think about the different emotional content of any aspect of an RPG, the more you realize how universal and important this principle is. In this article, I’m going to take a look at the typical RPG and that emotional content, and how to apply pacing to it – from the very broad scale (whole campaigns) to the very small (individual encounters).

That’s a very broad group of topics, but I’m going to be ably assisted by two facts that will make it possible: One, there’s almost complete overlap and universality of the principles involved; and Two, that both the problems and solutions scale pretty much perfectly.

Defining The Scales

While there are lots of ways to divide and subdivide an RPG campaign, the building blocks I’ve chosen as most representative for the purposes of this article are:

  • Campaigns – overall trends and structures within the campaign
  • Adventures – the primary building blocks of a campaign
  • Acts – the primary building blocks of an adventure
  • Scenes – the primary building blocks of an act.

Scenes are subdivided into five specific types:

  • Roleplayed Encounters – where dialogue is the dominant activity
  • Combat Scenes – where battle is the dominant activity. Comes in two sub-varieties: full and cinematic. Full combat uses all the relevant game rules, cinematic uses an abbreviated set of rules to convey a sense of the action more than an outcome, especially in battles where the outcome is pretty much inevitable.
  • Activity Scenes – where the characters are actively doing something.
  • Transition/Narrative Scenes – used by the GM to move from one scene to another, the glue that holds an act together. This includes any scene where the GM compresses time.
  • Intermissions – every game has times when it will be interrupted, whether it’s by a brief pause, a meal break, or end of play for the day. Awareness of the impact of intermissions can elevate a game beyond its source material or deflate one massively.

Each of these will their own pacing, their own peaks and valleys. Each of the sub-units must also connect with the sub-units one either side.

Defining Pacing

Pacing is all about contrasting emotional intensities. It’s very hard to sustain a uniformly high intensity, one thing tends to blur into another – just take another glance at that opening sentence and you’ll see what I mean. In a high-intensity situation, you need low-intensity moments to serve as punctuation; and in low-intensity situations, you need moments of high intensity or it becomes boring and players attention can begin to wander. However, you also need to be able to transition between the two, and its generally difficult-to-impossible to go straight from a low-impact state to a high; there is a build-up or ramping-up phase in between. Going from high to low can be accomplished far more quickly, simply by bringing the high-intensity point to a crescendo and the associated in-game events to a resolution. End the fight, or the confrontation, with a victory for one side or the other, and the intensity goes with it. Bringing the encounter to an end without a resolution replaces the high-intensity emotion of the confrontation with an equal level of frustration – something that is worth remembering, because it gives the GM a tool to control that level of frustration to at least some extent.

But there’s even more involved in it than all that. In the immediate aftermath of a moment of high intensity, player attention levels drop markedly following an initial high; if you attempt to convey essential information while players are still coming down, there is a higher than normal risk that the information will not be absorbed, and a much higher risk that it will not be retained.

While GMs can sometimes take advantage of this phenomenon, there are two issues to contemplate. First, really clever players will have learned to pay closer attention at such times, and can catch the GM out if he’s counting on slipping something past them; and second, there is an ethical question involved: is this playing fair?

At best, it’s a gray area, and as most GMs strive to earn and deserve a hard-but-fair reputation, the rule of thumb should be that you steer well clear of gray areas in general. But that requires that the GM is cognizant of the situation and makes allowances accordingly.

Setting that issue to one side, it should be clear that pacing is far more complicated and far more important than a lot of GMs give credit for.

Trends in Emotional Direction

If you can’t go from low to high intensity like flipping a light switch, but need a contrast in that emotional intensity, there needs to be a transition from low to high intensity, and we are talking about a contrast between different points in time within the campaign scale in question, not an immediate transition from one level to another. It’s simplest to choose the beginning and the ending of any such game phase, even though it may be an oversimplification. There are three ways that intensity can increase over time when the question is simplified in this way, three models of Escalation.

Three Models of Escalation

emotional transitions 1

Emotional intensity can ramp up from the very beginning of the game period being considered – which may be any of the scales defined earlier, as illustrated in the first box above. This is typically the case when the entire purpose of the scale unit is to increase the emotional intensity. It might be a dramatic development or an encounter with someone bearing dramatic news. Regardless, the common word is “dramatic”, also implying “sudden”. Game period begins, emotional intensity ramps up as rapidly as possible, and is sustained as the details of the dramatic turn of events are relayed and appreciated. I think of this pattern as the “Headline transition” because the phenomenon resembles the effect of a headline, whose purpose is to entice you to read the news story, and which employs drama and hyperbole to increase the emotional impact of that story.

The second mode of increase is a steady increase throughout the course of the game stage. No one dramatic event is responsible, the effect is more of an ill wind blowing in one piece of bad news after another. Another metaphor that could be employed, and which is the general way I think of this pattern, is “shoes dropping one after another”. In reality, the progression is not actually smooth; it’s a series of small steps, like a staircase, but it can still be represented as a slope, because that is the overall shape.

The third and final mode of increase is the sharp rise at the end of the game phase. I tend to think of this model by different names under different circumstances – the “Eureka” model, the “Revelation”, the “Pot Of Gold”, the “A-ha!” or even the “Knockout Punch”. They all essentially describe the same thing – a slow rise (if any at all) until one singular event which places everything within the game phase that has preceded it into a new context. The whole point of this type of escalation is to deliver the game play to that singular point. The key to the success of this type of transition is usually not the singular event itself, but the sense of anticipation that leads up to the event. Simply announcing the revelation has all the impact of a wet noodle; creating anticipation by describing the circumstances that lead to the event, whether it be skulking through the enemy’s lair so that his plans can be overheard, or dialogue with an escort about the character who is to deliver the revelation, or even the conducting of the key scientific research or web search or whatever.

In fact, if you consider anticipation to be “virtual intensity”, this transforms the pattern in increase in “potential intensity” created as the anticipation builds into something resembling the middle pattern, the steady increase. The moment of revelation then transforms that “potential” intensity into the real thing in a great rush.

…And their mirrors

If you are going to have highs and lows, you also need patterns to describe a reduction in intensity. Most of these can be described as the mirror image of the three escalation patterns (left to right, of course). The fourth and final type is more difficult to illustrate; it follows an escalation which leads to a resolution of the cause of that escalation within the same game stage – a cliff-edge, if you will, that ends that game phase, but which enables the next game phase to commence at a much lower intensity. These also make the best times for breaks in play, because a break at this point facilitates the simulation of a rapid release of emotional intensity.

Corrupting The Curves

In real life, things are often not as simple as the straightforward escalation patterns shown above suggest. Even within a simple curve, there need to be highs and lows, peaks and troughs. The larger the span of time covered by one of those simplified curves, the more true this is. Reality is more like the graph below:

A more realistic depiction of emotional intensity; variations at the next smaller scale track with the large-scale effect, more or less

A more realistic depiction of emotional intensity; variations at the next smaller scale track with the large-scale effect, more or less

This illustrates four fundamental realities that are taken for granted within the simplified models (exaggerated somewhat to make them stand out):

  • First, escalating intensity can be a more complex combination of multiple patterns;
  • Secondly, that on closer examination what appears to be a smooth curve is actually a a bit of a mess, with interruptions and multiple rises and falls, or (alternatively) stepwise progressions;
  • Third, that each intensity curve is actually the summation of multiple smaller curves; and finally,
  • Fourth, if you were to join lines connecting all the lows, they would roughly parallel the results of joining all the averages, which in turn roughly parallels the results of joining all the highs.
Linking The Highs, Lows, or Averages

The “corruption” of the nice smooth curve contains another secret: the pattern of highs and lows is that dictated by the trend at the next scale up.

If an Act consists of three scenes, the emotional intensity of the Act will describe the overall development of intensity within the act, which can be derived by joining the highs within the constituent scenes of that Act, or the averages, or the lows.

The actual curve in blue, if the curve in red described the intensity within an Act, would describe the combination of five successive scenes:

  • Three Shoes dropping, followed by a cliff release;
  • …followed by a scene with a late revelation or Eureka moment, the implications of which create a further short steady increase in intensity as they sink in;
  • …followed by a momentary slight easing of tensions followed by another Eureka Moment in the third scene;
  • …followed by another very slight easing of intensity leading to a new revelation high point in the fourth scene;
  • …followed by a deeper easing of tensions, as though the PCs think they have made progress and then another sharp rise at the end of the Act as that progress comes to naught, or even makes matters worse.

The valleys serve to punctuate the troughs, making the experience of the next peak all the more intense by virtue of the contrast. This example act would be an initial introduction to the situation and then a series of scenes in which things repeatedly go from bad to worse each time the PCs think they are making progress. Overall, the curves are definitely following the red curve, but in detail, there are highs and lows.

Most acts aren’t going to be this complicated, I must add; this is an “and the kitchen sink” example.

Pacing Structures

I think it was E.E.”Doc” Smith who said in one of his Skylark novels that you can’t fully understand one level of reality without understanding the level below it. He was talking about the Macro level, and how it relates to the molecular level, and how molecules relate to the atomic level, and how atoms relate to their subatomic constituents, and so on. (Below the subatomic lied the Ether, and then the Sub-Ether, but those pulp sci-fi concepts don’t matter in this respect). Before you can fully understand one level of reality, you have to understand its constituents.

The Game Scales that I identified earlier are a little like that. You can’t understand the properties of a campaign until you have identified the attributes of the adventures that make up the campaign. You can’t understand the attributes of an adventure without understanding the acts that structure it internally, and their parameters. You can’t understand an Act without understanding scenes, and you can’t understand scenes without understanding the properties of the constituents of a scene.

Pacing Structures are a shorthand method of gaining that understanding, of abstracting this situation into something we can worth with in a practical sense. Each Game Scale can be subdivided into four components: A beginning, a middle with highs and lows, and an ending.

An individual scale item might have a high beginning, a middle low, a middle high, and then a low ending, showing an overall decline in the emotional intensity of that item. Or it might have a low beginning, a middle high, a middle low, and then end on a high – and escalating situation. Or there might be no middle low at all, and it might run low-high-higher.


Beginnings are always defined in intensity relative to the preceding unit of the same scale. If the previous adventure ended on a high, you can either perpetuate that high at the start of the next adventure, or you can contrast with it with a low.


Endings are always defined in intensity relative to the beginning. They can be the same as, higher than, or lower than, that initial state.

Middle-Highs and -Lows

What’s in between exists to achieve two sometimes contradictory functions: they have to connect the beginning to the ending, and they have to ensure that there is sufficient contrast along the way. So no middle-high will as high as the high-point at one end of the scale unit, and no middle-low will be as low-key as the lower of the start or ending. They are always somewhere in-between.

Application Of Theory: Emotional Examples

I’ve now defined most of the tools and concepts that are needed to start applying the theory to real-world examples. The one term that really needs to have a little salt applied to its tail is the term “emotional intensity” itself – something that has pretty much been taken for granted.

Just what emotions are we talking about?

The answer is, any that you want. But there are a number of emotions that will come up more frequently than any others. In no particular order, let’s look at them:

Tension & Frustration

Tension and Frustration go hand-in-hand. Tension is the accumulation of obstacles between a character and what that character wants to achieve, matched by an increase in the importance of that achievement to the character. Frustration results from an inability to successfully overcome those obstacles, or from solving one obstacle only for another to take its place.

As a general rule, you want tension to increase over time, both in the course of an adventure, and in the campaign overall as the stakes get raised. However, you also need to occasionally release the tension and let the players make progress toward their goals. The best way of doing that is to have the frustration levels rise and fall more quickly than the underlying tension. Every time the players have a success, raise the stakes and make the outcome more significant to them – remember that their antagonist also has his ambitions and can be making progress in achieving those ambitions while the players are overcoming their obstacles.

Doubt, Uncertainty, Ignorance, and Confusion

A quadruple threat! Closely connected, even to the point where they might be considered the same thing. These can exist and operate entirely independently of the forces of tension and frustration, or can be the cause of rising tension and frustration. Typically, these start high and diminish over time, in the course of an adventure, in the course of an act, or in the course of the campaign as a whole. It could even be argued that the entire point of a campaign is to take the PCs through the process of discovering what the problems are that they have to solve to achieve their goals, discovering solutions to those problems, discovering the new problems that arise as a result and discovering solutions to those, until they attain their final goal, whatever that might be, reducing their doubt, uncertainty, ignorance, and confusion at every step along the way, replacing them in equal measure with their opposites: confidence, certainty, knowledge, and clarity.

But even given this overall progression, there are rises and falls in these emotional qualities. Every action based on a false assumption temporarily increases ignorance and confusion when it doesn’t have the expected result, for example. Every step forward decreases uncertainty until a new complication makes its appearance, increasing uncertainty again.


Fear enters RPGs in a number of ways. There’s the fear of failure. There’s fear created by the GM with deliberately scary circumstances. There’s the fear that players feel for their characters when they enter battle with a foe that may be too tough for them. And there’s the fear of the unknown. That means that fear will rise and fall in quick changes within adventures and campaign regularly while trends would follow a slower, more consistent trend.

A campaign tends to be in trouble if Fear decreases too soon or too quickly, because it means that the emotional forces listed in the preceding section have also diminished excessively. As a result, the players are certain of an eventual victory and that means that all the tension vanishes from the campaign; it becomes too certain, too predictable, and too easy.

This diagram illustrates a rising level of fear typical of an RPG adventure designed to be scary.

This diagram illustrates a rising level of fear typical of an RPG adventure designed to be scary.

But, for the most part, in most campaigns, the only time fear will be a primary element will be in individual adventures that focus on being scary. In such adventures, the fear will usually be unrelenting and steadily increase, with occasional very brief interruptions for gallows humor before rapidly ramping back up to its previous levels. Reaching a crescendo only at the culmination of the adventure (when it goes off the cliff), this is a slight variation on the patterns described earlier. It looks as shown to the right:

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here, but when you look at it more closely, it all makes sense. What the diagram shows is a progressively-increasing series of highs as events increase the level of fear, punctuated by passing moments of relief (probably not as many as I’ve shown here, it’s exaggerated to show what’s going on more clearly) with the degree of relief conforming to a late-crescendo pattern, and then the emotion reaches a cliff and falls rapidly. This is fairly typical of this sort of pattern, (except in terms of the number of punctuations; three or four might be more typical of an act, though this is more reasonable if we’re describing an entire adventure).

A little later in the article [actually, in Part Two], I talk about drawing these sort of diagrams as a planning tool and playing guide; I would not do a fancy one like this, instead I would draw a solid line for the maximum and a dashed line for the minimums. I know it’s getting ahead of the discussion, but I wanted to make the point while this more detailed version was at hand.


Drama is an emotion that doesn’t follow the usual patterns when viewed over an entire adventure. It can rise and fall in a series of waves, it can represent a compounding of two of the standard patterns and/or their mirrors, it can go all over the place. It also has cliffs and valleys a lot of the time, but it tends to dwell in those valleys for a lot more of the time.

When looking at an individual act, things become a lot more orderly. While drama may start high, it tends to fall fairly rapidly at the start of the act (mirror of the late crescendo), and then rise steadily (with valleys) through the course of the act. Significantly, it normally ends the act at a higher level than it started.

Similarly, when viewed at the broadest possible scale, that of an entire campaign, those peaks and valleys tend to dissapear and what you are left with is generally something somewhere in between the ‘steady rise’ and ‘late crescendo’ patterns.

Revelations and resolutions tend to be represented by a sharp peak in the drama level, followed by a rapid drop as the consequences, implications, and ramifications are explored.

Consider a great example that everyone will know: “Luke, I am your father”. You had a very dramatic battle between Luke and Darth Vader, punctuated by lulls in the action; this battle ended in Luke’s seeming defeat by Vader, but the Dark Lord Of The Sith didn’t finish the job, and Luke didn’t get away, so despite the battle ending, the confrontation – and the drama – continued to rise. Vader then tried to persuade Luke to join him, only to be rebuffed; he continued the pressure, until playing his trump card, the statement that would have dismissed as propaganda and misinformation until proven otherwise were it not for the mystic detective powers of the Force. Luke was on the verge of surrender, and knew it, and attempted to kill himself to escape the ultimate betrayal of what he believed in, ending the confrontation and the drama – at least for the moment.

Sacrifice & Sorrow

It’s very rare that this type of emotional content will last beyond a scene. Most of the time it will yield a dead-flat trace. One of the major reasons for this is that it’s not always a lot of fun. But having an NPC ally (or a PC) sacrifice himself to achieve an otherwise-impossible victory; having a funeral scene – there is clearly a place for this emotional content in many RPGs.

When this content is present, it tends to be at a high level from the start of the scene, and to follow a steady increase; the scenes to either side of it will either be zero for this emotional content or close to it.

The only exception to this is when a PC learns of the death or serious illness of someone the character is or was close to, when the transition from zero to high takes place within a scene; this will usually follow either the late crescendo or rapid-buildup model, depending on whether or not the GM chooses to let the PC display the grief and sorrow or to cut to another scene with strongly-contrasting emotional content.

Tranquility & Calm

At first glance, you might not think that these qualify as emotional “intensity” at all; they seem more akin to a lack of intensity. Nevertheless, since the force with which a scene conveys this emotional content can be varied through the choice of language, tone of voice, and so on, it does actually have a form of intensity. These are emotions that pervade moments of introspection and self-discovery. Unlike the other types that have been discussed, however, these qualities are qualitatively different. With the bolder and more aggressive emotional content, a brief interruption of mood can be accommodated and even used to punctuate and emphasize the changes in intensity; with tranquility and calm, any disruption completely destroys the mood, which derives its effect cumulatively over a sustained period. It’s entirely appropriate that such disruptions are often described as “shattering” the emotion in question.

Tranquility and calm have a tranquilizing effect, making it more difficult for even normally boisterous players and characters to swim against the current and disrupt the mood when they prevail. These are emotions that pervade moments of introspection and self-discovery.

Unity & Harmony

Not satisfied with the names given to this emotional content? How about “communality” and “shared purpose”? These emotional qualities are both very real and very hard to pin down in descriptive language. This type of emotional content emphasizes the “we’re all in this together”-ness and brings a sense of a team that stands united in common purpose against whatever the world throws at it.

There are two (collective) responses to adversity; one is disruption, where everyone goes there separate way and deals with their own problems in a solitary manner; the other is the opposite, where people come together and unite in common cause. These emotions deal with the latter; I’ll cover the former in the next subsection.

Unity and Harmony tend to be at their highest just before the final confrontation in an act or adventure. This is where (in the movies) the theme music swells and the stars display their best Hero Shots for the camera. No matter how dysfunctional they may have been to this point, the forging of a group of disparate individuals into a team is a major event in such movies & TV shows and generally signifies the point at which the good guys begin to claw back whatever advantage their antagonist has been able to claw out.

Once again, to take an example from Star Wars, this emotion peaks in intensity when the Millennium Falcon appears out of nowhere to save Luke’s bacon and give him the chance to take out the Death Star. This example shows that the peak can also come at the height of a battle, rather than just before it.

In terms of intensity, this emotion tends to stay at a low level with sudden peaks; each time that it peaks, it then falls back to a slightly higher level than it was at previously. Over the course of a campaign, there is a gradual rise overall, though there may well be a middle period in which it falls to a low ebb as internal tensions work to destroy any unity within the group.

A team’s sense of unity and cohesion are emotional intensities that can be manipulated like any other. There is one important difference, however; most emotional content can be triggered by the GM through imagery, dialogue, and narrative, and the players (and their characters) will respond accordingly. This emotion doesn’t respond well to external force; the best the GM can do is try to create an environment which is disruptive to it or encouraging towards it, and wait to see if the players respond.

Acrimony & Fragmentation

“We must all hang together or we will all hang separately” said Winston Churchill. This type of emotional intensity exists when a collection of individuals are putting their efforts into being lone wolves and/or prima donnas, and is all about the “hang separately”. We’ve all seen sports teams and political parties and alliances fall apart in the past, just as we’ve seen them come together to achieve things that a team without unity would find impossible. It happens in sports, in boardgames, in politics, in society – and in roleplaying games.

This emotional content has some peculiar characteristics, especially in an RPG or media context, where circumstances simplify into an ‘us vs them’ bubble. Viewed from the point of view of one group within this bubble, it is either consistently high until overwhelmed by a new sense of unity, or it is low until it all falls apart. Viewed collectively, it often seems as though one side “gifts” it to their opposition, as though there is only so much of it to go around. Initially, the good guys are fragmented while the enemy are winning and united; as the good guys (the PCs in an RPG) come together, and begin to gain traction over the enemy, the unity of that enemy begins to strain and crack until it collapses and they turn on each other.

Success seems to be the glue that creates unity, failure and frustration the driving force behind acrimony and disintegration, based on this analysis, but there’s more to the story; individual egos can swell beyond the bounds of entitlement, and individual members can value their contributions as more important than those of others. It happens all the time in music when bands break apart. If the fans of a band are lucky, after enough water has passed under the bridge, the individuals can rediscover the unity that they had initially – look at the history of the Eagles, or of Fleetwood Mac, or of Yes, to name just three examples. Such disintegration in unity is usually followed by a catastrophic decline in success.

This can even be used as a political or social tactic – its called “giving them enough rope to hang themselves”. Marshalling your strength and reserves as secretly and quietly as possible, waiting for self-importance to begin to erode unity, and then overwhelming the opposition one at a time when the unity collapses and fragments.

Viewed collectively, then, this emotional intensity remains at or near a fixed level throughout an adventure or a campaign, but is not experienced equally by all participants. It starts off focused on one group and ends focused on the other.

I really didn’t want to split this article in two. I’ve even put up a couple of smaller articles written at the last minute in an attempt to avoid it.

But some things are just meant to be, I guess.

So this part has dealt with the theory, and the next part will deal with the practical.

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Casual Opportunities For Priests: The Differential Encounters

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

At long last, it’s finished! It’s taken a long time to complete the final article in this set, mostly because I had to keep setting it aside to work on something that would meet the immediate deadline, but here (at last) it is…

Introduction to part 4

Not all Priests are the same. In fact, there’s so much room for variation in the archetype that it would be more accurate to say that it’s a rare thing for two to even resemble each other. And yet, this rarely seems to be the case in practice.

It would be uncharitable to suggest a lack of imagination, and this phenomenon is spread across entirely too many individuals, in any case, for that to be the cause. Having considered the question for a while, I have reached the conclusion that the lure of the classical image, the cardboard cut-out, is simply so ubiquitous that the possibility of an alternative has simply never occurred to people. The imagination was there, it simply wasn’t switched on and turned in this direction.

The Differential Encounters are, hopefully, going to change all that.

The first part of this series analyzed the modern priest archetype, identified elements that representatives of that archetype have in common, and along the way considered how to employ casual encounters to enhance and reveal the character’s basic role in a campaign. It also found a lot of frequently untapped room for variations on the ‘standard model’.

In the second part, I built on those foundations and took a closer look at the variations that were possible, and how to devise and utilize casual encounters based on their distinctiveness.

Part Three listed no less than 44 encounters, including one epic with 11+ connected subplots, that derived from and highlighted the commonalities.

This final part will present even more mini-encounters, these deriving from the differences that distinguish one example of the archetype from another.

The Differential Encounters

It’s extremely difficult to create an encounter celebrating a point of individual distinctiveness without knowing what those differences are. So, at times, the following encounters may be a little on the vague side, and the list will certainly be incomplete. More than a list of actual encounters, these are going to more often be encounter templates, with some work still to be done to integrate the encounter with any specific Priest character.

Variations In Theology & Doctrine

These basically occur when a group or an individual is expecting a Priest of one Theology or Doctrine and they get the PC instead, whose Theology or Doctrine is subtly or wildly different. There are seven encounter sub-types within this general pattern: Public Expectations, Expected Differences, Theological Expectations, Comparative Theology, Lethal Force?, Confessor, and Services.

45. Public Expectations: Memory Lingers On

The general public expects their priests to behave in a certain way. This type of encounter functions by highlighting the fact that this priest doesn’t have to, or perhaps even is required not to behave in that way.

“Memory Lingers On” is an encounter that will be valid for just about any time period. A parishioner who was on what is now considered “the wrong side” of a conflict five, ten or twenty years earlier has that past catch up with him, and the Priest becomes involved. This encounter was largely inspired by “Blown Away”, in which the ‘Parishioner’ was an ex-IRA bomb-maker played by Jeff Bridges, but this encounter should be a lot more low-key than that rather explosive confrontation! The key to employing this encounter to highlight the differences between the Priest character and any other Priest is to determine exactly what the parishioner expects the priest to do, and how the Priest Character’s response is likely to differ from that. It’s the equivalent of hiring a go-between and getting an Action Hero instead.

And, speaking of go-betweens:

46. Public Expectations: The Negotiator

This encounter only works in a more modern setting. A gunman takes the customers in a supermarket hostage. He doesn’t trust the police and demands to negotiate face-to-face with a Priest. Guess who gets the call?

To make this encounter work, you need to understand the hostage-taker, his background, his motive for taking the hostages, and his reasons for not trusting the Police – and for trusting a Priest. How the encounter proceeds will largely depend on these variables. It could be anything from a man whose guilty conscience is forcing him into a suicide-by-cop, and who wants the Priest to hear his confession before he goes out in a blaze of glory, to a man who has been framed for a crime by a member of the police force. Whatever those circumstances, its a sure bet that everyone is going to get more than they bargained for in this encounter.

47. Public Expectations: Pillar Of The Community

A con-man decides that the easiest way to work his scam on a large number of people at once is to persuade their priest to endorse him. The target can either be the Priest Character, or another Priest who then turns to the Priest Character for advice when he begins to grow suspicious. Either way, once again, someone is going to get more than they expected.

48. Public Expectations: Sack-cloth and Ashes

Corruption and scandal are nothing new to The Church, just like any other human agency or organization. But when a case of corruption or a scandal involving a member of the clergy comes to this Priest’s attention, expect more to happen than a cautiously-worded letter to the Bishop…

49. Expected Differences: The Day Of The Dead

Encounters labeled “Expected Differences” describe situations where the Priest is expected to behave in a different way because of his adventuring reputation but instead shows himself to be a man of the cloth first and an adventurer second. They are very difficult to craft because they rely on accurately forecasting the player’s reaction to unusual circumstances, and identifying a situation in which they will follow doctrine and not some (unrealistic?) expected behavior. It gets even trickier: having identified such a situation, it is then necessary to determine the expectation and how, if the Priest were to follow that pattern of behavior, it benefits whoever holds that expectation.

Once a year, on the Day Of The Dead, families gather to remember those who have died in the past year. It is said (in the game) that if a loved one is expected to participate but fails to show up, the deceased may be raised as a Zombie by Voodoo witchcraft; by serving the summoner, the Zombie earns the Voodoo Priest or Priestess’ aid in finding their missing relative. If not raised by a Priest or Priestess, the dead may sometimes rise of their own accord and seek out the places where they last lived in search of their “missing” family. Each year, the resurrected dead become harder for whoever summoner to control them; if no progress is made in a decade, they may break free and become a terror on the streets. Alternatively, if the Priest or Priestess locates and cares for the family, the Zombie may become a devoted servant for the lifetime of his immediate descendants. A Voodoo Priestess asks for the assistance of the Priest in finding the family of one such servant, expecting that the Priest will be able to set aside his theological straitjacket and perceive that a lifetime of service by the Zombie is a reasonable fee for her protection of the Zombie’s daughter. This fails to take into account the “bigger picture” from the standpoint of most catholic religions, which would consider this Black Magic (at the very least), and denying the soul of the deceased his rightful place in heaven – or his deserved punishment in Hell. Either way, it’s wrong; the fact that you can keep a monster tamed and leashed for a decade doesn’t make it any less of a monster. And that’s assuming honorable intentions on the part of the Priest or Priestess – which may be assuming entirely too much. Especially since this particular Priest or Priestess has failed to keep their end of the bargain out of laziness or self-interest.

NB: This is probably too big an idea to be resolved in a single encounter; I would use it as the basis of a whole adventure for all the PCs.

50. Theological Expectations: The Weeping Angel

The “Theological Expectations” branch of encounters all revolve around the differences between being a ghost-hunter or enemy of the supernatural and being an ordinary priest, especially in the provinces of theology and doctrine. As such, they can be considered “Public expectation” encounters with a supernatural twist.

The example of this type of encounter that I have chosen is “The Weeping Angel”. A devout family have, in their garden, a statue of an Angel, which unexpectedly begins weeping tears of blood. This blood is reported to perform miraculous cures when the faithful are anointed by it. The local Priest contacts his superiors, unsure what to make of the situation; they, turn, dispatch the Priest Character to investigate the claim. The encounter begins when the Priest character arrives to do so.

From the moment he arrives, the Priest character begins to suspect that there’s something not right about the entire situation. The model who posed for the statue is a deceased local beauty with an unsavory reputation but who supposedly recanted on her deathbed; the locals believe that the tears are her spirit’s attempt to make restitution to those she harmed in life. Those “cured” by the angel have become holier-than-thou evangelists, stoning those who are not pious enough, torturing “sinners” for “confessions”, etc – all by night and in secret; by day, they are simply very pious. The faith of those “blessed” by the angel is being twisted into something that is the very antithesis of what the Church is supposed to represent. The wings of the angel appear to be fresher plaster than the rest of the statue, a later addition, which should lead the Priest character to suspect fraud – but when his concerns become known, the “Order Of The Angel” target him for “Purification”. Stripping away part of the angel wings reveals, underneath, a set of bat wings; rather than being a Holy artifact, this is an Unholy artifact, and the woman who “recanted her evil ways” was actually the leader of a Coven who cursed the statue exactly 666 days before it began “weeping”.

Once again, this is probably too big to be contained in a single encounter; while it might start off being a solo gig for the Priest character, it should not be too long before he calls in the rest of his fellow adventurers.

51. Comparative Theology: The Bronze Tiger

This branch of the encounter set describes situations in which a priest of a different faith is expected or required, but gets our Priestly protagonist instead, who must use his skills and wit to fit himself (a square peg) into someone else’s shoes (a round hole).

My example encounter begins with a charity street stall run by the church with which the protagonist is affiliated, selling donated goods to raise money for some worthwhile benefit. Some of the items have been provided by a parishioner from a deceased estate – one of his tenants, an old Asian man, who died with no next of kin and left his possessions to his landlord and friend. Not wanting to profit from his friend’s estate, he kept one or two items of sentimental value and donated the rest, including a tiger mask made of bronze that’s been giving our protagonist bad vibes all day.

The sale is going well, and the protagonist has just sold the bronze mask to a woman who thinks it will make a terrific wall hanging, when half-a-dozen martial artists come out of nowhere and confront her, shouting, “She has the mask! Get Her” Our protagonist must act quickly to drive them off. Because he is badly outnumbered, though, he is about to lose the fight when the woman reveals herself to be a martial artist, and joins forces with him to win the day. Most of the attackers flee, though one is left behind, unconscious or disabled in some way.

Of course, it’s way too big a coincidence that the purchaser ‘just happened’ to be an expert in martial arts, so when the woman offers such a story, it probably won’t go over too well. As soon as she sees any sign of suspicion in the protagonist, she will turn on him, stun him, and flee with the mask, doing whatever she has to do (including putting bystanders in danger) to get away.

That leaves the protagonist to question the martial artist left behind – but he will not trust the Priest because the Priest is not a member of his faith. The protagonist will have to be persuasive. If he is sufficiently convincing, the captured martial artist will tell him the following story:

He belongs to a monastery, a sect which had been entrusted with the guardianship of the Bronze Tiger, an ancient totem able to gift the wearer with great power, only to be used under certain very select circumstances. [The exact location of this sect's temple is left to the GM - I would suggest Korea or Vietnam because the conflicts in those regions will help explain what happens next].

A generation ago, the sect came under the control of a leader who attempted to interpret and even manipulate circumstances to justify his use of the power of the mask. [Defending his homeland/the temple during the conflict being the possible 'circumstances' that tie in with the conflicts mentioned earlier].

He could fool himself, he could fool his subordinates, but he could not fool the gods, and far from granting the powers of the mask to the infidel, they stripped him of his power and left him as weak and feeble-minded as a newborn babe. When the other members of the sect discovered what had happened, they also learned that the Mask had been stolen by the only member who had dared to denounce the activities of the fallen leader to his face. Unfortunately, the weakness of the disgraced leader passed quickly, and he and his wife and young daughter were driven out of the temple. None of the warriors of the sect knew what became of them after that.

Because the members of the sect had failed in their trust, they set out to track down the mask and protect it while never claiming it for themselves, watching over it as the decades passed, in hopes of one day redeeming themselves and regaining their sacred trust. Eventually they traced the wandering mask-thief to the United States [or wherever the adventure so far has taken place] and begin their guardianship. From time to time, the thief would discover that they were nearby and would flee, covering his tracks as best he could, not trusting their intentions. In due course, he passed away and his possessions – including the mask – were donated to the Church of the protagonist. Where, somehow, the daughter of the disgraced leader spotted it, or was drawn to it somehow – and bought it. The sect could not permit it to fall back into the hands of one so besmirched in character, and so they intervened – but the protagonist misinterpreted their actions, and now the mask is gone.

All of which leaves the Protagonist leading a bunch of martial artists to recover a sacred relic from another religion. And doesn’t say anything about how much of the story told by the captive is truth. The GM can, consequently, take this mini-adventure in a number of different directions. He can keep it small, or expand it into a complete adventure for the whole group of PCs.

52. Lethal Force?: Pushed To The Limit

Means, motive, Opportunity, and Aftermath are what this category are all about. Means: you need to find a way to put a lethal weapon into the hands of the Priestly protagonist. Motive: You need to give him a reason to consider using lethal force, without making it his only option. Opportunity: you then put the Priest and his antagonist into a confrontation and see what choices the character makes. Aftermath: you need to deal with the fallout, no matter what the Priest decides; if you have done the set-up right, someone should be upset with him over his choice, regardless of what it was.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include a Resolution section. That’s because there are likely to be several. There’s the public perception of the character. There’s the official, legal, resolution of the decision, especially if the character chose to employ lethal force. There may be resolution of a subsequent confrontation with the family of the slain (if the Priest used lethal force) or the victims of the not-slain (if the Priest did not). There’s resolution of the the professional reaction of his superiors. There’s the reaction of the character’s friends and associates – some of whom should probably mirror each of these other points of view. And, finally, there’s the fallout of the Priest second-guessing himself and deciding whether or not to do the same thing in any future, similar, circumstances.

53. Lethal Force?: Accidental Bystander

The second variety of encounter that comes under the Lethal Force category is the accidental application of lethal force to a bystander. There are lots of different ways this could develop, but they come down to combinations of two simpler factors:

  1. Innocent or not so innocent? - Sometimes the “innocent” turns out not to be so, especially in more modern adventures. This is not often the case in Pulp adventures, though it could be worked that way with a little more finessing of the plotline.
  2. Culpable or not so culpable? - The other variable is whether or not the Priest was actually responsible for the lethal force killing or injuring the “innocent”. Sometimes appearances can be deceptive, and the character himself might not actually be sure.

The structure of the encounter itself is exactly the same as that of “Pushed To The Limit” (above): Means, Motive, Opportunity, Aftermath, and Resolutions. The “Accidental Bystander” is a complication that occurs either during the Opportunity phase, in which the protagonist and antagonist confront each other, or in which an accidental bystander is discovered to have been involved in the aftermath. The latter is more true to life in modern encounters, where stray bullets can easily penetrate brick walls and even metal bathtubs; the former works better in a simpler era, such as that of a pulp campaign.

54. Confessor: The Heist

There are very firm restrictions about what a Priest can do about a Confession. The privacy of the Confessional is sacrosanct, even if not legally protected in the same way as attorney-client or patient-doctor privilege. The priest can’t hint, can’t speculate, can’t report anything that he’s been told in the confessional, even anonymously, under any circumstances. One exception: without naming names or being specific, he can seek guidance on what he should advise the person who has made the confession to do from his superiors and may discuss the confession in general terms – no specifics – with fellow priests, who are bound by the same doctrine to remain silent outside the clergy. He can’t even confront the individual who has confessed and try to talk him out of it; he has to maintain the appearance of a veil of ignorance, even if it isn’t really there.

That puts the Priest in a very interesting situation when someone confesses intent to commit a crime, or desire/intent to have an affair, or just about any other form of taboo behavior – at least it does when the Priest is a PC in a roleplaying game. There is nothing in the doctrine that prevents the Priest from personal intervention! He just has to be careful what he says and does so as not to reveal the source of his knowledge. Even if the criminal later admits to confiding in the Priest in the confessional, the Priest’s vow of secrecy is not lifted or broken – he can’t talk about it.

He can’t tell the authorities “be at this specific place at this specific time”. Even without telling them why, it’s presumed to be obvious that this information derives from a Sinner’s confession-in-advance. He can’t even ask leading questions that might lead the authorities to act in a way that would prevent the crime. He CAN show up in person and try to stop it, or at least to make sure that no-one gets hurt.

In real life, though, doing so would leave the Priest open to charges as an accessory to the crime, and possibly charges of Conspiracy. But this isn’t real life, it’s an Adventure RPG…

Which brings me to the example encounter, “The Heist”. This is a six-encounter mini-adventure, but could easily be expanded as the backbone of a full-group adventure. In part one, a criminal confesses to the priest that he and some friends are planning to rob the payroll of a business somewhere in town when it is delivered. In theory, the Priest doesn’t know who is in the confessional; in practice, he might recognize the voice, or the aftershave, or have seen the person waiting to enter the confessional. The criminal may even have offered his name during the confession, or given his job title, or stated that he worked for the company that is to be robbed. In other words, the Priest has some idea of who the criminal is, or even knows for certain.

In part two, the Priest must contrive some innocent and legitimate reason for him to be in the place where the robbery is to occur and at the time, without giving any hint as to why, or that anything unusual is going to happen. Which can be trickier than it seems, depending on the target.

In Part three, having justified his presence, the Priest intervenes in the robbery. He must then withstand questioning by the police.

In Part four, after the criminals responsible have been captured, the Priest has to give evidence at their trial. The lawyer defending the criminals has been told that one confessed their plans to the Priest, and without admitting his clients’ guilt probes deeply into why the Priest was there, casting aspersions on his character to weaken his testimony. The vow to protect the sanctity of the confessional makes it look as though the Priest has something to hide (he does) but he can’t even admit that he is protecting that sanctity. It’s entirely possible that the criminals will get off with a lighter or even a suspended sentence as a result.

In Part five, the priest has to defend his actions and choices in an ecclesiastic court that has been triggered by the veiled hints and accusations leveled in the trial (and subsequent newspaper stories).

Finally, in Part six, the Priest must confront the criminal and explain his actions. Ideally, this will run along the lines of “you’ve been given a second chance, don’t waste it”, or “I tried to give you a second chance”.

There are some interesting conflicts-of-interest inherent to this plot. The main thing to remember is that the Priest has to focus on the Big Picture. If you assume that the Priest really is saving the soul of his parishioners by hearing their confessions – an assumption that the Priest has to make – then his first obligation has to be to protect the ability of the church to do this. That’s why the confessional seal is sacrosanct, and why the Priest is so limited in what he can do; he is protecting the capacity of the church to save the souls of everyone who might choose NOT to confess if their confession could be compelled as evidence against them. Next, he is attempting to save the soul of the actual confessor, and the lives of bystanders. Third, he is attempting to perform his civic duty while navigating an extremely restricted set of choices. And lastly, he is trying to save the lives of his parishioner, who came to him to confess – and who is therefore not all bad; he has a conscience. Its these behind-the-scenes imperatives and the conflicts-of-interest amongst them that are at the heart of this plotline.

55. Confessor: The Deathbed

In this ‘Confessor’ plotline, the Priest receives a letter from an inmate on death row who has chosen his name at random from the telephone directory (or wherever, if that’s not appropriate to the campaign setting). The criminal wants to confess certain things to the authorities, but needs to use the priest as a go-between to ensure that certain things he does not want to become known are protected. He is willing to confess those things to the Priest, however, so as to unburden his soul.

The Priest has very little choice but to agree to the terms under the circumstances. The Criminal then confides to the priest that he had a partner, and that this partner now cares for a number of children, and that his conditions are to protect the children and the partner. But he has “found God” to a sufficient extent that he wants to end the suffering of the families of the victims. He then confesses to a series of kidnappings and killings for which he has never stood trial, giving dates, details, and descriptions of where the bodies were concealed. This puts the whole burden onto the shoulders of the Priest. Part of what he has been told was protected by the sanctity of the confessional, and part he is not only free but required to reveal to the authorities. The Priest is bound by oath to protect the “sealed” parts of the conversation and he is honor-bound to respect the conditions which distinguish between the two, even though the conversation did not explicitly distinguish between the two. It’s a fine line, with a minefield to either side, and the Priest has just been required to tap-dance on it…

56. Confessor: The Infidelity

There is a cause that is near and dear to the Priest’s heart (NB: a separate casual encounter or two may be needed to establish this cause and the Priest’s relationship to it). One of the most prominent supporters is a businessman & his wife in the Priest’s parish; without his support, the cause may wither and die. In the confessional one day, another of his parishioners confesses to having an extra-marital affair with the businessman. She is pressing the businessman to leave his wife and seek a divorce. The priest knows that this will devastate the cause, probably ending the support of one or both, and almost certainly ending their ability to support it even if they still wanted to.

This rough outline puts the Priest’s personal goals in conflict with his oath as a Priest. If the Priest is Roman Catholic, divorce is not permitted by the church – so the businessman would be expelled from the church, adding an extra complication. He now has to figure out how best to protect both cause and his parishioners…

57. Confessor: Unwanted Attractions

In the confessional, a young woman/teen-aged girl confesses that she has been having lewd and lustful thoughts towards someone that it is inappropriate for her to have a relationship with, and is not sure how long she will be able to control herself. If an inappropriate relationship begins between the girl and the object of her affections, and is subsequently discovered, it will almost certainly ruin the life and career of the man. If the priest is an Anglican, i.e. permitted to marry, HE may even be`the subject of affection. The priest has to cope with the situation, and try to defuse it.

58. Confessor: One Hand Washes the other

A crusading public figure comes to the priest, having deliberately chosen him because he is outside of the public figure’s constituency, and reveals that he subsequently discovered that the vote which elected him was rigged, and that he is now being blackmailed with the knowledge. So far, he has only had to make minor compromises to protect that knowledge, but the day is surely coming when he will be forced to do something more serious. He needs the priest to solve the problem, without revealing the scandal, before it’s too late.

59: Services: The Rogue Priest

The Priest is asked by a friend, who is the Priest of a neighboring parish, and who has fallen ill, to conduct Services for him until he recovers. When he does so, he finds that his friend has been working on the very fringes of acceptable behavior for a Priest of the faith – blackmailing his parishioners into performing good deeds, extorting donations to charity, etc. Then his friend vanishes, and it is discovered that a lot of “donated” money earmarked for charity has also disappeared…

There are three ways to play this encounter:

  • In the first, the Rogue Priest has fallen into temptation and succumbed to it;
  • in the second, he has fallen victim to a Confessor plotline and has vanished in order to pursue and recover the money. He couldn’t tell the protagonist anything about it without breaking the confessional seal – but he could arrange legitimate and apparently innocent circumstances that place the protagonist in position to act as his backup, should his intervention go horribly wrong; his apparent complicity in the events is the result of a clever frame;
  • In the third, the Rogue Priest has been blackmailed over an incident in his life before he joined the seminary and has set out to confront the blackmailer, leaving protagonist to act as his backup.

Personally, I find options two and three to be the more interesting in terms of action, and they permit the protagonist to retain his confidence in his judgment of the character of his friend, despite appearances. The first is interesting only insofar as it shows the protagonist to have made a mistake in that judgment, and which gives the player an opportunity to explore the Priest’s reaction to the discovery of that flaw. On it’s own, that’s not strong enough to sustain a lot of interest; but if it were to be coupled with, and serve as a prelude to, another adventure in which the Priest then had to make a character assessment, it could be rather more significant.

60: Services: Prelude To An Adventure

The protagonist is asked to write and deliver a sermon on a particular subject. Who is doing the asking doesn’t much matter, s long as the character says yes. It should be made clear by the GM that the player is expected to write, and have his character deliver, the sermon at some near-future point in the game. Depending on the abilities and opinions of the player, this can be either a simple subject or something more difficult.

In the following adventure, the protagonist gives the sermon that he has written. In the course of the adventure that follows, he discovers that the subject matter of the sermon is directly related to the subject of the adventure, and that the whole purpose of the encounter (at a metagame level) was to establish the moral background of the adventure itself, the context within which PC decisions of what is right and wrong will have to be made.

In other words: the GMs decide what the adventure-after-next is going to be, and get the character to frame the moral questions posed in the course of that adventure for them, without realizing that he is defining his character’s attitude to the moral questions that are going to be posed.

Variations In Faith

These apply when a Priest character is of a faith other than Catholic. With so many possibilities to choose from, it’s impossible to get too specific. The purpose of these encounters is to highlight the differences between the faith of the protagonist and that of a more stereotypical Catholic Priest; the best way to achieve that purpose is simply to consider the many encounter/mini-adventures offered in other sections and note any which would proceed significantly differently because of the differences in faith, and how those encounters would then have to be modified to keep them interesting & entertaining.

To explore a variation in Faith, think about how that variation impacts plots designed around the stereotype.

One insight worth offering under this heading comes from The West Wing, comparing Anglican and Catholic faiths: “Catholics believe that faith alone is not enough, that it must be accompanied by good works”.

60a: Prelude To An Adventure (Variant)

A good example would be the one just offered, “Prelude to an adventure”. If the character was a spiritual leader from a completely different faith – for example, a Tibetan Monk, or a Native American Medicine Man, sermons are not part of their normal religious practices. But if the topic was one where there was some commonality of interest, for example Caring For Children or Responsibility For One’s Actions, it is not out of the question for an interfaith sermon to be of interest.

This would work especially well if the public perception of opinions on a subject differed markedly from the actual precepts of the other faith – the NPC doing the asking expects a sermon built around the former and is surprised to get one from the perspective of the latter.

Variations In Ethnicity

At first glance, it might seem that this encounter category would suffer from the same problems as Variations In Faith. That turns out to be only half-true.

In terms of differences between one specific variation in Ethnicity, it remains the case; but a surprising number of encounters can be derived simply by thinking about variations in Ethnicity generically, and those are what this section is going to focus on.

61. Ethnicity: A Fish Out Of Water

This general encounter puts the character into a situation in which their character stands out by reason of the difference in ethnicity. It could be a Caucasian dealing with a tribe of New Guinea natives, or a Scottish Priest dealing with a Welsh community, or an Ethiopian in an Tibetan Monastery, or even a Black preacher in the American Deep South. Central to making this type of encounter work is that events have to focus on the local ethnicity, the inherent attitudes and expectations that come with that territory, and the way in which the ethnicity of the character violates those expectations.

But it also works quite well in terms of an unusual ethnicity in a predominantly and typically Caucasian setting, such as a Priest from Louisiana visiting London.

It doesn’t have to be a big plot point; a minor encounter that simply reminds the players that the Priest is also of Ethnicity X is enough, in other words, that that there is more to the character than his Priestly Collar.

62. Ethnicity: A Character at home

The opposite also works well – placing events in the ethnic quarter to which the character is native. Nothing emphasizes more strongly that a Priest is also Italian than having the PCs venture into Little Italy, where the protagonist can be an Italian first and a Priest second.

63. Ethnicity: Ethnic Sub-currents

Because of their shared ethnicity, a character of variant ethnic group is going to told things by members of that ethnic group that they might never tell a stranger. Is resentment brewing because of a perceived bias on the part of the city council against the ethnic minority? Is there unrest on the docks? Are the police in Manhattan growing frustrated over their inability to catch a cat-burglar? For the first, a member of that minority serves as a conduit to introduce the PCs to the adventure; for the second, an Eastern European; and for the third, an Irishman, or Irish American.

Look at where an adventure is taking place. Look at the ethnic groups around who might have noticed whatever is going on. Look for a match amongst the PCs – in this case, the Priest. Use that common ethnic heritage as a way to connect a character with awareness of the events; the result is a far more natural segue into the adventure than an outside source.

64. Ethnicity: Ethnic Surprises

Every culture, every ethnic group, has something about it which is different to the mainstream. Try to identify those cultural surprises and create an “encounter” in which the Priestly Protagonist springs or demonstrates that cultural surprise to the other PCs – or, at least, to the other players. Is there a particular holiday or religious observance, for example, that is not recognized outside of the ethnic group?

Research is the key to formulating these encounters. The more you know about the reality, especially in specifics and not generalities, the more you can integrate them into little side-encounters.

In particular: who did the ethnic group have a beef with when the character was a child? Who are their traditional sporting rivals? What is their most popular sport?

My favorite example is the Mexican Siesta. For an hour or two, not only does virtually nothing happen, but everyone expects nothing to happen. You might work through a siesta period if you had to, but it’s like working through to 9PM in a desk job – you’re either overenthusiastic, even driven, or you’re desperate.

65. Ethnicity: Cross-Cultural Connections

Sometimes, ethnicity matters when you’re creating an NPC. At other times, the NPC can be from virtually anywhere. When deciding what Ethnicity to make such NPCs in the Adventurer’s Club Campaign, Blair and I have a clear order of priority.

  1. Emphasize where the characters are in the world.
  2. Emphasize any ethic group that are important to the plotline.
  3. Pick an ethnic group that will provoke a reaction or attitude from a PC that is interesting, or opposed to the general attitude that we want the NPC to engender, or that will guide those attitudes in a particular direction if the majority of the PCs in general will have no fixed opinions.
  4. Same as (1) or (2).
  5. The other choice from (4).
  6. A member of an ethnic group with a strong opinion or attitude towards some group involved in the adventure. The more overtly prejudiced and objectionable the behavior of this character, the more the players will adopt a contrary opinion on the subject; use this to steer the adventure.
  7. A member of an ethnic group with a strong reaction to one of the PCs.
  8. Something unusual.
  9. Repeat from the top.

The first such NPC will have an ethnicity chosen for criteria #1, the second will be #2, and so on. If we feel that any given point is not going to be emphasized enough, we may throw in a second successive example.

A great example is the attitude of Australians toward the Turkish, which results from the battle at Gallipoli. These events are considered pivotal in the emergence of awareness as individual nations by both Australia and New Zealand, and are commemorated every year. Even though the Turkish people were enemies on that battlefield, the respect demonstrated by the Turkish Forces post-war toward the Allied casualties has cemented a much closer relationship and mutual friendship than is usual amongst opposing sides in a past conflict. A Turk can visit Australia and say “My grandfather fought at Gallipoli” and be accorded a level of respect and friendship equal to that accorded to a local Veteran of that conflict. This relationship can form a subtext between a Turkish NPC and an Australian PC that lends weight and significance to an encounter, whether that encounter is trivial or substantial in terms of the overall adventure.

66. Ethnicity: Caught In The Middle

Ethnic and National identities can lead to problems when there are conflicts. During the War in Bosnia, for example, there were clashes and antipathy between Serbian and Croatian ethnic groups here in Sydney. These still flare up, in a more dignified way, when the two sides confront each other in the World Cup. Both sides will barrack for the Australian team against anyone else, though!

Being an adventurer usually lends perspective to events that participants will not achieve until many years afterwards. It follows that if a nation with whom an Adventurer identifies due to his ethnicity goes to war for the wrong reasons, that adventurer can very much be caught in the middle of events, subject to conflicting ideals and ethnic loyalties. The character becomes a focal point for the conflict. The situation is not dissimilar to that experienced by German-Americans and Japanese-Americans during World War II. While the majority supported their adopted country, while sympathizing with the people of their former country, some were more clearly torn between the two loyalties – and, at least in the case of the German-Americans, some clearly chose ethnic loyalty and ethnic ideology over the principles of their adopted country and became pro-German agents.

The Adventurer’s Club PCs include two Australians, a Canadian, and a Boston-born American, and predominantly takes place in the USA. The next conflict for those countries is World War II, with Australia and Canada both entering the war as soon as it is declared by Britain – while America was still firmly isolationist in mindset. While that is a number of years removed from the current campaign date, things would get very interesting for the PCs when war actually breaks out. (Things would have been even more interesting if a former PC, an Italian-American, was still around!)

Because the American character is played by an Australian, and one with the perspective of history, the character is anti-isolationism, and has participated in a number of adventures in which the Nazis were bad guys (if not “the” bad guys). So far, that hasn’t made him a target for pro-isolationist factions or even hostile encounters with pro-isolationists – but that time will come. How will he react to being labeled a “Warmonger”?

Variations In Culture

It’s not enough to say “Irish” a lot of the time – you need to qualify the label with “Northern” or “Southern”. The people of Kentucky share many values with the people of Boston – but there are significant differences, too. And let’s not even mention the political differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

The citizens of a coastal Brazilian city like Rio de Janeiro are going to be very different to the inhabitants of a tiny inland village like Nova Xavantina.

These are all distinctions that can be useful to the GM and can be exploited through encounters to further define and characterize the Priest – because he’s either going to be the product of his environment, or an exception to it. Either permits cultural variation to be the foundations for an encounter.

Variations In Role

These are pretty much all fish-out-of-water concepts, in which the individual character is poor at something that he would normally be considered to excel at due to his occupation as a Priest. For example, a Priest may have a problem speaking to large crowds manifesting as a stutter; this would be no handicap to his being the spiritual leader of a small community, or an administrator within a larger community; it would mean that he was not going to be doing much public speaking on behalf of the group of adventurers, however. This sort of encounter would then include circumstances which have forced the reticent communicator to give a public speech.

It follows that while the occasional circumstance or encounter of this type may have comedic value, and remind the group of the idiosyncrasies of the PC, they have a remarkably limited potential beyond this circumstance and should be held in reserve for the times when they will make a substantial contribution to a plotline.

67. Enemy Of The Supernatural: Mr Fixit

There are potential exceptions, however. For example, if the logic of the “clean-up/cover-up” aspects of the “enemy of the supernatural” role is accepted (refer to part one of this series-within-a-series), you could have an encounter in which another priest has already done the “fighting the supernatural” part of the job, but has botched the cover-up – and the protagonist could be sent in to troubleshoot the problem.

Variations In Personality

The ultimate expression of individuality rests in the personality of the individual. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? It gets a lot more complicated when someone other than the GM is deciding what that personality is, however. There are two obvious approaches: in the first, the player advises the GM that they have an aspect of the Priest’s personality that they would like to explore, and in the second, the GM puts the character on the spot – having forewarned the player that he will need to have decided where the Priest stands on some issue of substance; this gives the player the chance to define the Priest’s personality, rather than putting on a display. Which you choose will depend on the player and the GM involved; in general, I recommend an emphasis on the latter approach over the former, but it’s not always possible.

68. Personality: Temptations

How does the character handle being tempted by something? What tempts him? What are his vices, and how strongly does he pursue them?

There’s a lot of ground for creativity here. For example, consider the temptation of Greed. The character can be offered a bribe to do something.

Interesting, but hardly earth-shattering. The GMs would expect most Priests to turn such an offer down without skipping a beat. So let’s increase the bribe, and make it indirect – “I will give $1000 a year to the charity of your choice if you…” “It looks like the church could use a new roof – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours…” “I know where [reputed bad group] meets, but can’t do anything about it officially because there is not enough evidence. But you aren’t bound by the needs of due process. Just do me this favor and I’ll tell you…”

Now, those are interesting!

69. Personality: Opinions on Controversies

There are always controversies – any place, any time. You can always get good mileage out of forcing a character to state an opinion on one of them, especially if its a subject the character is supposed to know about because of his occupation, and then demanding that the character explain his position.

Additional value can often be found by leveraging the player’s privileged position of historical outcomes. Asking a PC in the 1930s what his opinion is of the cheap tenement housing proposed for a neighborhood, for example – either the character takes the contemporarily-popular position (cheap, affordable, housing) – or he “foresees” the degeneration of the neighborhood into slums and opposes them.

This series is all about Priests – so take a look back at the list of religious controversies offered in Part one of this series. Make one of them relevant to a plotline or to a key character in a plotline – and thereby force the character into taking a stand on the issue, a stand that someone is sure to challenge.

70. Personality: Opinions on Politics

People get asked their opinion on politics all the time. In bars. By neighbors. By the press. By statisticians (in the modern era). By friends. In casual conversations. By their parishioners.

Sure, the character can equivocate – sometimes. But try asking the player who the character is thinking of voting for at the next election…

The GM should be careful not to let his own opinions on political matters color the encounter. Doing so tends to make the discussion too personal, and the GMs too ready to argue the point with anyone who disagrees (either as a player or in character).

71. Personality: Opinions on Society

Similarly, there are ALWAYS social problems and Priests are ALWAYS expected to have an opinion on them. Often, they see the consequences of these problems first-hand – so there’s a casual encounter in its own right, one that sets up a second, when the question gets asked.

The same caveat about personal opinions applies here, too.

72. Personality: Hobbies & Interests

Finally, what are the Priest’s hobbies and interests? Players often have a lot of trouble coming up with these even given advance notice – a far better approach is to have the character encounter a hobby and the GMs then asking how interesting the character finds it. There are lists of hobbies out there – search Google for “list of indoor hobbies”, “list of outdoor activities”, and so on. Pick something, read up a little bit on it, and then offer the character the chance to get interested in that activity. That’s several hundred casual encounters right then and there!

The Beacon of Hope: The Conclusion

Priest characters have a unique position to occupy in any game, but that uniqueness is a only a potential asset to the GM. For it to materialize, the GM has to provide opportunities for it to manifest in both plot-significant and trivial ways. What they ultimately offer is an opportunity for Roleplay, for the character both to express their individuality and to reflect the circumstances that come with their Vestments. In some campaigns, they offer a window to an Ultimate Power and Moral Authority; in others, they embody human ideals in an all-too-human and flawed container. The Priest character can and should be the sum of all these things, but all too often they are tragically under-utilized as just another generic participant in the adventure of the week. Revel in their uniqueness and the only complaint will be a demand from other players that you do the same for them. The game can only profit from your doing so.

Casual Opportunities Series Logo

About the Casual Opportunities series:

This series seeks to offer opportunities for PCs to reflect their primary role within a campaign. Opportunities for heroes to be heroes, for villains to be villains, for geeks to be geeks.

It’s easy to become so focused on the primary plot, or on the things that the PCs are contributing to it, that it’s easy to overlook these touchstones that remind players of who their characters really are when the chips are down. Each part will focus on one particular character archetype, examining it in detail.

I found out with the first entry in this series that they are just too big to write as a single article. In some cases, they may need to be split into three or even four sub-parts. These may appear in bursts, or other articles may appear in between – because I tend not to be able to write too far ahead.

The series itself is be an irregular one, appearing every now and then – and will eventually cover all genres. I intend to cover D&D/Pathfinder, Pulp, Superhero, Sci-fi, and anything else that comes to mind along the way – all in no particular order. In fact, I’m going to deliberately mix it up!

So far, we’ve had D&D/Pathfinder and Pulp/Modern – so next time, something Sci-Fi seems to be in order.

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