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Throw Me A Life-line: A Character Background Planning Tool


When I was a child, I knew three of my grandparents well. My paternal grandfather and namesake, however, I have no memory of ever meeting; he died before I was born, he was only ever a photograph on the wall.

I was thinking about that, and about how my experience of family was not adequately described by a simple traditional family tree (of the type shown to the left), prompted by an old episode of the original “Who Do You Think You Are?” that was recently repeated on Australian TV – and had a stroke of inspiration.

The Life-Line

What you see to the right is a character background planning tool that I have created called a Life-Line. Let me walk you through what it contains.

There’s a scale on the left in years. Key ages are marked with lines running the width of the tool, ages at which key life events occur or transitions begin or end. These key ages delineate seven different stages of life in an individual.

These life stages are a reflection of both the biology and society of the individual. This example is appropriate to a modern-day character; characters from a century or more ago would have a different pattern, as would characters in a Fantasy campaign like D&D, or Elves, or whatever. That means that GMs will have to create their own using this as a template in order to reflect their own campaigns. Sorry, I can’t do it all for you.

To assist in doing so, let’s examine the seven life-stages that I have defined:

Child (0-5 years)

In childhood, the main task of the individual is to learn how to walk, talk, etc – the essentials of managing their body. There is zero chance of anyone this age becoming a parent.

School (5-16 years)

School years are when the individual receives their fundamental education. There is a very low chance of anyone in this age group becoming a parent.

Pre-Adult (16-21 years)

The pre-adult years are when the individual receives their advanced eduction, learning either a craft (apprenticeship), professional skills, or receiving further education. While the chances are low that an individual in this age group will become a parent, it is also not unheard of. My parents were both in this age group when I was born, for example – and my sister and middle brother, for good measure. But they were both young at the time. In most cultures, the age of adulthood falls somewhere in this range, often in graduated stages (whatever the “official” view is) – the age at which one is permitted to consume alcohol may be different from the age at which you can join the army, which may be different from the age that you are permitted to leave school, which may be different to the age at which you can legally marry, or vote, or own property.

Young Adult (21-35 years)

It is in this age group that the individual begins to establish themselves in their profession. This is also the peak age for parenthood, the age at which an individual is most likely to become a parent (if they aren’t already).

Mature (35-55 years)

This is usually the peak period in a professional life, and is often marked by a transition from doing something to managing, supervising, or training others who are doing that something. At the same time, there is a decreasing likelihood of parenthood, starting reasonably high and becoming almost unheard-of at the end. This is a mirror image of the parental likelihood progression within the school years and pre-adult period. This is also the age period in which the risk of mortality begins to increase.

Senior (55-70 years)

Until relatively recently – the last 20-30 years, say – this was the age at which the professional transition from middle management to senior management occurred. It is often marked by the individual beginning to lose touch with the ‘coming trends’ in their profession. Somewhere in this age range, retirement is likely to occur – the exact age at which this occurs varies from profession to profession and society to society. There is little-to-no chance of individuals in this age group becoming parents to their own offspring, but adoption and guardianship may still occur. Mortality rates rise markedly, and until very recently, the majority of individuals will pass away during this age period.

Venerable )70+ years)

Three-score-and-ten years marks the point at which the character’s age becomes significant, and age-related infirmities become part of almost every individual’s life. Even today, every year that passes without the individual dying makes them part of an increasingly-rare group. According to current statistics:

  • At 70, only 73,546 out of 100,000 men will be alive; for women, this rises to 82,818.
  • At 75, only 63,559 men out of 100,000 men will be alive; for women, 74,992 / 100,000.
  • At 80, 50,344 men / 100,000 and 62,542 / 100,000 women;
  • At 85, 34.014 men and 47,815 women;
  • At 90, 17,429 men and 28,751 women;
  • At 95, only 5,481 men and 11,557 women will survive.
  • At age 100, which is far as I have taken the life-line, only 884 out of 100,000 men and 2,610 out of 100,000 women survive.

But these statistics were far worse only a couple of decades ago. According to the UK Government, mortality rates by age have halved since 1963, only increasing beyond this rule of thumb in the 85+ age group – and even there, the rate is only about 55% of what it was. It seems logical that the improvement would continue to reduce with age – it might only be 75% of what it was for 95-year olds, and might be as much as 90% of what it was for 100-year olds.

The odds of the individual having any measure of professional practice at all reduces at a similar rate with age, in other words the percentage of those still working from amongst those who survive will be about the same as the death rate. At 70 years, 26.5% of men will have died, and of the remaining 73.5%, only 26.5% will still do any work.

This rough-and-ready estimating technique is brilliant because it naturally incorporates changes in social dynamics from one era to another. Let’s look at the 1963 comparison to show you what I mean: At 70, roughly 53% of men will have died, and of the remaining 47%, about 53% of them will still need to work in some capacity. If we assume that (war notwithstanding), the death rates at the start of the 20th century were half again of the 1963 rate: At 70, roughly 80% of men will have died (26.5 + 53), and of the remaining 20%, eight in ten of them will still be working in some way. It might be a different occupation (something unskilled); it might be simply caring for the grandchildren while the parents work (and note that I consider childcare and home duties for others, including partners and children to be work), as is a vegetable garden for the purpose of supplementing your own diet.

Why the Life-Line is a useful tool

The life-line has one significant advantage over any other such tool: You can make several of them and slide one up-and-down relative to another. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?

Let me phrase that another way: By lining up a parent’s age at the time a character was born, you can see exactly what stage of life the parent was at during each stage of the character’s life. You can include siblings, grandparents, even great-grandparents.

It transforms the basic data of Date Of Birth from a traditional family tree into a graphical format that you can manipulate to get exactly the character life-story that you want.

Click on the image to see the full-sized image

Click on the image to see the full-sized image in a new tab

A Demonstration

Here’s a demonstration for an only child. I’ve put the parents to each side of the subject, the father to the left and the mother to the right. Further out from each parent are their parents – so paternal grandparents on the extreme left, and maternal on the extreme right.

I’ve lined the parents up relative to the character to show their age at the time the character was born, and then moved the grandparents to show their ages at the time each parent was born.

I’ve indicated how old the character is at the moment with a red line and an arrow-head – 24 years of age.

And finally, I’ve torn the bottoms off the lifelines at the age of death of the relatives based on when I wanted the relationship to stop influencing the character, or when I wanted him to experience the trauma of losing a beloved relative. In practice, it’s probably better to simply fold undesired parts of the life-lines under the used strip, permitting you to change your mind and tweak this aspect of the character’s background until perfectly satisfied.

In this case, the character’s mother was about 23 years old when the character was born, and his father was a little older at about 29 years old. His mother died young, when he was about 19 and she was about 42 – this could be the result of illness or accident. In the modern era, the latter is more likely than the former; a century ago, the reverse was beginning to be true. The character’s father is still alive and is now in his early 50s. Note that the father’s life-line is intact because the character doesn’t know how long his father will live.

Next, let’s look at the Paternal grandparents. His grandmother was about 23 years of age when his father was born, and his grandfather a little younger at 19 years of age. At the time, those four years would probably have loomed very large in their relationship, and might well have caused some social stigma; not much was said when a man took a slightly-younger bride but the reverse tended to be frowned-upon. The paternal grandparents are both dead; Grandmother died at 61, when the character was only a few years into his schooling – eight or nine years old. Grandfather died at 71, only a year or two ago.

On the maternal line, the character’s grandfather was 47 when the character’s mother was born, and – scandalously – his grandmother 34, a difference of 13 years. If grandma was married at about 18, grandpa would have been 33 at the time; if the wedding was a decade later, he would have been 43 and approaching middle age when she was 28 and still quite definitely young. That sort of fits the profile of a man marrying his secretary or something along those lines; she might even be his second wife.

His maternal grandmother died at 65 years of age, when the character was at school, only 7 or 8 years of age, and about a year before his maternal grandmother passed away. He would probably only barely remember her. His maternal grandfather has only passed away in the last year, at the ripe old age of 95, and in fact he has lost both his grandfathers within the span of a year.
lifelines in use with dates

World Events

To complete the functionality of the Life-line, we need a strip of paper – the backs of unused life-lines would work – in which lines denote significant national events wherever the character or his ancestors were living at the time.

Let’s say, for example, that this character is part of a Pulp Campaign set in 1933. Notable events might include the start of the great depression (1929), World War 1 (1914-1918), The Great San Francisco Earthquake (1906); The Typhoid Mary Epidemic & The first flight of the wright brothers (1903); The Spanish-American War (1898); The Light Bulb (1880); The telephone (1875); the trans-continental railroad link cuts coast-to-coast travel time from 3 months to 8 days (1869); and the US Civil War & Assassination of Lincoln (1861-1865). There are many more that could be chosen, of course.

The image to the right illustrates the result.

The character’s maternal grandmother was born in the year the South attempted to secede, triggering the Civil War. His maternal grandfather was more than 10 years old at that time, and as the war continued, was probably old enough to entertain childish notions of running off to war. He would certainly have remembered life in the era of slavery. Neither of his grandmothers would have seen the end of World War I.

The “great years” of the American Wild West, as romanticized in the 20th century, took place during the large gap in the dates. All his grandparents were of an age where the opportunities may have appealed. The character was not old enough to understand much of the first world war, but would have been shaped by the privations and hardships of the war effort – the meat-free days, flour-free days, and so on.

The most significant event in the character’s life would almost certainly be the Great Depression; he would have been greatly conscious of his professional opportunities vanishing from beneath his feet, and this – accompanied by the loss of his mother – are likely to have had strong formative influences over the person he has become.

His father almost certainly served during the First World War, and was the right sort of age to have been enlisted as a Sergeant – the slightly older man who knew how the world worked and could manage the men in a unit while the Officer, who had received specialized training in command, took care of the military side of things. His paternal Grandfather looks to have been old enough to resent not being permitted to join up and do his part in defeating the Kaiser.

It’s also worth noticing that his father’s parents are both younger than those of his mother, having had their child at a much younger age than this maternal grandparents. This becomes significant when compared with the Civil War period – both the maternal grandparents experienced the Civil War, while neither of his paternal grandparents did. This is likely to produce a generational divide in terms of social attitude between them.

When the character was a child, his parents were both young; his maternal grandfather was old; and his other grandparents were middle-aged. Now his father is middle-aged and is his only surviving direct relative.

It’s hard to go much further without localities and personalities. What’s clear is that the only really significant female presence in his life was his mother, while he would have had three quite disparate but strong (in their own ways) male influences. The character is probably masculine and might even be somewhat misogynistic as a result. It will take a very strong-willed woman to dominate him, and he is more likely to be attracted to a shy, demure type who will accede to his dominion.

The chart also offers a couple of unresolved questions. Is it coincidence that both his grandfathers died during the depression? Is it coincidence that his mother died just before the depression? Is it coincidence that both his grandmothers died during World War I? Did his father, in fact, serve during the Great War, and what impact has the experience had on him?

Sliding one of these charts just a year or two up or down can have a profound impact. If the character’s mother had died a year or two earlier, it would have occurred just as he was finishing his education, and could suggest that the character’s life choices upon entry to young adulthood were shaped by her absence. The relationship with his father would already be precarious because of World War I; with the added pressure of the Depression and the loss of his mother at a key point in his life, the character and his father might well have become estranged and the character have left home to make his own way in the world.

Getting A Life-line

There are two ways to get your hands on one of these planning tools for your own use. The first is to create your own, and if the culture in your campaign is at all different to that of the 20th and 21st century western world – i.e. the one that I have used – that’s what you will have to do, simply because the categories will either be different, or have boundaries at different key points, or both.

Or, if that isn’t the case, you can use the one that I included in the article earlier – simply right-click on the image and “Save as” or “open image in new tab” or whatever is your favored approach.

Or you could click on this link to open the graphic in a new tab.

Final Word

The events that our grandparents experienced shape them and their lives, and that in turn (plus the events that they experience) shapes our parents – and that shapes us. Applying this principle to the characters we create helps to make them richer and more complete as characters. The Life-line is a great tool for exploring the options available and shaping the character’s past to suit the personality that we want to create and the past that we want them to experience.

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Encampments and other In-Character Opportunities

Photo Credit: / Michael Faes

Photo Credit: / Michael Faes

When I was starting the original Fumanor (D&D 3.x) campaign, I tried to get the players to establish the sort of routines that would come naturally in real life.

You see this sort of thing in Fantasy novels all the time and it’s a great way for personalities to manifest and a useful tool for the GM.


Who is cooking the meals? Who gathers the firewood? Do they have to set up their own tent as well, or will that burden be shared amongst the other characters? What security measures in place? Who will be on-watch, if anyone, and when? Who is in charge of camp sanitation and digging a trench for the purpose?

The characters were gender-mixed – do they require two such trenches, or do they lengthen one and situate it so that underbrush provides privacy, or do they co-mingle? Who takes care of any pack animals / riding animals and do they have to set up their own tent as well? One-person, two-person, or four-person tents, and – if shared – who shares with whom, who carries the tent (do they rotate the burden?).

Who makes sure the campsite is clear of nasties, who clears the site of undergrowth, who chooses the campsite in the first place and what are their priorities, and so on. Do they hunt and gather daily, and in the morning or the evening, or do they rely on the stores that they are carrying? Who is most likely to encounter any wildlife?

The intent was to establish camp routines as an in-character exercise to help the players get to know each other’s characters, iron out any wrinkles in their processes, and then let those routines fade into the background as the characters progressed in levels to the point where they could handle most routine encounters – except as a planning tool for me to employ in describing the situation when something significant occurred.

On top of that, knowing how long they were taking to set up and break camp would tell me how many hours a day they had left for travel, and hence what distance they would cover in a day.

The characters were all of diverse backgrounds, and this was also to serve as a way for those with relevant knowledge to share that knowledge with the others. I wanted to emphasize that some of the characters were more familiar with and at-home in a wilderness setting, while others wouldn’t sleep well until the group were back in an urban environment, and still others would not be comfortable until they were back underground and didn’t have to look up at infinity all the time. This was a tool for making the differences between PCs relevant and significant, putting those differences ‘on-show’ for all to see.

The final purpose was to impart information to the players in a more organic way than a block of narrative delivered from on-high. I intended to color that information according to the source, again as a way of making who they were relevant to their daily lives and what they were doing.

Where Things Went Wrong

As you can see, there were an awful lot good reasons to roleplay the processes of encampment and the breaking of camp the next morning. Would it have worked out so harmoniously? I’ll never know, because one key player absolutely refused to play ball. “Our play time is limited and I don’t want to waste it on housekeeping”.

I had to concede that he had a point; we could only play the campaign once a month, and that’s not enough to spare a lot of time for things that don’t contribute directly to the story. On the other hand, I was looking on that ‘lost time’ as an investment that would enhance subsequent days of play, ultimately packing more game into the few hours we had available.

But he convinced the other players, so I shrugged my shoulders and let it slide.

Your situation may be different

For anyone not laboring under the constraints that we were under, this should be a no-brainer. Even some groups who do experience similar time pressures, this may still be a viable and valid technique for adding roleplay opportunities based on the daily routine. It follows that it deserves serious thought by the GM.

Photo Credit: / Cody Mummau

Photo Credit: / Cody Mummau

Campfire Chats, Rumors, and Misinformation

The situation was a little different when we started the Shards Of Divinity campaign.

Most of the PCs were supposed to be seasoned veterans who had more or less figured all that sort of practical stuff out a long time ago. You see this illustrated very clearly in parts of David Eddings The Belgariad although it isn’t until the sequel to that quintilogy, The Mallorean, that any attention is really paid to the point. Each member of the party in that story naturally falls to setting up the camp while playing to their individual strengths, maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of the group as a whole.

As a result, I didn’t ask the PCs; I told them: Character X is most skilled at Cooking, and so automatically takes charge of the evening meal. Characters Y and Z are the strongest, so they take charge of erecting defenses, gathering firewood as they do so, and digging a latrine. Character A is an experienced handler of animals, so he will look after the mounts and pack animals and feed, water, and brush them while checking them for problems like cuts and infections. Since everyone already has a job, all the other chores, like setting up the tents and cleaning the dishes and so on, gets shared evenly amongst you. That left only Character Zero, the first-level character who was central to the entire campaign, to feel like a fifth wheel. By the time he had his tent set up, the others were relaxing around the campfire and enjoying the smell of the meal being cooked. On top of that, because he was completely unskilled at such things, Character Zero was everybody’s assistant and dog’s-body; the dirtier and more tedious the job, the more quickly his name came to the fore.

Once this routine was spelt out, it was immediately ignored by everyone except when some part of it became significant, such as the time the donkey was tethered (by Character Zero) too close to the guy ropes of his tent and proceeded to eat them.

Instead, I intended to use the campaign down-time for a different purpose. I had carefully given each of the players a set of rumors that they had heard, and some little snippets of information that they had stumbled upon before the group had assembled. Some of these were mutually contradictory, some were outright fabrications or wild distortions of the truth, some told the same story from different points of view, and some told different parts of the one story. Put all of them together, and you could get a pretty good idea of a number of things that were going on.

The idea was that at the end of each in-game day, I would spark the conversation with “you aren’t sure how the subject came up, but you find yourselves talking about X”. Each player would then put in his two cents’ worth and the group would try and figure out what it meant. Some of these were clues to where dungeons could be found, some were about the reasons different NPC groups were doing the things they had been doing, some were about things that were going to happen in the future. As each subject was brought up, I would replenish the lists. Once play was underway, I intended to use the day’s events as a starting point for the conversations, assuming that they had become habitual elements of the gameplay. This was a way to ‘sneak’ background into the game without long-winded narrative on my part.

Where Things Went Wrong

This plan fell apart for three reasons. First, a couple of players with key pieces of information to impart who had committed to the campaign bailed after only a session or two. That alone might have been close to fatal, but could have been worked around simply by adding to what the remaining players ‘knew’ or ‘had heard’. In at least one case, the character remained as an NPC even though the player had gone, giving me still greater opportunities to utilize the technique.

In order to understand the second reason, you have to first understand that these were all Evil characters uniting with each other for mutual profit and protection, and that I had been at pains to point out what an alignment of “Evil” meant in this particular campaign. What it did not mean was a character who was incapable of mutual cooperation, a character who would not assist the group out of enlightened self-interest. Unfortunately, that was how they all approached their characters to at least some extent. None of them wanted to share what they knew for fear of losing some advantage over the others, and as a result, none of them gained any advantage over anyone outside of the group, either.

And the third reason? The same player, with the same argument, as the previous case discussed: “We have limited time and I don’t want to waste it on idle chatter.”

This really irked me in this particular case, because gaming to me is more than encounters and combat and loot; this was part of playing the characters. It wasn’t as though there was a deadline – “you have to reach the dungeon before December 23rd, real time”; if it took an extra couple of minutes once a session – and that was all I was seriously proposing – then it was time well-spent because it brought the world to life, it meant that I was giving the players raw information about which they could make up their own minds instead of putting polished interpretations into their heads, and I was signposting choices that the characters didn’t know they had (One player took this notion to the point of inventing his own stories rather than relaying what the character supposedly knew)!

If it weren’t for the other two reasons, I would have fought a lot harder to keep this game element, this part of the adventure format, going. I was convinced that once the first concrete benefit materialized to show the way, the objection would be forgotten, or at least, overruled. The real killer was problem #2. Without the willingness to share information that meant nothing to the individual in isolation, but which might have become significant when married to what other characters knew, the tactic was doomed to failure.

Your situation may be different

Once again, for a different group under different circumstances, this could be a very viable technique. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, in principle.

To make it work, the PCs need to be more inclined to collaborate and cooperate; the GM has to be willing to invest both the prep time and game-time required; and he has to be up-front in telling the players that a lot of their key background information will be arriving in this format.

Creating the Snippets

Each character brought three key points of view to the table: Race/Social, Geography, and Class Education. To create the snippets of “rumor, hearsay, and background”, these needed to be considered.

I would start by writing a simple and straightforward statement of events. “A cult in the town of Cromin was trying to resurrect a radical spiritual leader as a lich. The Paladins of nearby Thorwist discovered the plot, sealed all the exits to the town, and burnt it to the ground; there were no survivors.”

Next, I would examine this story from the three points of view of each character – what might they have heard about the story, and how might it have been colored by their perspectives? Each part of the story gets dismembered and allocated to different characters. If a given character has no particular perspective that is relevant to the story, they may have heard a generic rumor; I rolled d8+2 to get a score out of ten for how distorted their account was.

So one character might hear that there was a cult in Cromin; another might hear that there was a Lich in Cromin; a third would hear that the Paladins of Thorwist burned a town alive; a fourth heard the same thing, but it was a town where the whole population were undead; a fourth would simply know that there was a tragic fire in Corwin (note: wrong town!) in which the entire town was consumed; and a fifth might know that the Paladins of Thorwist are obsessively zealous about destroying undead. A sixth might get the whole story completely wrong – “a Lich burned the entire order of Paladins in Thorwist alive” – as might a seventh: “One of the members of the Paladins of Thorwist is secretly a Lich.”

Putting all those together, while they are in one place, is relatively easy. But scatter them at random amongst 11 other rumors or snippets of information (or misinformation – always allow for the possibility of ‘spin’ by someone with a vested interest!) and it’s hard to pick out the right pieces that go together to make this particular jigsaw puzzle.

Recent events, malicious stories, misunderstood decisions, paranoia, misinformation, the occasional bit of prophecy, and an anecdote or two (especially if it has a cautionary element or other such appeal as a story – the hard part shouldn’t be coming up with the rumors to give to each player, it should be in knowing when and where to stop.

The final step is to expand on the starting points, dressing them up into a full ‘story’ by inventing additional details out of whole cloth. This usually consists of answering any of the basic six questions – Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How – that aren’t already covered. (I also liked to throw in the occasional thing that one character had ‘heard’ but that another character knew to be untrue, or distorted, or absolute gospel, simply as a way of teaching the players how the rumors “work”.

In a number of cases, I hadn’t even decided what the truth was – I was going to wait and see what the players came up with and use that as my inspiration, or – at the very least – my starting point. If the players decided to go and investigate the ruins of Corwin, for example, I might have decided that not all of the cultists perished, and the survivors are trying again. Or maybe that they never intended to raise a Lich, but were being persecuted by the Paladins. Whatever was most interesting and entertaining in terms of supplying a day’s play would be ‘the truth’. Until then, it was all rumor and speculation!

Photo Credit: / Shalom Pennington

Photo Credit: / Shalom Pennington

Everyday Life Creates a sense of reality

The approach employed in my Zenith-3, Warcry, and Adventurer’s Club campaigns has been rather more successful. It stems from the assumption that at the time an at any given moment, people don’t distinguish between the crisis’s of everyday life and those with larger, longer-term ramifications; the sense of personal involvement in the smaller events more than compensates for their relatively trivial nature.

From that assumption, it becomes clear that signpost events in the personal lives of the character deserve screen time and attention just as much as the latest cosmic menace or weirded-out supervillain. This principle is also taken into consideration when awarding experience points.

One of the reasons this approach is working is because it helps the players feel like they are spending time ‘in the shoes’ of their characters. Another is because I work carefully to balance good with bad, using the principles of the favorite pseudo-science of the 1970s, Biorhythms, as inspiration. In general, there are times when the whole of the character’s life will seem stuffed up, and one shoe drops after another, and times when some aspects of the character’s life are positive and others negative – and even times when everything seems to be coming up roses. What the actual traits being modeled are vary from character to character and even from one occasion to the next.

The final reason this is working is because I’ve been fairly successful at blending events of greater significance with events of personal importance and relating the two to each other. Some background encounters are designed to do nothing more than make the character’s life seem real, but some introduce important NPCs and evolutions within the campaign background and even hints and clues as to the major action that is about to unfold or has just occurred.

It’s a very human thing, but how often has some event taken place and resonated with a recent conversation on a related subject? You hear news of the event and think, ” I was just talking to someone about that the other day”. We completely forget about the other 9,999 topics that came up in conversation that don’t manifest in more significant events and zero in on the ones that do. Spiritualists and “Mind Readers” have been exploiting this for over a century; in fact, it works so well because the human mind is ready and willing to do at least half the work for the fraud/entertainer. The ‘psychic’ or medium says something like “I sense some involvement with water or the sea” and the subject reviews their life and that of everyone they knew for just such a connection, e.g. “My Uncle Jake was a deep-sea fisherman and often used to talk about his love of the sea”; the rest of the audience then inadvertently welds two and two together and afterwards remembers the event as the psychic making contact with the subject’s Uncle. This is a very crude explanation, and modern performers are far more skilled at it.

I realized some time ago that as a GM, I could take advantage of this phenomenon simply by having many of the trivial events of the day be the ones in which the character makes just such a connection. Not all of them, of course – that would be far too obvious – but every character gets the occasional piece of ‘wheat’ amongst the ‘chaff’. And, of course, some of the daily events link directly to the major plotline of the day, sometimes in surprising ways. One character may be asked by a friend for a favor, only for the later adventure to be the result of one NPC doing a favor for another, for example.

By deliberately choosing to (briefly) roleplay these moments of serendipitous synchronicity, when the players look back on the events of the day’s play, or even the previous hour’s play, their character’s life seems more sweaty and real, because what we have roleplayed are . the events that the character would remember as real, as the flavor and milestone of the day or the week or whatever.

The Bottom Line

The more of a character’s personal life that can be conducted in-character, the better a game will be. That includes characters trying to figure out what may have happened in a distant place (and what it means for them) and what their daily routines will be and seemingly trivial conversations that just happen to have a thematic similarity to larger events. Work with your players to create and exploit these opportunities, and your campaign will be enriched for both players and GM in the process.

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Ask The GMs: Death Is Only The Beginning: Resurrection Penalties Examined

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

The notion of resurrection penalties is almost as old as the notion of resurrection in RPGs. It’s fictional antecedents go back even further, into the inspiration sources used by the designers of the game in the first place – everything from Dante’s Inferno to Gandalf’s return in The Lord Of The Rings, and even Sauron’s return from something close to death in the same source, returning from death always exacts a price of some sort.

Certainly, in game balance terms, something of the sort is essential or there is no danger associated with the taking of risks. Being able to hit a ‘reset’ button takes the challenge out of the game for the characters, and hence for the players.

Ask the gamemasters

Derek, a new GM, wrote:

“I want to give a resurrection to a PC who was dead in the game, however I think it will be interesting if the resurrection brings him back to life but with a few losses. For example he might live once more, but miss some willpower. But that idea seems not very funny. Could you give me advice and more interesting ideas? Thanks a lot.” (edited for clarity)

There’s a lot that’s unsaid in this request, so some assumptions are going to have to be made. Certainly, if he were running D&D or Pathfinder, a quick glance at the Resurrection spell would reveal that the resurrected creature loses a level or 2 points of CON if they don’t have a level to lose; and certainly, if a different mechanism is used to resurrect the dead character, there is absolutely no reason why they couldn’t suffer a WISdom loss instead of a CON loss.

The bigger question is why that should be the case, because Derek is quite right: without some sort of context to wrap around it, it’s not very interesting, and there is certainly no fun to be had by the player whose character has been affected.

Death In The Hood by George Hodan

Image Credit: / George Hodan

Eight Prices To Pay – General Advice

There are eight types of price that can be paid, varying in degree of impact on the character. And always, the question that needs to be answered before selecting one or more of them, is “why”; why is that appropriate? How is it an outgrowth of established campaign elements?

Making the price to be paid an extension of the campaign as already experienced by the players has two effects of significance: First, the internal consistency lends that price a plausibility and justifiability that makes players more willing to accept it as “the cost of doing business”; and second, it reinforces those existing campaign elements, making other consequences of the campaign’s premises more believable. Both of those make the situation more entertaining to play, because the difficulties that result are neither whimsical nor capricious, but are challenges to be overcome.

It is possible to choose one of these penalties to occur in undiluted form, or a range of penalties; it is always the GM’s responsibility to be measured in his choices, with so many options available it is easy to go too far. Above all, you must never choose a combination that takes away a characters’ freedom of action without the player’s total cooperation and a way of restoring it.

Players will generally be fine with the GM completely rewriting who they are as a consequence of in-game events provided that it is temporary and they can see a pathway to regaining the freedom of action, personality, etc, that they have lost.

This divides the price(s) to be paid into two parts: the semi-permanent and the transient. In effect, the transient price is not actually the cost of the resurrection; the cost of the resurrection is the additional challenge to be overcome. So long as the player knows this, and knows that the GM recognizes that the best long-term outcome from the point of view of the campaign as a whole is for them to succeed in overcoming that challenge. If you get the player on-side and make suffering the cost of regeneration fun for them, they will accept almost anything you can throw at them. If you don’t, they will fight you every step of the way.

Physical Prices

Loss of stats. A permanent -1 HP per hit die. Loss of a level. These are all either direct physical prices or simulations of indirect physical prices.

Arguably, there is a physical process involved in the reanimation of the dead, especially those who died through violence. The damage has to be undone or they will promptly die again.

In past campaigns, I have established that Resurrection returns a character to life but at zero hit points, meaning they will quickly expire once again unless healing is provided – and even then they are likely to be weak for a while if you limit the number of cure potions and strength of healing spells on the basis that spirit and body need time to bind back together, and the healing potions leave the body healed, preserving the current weak connection between the two.

Resurrection should never be just a magic ‘reset’ button, should never be unlimited, and should never be something that anyone can take for granted – unless that’s exactly what you wanted – something I’ll come back to in a later section.

Mental Prices

It’s not unreasonable for there to be confusion in those who have been returned from the dead. Memories may be lost, for example, and things that once seemed clear may be all mixed up.

According to this article, which is reviewing a study of the psychological effects of cardiac arrest and therefore of resuscitation, between 15 and 50% of cardiac arrest survivors suffer serious mental effects as a result. “Months to years after surviving cardiac arrest, about one-third of patients were depressed and nearly two-thirds were experiencing anxiety. Even PTSD symptoms were surprisingly common, afflicting 19 percent to 27 percent of survivors.”

The surprising thing is that anyone might be surprised by this. By definition, a cardiac episode is life-threatening in exactly the same way as a gunshot wound; that there is a similarity in after-effects seems obvious.

Actually dying and being revived is obviously going to be far more traumatic than life simply being threatened. Even seasoned combatants who had assimilated the dangers of their daily lives would almost certainly be affected.

The question that the GM needs to consider is whether or not these psychological effects enhance the gameplay experience for the players; if not, the GM needs to find a way to prevent, undo, ignore, or limit what seems to be the inevitable. I would expect the latter to be the case virtually every time, so I’ll get to a way to do just that in a moment. But first: anyone who has ambitions to take the load less traveled – or who has a player wanting to do so – should make sure that both of you watch the West Wing Season 2 episode “Noël” which puts the symptoms under the spotlight. You can buy the box set of that season from Amazon, or can this Wikipedia page and this page on the West Wing Wiki. Finally, this critical review of the narrative techniques employed may help to make sense of what you are seeing if you find it too deep (I didn’t but some might), and also contains a 5-minute extract that climaxes the episode – though that isn’t as helpful as actually seeing the incidents in flashback that led to the conversation.

But, assuming that most of the time, you want to avoid having the PC come down with PTSD because it’s not much fun for the player, the best solution is to fold that trauma into some still deeper and more meaningful event that will be fun for the player. I talk about those under Spiritual Prices, below.

Material Prices

According to the rulebooks, Resurrection is expensive. That’s to keep the process unavailable to just anyone. When I first started playing D&D it was quite common for PCs to tithe to a “Death Fund” to cover the price of resurrecting any party member killed. What’s more, anyone who drew on the fund to get themselves brought back was required to sell or donate half of their possessions by value back into the fund – which, in some cases, was more than they had taken out of it. Eventually, the fund had enough that a lone survivor could bring back the entire party if the worst happened (unfortunately, that lone survivor turned out to be the party thief, who pocketed the lot and retired, ending the campaign – or so he thought, but that’s another story).

Many years ago, I designed a Traveler campaign (with Stephen Tunicliff in which the über-wealthy could afford infinite ‘youth rejuvenations’ – effectively, resurrections – using a healing process discovered during a failed teleportation experiment. This device rebuilt the political heads of the Old Empire from the ground up every time they came close to death. Of course, it was a state secret! The problem was that copying errors accumulated over time, so that – while they might be young – replacement organs for all sorts of ailments needed to be transplanted from donors, usually involuntary. Inevitably, the leadership became more conservative, more entrenched in its thinking, more inbred (because it was only safe for the few children who were born to marry others who already knew ‘the secret”), and more authoritarian. Inevitably, half-truths leaked out as rumors, and people grew tired of repression and extreme conservatism, and a rebellion arose. Which was where the PCs were to come in… This is the sort of idea that I was making allowance for when I wrote that resurrection should usually be limited in the number of times it could be applied!

The question that automatically arises whenever you consider material costs as a restriction is always “How Expensive? Is this price too much? Is it too little? Should there be more to the price than mere wealth?”

An obvious way to further restrict resurrection is to incorporate the need for some exotic material component, one that money can’t buy because it is so hard to find – or perhaps, one that money can’t buy because most people are unwilling to go to the necessary extent, a topic I’ll come back to in “Moral Prices” a little later!

I can never consider this topic without calling to mind part of the story one of the most famous tycoons of modern Australian history, Kerry Packer:

“Packer reportedly suffered as many as four heart attacks. In 1990, while playing polo at Warwick Farm, Sydney, he suffered from a heart attack that left him clinically dead for six minutes. Packer was revived by paramedics” [using a defibrillator] “…and then airlifted to St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney” where he “received bypass surgery from Dr Victor Chang (a pioneering Australian cardiac surgeon).

“It was not common for an ambulance to have a defibrillator at the time — it was purely by chance that the ambulance which responded to the call had one fitted. After recovering, Packer donated a large sum to the Ambulance Service of New South Wales to pay for equipping all NSW ambulances with a portable defibrillator” (colloquially known for a time afterwards as ‘Packer Whackers’). “He told [State Premier] Nick Greiner, ‘I’ll go you 50/50’, and the NSW State government paid the other half of the cost.”

The only reason Packer survived to undergo heart surgery was because chance made available a piece of then-exotic (and, at the time, reasonably expensive – I have vague memories of Packer’s share being AU$24,900 per ambulance) technology. Had it not been present, all his wealth would not have sufficed. It follows that it might not be some rare material that is required but a rare process or facility – and that if it is not nearby, ready, and waiting, all the wealth and expertise (in the form of clerical levels) that one can find will not be enough.

But that’s more the sort of tactic that a GM should employ if he wants to make it impossible (in practical terms) for anyone to be resurrected (aside perhaps from a very coddled branch of those über-wealthy who had prepared in advance. Still, it’s a relatively simple limitation to emplace in order to achieve that effect.

Spiritual Prices

Another phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with being brought back from the dead is the spiritual experience. In any universe in which an afterlife is real, questions immediately arise – how long does it take for a soul to make the journey? What does it see and experience? What happens when the soul is brought back, what are the sensations?

And what if the afterlife that is experienced is something different to what the character is expecting? Or the character doesn’t experience any afterlife at all, for whatever reason? How could your faith not be shaken?

That of course, is only the beginning. Adding to all of this you have potential manipulation by known deceivers with vested interests throwing their own manipulations into the mix, and the scrambling of memories discussed earlier thrown on top of that. Fragments of experiences only dimly understood at best – can anyone fail to be transformed, transfigured, transmuted into something else? Not necessarily for the better, of course.

Regardless, such transformations always come with a price tag attached. The price is social and personal; the people who the character once trusted and believed may now be seen as charlatans and frauds. People who were once reviled may now be seen as allies. Public positions both popular and unpopular that would once have been anathema to the character may now be very vocally supported.

All this is grist for the GM to employ. He can present revelations, undermine and radicalize stale campaign elements, turn the entire game world on its head – and then, if it isn’t working, expose the entire transformation as a manipulation by supernatural agents for their own purposes. As always, whenever you do something that radical, make sure that you have an exit strategy!

The key is to have these changes emerge naturally as a consequence of the “experience” that the character has during the death/ afterlife/ return sequence of events. Convince the player and he will do the rest.

Moral Prices

For one to live again, another must die. Or ten lives must be shortened by a tenth. Or perhaps one can only be returned to life if both Heaven and Hell grant permission – and Hell will only do so if their price is paid. For this to work, the character must be reasonably moral in their outlook, or the price exacted by Hell must be something that the character will feel personally. Some NPC that the character cares about might die or be ruined, for example. Wives and Children work well. Or it could be more subtle – estrangements and corruptions.

Or perhaps, for one person to be returned to life, a soul that was destined to be born at that time will be lost.

This sort of price may not be revealed until after the fact, causing the character to have to live with the knowledge of what his return cost. Or it may be known in advance and be something that the character’s friends have to share in.

Social Prices

Not enough GMs give enough thought to the social consequences of being returned from the dead. Inheritances have always been a motive for crime, especially fraud and murder. What happens when it becomes possible for people to spend that inheritance in order to come back from the dead? Or even if there is no financial cost, people have just barely come to terms with having received a windfall when it is snatched away from them.

Or perhaps, it isn’t. The voting living will always outnumbered the resurrected, and it’s in the best interests of the living to disenfranchise those who have returned from the dead.

Many social institutions are affected by death. In addition to inheritances, marriages are dissolved, and widows free to remarry, for example. Parental rights are another social issue. Death is like an instant divorce with no opportunity to negotiate. Things become even more intense if divorce is not socially acceptable in the game society.

There should always be a social consequence to resurrection.

But this category doesn’t end there. Layered on top of all of that is the public and religious attitude to death and to the resurrected, especially if they sometimes come back with “strange” ideas and attitudes. I have visions of mobs with pitchforks and torches storming an inn because there’s a rumor that there’s a “walking dead” staying there…

Metaphysical Prices

This is one of the most unusual concepts for GMs to consider. It draws on some of the concepts from Gandalf’s return in The Lord Of The Rings and suggests that metagame concepts like class and race are rendered temporarily malleable during the transition from life to death and back again.

Absolutely nothing is beyond the scope of this concept. It functions because of the assumption that these metagame changes that apply to this character only, a legacy of his unique experience, are reflections of a metaphysical change in the character. Balance should be preserved, of course; the character needs to still be recognizable as having been who they were.

Survivor Guilt

The final price to consider is something that should be obvious in reflection but, once again, is not all that commonly considered: Survivor Guilt. Technically, this is considered a common symptom of PTSD, which of course was referenced under “Mental Prices” earlier, but in this case it needs to be called out because under this circumstance, it can and should go beyond that.

This one character has been brought back from the dead, an extraordinarily rare event. Why was he the one who was lucky enough? Why was this beloved husband, this best friend, this wise man, this spiritual leader, this brilliant thinker, why were they not good enough? Is fate so capricious?

The character might or might not feel it – that’s up to the player. But everyone in the game world who has ever lost anyone will be asking the character these questions. Some will be sad, some angry, but all will be accusing. Anywhere that the character is both known and the fact of his or her resurrection recognized, they will face these questions.

This consequence is amplified if there is some means of detecting or identifying those who have been subject to the process of resurrection. This can be a physical or spiritual mark or taint or residue.

The Price You Pay

Players often think of resurrection as being the equivalent of a saved position in a video-game. The character gets to come back and pick up their involvement in the game from where they left off. Any minor penalties or consequences are written off, ignored as simply the price of needing this intervention. It shouldn’t be that way; resurrection should be a big deal, and an important decision. It should have consequences. It should matter.

Resurrection without penalty?

There is only one argument that I can think of that is both valid and supports an opposing perspective. That may be my personal limitation, I don’t know.

That argument is that there are things that the GM still wants the character to do within the campaign. There may be all sorts of plotlines underway that focus on the character, plotlines that will simply collapse and end with the lasting death of the character. I’ve had this happen myself, when the character who was the principle focus of the Shards Of Divinity campaign was killed. And again, when that character was killed a second time. And once more when it happened for a third time.

It’s perfectly within the GM’s prerogative to waive the price of resurrection when the character is considered essential, or simply to defer the character’s death until a more convenient time. It must be understood by all at the table that this is an exceptional response to an unusual circumstance.

While I pulled pre-prepared strings to being the character in question back from the dead, it was always in such a way that neither the player nor the character could take it for granted, and there was always a price attached, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt.

The game exists for everyone to have fun. If you – or the player – are convinced that they can’t have fun with a replacement character, then reality has to stretch a little out of shape in order to maintain that fun. Everything else is less important than that.

And that’s an important lesson for GMs to take on board; it’s not about what might be fun for them (though that’s important, too); it’s what will be most fun for the whole group. Before you make any decisions about resurrection of a character, talk to the player. Discuss the options and alternatives with them. If the price of resurrection is to be radically different to that in the rulebooks, players need to know that up-front. So many of the things discussed in this article are only possible with the permission, approval, and cooperation of the player – and you don’t want to make the other players feel like you’re playing favorites, so they need to be consulted as well.

Next in this series: GMing large groups revisited – which games work best?

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The Best Of 2014 Pt 2: July-December

Photo Credit: / Alex Bramwell

Photo Credit: / Alex Bramwell

This is Campaign Mastery’s

800th post!

But it didn’t feel right to make a big celebration out of that milestone after touting the 750th-post anniversary so prominently last year. Instead, it’s business as usual – except that this particular article is, of course, a celebration of the achievements that helped get the blog to this point!

So, here are the stats worth knowing: 1.11 million page views, 36% visitor loyalty, 406,000 visitors.

Let’s put those numbers into perspective by dividing them by 800: An average of 1,387.5 views of each article, 499.5 by loyal readers and 888 by first-time visitors – 320 of whom will come back at some future point to read another article.

And yet. those numbers are misleading. Compared to this time last year, Campaign Mastery has 6.4% more readers every day, every article, every week, every month.

Here’s another perspective: Up through November 2013, the pattern of readers was a gradually-rising sine wave, rising and falling over a period of about 7 months. This had been the pattern following the euphoric Ennie nomination a year earlier. Something happened in December of 2014, some threshold was crossed; what it was, I don’t know, but it had a profound impact on the readership. What used to be the cycle peak value in readers suddenly became the reliable minimum, with occasional articles – four of them in 2014 – attracting an extra two or three thousand readers in those months when they were published. The 750th celebrations represented another milestone, another threshold: the new minimums each month is the average of those four exceptional months last year, and at least two of the last six months have shown a significant increase over even that bottom line.

What’s more, It’s my (admittedly prejudiced) opinion that the articles that have been published here in the last year have been better than those published the year before, which in turn were better than those the year before, and so on. Certainly, the feedback I have received has given that impression!

So there’s an awful lot to celebrate!

During the period with which this article is concerned, there were 66,201 articles read by 25,137 readers, 37% of whom had been to the site at least once before. Year-on-year, this was pretty much unchanged from the previous year in terms of number of visits but slightly down in other metrics. That’s actually pretty good, because that 2013 period included the 500th post and a couple of others that received greater than usual attention.

There’s some pretty good stuff here….


The Best Of 2014 Pt 2: July-December

As always, this list is very subjective, and you may not agree with my choices, but I have selected – with great care, and reviewing each contender individually – 28 for your reading pleasure.

Scoring 10/10:

These are the best of the best from this 6-month period. And there’s rather a lot of them.

Scoring 9/10:

Almost as good, but these aren’t going to suit everyone.

Honorable Mentions 8/10:

It might have escaped your attention, but in part one of this presentation of “The Best of 2014” a rating of 8/10 was enough to make the main list. That’s a measure of how many really good articles I was able to put up during this six-month period! As usual, I’ve included comments on just where these fell short of the standard:

So we’re almost half-way through 2016. According to my original schedule, this article should have been published about a year ago, and I should be publishing “The Best Of 2015” about now. But plans change; my current intention is for the next in this series to be published in January 2017, again splitting the year in two, with the second half appearing mid-year. “The Best of 2016, Part 1” should follow in early 2018, and so on.

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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Servomech: User-friendly Encumbrance in RPGs

Photo by Ferdinand Reus - Flickr [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo by Ferdinand Reus – Flickr [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

This article was inspired by a Facebook post by Toolmaster way back in July 2015 on Dungeons & Dragons Memes, a facebook community run by The d20 Collective who offer various gaming-related clothing (and some cups) for sale.

This post was then shared by GM’s Day, which is another Facebook community, this one run by Creative Mountain Games, which is the game publisher run by a twitter acquaintance of mine, Mark Clover, who is extremely active in the gaming community, posting links to material of interest to gamers daily on both Twitter and Facebook, running a trio of online gaming communities, both in his own name and in the name of Creative Mountain.

The post asked the question,

GMs: Are you strict with encumberance rules? An oddly important rule set that most people disregard.

Various GMs and players responded. I wasn’t one of them because I knew that I wanted to make a more substantial response. In fact, I’ve been convinced for a long time that there’s got to be a better way of handling the whole question of encumberance, something that is more abstract and less intrusive, without sacrificing too much of the realism that these systems provide when they are used.

The suspicion that just such a system has been bouncing around the back of my head, off and on, for the entire almost-a-year since the original Facebook post got me to thinking about it. In large part, I was inspired by the system described in response to the question by Emily Rachel Falder, an expat Brit living in Canada. Emily explicitly states in her response that her group (No indication as to whether she is a player or the GM) found the system that her group uses online somewhere but doesn’t know or remember where or whom:

We enforce a different system than the usual rules, in which the GM assigns each item as either “significant weight” or “insignificant weight”. Players can carry as many insig items as they can fit on their sheets, but each signif item has a number, the total of which is compared against their STR score to see how encumbered they are. We found this system online but I don’t have the original source handy.

Now, this is an interesting idea, but I think it goes a little too far into the abstract in one sense and a little too far into the game-mechanical in another. As I said to myself at the time, “interesting, on the right track, but there has to be a better way.”

At last, I think I’ve found that “better way”, inspired by a number of sources. What’s more, with a little tweaking of the interface, this system should be something close to Universal, applicable to any RPG.

Character Strength Scale

There are a couple of things that the GM needs to know in order to use this encumberance system. The first is the basic die roll used for strength and stat checks. If that’s a d6, then there is a x4 scale – don’t worry about what that means, I’ll explain in a minute. If it’s 2d6, there is a x3 scale. A d10 or d12 is a x2 scale. 3d6, 4d6, d20, and d30 are all the x1 scale. d% is a x1/4 scale.

Each character needs to know their Scaled Strength. This is simply the character’s Strength score multiplied by the scale and rounded up.


  • a character with a strength of 4 on the 1d6 scale multiplies his strength by the scaling factor to get his scaled strength – 4 x4 =16;
  • A character with a strength of 8 on the d10 scale has a scaled strength of 8 x2 =16;
  • A character with a strength of 17 on the 3d6 – 4d6 – d20 – d30 scale has a scaled strength of 17;
  • A character with a strength of 67 on the d% scale has a scaled strength of 16.75 which rounds to 17;

…and so on.

Total Lifting Capacity

The second number that will be required is the total weight that the character can dead-lift. Some rules, like the Hero System, define this explicitly, others don’t.

How about DnD 3.x / Pathfinder? They list a “heavy load” range – is that the same thing?

Actually, no, because the implication is that the character can still move while carrying that load. To convert this, we need to know define how much more the character can lift while immobile relative to the maximum that they can lift and remain mobile.

This means getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. In essence, the highest weight listed for the character’s STR value in the heavy load column is the maximum they can carry and move, so that load is the equivalent of the highest load that confers an encumberance level permitting Greater-than-zero movement.

If you examine the carrying capacity tables (Table 9-1 on page 162 in the 3.x PHB, Table 7-4 on page 171 in the Pathfinder Core Rules), you can determine that these are defining a three-interval system with the final column (0% movement, 100% encumbered) not shown. That means there are 2 intermediate values in between no encumberance (light load) and total encumberance, and I show below that this is the equivalent of values of 100%, 2/3, 1/3, and 0%. So the highest Heavy-Load weight is 2/3 of the character’s ultimate total lifting capability.

  • For a character of STR 10, that’s 100 lbs, so the character’s total lift capacity is 100 x 3 / 2 = 150 lbs.
  • For a character of STR 20, that’s 400 lbs, so the character’s total lift capacity is 400 x 3 / 2 = 600 lbs.
  • For a character of STR 30, that’s 1600 lbs, so the character’s total lift capacity is 1600 x 3 / 2 = 2400 lbs.

The too-clever-by-half might notice that these are the values that are three places higher on the respective tables. If you look up STR 13 on the tables, you get a highest number in the heavy load column of 150 lbs; if you look up STR 23, you get 600 lbs; and if you look up (and work out, because the tables don’t go that high) STR 33, you get 2400 lbs. THIS DOESN’T WORK FOR OTHER VALUES ON THE TABLE, so don’t get used to using it as a shortcut.

Unencumbered Movement

The third thing that you will need to know is the Unencumbered Movement rate, also known as the base movement rate, of the typical character. This could be measured in feet, or in scaled inches, or in meters – it doesn’t matter.

Stages of Encumberance

The first thing that the GM needs to decide are the stages of Encumberance. There are three ways to define this – as a fixed reduction in movement rate, as a percentage of the movement rate, or as a fraction of the movement rate. These describe the effects of encumbrance on movement and index any other consequences that the GM wants to apply.

Fixed reduction

If the typical movement rate is 30ft (or less), there are some obvious choices: -5′, -6′, and -10′. If the typical movement rate is 25m (probably over a different time interval), -5 is the obvious choice. If the typical movement rate is 10″ of scale movement or 10 hexes of scale movement, the choice that leaps out is also -5 – but if the typical rate is 12″, -4 and -3 are also viable contenders.

What is required is the ability to list a range of movement, from maximum to 0 based on these reductions.

Maximum is “unencumbered”, by definition. Zero is “fully encumbered”, again by definition – the character can’t do anything but lift the load; if he wants to move, he will have to let go. There has to be at least one intermediate stage (which is why -5 at a 10″ scale doesn’t work).

Let’s say 24″ is the typical maximum, and -6 is the fixed reduction. You would then get a range of 24, 18, 12, 6. and 0. What the system requires, going forward, is the Interval Count. In this case, 24-18 is one, 18-12 is two, 12-6 is three, and 6-0 is four. The Interval Count is always one less than the number of entries in the range – so, we had five entries (starting with 24 and ending with 0), and there four intervals as a result.

I recommend using 4 or 5 intervals; 3 is generally the minimum acceptable.

It’s actually important later in the system to convert the results into a percentage of the maximum – so 24 becomes 100% (24), and the other values in the example offered are 75%, 50%, 25%, and 0%.

Percentage Movement

This starts with 100% and reduces the movement rate by a fixed percentage that adds up to zero. You might use 25% (four intervals) or 20% (five intervals). You then multiply the resulting series of percentages by the initial movement rate. If the game system always gives movement as a simple number, like D&D, the fixed interval approach is usually simpler. Where they are more variable or wide-ranging, such as the hero system, the fixed percentage change of Fractional Movement gets around this diversity. It doesn’t matter if some characters run at 500 miles an hour and others fly at Mach 2.4 (as is the case with the Hero System, if you build your characters appropriately); you simply apply the percentage to the rate of movement and calculate what that reduction in percentage means to that particular character.

Let’s set an interval of 25% for example. The range is 100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, and 0%. If a character has a movement rate of 34 hexes, the intervals translate for that character as 34, 75% x34 = 25.5, which rounds in the characters favor to 26, 17, 8.5 (which rounds in the character’s favor to 9), and 0.

Again, the key number needed going forward is the number of intervals, which is one less than the number of entries in the scale, and the recommendation is 3-5.

Fractional Movement

This system starts by defining the number of intervals the GM wants and then converting that first into percentages and then into movement rates. From trying it the other way around, I can state that this should seem fairly clear to readers at this point, but was very difficult to describe without the examples of the previous methods.

To get the % of movement lost, divide 100 by one more than the number of intervals, or by 1 more than the number of intermediate encumberance levels that the GM wants.


  • to get 2 intermediate encumberance levels, you calculate 100 / (2+1) =33.3% steps: 100%, 2/3, 1/3, and 0%.
  • to get 3 intermediate encumberance levels, you calculate 100 / (3+1) =25% steps: 100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, and 0%.
  • to get 4 intermediate encumberance levels, you calculate 100 / (4+1) =20% steps: 100%, 80%, 60%, 40%, 20%, and 0%.
  • to get 5 intermediate encumberance levels, you calculate 100 / (5+1) =16.67% steps: 100%, 5/6, 2/3, 1/2, 1/3, 1/6, and 0%.

Casual Strength

A concept that comes from the Hero System is the notion of Casual Strength. This is the strength that the character can use without exerting himself – it’s everything from the firmness of handshake (ignoring psychological effects) to how firmly the character opens doors to the amount of force the character exerts on the floor when walking/running, to how firmly he grips his coffee mug in the morning. A character of immense strength tends to break things around them purely by accident.

This notion is so useful that it is applied to the encumberance system to represent the amount an item has to weigh before it becomes significant and needs to be assessed as a load by the GM.

The Hero System calculates casual strength as half of the character’s normal strength score – but that’s a very problematic approach to quantify, because the Hero system uses a geometric scale for it’s stats, each +5 being twice as much as the previous score. The normal character has strength of 10, so a character with strength 15 is twice as strong as one of Strength 10, a character of Strength 20 is four times as strong, a character of Strength 25 is eight times as strong, strength 30 is 16 times, and so on.

A character of Strength 60 is therefore 1,024 times as strong as the “average” or “normal” character.

Let’s look at what that means for Casual Strength as a percentage of the character’s full strength:

  • Str 60: 1/2 of 60 is 30, so casual strength is 100% x 8/1024 = approx 0.8% of the character’s Strength.
  • Str 30: 1/2 of 30 is 15, so casual strength is 100% x 2/16 = 12.5% of the character’s Strength.
  • Str 20: 1/2 of 20 is 10, so casual strength is 100% x 1/4 = 25% of the character’s Strength.
  • Str 10: 1/2 of 10 is 5, so casual strength is 100% x 0.5/1 = 50% of the character’s Strength.
  • Str 0: 1/2 of 0 is 0, so casual strength is 100% x 0.25/0.25 = 100% of the character’s Strength.
  • Str -10: 1/2 of -10 is -5, so casual strength is 100% x 0.125/0.065 = 200% of the character’s Strength.

It was that last result that convinced me, when working on the Zenith-3 rules, that the official casual strength system was good in theory but broken in implementation.


There were a couple of errors in the math originally presented above. Blame it on the panic of trying to finish this off at the last moment. These have now been corrected, and thanks to Pierre Parent for noticing them and bringing them to my attention!

Instead, I defined it as 10% of the character’s Carry, which is itself 1/2 of the character’s Lift. Let’s compare the results:

  • Str 60: Lift is 1024x25kg = 25,600 kg. Carry is 12,800 kg. One tenth of 12,800 is 1280 kg. A character of STR 34 can carry this load with a small margin left over, while a character of STR 33 can’t – so the Casual Strength of the character is 34.
  • Str 30: Lift is 1600kg. Carry is 800kg. One tenth of 800kg is 80kg. A Character of STR 14 can carry a little more than this load, one of STR 13 can’t – so the character has a casual STR of 14.
  • Str 20: Lift is 400kg. Carry is 200kg. One-tenth of 200kg is 20kg. A character of STR 4 can carry 22kg, so the Casual Strength of the character is 4.
  • Str 10: Lift is 25kg. Carry is 12.5 kg. One tenth of 12.5 is 1.25kg. A character of STR -16 can carry 1.36 kg, so the Casual Strength of the normal human is -16.

But I was never completely happy with this approach, either. It’s clunky and complicated, especially the conversion back to a STR score.

In this encumberance system, I embrace the notion of casual strength while offering a completely new mechanism for it’s calculation. I’ll get back to that, shortly. Suffice it to say that Casual Str is defined as the STR required to carry the minimum amount that is considered “significant” by the system.

The Hierarchy Of Lists

The encumberance system I am describing in this article works by creating lists of the objects carried based on the load that those objects represent. There are as many entries on a list as the character’s scaled strength, and lists are arranged in a hierarchical system by which the entire contents of the preceding list (from light to heavy) consumes slots in the next equal to the number of intervals. If you run out of room in a list, you can start a new one of the same size, consuming a second second set of slots in the next list up.

The Number Of Lists In The Hierarchy

Obviously, there are as many lists as there are intervals in the encumberance effects settings chosen by the GM, and the Casual Strength defines the minimum load that a single line on the lowest-weight list contains. This is why I don’t recommend more than 5 intervals – it becomes impractical.

This example diagram (Scaled STR 20 with Four intervals = four lists, each lower list filling four slots of the next higher list) illustrates the central concepts of the system.

This example diagram (Scaled STR 20 with Four intervals = four lists, each lower list filling four slots of the next higher list) illustrates the central concepts of the system.

List Character- istics

If a low interval number has been chosen, it means that there won’t be very many lists of equipment for the player to keep track of, but it also means that each slot will represent a larger load, so finesse can be lost. Two items should be recorded at the top of each list: the total load that the list will represent when it is filled, and the load that each line of the list represents.

While it’s possible to compress the calculations into single formulas, a recursive procedure tends to be clearer and easier. So, start by working out how many lists there will be – this is the same as the interval number. Once you know that, and the total lifting capacity of the character, and the scaled strength, you are ready to calculate the parameters of each of the lists.

  1. By definition, the list equal to the Interval number will total the lifting capacity of the character.
  2. Divide the total by the scaled Strength to get the load capacity of each slot in the highest-number list.
  3. Multiply that by the interval number to determine the total load represented by the next lighter list.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have identified the characteristics of all the lists.

Okay, so let’s do a practical example – and, rather than the nice, neat STR 20 used in the diagram, I’m going to pick a more realistic STR 17 on the D&D / Pathfinder scale, and 4 intervals (just to be different to the usual D&D scale).

  • List 4:
    • Total lift is 3/2 of the maximum “heavy load” shown, or 3/2 of 260 lbs = 390 lbs (Side-note: this is one example of the “three Str higher” cheat not working, which is why it shouldn’t be relied on).
    • 390 / 17 (scaled STR) = 22.94 lb, round to 23 lb. So each of the 17 lines in list 4 represents 23 lb of load.
  • List 3:
    • The top 4 slots of list 4 represent 23×4= 92 lb of load, so that is the total load capacity of list 3.
    • Dividing that 92 lb by the scaled strength (17) gives 5.4 lb, which rounds in the character’s favor to 6 lb. So each slot in list 3 represents 6 lbs.
  • List 2:
    • The top 4 slots of list 3 represent 6×4= 24 lb of load, so that is the total load capacity of list 2.
    • Dividing that 24 lb by the scaled strength (17) gives 1.4 lb, which rounds in the character’s favor to 2 lb. So each slot in list 2 represents 2 lbs.
  • List 1:
    • The top 4 slots of list 2 represent 2×4= 8 lb of load, so that is the total load capacity of list 1.
    • Dividing that 8 lb by the scaled strength (17) gives 0.47 lb, or 7.52 oz, which rounds in the character’s favor to 8 ounces. So each slot in list 1 represents 8 ounces.
    • The top 4 slots of list 1 represent 8×4= 32 oz of load, so that is the amount of load reserved for trivial items.

Notice that even though there’s some difficult division in the calculations (dividing by 17 is never fun), the “round in the character’s favor” at the end simplifies the calculation tremendously. “24 divided by 17” is a 1 plus a long string of decimal places; but you don’t need to actually work out what they are, you simply round up to 2 and move on to the next step.

The Weight Factor

When the player indicates that he is adding an item to his inventory, the GM has to determine what list it should go onto and how many slots on that list it should consume. This is actually very straightforward because the system does most of the work for him. It only takes a glance of the character’s lists to spot the two key values at the top of each list – the total load that the list represents and the load per slot. That means that the GM doesn’t need the exact weight of anything, just a rough estimate; he simply locates the lowest-numbered list in which the item is less than the total load allowed of the list, and then guesstimates how many of the slots are required.

Distributed Weight

You may have noticed that I keep referring to “load” instead of weight. That’s because they aren’t at all the same thing.

You can carry a weight that is distributed across your body far more easily than you could if it were a dead weight that you had to pick up. In effect, the load is less than the weight. The question is always, “how much less?”

There’s no one simple answer, but we have so much fuzziness built into the system already that we can manufacture one. If the weight is not on the arms, the load is 1/4 of the weight. If the arms are carrying some of the burden, the load is 1/2 of the weight.


Some weight burdens carry a disproportionate load by being concentrated on the extremities. For lack of any other terminology, I have dubbed this effect “Constriction”. Gloves, Helmets, Boots, etc, are all affected by Constriction, which has the opposite effect to Distribution of weight. The Load of such items is doubled, or – if they are concentrated at the very extremities – quadrupled.

Unbalanced Loads

The other factor that can impact the loading of a weight is how balanced it is. Weight concentrated in any given direction increases the load that the weight presents, doubling it. This can combine with any of the other weight adjustment considerations.

Three intervals and STR 13, List #3, two ways - showing what happens when you add a second List #2, and illustrating how you can see at a glance what the Encumberance levels are. On the first version of the list, the character is 1/3 encumbered (2/3 normal movement), while on the second version, the addition of a second page of list #2 (shown as '2nd list') has pushed the character into the 2/3 encumbered bracket (1/3 movement).

Three intervals and STR 13, List #3, two ways – showing what happens when you add a second List #2, and illustrating how you can see at a glance what the Encumberance levels are. On the first version of the list, the character is 1/3 encumbered (2/3 normal movement), while on the second version, the addition of a second page of list #2 (shown as ‘2nd list’) has pushed the character into the 2/3 encumbered bracket (1/3 movement).

The Encumberance Outcome

Ultimately, the most important list is the heaviest weight list, because it incorporates the weight of all the others. That means that you can simply read the effective encumberance off the list simply by looking at how much of the list is filled. If half the list is filled, the character is half-encumbered and moves at half their normal movement rate. On top of that, there may be other encumberance effects – penalties to Dexterity, for example.

All of these get indexed against the scale defined at the very start – the first decision made by the GM. This defines the brackets or categories of effect from encumberance.

As with the “divide by 17” example earlier, these categories also simplify the determination of the encumberance levels. You don’t need exact calculations; as the example shows, you can see at a glance what the encumberance levels are, completely customized for that specific character.

User-friendliness is the key

When you boil it all down, there’s a little bit of fiddling that may be required to determine total lift capacity and in some cases a scaled STR score; there’s one decision about how granular the GM wants his record-keeping to be; there’s a single set of calculations that have to be done once per character but that can be done in advance for all the Scaled STR values that might be required; and the rest of the system is simply players keeping a list of what they are carrying.

Things don’t get much more user-friendly than that. With this system, there is absolutely no need for encumberance to be the “oddly important rule set that most people disregard”.

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Ask The GMs: A Target With Warp Drive: Maps and Minis for Sci-Fi

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

Battlemats, maps, and tiles all have a valuable role to play in creating game atmosphere and letting people get on with play. The old adage states that a picture is worth a thousand words; an appropriate terrain tile and figures can save the GM that thousand words, and save the players (and GM) from constructing an elaborate and error-prone visualization of where everything is and how big it is.

Which only makes it double frustrating when you can’t find something you need.

Ask the gamemasters

Krystian, a Cyberpunk GM, contacted Campaign Mastery to report this very problem and ask for help.

Krystian wrote:
“I’m using OpenRPG to play Cyberpunk with my friends. and I have many problems with this. Digital tiles and minis for maps for sci-fi game are almost non existent on the internet and I would like to know where to find them so I can provide better quality visuals for my players. right now I’m scribbling in whiteboard mode and this does not look too exciting.”

Unfortunately, I’ not sure how much help I can offer. I don’t use OpenRPG so I have no idea of the file format required. I can only assume that a standard image format can be converted into the right type of file. What’s more, the situation is certain to have changed markedly since the time the question was asked.

Finally, to answer the question for the broadest possible group of readers, I need to step away from OpenRPG, and in fact from purely digital resources entirely, and offer a range of solutions for a variety of readers. Some of what follows will be digital images, some may be physical tiles and maps.

Unfinished Planetary Station Map by Michael Tumey, reproduced with permission. For this and more, follow the links near the bottom of the list.

Unfinished Planetary Station Map by Michael Tumey, reproduced with permission. For this and more, follow the links near the bottom of the list.

27+ Unsorted Sources:

Various Google Searches led me to the following:

  • The Tile Collection at Open Game Art [link] – 69 categories; some are tilesets, others are full maps. There is an entry, “Scifi Interior Tiles” near the bottom.
  • Resources archived/indexed at RPG Virtual Tabletop [link]. A mixture of free and commercial maps. The green background indicates free maps, but it’s not as easy as perhaps it should be to distinguish from the blue-background used to denote commercial maps. Some are explicitly sci-fi.
  • Make your own with RPG Maker [link] – The page linked to contains a sci-fi resource pack for making sci-fi maps. There is a free trial version of the software accessible from “Download” on the menu at the top right of the page.
  • Answers to a similar request at Pinnacle Entertainment Group [link].
  • More resources are listed in this thread at Paizo [link] including links to Sci-Fi Minis.
  • Lots of stuff available in this category at Pinterest [link].
  • The more general RPG Tiles board at Pinterest [link] is also worth a look.
  • A still-more-general Pinterest Search Results (some redundant results given the above links) [link]
  • Star Tiles from Fat Dragon Games (PDF) [link] – Another not-free set, but they look fantastic.
  • Other Fat Dragon Sci-Fi accessories [link]
  • Sci-Fi Floor Tiles from DramaScape via Wargame Vault [link] – A PDF to print yourself, or print-on-demand physical tiles, all 6×6 in size and designed to be interconnectable. The latter is not cheap, but should guarantee the quality of result – and printer ink isn’t cheap, either.
  • Cityscape Vol 1 from DramaScape via Wargame Vault [link] – a set of 35 unique modular 6×6 tiles that can be used to form a city. Not free.
  • Lunar Battlemap from DramaScape via Wargame Vault [link] – a set of 18 double-sided 8×10″ tiles that combine to form two 48×30″ maps. Not free.
  • Planet tiles by Joseph Knight [link] – Planet images for use on orbital & star-charts. Possibly a little large for the latter application.
  • Sci-Fi Cargo Tiles by Maps Of Mastery [link] – This set of 14 terrain cards includes 167 different pieces of terrain designed to be cut out and placed on existing (physical) maps to add new features or alter the layout. The price is good in comparison with other similar products.
  • Sci-Fi Maps from Maps Of Mastery [link] – The first of three pages of tile products in this category.
  • Other maps & tiles from Maps Of Mastery [link] – Scroll past the large advert and you will find cover-links to featured products, and below that, a drop-down box that lets you browse by category.
  • Tabletop Terrain sets from Worldworks Games [link] – 84 products on 6 pages. Prices are comparable to other products. And note the menu on the right-hand-side which includes “Miniatures” as an option.
  • Star Wars Edge Of The Empire maps by Thompson Peters [link] – A bunch of free resources. Some are obviously Star Wars in nature, some are more universally applicable.
  • Star Wars Cantina blueprints (free) [link] – And, speaking of Star Wars….
  • Star Wars Galaxy Tiles from Amazon [link] – I use these myself.
  • Modern & Near-Future Street Tiles from En World [link] – Lots of free resources here :)
  • Dyson’s Dodecahedron – mostly fantasy maps but explore and look to adapt [link] – Dyson makes it look easy. He usually posts a new map every week. Don’t miss the “Downloads” and “Maps” sections in the menu at the top of the screen.
  • The Traveller-RPG Facebook Group [link] – note that this is a closed group by invite of one of the Group Admins only, so either you already know about it or you may be out of luck. That said, there are currently 2368 members, including 9 Admins, so it can’t be that difficult!
  • Michael Tumey posts some free materials on Facebook, notably within the above group (but not restricted to it) [link] (Disclaimer – he’s been a friend ever since he, Johnn and I collaborated on Assassin’s Amulet. He did the maps and some of the illustrations.
  • …and sells some through DriveThru RPG [link] – 56 items and Michael tends to sell at Bargain Prices.
  • And, last but not least, a search for Sci-Fi Maps on Drive-Thru RPG [link] (1870 items, will include some of the above).

Hope that helps anyone facing a similar problem!

The Broader Solution

“I don’t care what anything was designed to do, I care about what it can do.” – Gene Krantz (Ed Harris), Apollo 13.

I use a lot of Fantasy tiles for my superhero campaign. “That’s not a hut, that’s…
…a Troop Transport.”
…a Freight Container.”
…an Orbital Lander.”
…a Parked Jet.”
…a City Bus.”
…an electrical substation.”

Forest is forest, rocks are rocks.

If you need to get more creative, wrap a tile of the right dimensions in Aluminum Foil.

Cut a shape out of cardboard. Or tear one out of scrap paper by hand, if you have to (I’ve done both).

There are lots of things that can be done to get you half-way to the battlemap you want. I listed a boat-load of them in 52+ Miniature Miracles: Taking Battlemaps the extra mile. These and similar techniques can extend the range of your battlemaps enormously.

Most of them are not suitable solutions for a digital game, but still, as I said, Forest is Forest. And there’s nothing to stop you making your own maps with digital photo-editing software.

For a Cyberpunk campaign, most maps for a modern setting will work; you simply need to describe the “distress” that isn’t visible. A number of Western-setting maps would also be appropriate.

It may be too late (one way or the other) to help Krystian with his campaign, but I’m sure that there’s something here of use to someone :)


I was reflecting on this article prior to publication and realized that the real heart of the question is about resources being limited.

Of course, you can expand your repertoire by using things for purposes beyond their original intent. This is something reminiscent of classic Star Trek and, more recently, Stargate SG-1, about that process of ‘recycling’; you watch those sci-fi dramas, and this week they are somewhere that looks like ancient Greece, or the Roman Empire, or a medieval castle. Of course, Doctor Who has used this technique throughout its televised existence.

Gaming can be examined in terms of the longevity of the resources it consumes, yielding an insight that you can’t reach any other way. You have one layer of resources that will last even beyond the one campaign; another that will be a consistent part of the campaign throughout its life; some that will recur a number of times within the campaign; but by far the majority are “disposable”, lasting for a single adventure or even less.

The story resources, every GM is expected to supply on their own (even if they are interpreting material that has been written by someone else); but everything else can be a problem. And the one piece of ‘everywhere else’ that will recur consistently is maps, especially if you are restricted by your ‘gaming vector’ – and anything other than sitting around a table will impose one restriction or another.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many resources there are for your particular campaign out there, or how clever you are at turning resources intended for one particular genre to the needs of another; eventually, you will run out – unless there are more being created. And that’s the story that this article is, in the final analysis, telling: what was scarce now appears to be widespread. But that doesn’t mean unlimited.

While new materials are being added to the array of possible choices all the time, other resources are lost. Websites go dark, software becomes outdated and won’t run on the newer operating systems, and with that software goes any file created using it… you get the idea. There is a perpetual race between the expanding event horizon that is the cutting edge of what’s available, and the fading from existence of what has been lost. So long as the hobby overall is healthy and growing, the wave front outpaces the growing void; if, as is normal from time to time, there is a contraction of the hobby, the void begins catching up.

From that perspective, this whole question is an examination of the health of the RPG community and the hobby that unites it. And the report card is very good indeed, based on a situation in which nothing could be found to the more than 2000 items that can be accessed through the compiled links that I’ve offered.

But nothing happens without the efforts of creative people. So this is dedicated to the creators who have provided the products to which I have linked in this article; the games we play would be much poorer without you.

Next in this series: Debating Resurrection Penalties! Should be be fun…

And, while I have your attention…

A brief announcement: There have been times when I have struggled to get an article finished in time for the usual Monday & Thursday deadlines – which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since I generally have nothing major to do on Tuesdays and Fridays save resting up after my exertions of the day before. So, effective immediately, I’m making two policy changes here at Campaign Mastery: Longer articles will be preferenced at the start of the week, while “shorter” (in theory) articles will be preferenced for later in the week; and, while the intent will be to publish as usual, if an article’s not going to be finished in time, I won’t beat myself up trying, but will finish and post it (or a last-minute filler) the next day.

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If I Could Save Magic In A Bottle: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 1

Cauldron by Alessandro Paiva

Photo Credit: / Alessandro Paiva
Additional effects added by Mike

Sometimes it’s hard to think of topics for Campaign Mastery, mostly because I need to accommodate real-world deadlines and time windows as much as possible), and whatever article is scheduled to come up next looks like taking more time than I have up my sleeve. The tighter the window, the harder it can be. At other times, though, an idea comes to you at once, or close to it, and today’s article represents one of those times.

This is going to be a very intermittent series that will examine alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games.

The totality of the subject is going to be broken into smaller differentials based on the “permanence” and “re-usability” of the spell storage solution in question. There are a number of assumptions that will be made based on metagame interpretations of the official rules as the manifest from the game-world perspective, and those assumptions may or may not be relevant to any given campaign; that’s fine, simply use the article as a guideline to the sort of questions that you should ask (and be able to answer).

Here’s the proposed series outline for future reference:

Part 1: One-time solutions (potions, scrolls, etc)
Part 2: Rechargeable one-charge solutions
Part 3: Charged Power Packs (wands, etc)
Part 4: The Energizer Bunny (permanent items)
Part 5: The Holy Grail (artifacts)

So that’s the plan – to dedicate one or more individual article to each of these topics of discussion, kicking off with those most transitory of magical items, Potions and Scrolls and their analogues.

Key Characteristics

There are three common characteristics that identify the magical devices falling into this category. The magic is contained in something that is fragile and must be destroyed, consumed, or otherwise ‘used up’ in order to activate the power within. That makes these inherently one-use items (though some GMs play a little fast-and-loose on this trait). And finally, they can contain only limited power or complexity, though the exact limits are also prone to tinkering now and then.


This is probably the most defining trait of this class of magical item. Some of the proposed variants will toy with this property in various respects, but only within limits, and those essentially are that once the magic has been ‘activated’ it can never be activated again using that item; the variations are all related to effect duration.


This means that they are essentially one-shot items that deliver their effect on a single occasion and no longer exist to do so a second time. From time to time, DMs permit larger bottles containing multiple ‘doses’; this doesn’t actually violate this trait in practice, because each ‘dose’ is still a one-shot deal, but may violate it in spirit; that’s a question each GM must answer for themselves.

Limited Power/Complexity

While the exact nature of the magical effects will vary depending on the GMs answer to the question “What is magic?”, there is nevertheless some constraint on the power levels that can be contained in this form of magic. It’s rare to actually have the limits defined with any certainty by game system; quite often, there will be a little fuzziness about the matter, because it’s often seen by designers as behind-the-scenes and of little practical value to players and GMs. Nevertheless, there is an underpinning schema that structures the use of magic in any game in which it is ‘real’, however poorly defined, and that schema is used to limit the effectiveness of potions.

In the most popular games, D&D & Pathfinder, that schema is based on the classification of magical effects into two values: spell level and caster level. Spell Level defines the window within which the effectiveness of a spell varies, while caster level can be viewed as the magical skill and ‘muscle’, the “oomph” that the spell can deliver. In most respects, the spell level will dictate maxima to the magic-handling variables within the system into various ‘quantum states’, with excess caster levels beyond the minimum being bled off into just one or two of those variables. This constrains low-level mages to casting low-level spells and permits a graduated increase in effectiveness as the mage grows in power and ability.

I have seen several attempts to codify the progression for the purposes of spell design and construction by PCs and they all flounder at one point in particular, and that is the relative difficulty and power of one spell level relative to another. There have been attempts to use simply geometric progression – so that the base effectiveness of a third level spell is defined as 9 or 27 times that of a first level spell. I have seen attempts that use exponential progression. None of them work consistently, across the board, and the reason for that is simple: the spells weren’t designed using any such system, and are usually tweaked as a result of playtesting without regard to any underlying principles, which means that it is impossible to work backwards from spells to creating such a system retrospectively. But it can be fun to try, now and then :)

In any event, there is Some method of differentiating spell base effectiveness and applied effectiveness when cast by a given individual, and that is then used to restrict the power level of the magical effects that can be encapsulated in this type of arcane device.

The Illuminating Scroll Variations

Scrolls represent an interesting variation on this principle, because they serve two separate functions simultaneously. They preserve or encapsulate a magical effect which is suspended immediately prior to activation. That means that a scroll can be used to cast the magical effect, consuming the scroll in line with the principles described above, or the spell can be ‘unpacked’ by an appropriately-skilled character to enable the spell to be permanently inscribed in an appropriate resource like a ‘spell book’. This function as a means of publication/transmission of spell designs means that spells of any power level can be ‘encoded’ into a scroll, violating the ‘limited power’ characteristic in at least one respect.

Some GMs balance this by imposing a different restriction: casting a spell from a scroll uses the caster level of the character reading the scroll, not that of the character who created the scroll. This is consistent with the scroll’s contents already being (effectively) part of the caster’s spell-book or equivalent resource. Scrolls that are designed to be cast by anyone, in effect having embedded caster levels, are many times more difficult and expensive to create.

Some (more philosophical) GMs even suggest, or state outright, that it is the presence of the embedded caster levels of the creator in potions and selected scroll examples that prevents the translation of such effects into castable spells to be placed in a spell book. This theoretical ‘explanation’ for the observed rules fact implies that the violation of the limited power principle comes at a cost, maintaining a ‘balance’ of sorts within the entirety of the spell system.

When such a GM encounters a player who is just as interested in the ‘natural philosophy of magic’, i.e. arcane theory as applied to the constructs within an RPG that the rules are simulating, is the point at which things begin to get more sticky, because the first thing they do is point out that this logic undermines the very principle that restricts the power of potions; by stating that scrolls can contain any power level of spell because they don’t have embedded caster levels, they proceed to define a new class of potion which is also free of embedded caster levels, offering a means of encapsulating spells into potions of greater level than is normally permitted. If the GM hasn’t carried his logic through to this point and also enabled NPC spellcasters to do so – worsening an already-existing game balance issue – or devising some other explanation for the power level restrictions of potions – their entire campaign can fall apart as mid-to-high level mages run roughshod over everything in the game.

That additional explanation usually rests on the properties of the material in question, fudging a solution on the premise that the components of a potion are inherently only capable of encapsulating a limited amount of power for some reason that does not affect scrolls. The most entertaining solution that I have seen was based on the toxicity of potions increasing with spell level, in effect stating “If you want to put a seventh-level spell into a potion by not embedding caster levels, go right ahead – but only characters who are completely immune to poisoning can ever take the resulting potion and survive long enough to complete the spell”.

Personally, I simplify the entire question back to the original premise: there are limits to the power that can be embedded in magical devices, and those limits are either in the form of restrictions to effect power level or limitations to function. Under this model, spells aren’t meant to be castable from scrolls, which exist purely as a means of disseminating spells from one mage to another; but some enterprising mage a long time ago figured out a way of jerry-rigging the system to get around that restriction by means of supplying the missing spell-launching ‘element’ from within themselves, and this was too useful not to then become a standard practice. This explains the existing set of restrictions without scope for violations – without the loose ends.

For the purposes of this article, I am not going to pick and choose between these or any other theories of magic; I simply state as a principle the implied trait, that in one fashion or another the magic that can be contained within these items is restricted, and leave it at that.

Key Interpretations

Not all “underlying theory” can be so lightly dismissed however. We need some understanding of what it is that potions and scrolls actually are, at a conceptual level, before we can set about creating variations and analogues and playing around with those concepts.

Complex Structures

Spells, no matter the game system, are inevitably described as things of complexity. The exact nature of the “thing” that is complex can vary, but the “mechanism” that translates raw “oomph” into “unnatural effect” is a complex structure or pattern, a machine or ‘computer program’ or biochemical process analogue that can be configured this way or that to produce a fireball or a meal of exquisite perfection.

Some of this perception derives from the use of the same game-mechanical terminology to describe what priests do and what mages do. Since priestly spells derive from the purity of spiritual energy and connection to the divine of the priest, reason suggests that the others also have some analogous power source that is equally ‘pure’ in its own way. The variety and sophistication of possible outcomes from spells then suggests a degree of complexity in shaping that power source’s manifestations, and every game mechanics construct that has appeared since D&D first enunciated these founding principles (however vaguely) has only deepened the perception of the instrument of translation of cause into effect as a complexity of some sort.

There are several real-world phenomena that various GMs and sourcebooks have employed as analogies to describe this complexity. DNA manipulates a complex array of simple chemical processes to cause the production of outcomes as diverse as eyeballs and nerve cells, arranged into such complex diversities as amoebas and elephants, turtles and birds, giraffes and humans. DNA itself contains only four simple ingredients, usually identified as the code letters C, G, A, and T; what matters is the complexity of arrangement of these codes.

There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, but implicit within them is the potential for every book that ever has been or will be written.

The fundamentals of elementary subatomic structures are very simple, but the arrangement produces every element within the period table and their properties, which in turn implicitly manifest in every substance and chemical reaction in the universe.

Computer programming languages are (in general) simple instructions that when arranged in the correct way, yield everything from Space Invaders to Excel to iTunes.

One of my favorites actually derives from a science-fiction source, the writings of Robert A. Heinlein – I forget in which story – or perhaps it was E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith (my memory is playing tricks on me at the moment), or even Isaac Asimov. In a nutshell, “A television is just a power supply that is manipulated in various ways by the circuits and coils to manifest an image; the physical components don’t matter in and of themselves, what matters is the forces that they exert on and the effect that they have on the energies. With a pattern of force of the correct properties, the mechanical components are no more necessary to the delivery of a transmitted image than an outboard motor”.

There are many more, but these spell out the basic principle: we are used to complex outcomes being an emergent phenomena of simple principles arranged in complex patterns, and in fact everything in the known universe is described or defined by that principle. It is only to be expected that a similar logic would be applied to spellcasting.

It follows that magic can be broken into two discrete components: the power source and the complex structure of effects that translate that power from cause into effect when the magic is activated. Crafting spells, and potions, and scrolls, and any other form of magical device for that matter, is all about what empowers the spell and the encapsulation or codification of those complexities.

In light of the previous section, this provides a framework for understanding the differences and similarities between potions and scrolls. Scrolls function without an embedded power source, deriving the ‘fuel’ for their ‘fire’ from the caster; potions are self-contained. What they have in common is the embedded complexity that somehow transforms that oomph from potential into effect.

Patterns of energy

Quite often, the complexity is described in terms of the complex arrangement of patterns of energy, often through the principle of the “law of similarity”. A complex pattern or writing that symbolizes and encodes a pattern of energy on the page or in the compounding of the potion is the same thing as that pattern of energy; connect it to an energy source of the right type (embedded or not), and hey presto! instant (and inevitable) effect.

Chemical Encodings

Potions are usually described in terms of encoding the complexity in a chemical or biochemical compound. Because the number of processes involved is relatively few, this requires a greater variety of encodable elements and these must be present in just the right varieties and quantities. Furthermore, many of the ingredients are considered inimical to each other, and most be moderated by the addition of still more components. The creation of potions is thus a complicated and lengthy process that must be carried out with precision and great care. The complexity of pattern is thus represented by a complexity of preparation and process.

The Standard Components

All magic, at least in the D&D / Pathfinder system, is based around three standard components – the verbal, somatic, and material. Most other game systems also use this foundation, with the occasional variation in the detail.

In terms of the creation of magical items, there are three interpretations: (1) These three standard components are presumed to be replaced by representative substitutes within the magic ‘encoding’, or (2) the three standard components don’t matter in and of themselves, what matters is the effect they have on the magical ‘force’; or (3) the standard components are employed during the preparation of the magic item, and hence this effect is what is encoded into the ‘preserved’ spell.

I’ve employed both interpretations in different campaigns. The major consequence of interpretation (1) is the implication that material components are not specific but are instead abstract representatives of some quality, for which an analogue can be substituted during spellcasting. A spell may call for sulfur, because it burns; anything else could be substituted so long is it also has the quality “burns”. Another spell may call for ‘ice’ but the quality that is actually required is ‘cold’, and anything else that carries that quality is an acceptable substitute.

At a deeper level, the presumption is that the effect of all three standard components induce a state of altered mental reality in the spell caster, which is where the transformation of power source into effect takes place. This premise is implicit in both (1) and (2).

Personally, my thinking about the standard components is forevermore contaminated by Steve Ditko’s mind-bending work on early Dr Strange comics. I can never think about gestures without picturing someone interacting with a virtual-reality representation of reality as depicted in the 90s and early 2000s, effectively drawing symbols in the air while populating and refining the force structures with the material and verbal components. In other words, magic is exactly the way it is depicted in various pieces of fantasy art, with glowing symbols in the air etc!

I feel this is worth mentioning because these visualizations of ‘the way magic works’ enables me to craft spontaneous narrative description of the process that helps ‘sell’ the fantasy and sense of reality to the players. Simply treating magic as game mechanics takes too much away from the game, in my opinion.

It follows that I can never handle the use of potions and scrolls without thinking about the visual description of what it looks like to the characters witnessing the process, and can’t create an analogue for potions and scrolls without considering the visual drama that is to accompany them. That’s something else to bear in mind.


A potion encapsulates a spell or magical effect in a chemical compound that must be ingested or applied as a cream or some equivalent action. One of the standards of the RPG, they have various appearances – one of the first expansions to the rules that came to my attention through Dragon Magazine was a random potion description table, which irritated me immediately because it seemed so incomplete, not in content, but in application. I immediately started taking some of the randomness out of the table, codifying potions with specific types spell effects with dominant colors. In particular, I wanted to be sure that no two types of potion had the same appearance. It took quite some time before the players realized that healing, regeneration, and polymorphing potions were always green, for example – in fact anything that caused a physical transformation. The details from that foundation would vary, but ‘detect magic’ would show a sparkling ‘glitter’ effect within the potion and a blue-white glow, with the intensity rising with spell level.

When consumed, potions tend to have a visible effect, even if only for a second or two. If the spell description doesn’t provide an appropriate description – something that modern rules system tend to do better and more frequently than older ones – I create one (usually original to that campaign). An invisibility potion might cause a fading effect from the outermost edges of the image (thinking in terms of a photograph or piece of art and not a body with internal organs), or the image might vanish leaving only a momentary outline, or it might vanish as though it were being erased in swathes for a second before returning only to be erased again. I always want some description of the process that is consistent with, but distinct from, the description of the effect.

I also like to create an impact on the perspective of the character experiencing this effect which may be different again – seeing the world as splashes of watercolor, for example. I often draw inspiration for these from the different artistic effects in my image editor – just so that I can convey to the player the sense that the character is in a different state than he was while subject to the effects of the spell.


I’ve always done scrolls in one of three ways: either a visually-abstract symbolism drawn on the page, or handwritten words, or a combination of the two. Handwritten words introduces the question of language – is a scroll prepared by a Drow different in content to one prepared by a Human, for example, or is there some common language that all magic is written in, or does in fact the language not matter because the meaning of the word manifest within the mind of the reader regardless of the language in which it is written?

When the copying or casting process begins, there is a visual effect in that one by one, the words or lines become illuminated, again glowing a bright blue-white or yellow-white color. From time to time, in different campaigns, I will vary this a little in details, but the overall premise remains consistent – sometimes they will all light up at once and then go out one by one, or they will light up and then vanish one at a time, or whatever.

When casting is complete and the spell takes effect, there is a visible effect, usually in the form of a colored energy erupting from the face of the page and swirling through the air towards the target. The coloration is normally consistent with the dominant color applied to potions of the same type. And the spell visual effects themselves are the same as for potions.


And so to the variations, starting with seals made from wax or clay. These have the complexity embedded in the complexity of the shape, and the material from which the seal is made – there are, after all, a great many varieties of candle-wax, especially once scents and colors are taken into account. With wax seals, the color of the wax is the same as the color of a potion. With clay seals, I describe an embossing pattern around the rim of the seal – it might be floral or snakelike or burred or crescents or whatever – but it has to be associated with an object of the right color. So floral or cloverleaf or anything like that equals green, snakes are brown or black, a fire pattern is red, crescents are yellow, and so on.

To use the spell contained within a seal, you have to break it, that’s fairly obvious – so that’s the ‘destruction/consumption’ element (As an aside, I have also used metal-based seals as permanent minor magic items that you attach to a weapon or armor).

Seals are great because they can be put on so many different things. You can seal a scroll, an envelope, a door, a chest, a sculpture, a jar, a peace-bond…

As always, I pay attention to the effects that accompany this form of magic device. Where the spell affects one or more distant targets, the halves of the seal have to be pointed at the targets; where they affect the caster, they have to be held overhead. There’s often an audible effect instead of a visual one to seals – it’s very attention getting when breaking a wax seal produces the sound of rending sails, or of the crack of a piece of wood being broken, or the shattering of glass.


There are two ways to use chalk: the first is to draw arcane patterns and symbols onto a surface, and the second is to carve figures of some sort out of a stick of chalk. The latter function just like Seals, so that’s easily sorted – just refer to the description above. The former is more interesting, because there are two ways that chalk drawings can operate: The first is for the symbols to vanish when the spell duration expires, the second is for the spell to remain in effect until pattern is broken or disturbed.

Glowing light shows, spires of sparkling light, swirling energies, electrical displays grounding themselves around the rim of the pattern – I really go to town when describing chalk-based spells. I quite often have a chain-casting element to such spells, simply in compensation for the fact that chalk-based spells take a lot longer to inscribe. The alternative is to greatly simplify them, far beyond the usual depictions in fantasy illustration, to something that can be drawn in about the same time as it takes to open and quaff a potion.

Still another option that I have often exploited is to permit chalk spells to exceed the power limits that apply to potions as a way of compensating for the extra time required to draw them. Where potions might only be able to contain first, second, and third level spells, chalk patterns could contain fourth, fifth, sixth, or even higher spells.

In order to maintain the destruction/consumption element, the chalk used is bound to the pattern drawn with it; the final step in activating the spell is to break the chalk or crush it underfoot.


A lot of people are unfamiliar with origami, and this only really works if you are sufficiently well-skilled in the practice to demonstrate how quickly you can turn a square of colored paper into a complex shape. If you aren’t familiar with the art, check out this Wikipedia Page, especially the examples throughout the article, and these youTube videos:

More complex shapes can be created if you take longer – roses, dragons, frogs, elephants, peacocks, and golems. Nor can most people fold at the speed shown in these videos – a factor of 5-10 is more reasonable, if not longer.

Like potions, origami spells are created in advance. To cast the spell, the paper creations must be torn (sometimes difficult to do; try folding a page length-ways four times, rotating the page 90 degrees each time, to create a panel sixteen pages thick and then try to tear it!) or burned.

Origami magic can seem like a gimmick, but it can also enable the GM to get deeply into symbology and animal avatars. I’ve never actually used it in a campaign, but have considered creating a character class who can shape-change into different animals and objects using Origami magic, probably based on colored rice paper or panels of silk, because that would nicely fit the oriental theme.


This idea came to me from the comics character Johnny Quick, who acquires a temporary ‘charge’ of super-speed by reciting the formula “3X2(9YZ)4A”. That seems a little quick and simplistic, but it started the conceptual ball rolling. Mathematical formulas are used to describe physical phenomena all the time, and if the magical principle of “the law of similarity” has any meaning, such formulas are indistinguishable from the thing they describe. Remember the ‘television set’ analogy earlier in the article? Put that concept together with this, and you have a situation in which reciting the applicable formulas casts a spell!

Of course, the spell needs something to fuel it or it’s simply too unbalancing, and that something needs to be comparable in value to a potion, and needs to be consumed in the process of casting the spell. It took me a while to think up something appropriate, but eventually the notion of “focusing” the potential spell led me to the idea of glass lenses, assuming that they are blown/molded instead of being ground. In real life, that would create too many imperfections for the resulting lenses to have any optical value, but for our purposes they don’t have to be exact; their symbolic value is far more important.


Intriguingly, most Bardic spells are not far removed from the conceptual realm that is under discussion. Like potions and scrolls, they encode in the melody, chord, and lyric, the complexities that describe the magical effect. I was deeply involved in developing a unique set of “visual and aural effects” to describe the effects of bardic magic when the player of the last Bard in any of my campaigns passed away unexpectedly, so I never finished the work. Amongst other effects, depending on the spell being cast, the lute or harp being used could continue to play the tune until commanded to stop or the battle ended. Another idea was for the sound to continue even though the instrument was no longer in use. Where those notes have gone now, I don’t know; they are packed away somewhere, though.


This is a notion being explored in the Zenith-3 campaign at the current time. Although the mechanics of spells and spellcasting are quite different, the central concept of power source and complex translation mechanism remain the same, so in principle, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of using them in a fantasy campaign under different rules.

There are two approaches, and both are available; the first is that the runestone must be crushed or broken in the same manner as a seal, described earlier. The second is that the runestone glows from inside, with the rune traced in lines of light or fire, until the spell has run its course, and is then destroyed, blackening and crumbling.

Crushable Gems/breakable crystals

While we’re at it, a very similar idea is the use of crushable gems or breakable crystals.

Dance Moves

I’ve never been a fan of shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” – they simply aren’t my cup of tea – but I know enough about modern dance and the like to recognize that symbolism of complex ideas in human bodily motion is central to the art of choreography. Under the principles offered, there is nothing to prohibit the notion of “dance moves” being the foundation of a type of magical effect. I was creating a branch of magical effect for the “bladedancer” character class based on this idea when the campaign in which it was to appear was put on hiatus.


Some fantasy novels explore the concept of casting spells by reciting invented-on-the-spot poetry – The Incompleat Enchanter, for one, which also features translation between different planes of existence by reciting logical formulae that comprise a Polysyllogism.

Again, I think that limits would need be placed on this treatment in the same manner as Formulas in the name of game balance. And, depending on the personalities of your players, certain types of verse might need to be excluded!


Of course, the granddaddy of fantasy games is The Lord Of The Rings, and that is the source that demonstrates that food-based magic is perfectly acceptable, at least in principle. I speak, of course, of Lembas.

One of the most intriguing notions about food-based magic storage is that most foods remain edible for only a limited period of time. Magic with a ‘use-by’ date is a new way of managing game balance, but one that holds a lot of appeal. It would certainly alter the dynamics of a campaign if this was the only type of “consumable” magic – no potions, in other words – characters would leave town magic-rich after resupplying, and become increasingly magic-bereft as they traveled. Food for thought, isn’t it (pun intended)?


Finally (in terms of the standard model of consumable magic storage), we come to the notion of enchanted ammunition that gives up its benefits after being used once, or a finite number of times. While the ammunition itself might not be consumed, it might then become magic-depleted, another whole-new concept for GMs to explore.

Binary Compounds

But I had one more idea (hence the caveat in the paragraph above) to share. While writing up the section describing the complexity embedded within potions and the like, a stray notion occurred to me: what if the spells were actually cast on the target in advance, but required the potion to activate them, with the potential eventually wearing off if not triggered? This would make magical storage something akin to a Binary Compound, two inert components that have to be brought together to initiate reaction.

I have to admit that I’ve never seen potions described in this way. But the idea is intriguing. At this point, it probably needs further development.


I’m not for one minute suggesting that all these diverse forms of magical storage exist as common items within a single campaign. Rather, if the resulting flavor was appropriate, I would look at replacing the notion of “potions” with one of the alternatives. Hopefully I’ve given you enough options to expand your horizons beyond the standard potion described in the rulebooks!

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A Palpable Difference: 14 Points of Adventure Distinctiveness

Photo credit: / Andrzej Pobiedzi?ski

Photo credit: / Andrzej Pobiedzi?ski

I spent most of the weekend working on the next adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign. While this adventure mines territory that will be familiar to my players, it should not feel at all repetitive to them except in the very broad conceptual strokes, and that’s because I make an effort to make each plot different and original in its execution and presentation (you’ll understand that since several of my players read Campaign Mastery, I can’t get too specific about this particular example). In fact, most of what I was working on was in service to this principle, and that prompted me to explore the subject of “how to make it different” in today’s article.

I presume that there is no need to actually justify making each variation different. The advantages and necessity should be obvious.

So, what makes a plot different?

There are all sorts of ways in which one manifestation of a broad overarching plotline can differ from the next. The problem is that it’s all too easy to assume that these differences will do the work for the GM. They won’t; in fact, in most of the ways that count, the players won’t even notice unless you ensure that your point or points of distinction have some palpable impact. There are a number of different categories of distinction, and it’s worth taking a look at them. To guide you in this exploration, I’m going to use a classic plotline (that has absolutely nothing to do with the plotline in question for Zenith-3), ‘the bank heist’.

I’m not sure that my list is comprehensive, but it’s enough to be getting on with.

1. Different antagonist(s)

A gang of four attempt to rob a bank, but run up against the PCs. The last time this happened, it was Dusky Springhoarder and two sidekicks, this time it’s Lurker Marony and three flunkies. Is that a big enough point of distinction?

Treated superficially, no. So you use a different voice and say different things – but these are cosmetic changes only, making no difference to the overall plot.

With a little more effort, however, these differences in personality can manifest in a different group dynamic, which in turn manifests in different development of the plot from a superficially-similar starting point. Dusky liked live hostages, Lurker dislikes live witnesses – those differences alone would manifest in a completely different modus operandi, with a completely different approach to handling customers and personnel who happen to be present at the time. The different group dynamic means that the other NPCs will have different relationships within the group, and different ways of doing the same things. One blacks out all the security cameras, the other leaves one camera running and showing the hostages to the outside world – and communicates with that world as necessary via texta-written notes held up to camera. Perhaps one is clever and the other bullish and violent, solving problems with intimidation.

Sure, a lot of this stuff can be applied off-the-cuff – but it’s always more effective if you take some prep time to explore and codify the differences, so that the plotline will develop in very different ways from the common theme.

The differences in personality should manifest not only in doing things in different ways, but in doing different things in the first place.

2. Different motivations

This doesn’t make as much difference in terms of a bank robbery as it does on other forms of plot, like power grabs or oppressive local regimes, except insofar as a difference in motivation should manifest from differences in personality, discussed above. In reality, of course, this cause-and-effect relationship is back to front – it’s the implied differences in personality that lead to different motivations – but you can reason your way from the cart back to the horse.

Once again, though, having a different motivation is the kind of thing that doesn’t show, doesn’t make any tangible difference unless you find ways to manifest the difference in more concrete ways.

3. Different objectives

Ah, now we’re getting into more interesting manifestations. Group one are robbing the bank for the money (although that’s not a motivation in and of itself – the motivation is the need/desire for whatever they want to spend the money on, not the money itself), while group two are using the robbery as a means to gain access to the banks computers in search of evidence of a global conspiracy. Or perhaps the bank vault doesn’t interest you half as much as the evidence of another criminal activity that is being kept in one of the safety-deposit boxes?

The simplest approach is not again backtrack from the difference in objective to the differences in personality that could lead to them, and then expand outward. But even without that, the objective and the plan need to be in sync; it’s no good focusing on the bank vault if it’s the bank servers that are your objective, except as necessary for purposes of camouflaging that objective, or paying off the muscle that have been recruited to make the operation possible.

The differences in objective needs to make a fundamental difference to what happens or it is just a paper tiger to which you are paying lip service.

4. Different circumstances

If the PCs used to be “unofficial” but are now Deputized, or vice-versa, a great way to bring home to the players the difference is to deliberately re-run a plotline that they had encountered in the “old days” simply to showcase how differently things would have worked out because of the authorization. Where they were blocked and forced to circumvent authority, acting covertly, now they have the power to demand assistance from authority and can act overtly. Or vice-versa, as appropriate.

Or perhaps the circumstances are environmental. In the elemental plane of fire, combustible materials might be the legal tender – the more flammable, the more valuable. Changing the nature of what a “bank” is fundamentally alters the plotline – well, it should, anyway; sometimes, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same, and that might be exactly the overall theme of the plotline!

Of course, it’s not necessary for the difference to be so radical. An “ordinary” bank robbery occurring in the domain of a repressive and violent regime would proceed very differently from one set against a far more just background. The reactions of the authorities to the crime-in-progress would be different, and would be expected to be different, and the plans would evolve accordingly.

5. Different resources

In the plotline that is about to wrap up in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, a criminal mastermind got his hands on a super-solvent which he used to dig tunnels most of the way across Manhattan in a bid to execute the biggest heist in history. Twelve targets – two Hotels, four banks, four Jewelers (one of which was a target of opportunity that would not otherwise have been targeted), a Museum/Art Gallery, and the International Currency Exchange, yielding a grand (estimated) total of 5.675 Million US$ – 1930s currency (multiply by 10 to get modern dollars) in one simultaneous strike. The presence of this super-solvent had a profound impact on most of the execution planning – in several cases, the gang were planning to simply slather the stuff on the vault hinges, wait, and pull the doors down. But not all of the gang were trusted with the solvent (it was too easily mishandled), and some didn’t trust it; the rest simply used it to bypass security. Since we didn’t know in which of the robberies the PCs would intervene, my co-GM and I spent several weeks of our planning time detailing each of the locations and each of the plans for dealing with those locations. In some cases, the gang scored a lucky break, in others they got unlucky; in some, they were smart and well-prepared, in others, flawed assumptions came back to bite them.

In every single case, the existence and use of the super-solvent made a concrete difference to how the gang was to execute this brazen robbery, to how long it would take, etc. But when we first outlined the adventure, none of these was taken into consideration; the solvent was simply a means of rapid-tunneling from point to point and getting into the basements of the various establishments. In fact, we thought we were more-or-less done with plotting the adventure, and started detailing the locations simply to work out some color commentary. Once we started adding details such as how many gang members it was going to take, and expected takes, and the reasons for targeting each of the establishments in question. it became clear that if you had such a resource as the super-solvent, you would look to use it in the commissioning of the crimes, and not just as a stealth mode inspired by the criminal plot in a classic Sherlock Holmes short story, The Red-headed League.

Having different resources on the antagonist side changes what they can do, which should in turn change what they will at least try and do. Having different resources on the protagonist side changes how they can respond to events (or even know about them), which should in turn change how they will respond and what they will respond to. As a result, essentially the same premise can lead to completely different plotlines – but it won’t happen if you don’t put time and thought into assessing the impact and preparing to take advantage of it.

6. Different protagonists

Group A (a strong man, a fast man, a spell-caster, and a priest) will experience a different unfolding series of events to Group B (a tough man, an acrobat, a spy, and a brainy guy) even when faced with the same identical situation. This is one of the central realities that is my primary take-way from limited exposure to convention gaming (anecdotal reports, some playtest, adapting some published convention adventures, and discussions with GMs who run convention games).

Fundamentally, this results from the PCs having different resources to bring to bear. Even if the GM seeks to limit the variables by providing pre-generated characters (and most do), differences in the players still qualify.

The same principle can be applied to the circumstances of a non-convention game. Even changing a single member of a group can be enough to make a fundamental difference to a situation because of the change in resources that they bring. This is dependent, to some extent, on each member of the party receiving a full share of the screen time, however; the more central they are to the plot, the bigger their potential impact. Some characters can made a difference regardless – adjusting Zenith-3 plots to accommodate the presence of a high-powered telepath, for example, is now a matter of routine (I’m sure it must sometimes seem like I’m picking on the character or singling her out for special mistreatment, when I’m only trying to prevent excessive short-cutting of the plot).

But you don’t even have to go that far. You could employ a plot device as simple and subtle as the PCs being sent undercover to investigate allegations of bank fraud – only for the bank to be robbed. Do they blow their cover? Do they let the robbery happen? This situation is fundamentally different to what would be the case if the PCs were on the outside when the robbery took place!

7. Different challenge

Changing the PCs objectives is also another great way of breathing new life into a stale plot. For example, putting the players into the GM’s usual shoes by requiring them to let the bank robbers escape while making it look like they are doing so, for some reason. This makes the bank robbery simply a stepping-stone to a larger plotline. Doing so covertly, and without damaging their reputation, and without putting anyone at risk, only makes it more challenging.

This works by changing the PC objective, which means that they will need a new plan in order to achieve that objective.

When I was much younger and more naive, I thought that plea bargaining and snitches were the only tools in the law-enforcement arsenal for getting to bigger fish by means of small fry. An excellent 1992 Australian crime drama, Phoenix – the Wikipedia page to which i have linked is rather short on plot description, I’m afraid – this page at Australian Screen Online gives rather more information – added awareness of undercover police operations to my repertoire, and shows like NCIS – especially NCIS LA and, more recently, NCIS New Orleans – have subsequently added to my awareness, so I now have a lot more tools at my disposal in this regard.

8. Different plan

If differences in resources lead to different plans in order to take advantage of the resource, why not skip the middle-man and simply have the antagonists behind the bank job come up with a different plan? There were a couple of very entertaining episodes of Numb3rs that started from this premise, and likewise CSI: Cyber. Heck, even Thunderbirds (the original puppet TV show) had a novel idea or two in this regard!

The big trick to this difference is that you have to think of the plan. It’s much easier in a novel, where responses are exactly what you want them to be; things get a little trickier when free will (in the form of the players) enters the equation. It’s often easier to proceed from a resource-oriented premise and simply work out how the change impacts a standard approach.

9. Different solution required

One of the simplest approaches is to look at how the situation was handled the last time it came up, and devise a stumbling block that prevents that solution from working, this time around. I tend to think of this approach as “the smart copy-cat” – doing the same thing that someone else tried without making the same mistakes as they did.

10. The Other side of the coin

Another way in which this iteration of the same basic plot can be to reverse the usual roles. Requiring the PCs to commit a bank robbery instead of stopping it, for example.

11. Different mood/tone

I’ve touched on this earlier, when discussing “Different antagonists,” but it’s worth highlighting in it’s own right. The same basic situation develops very differently if there is a different mood or tone to the adventure – comparing a relatively sanitized bank robbery from the comic books with one with a high (and mounting) body count, for example.

There is a perception in some parts of Hollywood at the moment that “Grim and Gritty” sells (thanks to success movies such as The Dark Knight trilogy), but recent developments have thrown that conclusion into doubt, raising suggestions that the “grim and gritty” cycle might be coming to an end, at least for now. The contrasts that are being highlighted in this respect are the success of Ant-man and Guardians Of The Galaxy and Deadpool vs. the comparative failure of Batman vs. Superman and the fading of the ‘grim and gritty’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise – once was an interesting experiment, but with the second movie the tolerance seemed to be wearing thin.

But I digress. In my experience, a different mood and/or tone is insufficient in and of itself to distinguish one example of a plot from another; but if that tone is then reflected in the planning of the bank robbery, it can be a springboard to a different experience from the adventure.

12. Different location

I sign-posted this item of potential difference under different circumstances. Sometimes, the plot is just a delivery vehicle for highlighting the uniqueness and diversity of a particular location by virtue of the differences in culture. This presupposes that there is a significant social or cultural difference from the location that the PCs are used to, and – to be really successful – that difference has to permeate the entire adventure in the form of different personalities, different expectations, different limitations, and different reactions on the part of the locals.

For example, think about a bank robbery in Venice. The means of reaching the bank, the bank security, the means of breaching the bank security, the means of escape, and the means by which the police attempt to prevent the escape, should all be affected. The location’s differences become the star.

13. Conceptually different

You can take the original “core” plotline as just a metaphor, analogy, or abstract description of something completely different. A “bank heist” is completely transformed if the “bank” is the well of unborn souls, for example. Or if you are stealing the radioactivity from a store of uranium.

Take a Rave – you can certainly consider such an event as a “bank” of youth. Steal that unlived lifespan from them, leaving the survivors as 90-year-old geriatrics…

14. A clever twist

Finally, you might have a clever twist in mind. I offered eleven different types of RPG plot twist in a two-part article in late 2014 (Part 1, ‘Pretzel Thinking”and Part 2, “Lets Twist Again’) to consider, after finding that the documented types of plot twist from TV and fiction don’t usually work in an RPG environment.

A plot twist plays on the similarity of the current occasion relative to expectations – until the moment of revelation, when the entire situation is transfigured, and what seemed to be ‘exactly the same’ is revealed to be something completely different.

A difference that makes no difference is no difference at all

To be effective, a difference has to infuse every possible aspect of an adventure, mission, crisis, or situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crime caper, a doomsday plot, a terrorist attack, a revolution, or whatever; find the point or points of difference and soak it up like a sponge.

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Looking into The Dark Eye, a guest article by Lena Richter

Viking Ship by Ben Maier

Illustration by Ben Maier, from The Dark Eye (English Version). Click the image to go to the Kickstarter campaign.

In the course of the 750th-post anniversary article here at Campaign Mastery (almost 50 posts ago, how time flies!), I became aware of The Dark Eye, an RPG that was more popular than D&D in Germany and had been around for over 30 years!

The fact that I didn’t know about the game greatly surprised Lena, aka Catrinity, and she immediately offered to write a brief introduction to the game. In fact, she wanted to use her Christmas Holidays to do so (now that’s enthusiasm!) I gratefully accepted the offer but insisted that she enjoy her holidays first.

As a result, it’s taken longer to arrive than she expected when the offer was made, but it’s here now, and the timing is fortuitous as there is currently a kickstarter campaign underway to raise funds for an English-language version of the game. Since they have already raised $80,000 against a $10,000 target, it is going to happen, and it’s only a question of how many stretch goals the campaign achieves in the next week or so.

So, without further delay, let me turn this page over to Lena:

“So you make haste through the Reichforst, hoping you will reach Empress Rohaja in time to warn her.”

“No, he is not one of the mages from the Shadowlands who sell their souls to demons for power. He is far more dangerous: He serves the Nameless One.”

Maybe some of you have already noticed the recent kickstarter campaign in the USA for the translation of a German RPG called “The Dark Eye”. It was made known to me by the lovely Mike who runs Campaign Mastery that almost nobody outside of Germany knows of this game – so this is my attempt to introduce you to the RPG I’ve been playing for 13 years and why I like it so much.

If I had to describe TDE really briefly, I would say it is a medieval fantasy world with lots of different settings, accompanied by rather complex rules and a TON of material to play and read – which is true, but I see nobody dropping their Pathfinder books and running to back the kickstarter yet.

When you tell most people about an unknown RPG, the crucial question is: “What has this game no other game has?”, which is kind of hard to answer for TDE on the one hand and very easy on the other.

The reason I like the game so much is that the setting it offers is no special-superfreaky-place that stands out from all the other RPGs, but a big choice of various fantasy settings the characters can easily travel between. In addition to that, I don’t know any other game that offers this amount of background lore, source books and modules.

The thing that really stands out for me is the living history of the world that you and your characters can become part of, and which makes your average adventure more than just a random story.

That’s the very, very short version. But let’s dive in a little deeper, shall we?

A small part of Lena's "Dark Eye" collection

A small part of Lena’s “Dark Eye” collection

Once upon a time there was a place called Aventuria

To keep the history lesson short: TDE was developed in Germany in 1984, as a German version of those surprisingly well-selling games like D&D, published by a large game company called Schmidt Spiele, who actually had the power to force stores to sell the game alongside the more traditional Schmidt products like board games and puzzles.

Yes, at that time you could find RPGs in classic warehouses, sitting right next to Monopoly and 1000-parts-puzzles of some 80’s airbrush motive. Those were the times!

Anyhoo: TDE was developed by Ulrich Kiesow, Werner Fuchs and Hans-Joachim Alpers, and started off with very simple rules and dungeon crawls, which basically every RPG in that stage of gaming did, right?

It was a big success, and so more products were developed, like a lot of modules, setting descriptions, an early attempt to item cards and also some rather strange things like board games (which had basically nothing to do with the game, but made the name TDE known to children – so, clever move, Schmidt Spiele!) and, as cherry on top of the “weird RPG stuff” cake, a bat-shaped mask the gamemaster should wear during sessions to create a sense of mystery.

Unfortunately I did not start to play early enough to see one of my friends put on that ridiculous thing!

The first edition of the rules was followed by a second, third and fourth one over the next 30 years, each adding more details to the rules and the world. During that time, the license was sold twice; the current publisher Ulisses Spiele has been in charge since 2007.

After Aventuria, the original continent, was known to players for years, other continents were described and made available to discover. There was, as I mentioned before, a ton of material that was published over the years. Like over 200 modules, more than 2 dozen books of background material (describing a region of the continent or special places like wizard academies, warrior schools or the wonders of the seas) and a lot of rule expansions (like a whole book on different kinds of zombies and undead – known to my group as “the book that will one day accidentally fall into a fireplace before it kills all our characters”).

While I have only mentioned four editions so far, a fifth one was released about a year ago, and that is the version that will be translated if the kickstarter campaign is a success.

This edition is the first that tries not to further expand the rules but instead attempts to make the game simpler and more playable. It is also the first one printed completely in colour.

The Dark Eye Setting

The TDE world is called “Dere” (an anagram of “Erde”, the German word for earth – yeah, innovation was running wild in the 80s. And nope, that is not the only anagram in the game! Actually, there are whole websites collecting them and other fun references! Ahem).

The most important continent on Dere is Aventuria, which is the one most groups use a setting, and for which the most books are written. Aventuria is basically a whole lot of settings stuffed in a rather small area. You can play in a Viking setting as well a Renaissance Italy one, or in a decadent slave-owning ancient Rome-like one. Or, if you feel more like classic Medieval, or oriental fairytales, or Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll find that, too – within just a few days or weeks journey for the characters.

The other continents provide different settings, like the much more high-fantasy Myranor, which has a lot of inspiration by ancient Greece; Tharun, a high-level hollow earth setting with some really freaky stuff going on; Uthuria, which offers a place to explore and have some colony wars; and Rakshazar or “Giant’s land”, a very barbaric and grim place (which is published by a fan project).

Aventuria Map by Markus Holzum

The map of Aventuria by Markus Holzum, from The Dark Eye (English Version). Click the image to go to the Kickstarter campaign.


Aventuria offers, as mentioned, different types of medieval fantasy settings. Some of them are rather exotic, but most of them are classic fantasy. You have the typical human + EDO (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs) populations (accompanied by some lizardmen and goblins, which are playable characters as well). You have your knights in shining armor, evil mages, old ruins with treasures and dragons.

You can play a warrior; a mage; a thief; or the priest of a Deity. Like Praios, the God of Light, Truth, and Justice,? or Phex, the God of Thiefs, merchants and tricksters.

There is, however, some other stuff you can do. Like:

  • Preventing a demi-god from destroying the continent;
  • Playing a desert enchanter who works his spells by drumming;
  • Winning the right to rule a city for a year in the lottery;
  • Playing a really curious baker who wants to see the world;
  • Or, if that’s not your thing, a mage whose father was a djinn and who wants to learn how to travel in time;
  • Getting sucked into a deadly theater play; Or
  • Or selling your soul to a demon.

And lots of other everyday hero stuff.

To be fair – most of the modules are meant for rather good-hearted PCs and not all of them are great, but there is a lot to choose from and with the really detailed setting descriptions it’s easy to make up your own stories.

And if you ever get bored by present Aventuria (did I mention that there’s a 2000-page strong box that enables you to go 1000 years in the past and deal with all the cool sh*t that happened back then?), there are other places to go.


Myranor, or the “golden land”, is a different setting (published by a third-party publisher, Uhrwerk Verlag/Clockwork Publishing that has some connections with Aventuria – the latter being a former colony of Myranor), which offers a more high-fantasy approach to TDE.

If you want flying ships and submarines and huge cities ruled by an upper class of mages, or if you really want to play a winged human, anthropomorphic cat/lion/bear, or a party of five different kinds of underwater species – here you go, have fun!

The continent consists of a slowly decaying empire (with a lot of Greek/Roman inspiration), surrounded by some very different and somewhat exotic settings. Myranor is not described in the same amount of detail as Aventuria, so there is a lot of space for adventures and GM creativity. There are some modules available as well as a Monster manual and some background books.


Still not satisfied with the amount of freaky stuff? Okay, let’s take a trip to Tharun: A gigantic realm consisting of 9 island kingdoms, which is situated either inside of Dere or within another sphere (you can choose what explanation suits you best).

In any case: there is a strange colour-changing sun in the sky, which never changes its position. Ruled by some really nasty gods and their not-much-less-nasty servants, this is a setting where PCs can fight oppression and evil priests – or ally with them and try to rise to power. While using magic runes and riding on a giant dragonfly. Uh, yeah!


Uthuria is a setting that was created to use as some kind of exploring/Indiana Jones/colony war ?thing, a continent of fierce nature and strange jungle tribes, but it’s been a while since anything was published for it.


Rakshazar or “Giant’s land” was created as a fan project who wanted to provide a Grim & Gritty-setting for TDE.

Which they did, so if you want to dress in a fur skirt and swing a giant axe and sound your barbaric yawp over the rooftops – this is the place to go. Although it is not officially published, there are printed books available, but all of the material is also free for downloading.


There are some ground rules that apply to all the continents, which are: There is magic and there are gods. As well as demons and ghosts and unicorns and a whole lot of other supernatural stuff. But there are a lot of different approaches to all of it.

In TDE, magic is something you are born with. You cannot reach the ability to do magic later in your life. If you have magic potential, you have to be trained to use it – if you don’t, you may be able to work a few spells intuitively, but you will never be really good at it (in most cases – there can be exceptions).

If you do find someone to train you, there are a lot of different options, from the traditional mage academy, to the witch or druid who takes you as a pupil, to becoming a charlatan, a magic dancer, a magic-using alchemist, or a shaman.

There are even more possibilities – carving magic runes, gaining abilities of an animal by eating his heart or the before mentioned magic drum solo.

And that’s just Aventuria I’m talking about! In each of the continents, magic is just a little different, and you can do different things with it. In Myranor, for example, you can join your mind with a machine, summon spirits into your body and other fun stuff.

There are rules to magic, of course, which are different depending on the kind of magic tradition you have learned. Every one of them has its secret rituals and objects – like the staff of the mages, the magic bowl of the alchemists, the obsidian daggers of the druids and so on. Some of this knowledge is shared between the traditions, some of it is kept secret, like a witches ability to fly on wooden objects or bind familiars.

There is also a lot of unknown stuff to discover – lost spells, ancient rituals, newly discovered recipes for potions and so on.


While you can never become a mage (or Witch, or Druid – You know what I mean) unless you are born with the ability, you can always become priest to one of the gods. This provides you with some power, some respect, a lot of free meals/drinks, and a bunch of people who want you to solve their problems, woohoo!

There are quite a lot of gods in the different continents and cultures, most of them known to more than one species/culture under different names. The classic and best-known faith is that of the Twelve Gods, a greco-roman-inspired pantheon of said 12 Deities who stand for different virtues and crafts.

Some examples that are often chosen by players:

  • Rondra, Goddess of Fighting, Honor and Thunder;
  • Phex, God of Thiefs and merchants;
  • Hesinde, Goddess of Wisdom and Magic;
  • and Praios, god of Justice, Light and Truth.

This pantheon is accompanied by some demi-gods (like Aves, the god of adventure – after whom the continent Aventuria was named (write that down and gain some nerd credibility if you ever play the game!)), saints, holy entities, heavenly dragons… it’s really too much to name them all.

One who should, no, must be mentioned is the Nameless One, the classic bad guy.

He is the Fallen God who wanted to overpower and rule the other gods, and, because these plans never seem to succeed, was brought down by the other Gods, chained between the world and the sphere of demons, and robbed of his name.

So of course he has a few cults that try to free him, recover his name and bring the heavenly pantheon down. Usually, those are the really evil guys, and the most dangerous ones, because they often work in great secrecy and plan their actions over decades.

Mages vs Priests

I’m going to finish this section with a quick word about the powers of mages and priests.

They used to be very different, because the mages had a lot more spells that they could use, which were quicker and often more useful than the godly powers, so priests were first and foremost characters of big influence and social power who generally used their powers only if it really mattered.

However, the changed rules of the fifth edition provide more and faster working “spells” for priests, which makes the difference much smaller now.

Dark Eye character by Luisa Preißler

A character illustration by Luisa Preißler, from The Dark Eye (English Version). Click the image to go to the Kickstarter campaign.

There has to be something about that in the rules!

Okay, so let’s talk about the rules. They are often described as too complicated – and maybe they are, compared to other games, but I’ll try to explain them anyway.

Characters are created (and leveled up) by spending XP. Each character is defined by a species, a culture and a profession. Like Human / Desert Folk / Drumenchanter guy (damn, I did not know I would ever use that as an example as often as I have). Or Dwarf / Special Dwarven culture / Blacksmith.

So of course there are restrictions to how you can combine and mix those up – not all species offer all professions etc. – but, basically, you can create whatever you want as long as you can pay for it.

You also have to pay for your basic 8 attributes (like courage, strength, charisma etc.), and you can add advantages (which cost you XP) and disadvantages (which get you XP) to the mix.

There are abilities (like swimming, sword fighting, magic knowledge, stealth, empathy, survival, history, dancing… – so quite a lot, you get the point) which are also bought and raised with your XP, as well as spells or priestly abilities.

And you can buy special abilities – stuff like fighting maneuvers, special knowledge of an area or landscape, magic rituals and so on.

Die Rolls

Of course there are dice rolls, usually done with three d20s. Each ability is connected to three attributes and you roll on each of them, with the skill or ability points making up for shortfalls on the attributes.

The higher the attributes and abilities are, the better, because you have roll equal or less to the value.

A quick example: Let’s go swim. Swimming is connected to the attributes Agility, Constitution and Strength. Let’s assume each of those attributes has a value of 12 (which is quite average) and the ability value is 7.

So, we roll! First die: 10. Which is less than 12, so everything is fine. Second roll: 15. 3 points too high for the value of 12, but we still have the 7 ability points to make up for that – still not drowning, yay!

With 3 of our 7 ability points spent, the last roll cannot be higher than 12 (attribute) + 4 (rest of ability points) = 16, or we’re in trouble. So if you roll a 16 or less, happy times, but if you roll 17 or higher, something nasty makes your swimming attempt unsuccessful, perhaps a nasty cramp in the calf. I hope your party members rescue you, because you are going down toward the bottom!


When it comes to fighting you use only one d20 – again, rolling less or equal to your attacking or defending value is good, higher is bad. Yes, there is an active defense. And armor and stuff, so don’t expect to knock your enemy’s socks off with just one hit.

To be honest, fights can take a while in this game, although this also depends on which edition you play and what amount of optional rules you use.

Rules In Perspective

I could go on for ages about all the rules and possibilities there are, but that’s the basic stuff. In my opinion it is not too hard to understand the basics, but it can get really complicated when it comes to the detailed rules like special fighting skills or summoning demons or creating artifacts.

I guess it’s not to everyone’s taste to have so many and so detailed rules. On the other hand they provide a lot of options to make your character special.

And you don’t have to master any that aren’t in use at the time – so there’s always another combination to explore and master. This makes characters different from each other and keeps the game fresh, no matter how often you have played it.

Living history – the so-called Metaplot

One thing that distinguishes TDE from almost every other RPG is the fact that the world is not static, but the course of history goes on and is made available to the players through modules, magazines and novels. So if you read about the guys who saved the world from the evil demi-god, brought back the holy light of Praios or defeated the undead dragon? Those were probably your characters. Pretty cool, huh?

This concept means two things: The world is changing, history is written and you can be a part of it. And: Since there are so many modules, most groups play at least a few of them to catch up on the ongoing development of the setting, so you can chat about the same story, the same villain, the same epic battle, even with players you have never met before.

This whole idea is called the “meta-plot”, meaning that there is something like an official timeline to the setting that you can experience through the different modules. (Of course there are also smaller stories and modules that don’t add to this timeline and can be played at a place and/or time of your choice, and this timeline is only established for Aventuria, not the other continents.)

You can witness reoccurring NPCs grow up, rise to power or fall from grace, you can experience the war between an empire and its enemies and have your characters play a crucial role to its outcome.

Of course there is a downside to this: Some NPCs have “metaplot armor”, meaning you can’t kill them off whenever you like (if you want to follow the official timeline in which they still are alive and do important things later). Or you cannot save an NPC no matter what you do, if he is supposed to die at a certain point. When you play a module and your characters march to battle, the outcome of said battle is probably already written in the timeline.

And yes, of course that also means there are spoilers for the timeline you may want to avoid. (You should see me on conventions. I start every conversation with “okay, listen, my group is still stuck 15 years behind the recent timeline, so please don’t tell me anything about what’s going on later!!” – I should get that printed on a T-Shirt!)

There’s also the problem of not being able to play for a few years and coming back to the game to find the world changed a little (or a lot).

So the whole metaplot thing has its pros and cons and every group has to decide to which amount they want to follow that official timeline. You can of course ignore it completely and create your own Aventuria. Or you can choose a specific part of the timeline that sounds most interesting to you and play the modules that a written for this chapter of history. And whether you like it or not – the “metaplot” is something that makes TDE really unique.

The German love-hate relationship with the game

There is hardly a German gamer who has never played TDE at least once (I think), making it the German equivalent to Dungeons and Dragons (which is played much less than TDE here, actually). But if you mention the game, some will admit to loving it while a lot of players will instantly tell you that the game sucks, that they used to play it but found something better now, or that you’re not a real gamer if you play TDE. There really is virtually no middle ground.

TDE is often called “a game for players who just want to be read a story instead of making decisions” – this, of course, is a complaint about the meta-plot that determines the outcome of many of the modules to some extent.

You may have come across the term “railroading”, which means the characters can only follow the tracks of an already written story.

But there are other things TDE-haters despise about the game: The rules are often described as “way too complicated”, the background lore describes the world in “far too much detail”, the 3d20 rule mechanism makes it “too hard to calculate the success rate of a roll”, the number of NPCs who often play an vital role in the modules that “should be given to the player characters”, the fights that “can take hours”, the fact you can play rather unheroic characters like bakers and farmers (there even is a term for that called “Bauerngaming”, farmer gaming, as the opposite of “Power gaming”), and the setting itself, often being described as too fairytale-like, too nice, too clean (hence, the fan creation of Rakshazar).

Answering The Critics

To respond to all those accusations – because there are already some German players pointing out how bad the game is in the English-speaking forums (and because I really like the game, I would not have played it for so long if I did not): Yes, some of them are true – up to a point. But I think some of them also arise from a time when the whole RPG world was much less about player empowerment, sandboxing, and fate points, than it is today. I think many players remember TDE as “that crappy old system we used to play before we discovered modern gaming” don’t take into account that you can also bring that modern approach to TDE.

Farmer Gaming

“Farmer Gaming” – yes, you can play a character who is a farmer or a scribe or just a beggar, you can play a whole group of those characters or throw one in with all the mages and warriors. I like that. It’s fun, and challenging, and believable. And well, a lot of XP later, that farmer could be the priest of a powerful Deity, fighting epic battles against unspeakably evil forces. It just takes him a little longer to get there, so – more time to play your character before he becomes too strong for most challenges!

Too Light and Fluffy

The setting used to be rather nice and fairytale-like, indeed, but that has changed over the last few decades. With the biggest TDE campaign ever published (the return of the bad demi-god I mentioned before), a part of Aventuria fell to the shadows and in the hands of undead dragons, dark mages and cruel warlords.

There have been some darker places added into the setting, and even if the course of history takes away some of the most evil parts of it, there still are the so-called Shadowlands where you can confront your party with horror, undercover operations and hard moral decisions.

And of course a medieval setting itself offers a lot of space to swipe in some darker aspects of the time – poverty, cruel nobles not caring for their people, the horror of a war raging through a country… it’s really up to the group and the gamemaster to make the setting as dark or as filled with fluffy unicorns as they want.

Last but not least – the fourth edition of the game offers about 20 pages on “selling your soul to a demon and all the cool powers you get from that – and why it still is a BAD IDEA”. How much more can you ask?

Too Complicated

Concerning the “the rules are way too complicated” criticism: I can’t really argue that. The fourth edition consists of no less than 5 core books you need for playing, each of them containing 200-400 pages.

This is no problem if you can start with some experienced players who explain everything to you (like I did) and get to know the rules over time, but it might scare you off if you want to get started and don’t know where to begin, with all the many books and opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities: There is an up-side to these very complex (and, in some areas, admittedly too complicated) rules. You really can make every character unique. There are so many abilities to learn and special stuff to buy for your XP, you can play most of the PC for years without getting anywhere near to the point of asking “what else could I learn?”

The Edition War

With the fifth edition only being published for about a year and many rule expansions yet to come, there is also some kind of edition war going on right now.

Many players of the fourth edition (including me) are very fond of the complex rules and endless possibilities it offers, while other players stopped playing TDE years ago (for finding it too complicated and the rules way too much to comprehend) and are giving it another try.

While the discussion about which edition you should play might be useful in German – (no orcs or lizardmen or drumming enchanter guys (hi again!) in the fifth edition yet, How can you play such a game??) – it is rather pointless for this article, since the upcoming English version will be the fifth edition, which is probably the easiest one to use to get into the system anyway, at least if you don’t have an experienced player to explain it to you.\

Fandom and other media

Since The Dark Eye still is the most known RPG in Germany, and it is been around for so long, there are a lot of cool projects and fan stuff:

  • An online encyclopedia called Wiki Aventurica for the game, which is incredibly useful for research, and strongly needed to find things in the thousands of published pages. It contains almost 54.000 articles.
  • Dere Globus allows you to install the maps of Dere to Google Earth and so create an interactive atlas of the setting.
  • Avespfade is an online route planner for Aventuria, allowing you to calculate the time your party needs to get to their next adventure.
  • There are a few software tools that help you create characters and spend your experience points.
  • And there is Nandurion, a site only consisting of news about the game, reviews of most of the products published during the last years and free modules, stories and other stuff to download. (I’ve been a member of this site for over 4 years, but I think you can hardly call it advertising to mention a site only written in German, amIright?)

You can also find a ton of unofficial modules, stories and background descriptions in the various fanzines (off- and online) that have been published over the years. TDE even got an entry in The Guiness Book of World Records? for the biggest collection of books and memorabilia brought together by a single fan in his own museum.

The Dark Eye Logo

The Dark Eye has always been a game with a lot of involvement by the players – a lot of authors started by publishing unofficial modules or participating in writing competitions. There are some German-speaking forums to review books, discuss character ideas, solve problems with your ongoing campaign or just share funny stories. (Not saying those are a perfect realm of helpfulness and polite people, they’re still internet forums).

Computer Games

While The Dark Eye is still mostly happening as a pen-and-paper, there have been some PC games published over the years. Some of them were published in English as well, like the very classic Realms of Arkania (1993), a point-and-click adventure; Chains of Satinav (2012), another point-and-click adventure; or the rather dark RPG Demonicon (2013), which takes the player into the Shadowlands.

There were a few browser games and mobile games as well. Rumours about a movie have been going on for more than five years now, but that does not seem likely to happen anytime soon. There is, however, a long and elaborate fan-made movie called “Leuenklinge” on YouTube, where you also can find a lot of Let’s Plays, video reviews and interviews.

Why I like this game

When I started Pen-and-Paper gaming 13 years ago, I did so in one of those German groups who hardly knew any RPGs besides The Dark Eye. The fourth edition had just been published, I had just finished school, so there was a lot of time to dive right into the books and read.

I started with a simple character (a thief) and learned the more complex parts of the game (like high-end fighting and creating magic characters) later.

So as much I can understand the argument of the game being too complicated if you are working full time and just want to enjoy a few hours of gaming on the weekend without spending too much time reading rule books, that never applied to me. At the time I started working full time I had already been playing for so long I knew the important rules by heart.

What I also like are the many possibilities TDE offers, both in the rules and in the setting. As I said earlier, the character choices, and the ways to develop your character, are endless. And the setting offers so many cool places to visit without even leaving one continent, while the big variety of modules also offer a lot of different adventures in one and the same game. You can go dungeon crawling or get caught up in nobility schemes, fight against the evil forces or discover ancient mysteries, all without having to change the game system (or even the character).

But the main reason I still play TDE and love it so much is the way you can get caught up in this world.

There is this quote saying “no man is an island” and for The Dark Eye, when you play it during a long time and with the right people, this applies to every one of your characters and every story they experience. Most of the modules and important NPCs are part of a bigger story, so your characters can visit people and places more than once and really become attached to them, which serves to keep the players immersed in the story.

When the enemy attacks the city your character was born in, when the person your character idolizes as a hero commits treason and turns to the dark side, when your characters finally manage to kill an enemy who has brought pain and death to their allies for years, this means so much more than some random dungeon crawl in some random district that could be set in any universe.

You don’t have to play the way that my group does, puzzling out the perfect set of modules and campaigns for our various groups of characters, planning ahead the next years of playing. You can always take one of the smaller modules and just have fun for one or two sessions, but TDE really is a game where investing time rewards you with more fun while gaming, because things matter to you. And while I enjoy playing other games from time to time I always love to come back to Aventuria. It’s like coming home.

Random Fact Time!

The end is near! So here are some facts I could not squeeze in the previous paragraphs:

  • One of the distinctive features of the setting is a total gender equality in almost every part of the world. You don’t have to write a complicated back story of how your female warrior dressed as a boy during all her years of training or explain why your big strong male character became a healer or a cook instead of learning how to fight. You just grab your sword – or your frying pan – and you are good to go.
  • Because we Germans never had much of a problem with showing naked people in game illustrations (or commercials, or prime time TV), there are actually pictures in the rule book that will be changed for the US version of the game, covering up some skin.
  • Why is the game named The Dark Eye? Time for more nerd credibility points: The founder Ulrich Kiesow wanted the game to be called Aventuria, but the publisher wanted a more mysterious and fancy name – so they asked for it to be named for the most powerful artifact in the game, which are the Dark Eyes, highly magic orbs who allow you to see into the future, the past or faraway places (imagine Sarumans Palantir from Lord of the Rings and you get the right image). (Also, said founder Ulrich hated it when his name was pronounced in English, sounding like “Aaalrik” – so as a result of that “Alrik” ended up as the Aventuria equivalent to “John Doe” in the game).

In the end: What you might expect

After going on and on about much material is published for the German version of TDE, there is definitely an attempt to make this experience known to English-speaking players as well. When you scroll to the very bottom of the kickstarter campaign site you find the plan for publishing more books in the future, including setting descriptions, modules (adventures), sourcebooks like the bestiary and even short stories.

If you want to stay informed, you may visit the English facebook page or the English homepage, where you also can find more articles about the artwork, the different areas of the continent and other things.

There’s also an English Let’s Play on YouTube.

The kickstarter campaign will be going on till 3rd June.

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If you want to try a simpler version of the rules, you can do so with the quickstart rules PDF with pre-generated characters and a short module.

Whether I have interested you in giving Aventuria and The Dark Eye a shot, or just amused you with my rambling about this way too complicated monster of lore and rules, I hope you have enjoyed this article. Big thanks to Mike for giving me the opportunity to tell you all about my favorite game!

Lena by Lena

About the author

Lena, known to the internet mostly as Curima or Catrinity, is a 31 years old female gamer (yes, we exist!) living in Hamburg, Germany. She works at a boring office job and escapes regularly to the worlds of gaming (PnP and PC games), reading, watching a ton of TV shows, and taking care of her cat (of course I have a cat, what were you expecting?). She writes for Nandurion, Germany’s biggest “The Dark Eye” fanpage, and has written a few unofficial TDE short stories, scenarios and reviews, as well as one official module published in December 2015.

You’re welcome, Lena, and thanks for the great article – your enthusiasm really shines through. If anything, I have toned it down a little in the course of my editing! Lena also advises that she is very happy to answer questions about the game or setting (unless it’s metaplot that happens later than her gaming group is up to, lol) in the comments below.

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Engagement vs Involvement: The forgotten balance

street in Vilnius photo by Herman Brinkman

Image credit: / Herman Brinkman
If you only look at the buildings, you miss the street in between that ties them both together

Every player, and more importantly, every PC, who is participating in an RPG is a member of a team. That team can be constructed to form an idealized “machine” if the players collaborate on their character designs, but more normally, things are looser.

At best, you have the GM constructing a team model in which no one character treads on the toes of another PC – that’s what I did when setting up the Zenith-3 campaign. Importantly, I made sure that there were more archetype “slots” than there were PCs, so that there was room for the dynamic between team members to grow and evolve, as one member left and another joined. The team model was flexible. Within those archetypes, the characters that were created were entirely up to the players, and so was the archetype they were slotting into – the only requirement was that archetype selection was first come, first serve.

In most campaigns, there is not even this level of management. I have once GM’d a game in which everyone turned up with a Cleric – all worshiping different, and oft-times hostile, deities.

And so this disparate and diverse motley crew come together and work as a team to solve the problems that confront them in the course of the campaign. There are times when each takes the spotlight, and there are times when they yield the spotlight to another PC, and there are times when they are a team player and not an individual.

There is clearly a balance in every character of team participant and star, and that’s something that I talked about in Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign? almost 4 years ago.

In retrospect, though, that article doesn’t go far enough. It takes the two hallmark positions – member of an Ensemble or featured player in a Star Vehicle with a rotating spotlight – and assumes that there is nothing in-between. And that’s a problem, because – as I’ve shown above – every character occupies some middle ground between the extremes from the very moment of character conception, through character creation, into all aspects of play – roleplaying, combat, and problem solving – and into GM’s encounter design, adventure design, and even campaign design.

What brought this train of thought on? An exchange between my brother Paul and myself, about the departure of Michael Weatherly from NCIS after 13 years. We were talking about what impact this would have on the show, and I pointed out that Sean Murray’s character of Timothy McGee had grown over the course of the 13 seasons (12 as a regular and 8 guest appearances in Season 1) and was now positioned to take up the lead agent role; in a way, this would bring the show full circle back to where it was in the beginning, or close to it.

I’ve been mulling over McGee’s career within the show and realized that this growth in utility has come at a price – unless they specifically write in a scene to show off his technological expertise, which they do once or twice a season, he has, by and large, shed his former role within the series as a Geek (see the “reception” section of the Wikipedia page linked to above).

I wasn’t entirely sure where the train of thought was going until I reached that point of revelation, and suddenly extrapolated the change of role outwards and propagated it into the realm of RPGs. I mention this just to provide some context to the article.

Every character has to have duel roles (if not more) on the metagame scale within a campaign: the team player and the character in the spotlight. At times, he needs to occupy a midway point – not the character standing within the spotlight of the current scene, but the dominant presence for the adventure as a whole.

And characters have to be designed for that – and they aren’t, generally. No-one really gives that even the slightest bit of thought. The focus is always on the individual spotlight, and when the character will qualify for it, and the team aspect of the design is at best incidental – even though the ‘supporting role” will overwhelmingly dominate in actual play.

Impact On Character Concept

There are three different imperatives in operation here – the capacity of the character to demand an equal share of the spotlight, the capacity of the character to link with the other PCs in a supporting capacity, and the way the character will mesh with those others in full collaboration towards a common end.

A good character (in a group environment – solo play is a slightly different story) will be able to tick all of these boxes. They will have a singular area of expertise in which they can take the lead; they will have areas of lesser expertise (probably thematically related to the first) which will permit them to assist, support, and contribute to the spotlight time of others, and at the same time will contain the capacity to be the focal point of an entire adventure; and they will be capable of meshing with the other PCs as a unified force, especially in combat.

When first thinking about what sort of character a player wants to create, all these aspects of the proposed character bear contemplation. Articulating how the character will function in each of these roles permits other players to build their characters around the interaction and dynamic necessary for success.

It’s my experience that players spend a lot of time thinking about the first (area of expertise), and might spend a bit of time on the last (function within a team), and generally assume that the middle one will develop naturally as a consequence of the others. And, to a certain extent, this is a valid assumption; but occasionally it will misfire. Never trust to chance what can happen by design with minimal investment in thought and effort.

Here’s another way of thinking about these three functions that can be useful, but oversimplifies and neglects a number of alternative solutions: The first can be described as non-combat things the character knows how to do, the second can be things the character knows about but has no practical experience in, and the third on the style of combat and how that can be employed tactically within the group.

Batman, for example, ticks all three boxes: He’s a driven detective with a depth of information in a wide variety of fields. Where the mystery dominates the plotline, so does the character. When the mystery is not the central aspect of the plot, but is a bridge connecting one scene to another, or where another character has an important decision to make that will be a more informed choice with information from Batman, the character takes a supporting role; and in combat, he can either identify an enemy’s weakness, employ surprise and athleticism (and weaponry) to take enemies by surprise, can provide cover where some specialized expertise (magic, super-science, whatever) is needed to win the central confrontation, or simply function as a distraction to buy time for others. In fact, in combat is where the character is weakest, though he is certainly versatile; he could almost be designed to function in a team environment, at least in terms of capabilities. Balancing these strengths are his personality (loner), obsessiveness, and – to some extent – paranoia and secrecy. Triggering these can either force him to fade back into the shadows, yielding the spotlight to someone else, or push him firmly into the spotlight to become the driving force in an adventure. It’s this particular assemblage of strengths and weaknesses that makes the character so flexible, a flexibility that is key to his ubiquity – and the sheer variety of plotlines that this opens up for the character has been a major contributing factor to his popularity over the last 77 years.

Impact On Character Creation

Choosing not only what a character can do, but what they can’t do, is far easier with a character concept to serve as road-map. I view character construction as more than simply assigning game mechanics numbers to various details; it is a defining of a personality, and selection of abilities, such that the personality influences and shapes not only what capabilities the character seeks out but how those capabilities will be employed, all held together and explained by a personal history.

The three functions of the character inform every choice that I make when designing a PC, but especially skill and ability selection.

Skills: behind-the-curtains theory

To understand the role of skill selection and choices about skill improvement requires a slight shift in awareness by the owner/operator of the character and the GM who interprets the game mechanics.

Let’s say that a character has a skill such that they succeed on 12 or less on a d20. The usual way of looking at this is to say that there is a 60% chance of the character being successful at any using the skill. I suggest that this is an abbreviated shorthand for the correct interpretation, which is both more interesting and more complicated: that the character knows 60% of whatever there is to know about that subject and is ignorant of the other 40%. In a perfect simulation of reality, once a subtopic is rolled, the results (success or failure) would be documented and the character would never need to roll for that specific knowledge again; this avoids the illogical anomalies of a character being an expert in some aspect of the knowledge one week and completely ignorant of it the week after. The more broadly the skills system defines its parameters, the more likely it is that such anomalies will arise. “I knew about the gang territories in Los Angeles last week, why don’t I know about it now?”

In reality, this is impractical, and the explanations that are usually offered to permit the ignoring of the occasional anomaly are that either the subject, or contemporary understanding of it, are dynamic and continually changing, or that there are always gaps in knowledge or its application, or that the character has simply forgotten or not absorbed the information when they were studying the subject. Systems that offer “eidetic memory” as a purchasable option stretch credibility by voiding the last and weakening the first (especially if coupled with “Speed reading” or equivalent). Nevertheless, we simply hide behind the euphemism “the character has a 60% chance” and ignore the actual significance of that statement.

This becomes more interesting when we consider two characters of equal ability discussing the subject. If they had exactly the same knowledge, there would logically be no reason for any improvement in their chances of accessing any given fact. In fact, the subject matter can be reduced to a common core that they both posses and a fringe that may have some overlap but is not required to do so.

If there were no central core, then simple probability based on the chance of failure would give the chances of success of the pair collaborating on a problem: 8/20 x 8/20 = 64/400ths = 6400/400% = 64/4% = 16% chance of failure, and therefore a 84% chance of success; the sum of their knowledge is 24% greater than either of them alone. Or, to put it another way, a second character with 12/- has 24% of knowledge that the first lacks, and vice-versa. Which could be expressed as a Venn diagram in which the area outside the overlap is 24% of the combined area and there is, therefore, a 76% overlap.

Things get more complicated when you factor in the concept of a “common core” of knowledge or ability that is central to the skill. Instead of having the entire breadth of the subject in which differences can emerge, there is only the “fringe”. In essence, this increases the likelihood of differences in knowledge within the two fringes – a lot of the “overlap” is consumed by the “common core”. How much, it’s impossible to say without defining this “Central Core”.

Most skill systems go a step further, defining layers or “shells” of knowledge, and decreeing some of them to be “more exotic” than others. This is frequently represented by increased difficulty levels for more obscure information. Although the mechanics are completely different, both my Zenith-3 game system and D&D / Pathfinder employ this construct behind their respective curtains.

Practical Application

These concepts enable the GM to “interpret” a skill level relative to a character’s experience and background; what might be a “fringe knowledge” question for one character can be an “inner layer” question for the one standing next to them; even though, in terms of mechanics, they have the same level of ability within the skill,

The clever player can anticipate or even mandate this differentiation by balancing specialist bonuses against broader ignorances, regardless of whether or not this is an official part of the game mechanics (if not, GM approval will be required). For example, a character with 12/- in “Knowledge: Underworld”, or equivalent, might suggest that due to his background he should have +2 or +3 in “Gangs of Los Angeles” in return for -1 in all other areas covered by the skill. So the character is effectively at 11/- to identify something about a gang in New York City, but is at 16/- to know that the leader of the LA Commancheros (to invent a gang from whole cloth) eats lunch at Willard’s Sandwich Joint every Friday.

This works by defining what is the “fringe” of random assorted factoids for the character and what is not.

If you want to institute such a mechanics subsystem for yourself, you should apply the following principles:

  • The more narrow a specialty is, the greater the bonus a character should get in return for a -1 in “everything else”;
  • Characters should be permitted only one specialty, or the penalty should be cumulative and possibly even larger for subsequent specialties, because the scope of the “everything else” of the first specialty is being reduced in scope by the second specialty.

A less formal approach is simply for the GM to apply ad-hoc modifiers based on the character’s background and experience; if the player can cite a valid reason for gaining an increased chance of success, grant it. This rewards players who put greater effort into their characters.

Getting back to design and the functional roles

By not taking a specialization within a sphere of knowledge or practical skill that is central to the character, the player is defining this as an area of spotlight expertise proportional to their skill in the subject. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, because the Club organization is based in New York City, all the characters have spent time there, and consequently have some “Area Knowledge: New York City”. However, as a long-term resident of the city, the Priest character, Father O’Malley, has a far higher skill than the others.

Therefore, any time a knowledge of the city, or establishments and significant locations within the city, becomes important to the plotline, Father O’Malley has a spotlight moment. If he fails, or is not present, the others may resort to their “fringe knowledge” of the subject to see if this is one of the random factoids that they have picked up from their time there.

If one of the others were to look at significantly increasing their “skill” in the subject, we (the GMs) would probably discuss “capping” the increase or requiring them to take a specialty of the type discussed above – so as not to steal Father O’Malley’s “spotlight time”.

Although planning these was not something we had in mind during character creation for the campaign, it is something that we would consider in future. It’s a combination of blind luck and, once again, an application of the conceptual archetype approach, that each of the characters is developing their own niches of knowledge. We’re unlikely to leave such things to chance in future, and in the future development of the existing characters.


Abilities benefit from a similar mindset. A diverse application of an ability to different situations for spotlight time while not treading on other character’s toes comes relatively easily if they are all of different character classes, and with greater difficulty if this is not the case or the classes are too similar.

Again, the general observation is that considerable effort is placed on the spotlight abilities, passing consideration may be given to the character meshing into an effective unit in combat situations, and virtually no thought is given to the middle “supporting” role. There are more exceptions to this rule of thumb when it comes to abilities, however.

It is generally left to the GM to think of ways in which one PC can support or contribute to another character who is having a spotlight moment, and the general solution is the temporary yielding of the spotlight mentioned earlier, as a second character steps forward with a key contribution.

If the player were to give this question some thought during character construction, he might be able to choose an ability that is effective in supporting another rather than trying to be second-best in someone else’s area of expertise.

There is a PC in the Zenith-3 campaign who is relatively physically vulnerable. There is also an NPC that I have created whose primary abilities are supportive, protective, and secondary in nature; his ideal tactical role is normally to protect the PC. However, his personality is such that he has to continually resist the temptation to join in the front-lines, even though he is far less effective (most of the time) than the front-line specialist within the team. The PCs are slowly putting together prepared tactics for those occasions when he either goes “off the reservation” or is thrust into the front-lines by virtue of specific circumstances, involving one of the other characters falling back to protect the vulnerable PC.

Impact On Roleplay

Roleplay is often as much about the personality of the player as it is that of the character they are playing. Some people are naturally pushed into the spotlight under certain circumstances simply because they are better in certain situations.

In the Pulp Campaign, Father O’Malley is the most diplomatic and the best at speaking with higher authority, and is usually front-and-center when religion or the supernatural manifest; Captain Ferguson shines at organizing direct action and response; Doctor Hawke is the best at speaking to technical experts, Steffan is good at connecting with ordinary working men and women but is still evolving as a character, as is the last PC in the campaign, Eliza Black, who is most adept at dealing with law enforcement.

Some of these choices derive from character experience and expertise, some from player ability, and – most commonly – as a function of a combination of the two.

Again, a lot of this is the result of a confluence of the deliberate differentiation of archetypes in the concept phase, coupled with trying to get each character to play to the player’s strengths during that phase. These days, we would be even more aware of the significance of these attributes and how they operate within the three functions – individual, ally, and member of collective.

Impact On Problem Solving & Puzzles

Because the parameters of puzzles and problems are defined by the GM, it can seem that the player has no role to play in this area. I would beg to differ. Like roleplay, this should be a combination of player strengths and deliberate selection of capabilities on the part of the character during the design and construction process. The result is that situations that might have to be “forced” by the GM can occur naturally within play.

Consider the different types of puzzles and problems that might confront a character, and then determine which of these (a) the character should be good at, and (b) which of them the player is good at. The first is spotlight time for the character, but if the player is not successful at that particular type of problem/puzzle, it is an uncomfortable spotlight that can only be resolved by resorting to die rolls. This is less than satisfactory to all involved, but it is sometimes unavoidable.

Contriving a justification during character creation for the character to be gifted in those areas where the player is skilled yields a far better gaming experience. Even better is avoiding situations in which the character excels at something the player is, or feels, deficient in.

Word puzzles, Logic puzzles, interpersonal puzzles, solving mysteries, tactical problems, riddles, finger puzzles, social and political puzzles, quizzes and trivia games – the list goes on. In part, this all depends on how the GM is going to simulate the puzzle within the game – if the player can design a process that employs one of their personal strengths to simulate a strength that the character has but he doesn’t, it will go a long way towards replacing die rolls with interaction.

For example, I’m not great at word puzzles, though I can sometimes solve riddles. I’m not brilliant at Crossword puzzles, either, but I’m better at those – so if I were to create a PC who would be brilliant at word puzzles, I would either insert a reason for the character to be less effective at them, or simulate the word-game process by having the DM create a simple crossword puzzle for me to solve. Each success is effectively a riddle; so long as I get more right than I get wrong, I win the riddle contest or word game. By adjusting the difficulty of the crossword puzzle, or biasing the results (I need “X” more than half), the GM could simulate the relative strength of an opponent or difficulty of a problem.

One of the major benefits to these approaches is that any other player’s spotlight expertise can then become a source of supportive contribution to the problem. The Cleric or priest might have an answer to a theological crossword clue; the mage might know the name of a spell that is the solution to another; and so on. In this way, solitary activities can be transformed into group activities even as something that would normally be just a solitary die roll becomes an interactive group experience.

Impact On Combat

When it comes to combat, the normal (flawed) order of priority is reversed to some extent; players spend most of their effort assuming that they will be fighting in the company of others, give passing consideration to the idea of fighting on their own, and virtually none on how they could make others a more effective combatant and whether or not that potential contribution outstrips a more direct form of hostility – unless the specifics of the character class push the character in that direction whether the player likes it or not. And, as a rule of thumb, they don’t; there is a pleasure that derives from the visceral “crunch” for all that it’s soundless, virtual and imaginary.

Because of this, during character design, there is a tendency to neglect the supporting role simple because players find it unsatisfying. This is an incorrect mindset, because it is viewed in the wrong context; you don’t want a purely supportive role when everyone’s in battle, but that doesn’t mean that you should not plan for the times when you aren’t in an all-in fight.

I would point people at the Classic Star Trek episode, “Amok Time“, and the role of Dr McCoy. He was the one who decided the outcome of the fight, even though he was not one of the participants.

While a player cannot control when or under what circumstances his or her character will be reduced to a supporting role in a conflict, he can rest assured that at some point it will happen, simply because it is a way for the GM to make a combat different and challenging. For example, in a D&D campaign, I might create a monster that “eats” clerical magic, evolving new combat capabilities as it does so. It would attempt to engage the PC cleric, but as soon as its nature is appreciated, he would need to disengage from the fight; the character is forced into a supporting role when he successfully does so. Whether he is then helpless, or can participate by indirect means, is down to his design and how much preparatory thought the player has given to a situation resembling this one.

Similar tactics in innumerable variations can reduce any character into a supporting role. A monster that becomes intangible after it strikes can mean that anyone with a naturally high initiative score, like most fighters, become ineffective in terms of direct action. Certainly, the fighter can refocus (in D&D and, presumably, Pathfinder) to lower his initiative – but so can the monster.

As a GM, I try never to put characters into this position without designing something into the encounter that gives the sidelined character something positive to do. But that would be made a lot easier if the player had considered the possibilities during character construction, giving me the ability to make combats more interesting for everyone.

At the same time, while a character’s role in a group combat situation is considered during character construction, it is almost completely forgotten during subsequent character advancement, which almost exclusively focuses on the individual’s capabilities. To some extent, this is the fault of the game designs, in that very rarely are multi-character maneuvers explicitly handled by game systems, but players need to accept some of the responsibility as well.

The GM’s Responsibility

Nor is it fair to put the entirety of the blame on the players. It’s up to the GM to provide opportunities for the players to explore these alternatives, and to ensure that a character can contribute something to the game even when they aren’t in the spotlight, and to exploit the options that players do provide.

For every ability that a PC acquires, the GM should ask themselves “How can I build an encounter, or an adventure, around this? How can I make it matter to the game even when it’s not the ability on center stage?”

To put it bluntly – if the GM doesn’t use it, the players won’t bother creating it.

  • Every encounter should be planned so that every player can make a contribution to its resolution, or the advancement of the plot, if not every character.
  • Every adventure should give every character the spotlight at least once, even if another character is the central focus of the adventure. And every character should get his fair share of adventures in which he is the central focus.

The Impact On Campaign Planning

To some extent, this is a function of campaign planning. Ideally, each character has his own plotline, his own development arc, all taking place simultaneously or nearly so. This is a lot easier if the player is an active collaborator in the planning. Ideally, all of these plot threads will then come together at the climax of the campaign.

Every campaign plan should therefore be regarded as preliminary, needing customization to the capabilities, skills, and personalities of the characters who are going to participate. The best campaign plans are robust enough that this involves minimal alteration, but I don’t know of any that don’t require some attention in this respect.

The ultimate art form of GMing might be considered the eschewing of campaign planning completely, making the content of each adventure purely derivative of the unplanned but continuing growth of the PCs. Personally, I find that this leaves too much to chance and the wild hope of inspiration taking place at the right time, but not everyone agrees with that position.

Every GM gives some thought to the optimum balance between planning and spontaneity. In a perfect world, the preferences of the participants would be the only determining factor; but – as this article has shown – the way each character is to function within the campaign is a major determining factor in limiting the flexibility that the GM has available to him. It follows that everyone benefits from both sides giving a little more consideration to the functional roles of the characters, and especially the oft-neglected balance between those roles: individual, supporting player, and member of a collective group.

No character can ever strike a perfect balance between the three, and the needs may well evolve as the campaign develops. But a huge amount of improvement is achieved through simple awareness of the issue. The perfect PC strikes some sort of planned balance between all three, and the GM then exploits that balance to ensure that everyone participates equally, producing greater enjoyment for all concerned.

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Fun in all the right places

Rollercoaster at Port Aventura by Yarik Mishin

Image credit: / Yarik Mishin

This article was inspired by a question raised on twitter by Kevin Mason @jackmonkeygames, or more specifically, my response to the question:

Q: What’s Your Best Tip for creating a memorable character?
A: Enjoy the process of creating the character.

That touched on a thought that’s been tickling around the back of my head for a while now that I was sure would make a good article, about whether or not ditching the sense of whimsy that characterized a lot of old-school gaming back when it was contemporary has also killed a lot of the fun value of gaming.

When you first start generating characters for RPGs, the mechanics tend to be overwhelming, and so those are what you focus on. It’s often only once you have a handle on the mechanical essentials of your game mechanics that characters itself stops being a mechanical act that can be done by a game roller or spreadsheet and becomes a source of entertainment in its own right.

Because most really good characters come about not because of a brilliant insight into the workings of a game system, or the ability to min-max, but because they become a story in their own right, scratching the creative itch that’s inside all – or at least most – of us. It’s a story in two parts: the creation of the character and his backstory, or how he got to where he (or she) is when they enter the game, and the story of what happens to them once they are in that more dynamic environment.

‘Book’ One: Character Creation

“Book” one of the character’s story is created by the player as a mostly solo effort based on the game world, societies, etc, supplied by the GM. In theory, once those parameters are known to the player, he is then challenged by the GM to create an interesting character who has emerged from the different experiences that this premise provides.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the GM either hasn’t created everything that the player needs, or isn’t telling the players everything that he has created. So the player invents things to plug that gap in creating his vision of what the character will be, sometimes called the character concept. When he submits the character concept for GM review, the GM considers whether or not these additions supplement or conflict with the conceptual twists that he intends to offer as adventures and plot developments and in-game discoveries – all the things that he has decided and hasn’t said.

If the character offers an opportunity to highlight and explore some of those unsaid elements, especially some that no other character will focus on, and doesn’t conflict with any, it gets approved; this may or may not be before the character is generated in terms of game mechanics.

If the character’s concept conflicts in its assumptions with what the GM has in mind, then there are two options: negotiate some edits to resolve the conflict, perhaps tantalizing the player with part of the hidden story, or simply tell the player “this part doesn’t fit my campaign plans”, rejecting the proposed character in whole or in part.

Some players are prone to take this as personal criticism of their creative skills, but they should not feel that way; it’s often the case that they have been too successful at creating a character that ‘locks into’ their view of the campaign world.

Personally, as a GM, I try to find a way in which the player’s misapprehension of the game world can become a flawed understanding of that world on the part of the character. While there may still be the odd item that needs negotiated revision, this permits an awful lot of what would otherwise be rejected to pass, giving the character (and through him or her, the player) a stake in the revelations to come. It stops being just an intellectual exercise when you have an emotional investment in the world, and one of the big tricks is getting players to make such an emotional investment. The best conduit is for the player to have an emotional investment in the character and his life – for it to matter to them.

Through The Looking Glass

Once you make a character as a ‘simulated person of interest’ within a game for the first time, you never create characters the same way again. Even when creating characters using game mechanics for which you are unfamiliar, your first goal will be to make a ‘simulated person’ who is going to be interesting and entertaining to play. You have ‘leveled up’ as a player.

It’s also at this point that things can go horribly wrong. The player has one view of the sort of things that their character will be doing, and the GM has another, and if those things don’t mostly match, the character will NOT be as much fun to play as intended. I sometimes think that there should be a space on the character sheet for the player to articulate what they want to get out of playing the character in terms of entertainment.

If the player is looking forward to the character skulking down darkened alleys to clandestine meetings, the GM needs to know this – because he might be focusing on entirely different story opportunities for the character. But, all too often, the player himself can’t articulate this information, so it would frequently be a waste, or worse, would miscommunicate to the GM what sort of activities the player wants to roleplay.

There’s nothing worse for a player than for what he perceived as his big ‘character moments’ to be perpetually handwaved. It makes you feel as though all the effort put into creating the character in the first place is under-appreciated, and hence you are being under-appreciated as well.

For that reason, there needs to be an ongoing dialogue between player and GM about what was fun, and what wasn’t, and an effort on the part of both parties to try and understand why this reaction has occurred. It may be the GM’s responsibility to create an environment in which the player can have fun, but that’s hard to do if you don’t know what entertains them.

A broader life-lesson

One of my greatest assets in life has been the capacity to find something to enjoy in everything that I did – whether that was the camaraderie of workmates or the sense of satisfaction at seeing the work I had done each day, or the joy of playing with numbers. Even tasks for which I was not best suited let me enjoy the challenge of doing the job better than I thought I could. This has enabled me to put 100% into everything that I do, every position that I held.

I wish I could pass on that secret, I’m sure a lot of readers would want it, but I don’t know how I do it, or not completely. I can tell you that part of it is actively looking for such an enjoyment vector from day one.

I apply the same approach to my GMing, but with slightly modified targets. Instead of “the best that I can do”, the goal is “the best that I can achieve in the time available that will satisfy the need” – I’ve talked about how I prioritize prep tasks in past articles, most recently in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.

Not only does this approach help you do your best for each element of your game prep, and improve efficiency leaving more time to both relax and smell the roses AND improve your game prep that little bit over the minimum that will do the job, providing some all-important polish, but it helps immensely in guarding against burnout.

When people read the “About” text that I’ve provided, many ask how I can stand to run the same campaign for what will be 35 years in September. I have three answers: first, I take time off as necessary to recharge; second, it may be a continuous history but it’s not the same campaign (not one of the players I now have were at the table when I started. Several of them weren’t even at school yet); and third, because I enjoy what I do, and the setting that I have created is vast enough to contain enough plotlines to endure for that period of time.

A related question is how I can plan a campaign to run for a decade or longer. The answers are the same. Or how I keep players for that long – ditto, plus I make it fun for them, month-in-and-month-out, to the best of my ability – and that has to be to a reasonable standard, because they keep coming back. Or how I can write two articles, usually containing a lot of substance and not much fluff, every week.

The Collaborative Approach To PC Creation & Maintenance

The collaborative approach to PC creation and Maintenance goes even further than the baseline that I described earlier. In this technique, players – with the encouragement of the GM – supply him with resources and game materials related to their character and the other people in their character’s lives. Once the player has submitted something, the GM is free to twist or spin it however he sees fit, and to use or not use it as seems appropriate. But GM prep time is always in short supply – so the odds are that if you supply something, it will get used eventually.

If you want your character to learn a particular skill, players, find a way to make it interesting (and fun) for the GM to enable you to do so. Create an NPC to do the teaching, offer a couple of plot hooks for how this education can be used to tie the character’s education into adventures, even toss in a line or two about what else the character might be doing with this time but won’t be if the GM lets the character learn/improve the chosen skill – you have no idea which shot will hit the bullseye.

But don’t overwhelm the GM, don’t bombard them with material – and the bigger your submission in terms of game world, the longer you should expect a response to take. Assuming monthly play:

  • An NPC artist with some fun quirks and some unlikely personal connections might see action in a game session or two.
  • A new arch-enemy, six months or more.
  • A new magic item, somewhere in between – or not at all, depending on how over-the-top it is.
  • A new character class could conceivably sit on the shelf for more than a year, depending on how much the GM wants to fiddle with it. I’ve also had situations in which a proposed character class was inappropriate for the campaign world as it was, but would fit in just fine with the campaign world as it was going to be in two or three years (monthly play, remember).
  • If you enjoy digging out maps or making maps, create a shared space in dropbox and every time you make something new, add it to the collection for the GM to draw upon as resources.

The more you, as a player, contribute, (1) the more fun you will have when something you’ve created gets used, (2) the more fun you will have when discovering whatever twists the GM has put on your creation, and (3) the more time the GM has for putting prep time into other things that will be fun and/or interesting in the campaign.

It’s CRITICALLY IMPORTANT that these be presented in a format the GM can use. If he doesn’t have the facility to print out maps, give him hardcopies. If he works electronically, as I do, DON’T give him handwritten material – it will simply sit on the shelf because he may NEVER find the time to type it up for you. Take the GM’s preferences into account, and – if in doubt – talk to him about it!

A lot of players think it’s enough for them to spend time tweaking their character, planning what feats and abilities the character is going to obtain next, and so on. But if you really want to take your character’s participation – and the fun you get from it – to the max, look beyond your character sheet. Make the GM’s job more fun for them, and they will have more capacity to make your job as a player more fun for you.

It’s not uncommon for players to do this sort of thing when creating their characters. Why not make character creation an ongoing process?

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When Genres Collide: Using Non-Genre Sources

planets colliding

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Some of the most fun that I’ve ever had as a GM was creating that down-elevator sensation in the stomach-pits of my players by taking an idea derived from one genre and importing it into another.

It’s not easy to do well, but I’ve figured out at least some of the ground rules to success, and today I’m going to share them with my readers.

There are eight steps to the process that I use:

  1. Reduce the inspiration to its core
  2. Reinterpret the inspiration core into a third genre
  3. Connect the reinterpretation with your primary genre
  4. Rebuild the rest of the source around the primary genre version
  5. Challenge the players conceptually
  6. Challenge the characters actually
  7. Connect the dots.

Following these steps may not guarantee that your combination works, but not doing so greatly increases the risk that your two big ideas – the campaign and the imported content – will collide and fly apart in disarray.

So let’s go through them in detail:

1. Reduce the inspiration to its core

So you’ve got this adventure module or game sourcebook or whatever that’s written for an entirely different game system, in an entirely different genre, that you think would be a fun fit for your campaign if you can just manage to pull it off.

There are two things that I can guarantee: You’re going to have to throw a lot of it away and you’re going to have to change a lot of what’s left to a greater or lesser extent.

To make a cross-genre infusion work, you need to strip away all the trimmings that have been built up around the idea to leave only the core, and then put them back, changed as necessary, one bit at a time, around an interpretation of that core that sits comfortably in your existing genre.

Take a D&D Module. You have the central premise – sometimes expressed in the cover blurb or introduction, sometimes not stated explicitly at all. You have a plot that is supposed to be an expression of that central idea, and that plot is enfolded into a series of encounters and challenges. There is also a whole heap of incidental content that wraps that plot and its constituent encounters and challenges in game mechanics and the trappings that come with the genre of the game that it is designed to plug into. You will probably have a map, and you will have slabs of color text and a number of hopefully interesting locations in which those encounters and challenges can take place.

If you’re running a game using a different set of mechanics but within the same genre, you only need to translate explicit mechanics and perhaps tweak some of the environmental assumptions to fit. Running a D&D adventure module using Pathfinder, or any other fantasy game, is not all that difficult.

But if I want to take that adventure and run it in a superhero campaign, as I did years ago with The Ghost Tower of Inverness and Danger at Dunwater, it’s not going to be so easy. Most of the encounters make no sense out of a fantasy context. Ditto most of the challenges. Certainly the rewards are irrelevant. The gamy dynamics are also different; there is an urgency in a superhero situation that doesn’t apply to most D&D modules – this adventure needed to be concluded in two or three game sessions of about 5 hours playing time. The campaign setting is also in a relatively modern-day time period; between that and the superheroes abilities (radically different and far more powerful than those of the typical D&D character) would mandate a hunk of reinvention, as well.

So the first thing you need to do is to identify the content that you have to incorporate. That might be the plot, it might be an encounter, it might be some color text, but it’s most likely to be the core premise or concept of the adventure. But whatever it is, the first step is to identify it and set everything else aside.

Its’ essential to be as ruthless as possible in this culling of content. Every component, every paragraph that gets retained at this point adds to the workload and the danger of later complications, though it’s not easy to explain why, though it’s clear to me. The clearest explanation that I can offer is by analogy.

The process of incorporating non-genre material into is akin to taking a jigsaw puzzle and rearranging the pieces to form a different picture by re-cutting the existing pieces and replacing some of them, building the new picture around a single “piece” that is virtually unchanged from the original image (which may in fact be several inter-related pieces). While you can trim a little bit around the edges, the actual image content has to remain unchanged.

The more complicated the shape of that ‘central piece’, the harder the task of creating the new image seamlessly becomes. This is the single most important piece of the new image; everything that is not critically vital must be trimmed away.

I’m afraid that’s about as clearly as I can explain it.

2. Reinterpret the inspiration core into a third genre

So here’s the first curve-ball, one that most people won’t have been expecting. What I’ve learned the hard way is that placing the core material into a new context that is neither the original genre nor the ultimate destination genre brings a number of unexpected benefits.

Perhaps the biggest is that it translates the core idea into a form that is more malleable. Consider that if you were to translate your retained content directly into your target genre and encountered a problem of internal logic, or a contradiction between adventure assumptions and established campaign “reality”, having trimmed and reshaped the puzzle piece that you’re keeping as your starting point – you would have no choice but to either throw away everything you’ve done already, or to abandon the idea entirely – or try and wallpaper over the hole and hope none of your players put their foot through the weak spot!

None of those options are particular attractive or conducive to success or efficiency, and GMs have to work efficiently because there is never enough time to do everything that we would like. The old woodworking adage applies, if only as a proverb: “Measure twice and cut once”.

Having made a big song-and-dance about keeping the central premise unchanged, it might appear that I’m now contradicting myself, but that “song-and-dance” is only valid within the analogy explaining why you should trim the idea down to its barest, most essential, minimum. In fact, I didn’t want to include the analogy – the first draft of this article didn’t include it – but it was the only way I could find to explain that principle. The alternative would have been to issue blanket directives – do this, do that, don’t do this third thing – without explanation, and I consider that unacceptable. If I don’t explain why I’m doing something, you can’t modify the process to suit your own needs.

By translating the core of what you’re adapting into a third genre, you are shedding any remaining assumptions that might trip you up and placing the core into a new context as an intermediate stage. “Danger At Dunwater”, for example, I translated into the genre of a political/spy thriller, with the Lizardmen recast as Russians who felt they had been attacked and were debating how to respond. There were multiple factions, each with their own agendas, and none of them were quite who they seemed to be. That was the core premise, post- translation into the interim genre.

The other big gain from this step of the process is that a fragmented concept – which you may be working with, if there is no explicit statement provided – becomes unified in the process. This makes it much easier to work with in subsequent steps.

There are other benefits as well, relating to mindset and how you perceive that central core. By defining – actually, redefining – the central idea, you are thinking about how it will eventually translate into your target genre from this intermediate stage. This works by distancing the concept from the source material, and ultimately makes it easier to import and translate the rest of the content that’s salvageable from that source material.

Selection of intermediate genre

To be successful, the genre that you use has to be one that fits reasonably comfortably within the confines of your ultimate target genre. If I were translating a science fiction adventure such as the Star Frontiers adventure Bugs In The System (available as a free PDF if you click the link) into a superheroic space opera – which I did for the Warcry campaign – I would not use Fantasy as an intermediate genre, because Fantasy is not an easy fit. Instead, did something a little more complicated, dividing the adventure up into three parts and then interpreting one part based on the movie “Alien”, one part based on Babylon-5, and one part based on Star Wars. But I could only be that specific because the genres were already a close match.

It’s essential that the intermediate genre be one that fits comfortably within your primary genre, while also not being too far removed from the original genre.

That can be quite a challenging prescription to fill. Sometimes you have no choice but to treat another source as though it were a genre unto itself, a medium for which you are adapting the source material, just as I did Bugs In The System.

As a long-time viewer of Dr Who, I can add that the TV series (which I have watched since the late 1960s/early 1970s) is a masterclass in this sort of adaption. Study it :)

3. Connect the reinterpretation with your primary genre

Having translated the core concept into a genre that will fit reasonably comfortably within our target genre, the next step is to do just that. That essentially involves applying any genre conventions that might be necessary, adapting the concept to fit the game world, etc. This should not take very long, but it’s important that it be done with care and thought, and with the intention that your PCs will be the ones trying to resolve the situation (whatever it is). Complications should come from who they are, problems and road blocks may need to be inserted to prevent an immediate solution, etc. In particular, it means creating any supporting material/content that is not going to come from the original.

In order to fulfill that last item of the brief, it is necessary to actually plan – at least in general terms – the next step. It might even seem that step 4 should precede step 3. There are good reasons why that’s not the case.

The next stage will translate the source material so that it connects with the revised core in the context of the campaign. Doing so now would leave holes to be filled, and it’s a lot harder creating content with a very specific “shape” to fit in those holes. It’s a lot easier if you do the new work first, making sure that IT is a snug “fit”, and use that to define the specifics of the next step.

In fact, that’s a general principle that’s worth highlighting even if it’s the only take-away from this article: It’s almost always easier to do whatever you need to do now if you’ve already given thought to what you need to do next.

Let’s look at Danger At Dunwater (and how I adapted it) once again, in order to illustrate what I mean and explain the process a little more clearly.

While the society of the enemy was to be loosely modeled on Cold-war Stalinist Russia (and I had made some notes on what that specific modeling would look like), and the core of the plotline was to derive from the D&D module, I didn’t know that much more about the situation. While I could start trying to translate more bits from the source material ad-hoc and off the top of my head, at the moment I didn’t have any specifications on what to translate that content to within the adapted adventure. So the right approach is to plan that, and then fill in anything necessary before actually doing that translation.

Lizardmen don’t make sense within the campaign world; I needed to give the population a reason to have stayed hidden all this time, especially since I needed a human community nearby. So they will need adaption. Most of the encounters would be trivially simple for the PCs to overcome by force – so they need to be either beefed up, which would undercut the need for secrecy, or I would need to scrap most if not all of them. It’s not the threat to the PCs that matters in a superhero adventure, it’s the threat posed to ordinary people. The trigger condition that sets events in motion described within the module also falls apart if the hidden population are to have been a hidden threat for a long time, so I will need a different justification for the situation – one that I will need to create. Most of the encounters through which the plot unfolds are also inappropriate and more like a dungeon crawl; since I need to accelerate the plotline three or four-fold (maybe more), scrapping those encounters would also help achieve this goal. And finally, I would need to work out who the factions were, what they really wanted, what attitude they were pretending to have, and why.

That’s got the basic outline of the next step planned – adapting what of the original source still fits – and in the process, it has defined what I need to do in this stage: a replacement for the Lizardmen, a replacement for the trigger that causes the plot to start, and a replacement plot to reveal the situation to the PCs. Finally, I always make sure that for any problem (especially one on this scale, i.e. a diplomatic problem that poses a significant threat that the PCs will feel the need to address) has at least one solution, on the principle that where there’s one solution there will be more than one – how the PCs actually solve the problem, and what the consequences will be, is up to them. Once I know that there’s at least one way out of whatever mess I’m putting them into, I can be an unbiased umpire, dealing with PC plans and situations on their merits. It’s one of my ways of avoiding railroading within my campaigns.


  • Lizardmen: In the superhero genre, its perfectly plausible for Atlantis to have been real (both DC and Marvel have at least one version of it, each). The PCs even found some underwater ruins at one point that they thought might have been it, but there were absolutely no bodily remains, and the ruins had been stripped of anything even semi-portable (a high-tech weapon had been overlooked that was found by a bad guy and used to create a brief spell of havoc for the PCs to deal with). This had been left as an unsolved mystery for years, waiting until I found a good solution. If the Atlanteans had used their science to become lizard-like water-breathers, and abandoned the ruins for fear of a repeat performance by the earthquake/volcanic eruption that had already done them in, ultimately settling in a deep lake somewhere (so that there was a human community nearby to be threatened by them), that would supply replacements. This also means that anything magical would need to be translated into higher technology, another item to add to the plans for Stage 4.
  • The Lizardmen described are primitives, almost barbarian tribesmen; that doesn’t jibe with the high-tech. Unless of course, the loss of so many citizens in the disaster and subsequent migration had devastated their civilization – so they had the tech, and used the tech, but didn’t know how or why it worked, just that it did.
  • That gave me the potential solution to the whole problem that I was looking for: if the PCs can demonstrate that they DO understand the technology, at least in broad principle, they would automatically be elevated in the eyes of the Atlanteans and could negotiate a peace in return for educational assistance and eventual alliance.
  • The shortage of numbers works for explaining why they need to stay hidden. But why haven’t their numbers grown, since? Perhaps they suffer from radiation damage as a legacy of the accident that greatly increases the rate of infertility? The PCs had access to medical technology that could mitigate or even undo that – another reasonable foundation for a peace treaty.
  • The factions:
    • the Priests would be directly threatened by either of these bargaining chips, but be bound by religious dogma that accepts the PCs as agents of The Gods in the eyes of the populace (and especially the throne). Base them on the KGB. That’s faction #1.
    • Faction #2 would be the military, who would demand retribution for whatever sparks the whole mess off, or reparations at the very least – but who are both proud and honorable, so this appearance of hostility is not fully heartfelt, or at least can be overcome.
    • For faction #3, we have the “Noble Rulers” of the Atlanteans, who would welcome the PCs with open arms (because the populace demand it) but be very stiff-necked when it came to sovereignty, almost xenophobic about the Atlantean culture being overwhelmed by these strangers from the surface world, and paranoid about their existence being revealed. To spice things up, let’s also state that they are chafing under the influence of the Priests.
    • Finally, as a fourth faction, some group of lesser nobles who see this as an opportunity to assassinate the King and cast blame on the PCs; they have wanted to make such a move for a long time, but so obviously would be the only ones to gain that they would immediately be suspect. Using the PCs as cats-paws finally gives them the opportunity to make their move. Again to make things interesting, lets’ suggest that they are young, ambitious, impatient – and far more progressive than the current rulers.

    So, a hidden enemy who is overtly friendly, a hidden potential ally who is overtly hostile, a second hidden enemy that are overtly neutral but open, and some ambitious types who are secretly hostile to everyone but who the PCs would be able to befriend despite that hostility.

  • The main points of the plot are also beginning to take shape: Incident, Reprisal, PCs Make Contact, Begin Diplomacy, Establish Factions, Attempted Assassination of a PC, Attempted Assassination of the Rulers, PCs blamed, Prove their innocence (getting the Military and Nobility on side but making the priests overtly hostile, Conclude Diplomatic Negotiations, sign Treaty.
  • That leaves only the triggering incident, which was where the one moment of genuine out-of-the-blue inspiration in this particular project arrived. Why not make the body of water Loch Ness, why not make Nessie a pseudo-biological submarine used by the Atlanteans as a diversion when humans came too close to their hidden habitat? I had an impression (vague now, in terms of source) that sightings were clustered around one end of the Loch, and also remembered hearing something about a controversial American plan to “force” Nessie to the surface by systematically dropping small “depth charges” starting at the end of the Loch where sightings were infrequent and working back. From what i recall, the proposal was quite rightly blocked by the Scottish, but what if (in my game world) he had gone ahead without getting permission? The Atlanteans would not be seriously hurt, but would have to wonder if they had been discovered, and could quite legitimately view this as an attack directed against them. The fact that this would be an illegal act by the monster-hunter would not reduce the fact that it could also be viewed as a diplomatic incident at best and an act of war at worst…

Notice how one piece of the adventure after another seems to fall into place? Those seven pieces of the plot provide the framework around which components of the original source material can now be fitted into place – key NPCs, personalities, bits of flavor text, capabilities, maps, etc.

4. Rebuild the rest of the source around the primary genre version

So that’s the next step – fitting as much “existing content” as possible into the new context, and then completing a more detailed writeup of the plot outlines. In fact, only one thing was missing – a hook to bring the PCs into the plot, something that was overlooked when listing the work to be done. On the basis of what had been decided, though, that’s not too difficult: The Military Faction take it on themselves to mount a raid in response. A remote Scottish township being attacked by lizard-like mermen, prisoners being taken for interrogation and intelligence-gathering purposes, more than enough reason to call for help, and more than exotic enough to get the PCs involved.

I’ve actually already described what happens in this stage in earlier sections, simply to place those earlier sections in context, so there’s no real need to go into it again. So let’s move on.

5. Challenge the players conceptually

No adaption is ever perfect. Stages 5 and 6 have two goals: first, they serve as defenses against the flaws being exploited, and second, with stage 7, they justify the effort of adapting the out-of-genre material to your own needs rather than creating your own adventure from scratch (in-genre source materials need rather less justification).

By incorporating a conceptual challenge, something that’s difficult to grasp, into the translated material, you leave open the question of whether or not a flaw in the translation and integration into the campaign is your mistake or simply a part of this intellectual challenge that the players aren’t quite “getting”. This encourages the players to come up with their own solutions to explain the flaw, which the GM can then appropriate, complimenting them on their success at grasping a subtle nuance of “what he had planned” (and rewarding them appropriately).

There is a secondary effect, which yields the second benefit listed above: by definition, a conceptual challenge makes the game world a broader and richer. In effect, the incorporation of the non-genre resource as a part of the campaign enlarges the campaign to fit.

For the “Danger At Dunwater” adaption, I was never completely happy with the destruction of Atlantis; while plausible, it simply seemed more catastrophic than any other event in the Mediterranean region this side of Pompeii. What’s more, making the Atlanteans high-tech raises the question of how they could be so totally taken unawares, and why they were unable to rescue the populace – why had they needed to take the drastic step of re-engineering themselves?

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘if that’s an conceptual challenge for me, it should work equally well for the players!’ – so that’s what I used to fulfill this part of the recipe.

There have been a few times where I have adapted material and neglected to include a conceptual challenge. The results have always been lukewarm rather than exciting, and predictable instead of challenging, and always left me with the feeling that the effort of the adaption was not justified by the results.

That brings up another general truism:
“Game Prep expands to fill the time available, plus 20%.”

As a general principle, this is gospel. Don’t expect to spend any less time because you’re basing things on a third=party resource; just expect to spend that time doing things differently to your usual practices.

I took a closer look at the differences between creating a bespoke adventure and using a published adventure in an article published in January 2014 here at Campaign Mastery, To Module Or Not?. It’s relatively short (for a Campaign Mastery article). so take a look if you want more of my thoughts on the subject.

6. Challenge the characters actually

Whatever the PCs have to overcome in order to navigate the incorporated material, it has to challenge more than their players’ ability to talk in character. The difficulties to be overcome have to be difficult enough to pose some sort of challenge to the characters.

Sometimes that’s easy – even too easy. Sometimes it’s difficult. It’s a near-certainty that an imported resource will either pitch too hard or too soft for your campaign – the likelihood of being “exactly right” is vanishingly small. Either way, this can pose significant challenges to the GM doing the translation from one game system / genre to another.

Pitched too soft

This is the case with which I am most familiar, because a lot of my adaption has been for my superhero campaign, and superheroes tend to be the most personally capable of PCs compared to any other genre. Take Iron Man – can you picture him popping up in just about any non-superhero movie and not being a match for the biggest bad, if not overwhelming?

  • Iron Man in “Alien” – no contest.
  • Iron Man in “Pirates Of The Caribbean” – no contest. Okay, maybe Davey Jones and the Kraken. But the East India Company? Rescuing Elizabeth from the Black Pearl?
  • Iron Man in “The Lord Of The Rings” – Sauron, and the Balrog, might be fair fights. No-one else stands a chance.
  • Iron Man in “Star Wars” – Darth Vader is hopelessly outmatched. Iron Man might not be able to defeat the entire Empire simply because it’s so large and has so many potential hostages.
  • Iron Man in “Independence Day” – if Stark can’t get through the force fields of the enemy ships, he is quite capable of devising the computer virus and uploading it. Once that happens, he becomes a one-man air force, more than a match for the big saucers, never mind the small ones.
  • Iron Man in “Armageddon” – the asteroid is toast, all they need to do is get him into orbit. The same goes for just about any disaster movie you can think of.
  • Iron Man in “The Hunger Games” – who needs a partner? Oh, all right, just don’t get in the way…

…the list goes on and on. Sure, some of these fights might be very exciting to watch, but the outcome of most is pretty much inevitable. It’s the human challenges that would pose the most difficulty, simply because Tony Stark is only human; if superior armament won’t solve the problem, the challenge is just as great.

The problem is that scaling up the enemy capabilities to match can create insurmountable logical problems. It won’t always happen, but it’s something you need to be wary of. There aren’t many James Bond adventures that a party of competent D&D adventurers wouldn’t breeze through relatively easily simply because they have capabilities that the opposition can’t match.

A concrete example arises in the “Danger at Dunwater” adaption – the Atlanteans can’t pose a significant threat to the PCs, because if they were that powerful there would be no reason for them to have stayed hidden; they would have conquered Scotland, if not all of the UK, long ago. They need to be just powerful enough to pose a threat to ordinary people, and just vulnerable enough for ordinary people to pose a threat to them – and that means that they pose no significant challenge to most of the PCs in terms of outright combat capabilities. To ensure that there is sufficient challenge, then, I needed to set up a situation in which the PCs superior combat abilities were not going to solve the problem. This was achieved by having the targets of the violence be people other than the PCs – either the town, the citizens of Scotland, or other Atlanteans. Challenges needed to be skill based and strategic.

“Danger At Dunwater”, as adapted by me back in the late 1990s, assumes that the PCs are superior, and that this fact won’t actually help them solve the problem. That means that it could be dropped into a Star Trek campaign, or a Star Wars campaign, or a Dr Who campaign, with mostly cosmetic changes. The problems are human ones.

Pitched too hard

It can be just as tricky to manage challenges that are pitched too high for your PCs to hope to succeed, because there are only two solutions: giving the PCs an advantage to compensate, or making the challenges easier.

The first is another step on the path that leads to Monty Haul syndrome; something to be avoided at all costs. Which leaves only the second, but that can raise problems of logical inconsistency if that means that the NPCs no longer have the capabilities to do what they have (historically) done or pose the threat that they are supposed to represent. Weakening the challenge by making the NPCs more vulnerable risks undermining the whole premise of the source material.

The best solution that I’ve found is to monkey with the capabilities of the NPCs so that they have an advantage that can be made unusable by anyone if the PCs do the right thing. This transforms the problem into a challenge that the PCs can solve. Sometimes this means incorporating a vulnerability that the NPCs don’t know about because the PCs have come from a different environment or background; sometimes it means basing their advantage on a piece of external technology that can be damaged or sabotaged; sometimes it means finding a way for the NPCs to be bluffing about their true capabilities, something that may or may not be the case historically. And sometimes it means that they had capabilities and lost them. Or perhaps there is some transient effect that will eventually wear off, and the solution is for the PCs to learn this fact – and then stall, for all they are worth.

The most difficult challenge

Quite often, adapting the challenges to an appropriate standard is the single most-difficult challenge in adapting an idea from one genre to another. You can mitigate against that to some extent by choosing source material of reasonably appropriate difficulty – level-based games, as source material, make this relatively easy. James Bond and Sherlock Holmes power levels? Around 3rd-to-5th level on the D&D / Pathfinder scale. Steampunk and Cthulhu? 5th-8th level. Relatively weak superheros, 8th-to-10th level. Experienced superheros, 10th-14th level. “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”? Anything from 14th up to, and including, 20th level. As a general rule of thumb, the higher up the scale, the more difficult a challenge it will pose – so an adventure for characters around 14th level will pose a serious challenge for experienced superheroes.

These are only guidelines, of course; there will be exceptions. “Danger At Dunwater” posed a reasonable challenge for experienced superheroes because I was able to make it not about combat capabilities but about the internal politics of the Atlanteans – a human problem that transcends character levels. Even so, I was forced to boost the Atlanteans capabilities beyond those of their apparent technological expertise; fortunately, that was always the intention, because I had seen this problem coming. Another example of the general principle I enunciated earlier!

The bigger picture

But the combat capabilities situation is only the most obvious representation of a bigger problem. Whatever the challenges are that have to be overcome in order to complete an adventure, they have to be hard enough to challenge your PCs, and not so hard that your PCs can’t solve them, eventually. While you can sometimes incorporate the challenges from the original source material, perhaps after some tweaking, more often than not, you will have to completely replace them. This is so important that it’s been placed in a separate stage of the process.

7. Connect the dots

One of the hallmarks of most imported source material is that it tends to stand alone in glorious isolation from the rest of your campaign. The more poorly it has been adapted and incorporated, the more superficial it feels.

I’ve always been especially sensitive to this because of my background as a comics reader; whenever you got a “fill-in” issue, the only thing you could be fairly sure of is that it wouldn’t do anything significant to the continuity. There was a period when this was a defining characteristic of Marvel’s team up books in particular, something that was thrown into sharp relief by the Chris Claremont / John Byrne stint on Marvel Team-up (which united Spider-man and a different guest hero each month), because the creative team (starting with Issue #59) were not afraid to make substantial continuity-impacting changes, starting with a big power-up to The Wasp, which started the character down a development path that eventually led to her gaining so much credibility as a member of the Avengers that she became the team’s leader for a substantial period.

My response to that is to impose this seventh stage on the procedure for adapting an out-of-genre “fill-in” source: connecting the adapted work to the main campaign continuity at all possible points.

Let’s continue looking at the adaption of “Danger at Dunwater” by way of illustration of the principle. A little while back, I made mention of my dissatisfaction with the notion of a high-tech Atlantean civilization being wiped out by a natural disaster that seemed out of scale with just about everything else that had ever happened in the region. Even Pompeii – if the Romans had known enough about vulcanology, they would have recognized the danger posed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and they had enough time to evacuate the town. So it makes no sense for a natural disaster to have wiped out Atlantis so dramatically.

The keyword there is Natural Disaster. In my campaign continuity, though this wasn’t known to the players at the time, the Greek Gods had become the Roman gods when the latter civilization arose. They then succumbed to the same vices as the Roman Emperors. If the Atlanteans had succumbed to Hubris and challenged the Greek Gods with the intention of supplanting them and seizing Ultimate Power (a very supervillain-ish thing to do), the Gods could have smacked them down, Hard. This adventure was my first opportunity to make the players realize that the Greco-Roman deities were “real” – groundwork for their eventual appearance in the campaign as Villains, seeking to meddle in Ragnerok for their own “gain” (they wanted to harness its power to end their own existences, destroying earth as an incidental byproduct). Ultimately, this got into the big questions of who Deities are within the campaign cosmology and other such existential issues. Furthermore, knowing that Ragnerok was coming within the campaign, I planned to sink a substantial landmass (I had three choices: Japan, California, and Indonesia. Ultimately, I went with Japan) but wanted the majority of inhabitants to be saved by transformation into mermen; this adventure allowed me to lay the groundwork for that transformation. Finally, in the form of “lost Atlantean technology”, it gave me another mechanism for future threats and allies to arise – I haven’t used that particular one yet, but it’s still up my sleeve for when I need it.

That’s easily as great a level of campaign significance as any other adventure, and amply justifies the effort of adapting this particular source material.

Your effort to “connect the dots” has to be comprehensive.

  • If the source material has a backstory, that backstory has to connect with established campaign history. The bare minimum is compatibility. Ideally, you want to expand the background to incorporate something new.
  • The source material should add to the richness and diversity of the contemporary campaign. There should always be some consequence going forward as a milestone to say “this happened”.
  • The source material should provide some potential for future plotlines within the campaign, either as complications that weren’t there previously, or as springboards for new adventures.

That’s past, present, and future. Your adaption needs to connect in all three.

The bottom line

Done well, an adaption justifies itself, representing a collaboration between the original authors and the adapter. Done poorly, it can be a creative millstone. Most of the time, though, it’s just done passably-well, injected into the campaign because it looks like being fun. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that as a motivation; but it’s also not an excuse for not doing it as capably as you can. I’ve shown you how I do it; the rest is up to you.

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