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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 14th Shelf


The Fourteenth Shelf: Odds & Sods II – Practicalities – Introduction by Mike

Practicality can mean many things when it comes to RPGs, and the contents of this shelf touch on many of them.

Practicality can be utilizing things that have already been done for game content. There are many intriguing stories of lost treasures, for example, and we know that at least some are true because the treasures have subsequently been found. But for every smashing success, there has been an equally-conspicuous failure, such as Al Capone’s Vault. Properly handled, they can be the foundation of a good adventure, too – all you need to do is make the adventure about the absence of anything where something was expected. “What happened to it? Has someone found it and stolen our thunder? Is there more to the story of the cache than meets the eye, more than anyone ever suspected – an entire lost chapter? And what might people do who don’t believe the reports of nothing being found?”

Practicality can be knowing how to do things in the real world, so that characters can replicate these activities in the game, and so that GMs can be prepared for their doing so. It can be applying skill-sets that people already posses to challenges in unexpected ways.

And it can be using prepared material at the game level. Things intended for one game can be re-tasked to another. Ideas and characters can be drawn from other adventures set in the same time period – or adapted from sources that aren’t contemporaneous.

These are all facets of practicality, and the subject of today’s shelf of the Essential Reference Library.

Relevance to other genres

With three such distinct types of content, there are three levels of relevance to other genres.

Tales of lost treasures can be readily reshaped to suit any genre. This is perhaps the most obvious level of relevance to other genres.

Good rules ideas can be sourced from other games and adapted to fit your needs. Need some good overbearing rules? Look to a game that features a lot of hand-to-hand combat – or, if those are likely to be too specific for your needs, look for how systems that don’t feature such abstract the question. Every game rule is a potential house rule when applied to another game system; it’s only a question of what you need.

Whole adventures can be transfigured in genre with effort. The fact that this can be difficult to do simple ensures that few people will have done so, ensuring a memorable gaming experience – one way or another.

Characters can be extracted and recast as necessary. Need a patriotic firebrand for a post-apocalyptic game? Look for a rabble-rouser in some other genre’s game. Want a crazed priest? Look for a character in a genre where craziness is a manifest destiny, like Call of Cthulhu.

And practical advice is always a question of what is known, and what tools are available. Some practical advice is useless outside of the modern era simply because the principles weren’t known or the raw materials simply aren’t available, but much of it transcends genres. Knowing five different means of starting fires and how (and why) they work is exactly the foundation you need to GM attempts by the PCs to do so in a game. And those are only the direct application; some lateral thinking can imbue the fantastic with embedded physics that you know and understand but none of the PCs understand – ensuring a consistency of interpretation and underlying realism with minimal effort.

For example, one GM that I know bases his fireballs on summoning small pockets of the elemental plane of fire into the prime material plane – acetylene pockets under pressure spontaneously appear and combust through the energy of the transition, exploding like a small gas bottle rupturing.

A character in full plate which is (by chance, and without knowing the significance) well-grounded is pretty much immune to lightning bolts – these hit the armor and drain harmlessly to the earth. Of course, it may grow quite hot, inflicting some minor burns…


This illustration combines
‘Stack Of Books’ by / Judith P. Abrahamsen
with an edited version of ‘Dices’ by timjen van dobbenburgh.

Shelf Introduction

This shelf is divided into three sections.

1. Games and Game Supplements – Where a supplement had only one focal point of relevance, we’ve tended to include them in the section and shelf that dealt with that point of relevance. This section deals with Pulp-oriented material in general and anything else that has proven useful in the past.

2. Lost Treasures – These books were discovered after the publication of the Currency & Valuables section on The sixth shelf, which is where they rightfully belong. Including them here is a matter of cleaning up loose ends. Besides, there is some good (and interesting) stuff to list!

3. Practical Advice – A section that is as valuable to players as it is to GMs, and pretty much genre-neutral to boot! It wasn’t that long ago that the only book that would have seemed appropriate to include here is the Boy Scouts field manual, which is what Mike used for many years, but of late there has been an explosion of books on practicalities. Of course, this being about RPGs, and especially Pulp RPGs, there are a few curve-balls mixed in.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation. But in some cases, that was more than eight months ago.


RPGs and game supplements

If we applied our usual standards of price and availability (and completely ignored the question of PDFs), few if any of these would make the cut. So we have been a great deal more generous in the links provided, only excluding something if it is obviously not worth the price being asked – such as some of the $800+ entries included in other sections (but we found cheaper copies for those!) As most GMs know, RPG supplements and rulebooks tend to be very limited print runs and small-press circulation, both of which raise the price; furthermore, the subject is niche and that also raises the price. Both effects restrict the availability somewhat but fortunately there are also dedicated resources and distribution channels available, such as RPGNow. In general, expect fewer available copies and to pay more for them.


1254. Pulp Hero – Stephen S. Long (Hero Games)

The game system that Mike and Blair use for the Adventurer’s Club campaign. It’s not the only choice, but it’s based on the Hero System which almost all of the players knew when the campaign was being created. Hero Games’ online forum also maintains an active (if sometimes eccentric) Pulp Community.

Note that you will also need the Hero System Core Rulebook.

Pulp Hero was designed to work with 5th Edition, one-and-a-half editions behind the current (and more expensive) 6th edition (the “half” was Hero System 5th Edition, Revised, containing all the errata and some clarifying notes). 6th edition broke the core rules into two volumes, then reunited them into “Champions Complete” – which strips out a lot of the flavor text and explanations and examples, leaving only the rules. That’s useful if you already know the system, not so good if you don’t. The differences between these generations of rules are not as profound as is the case with, say, D&D; would have relatively minimal impact on a pulp-genre game; and you could make Pulp Hero work with any of them, but there would still be the occasional “gotcha” moment.

For that reason, we are linking only to the 5e rulebook and to Champions Complete; one is the game as Pulp Hero was designed to integrate with, and the other presents the current rules in most up-to-date form if you want to be more adventurous.

Pulp Hero:
Amazon $40-$55
Hero Games Website (PDF Only) $12.50
RPGNow (PDF Only) $12.49

Hero System 5th edition:
Amazon: Hardcover only, 7 used from $65, 2 new and one collectible for three figure prices.
Hero Games Website (PDF Only) $17.50
5e Revised (PDF only) $20
5e (Original) (PDF only) $10

Champions Complete:
Amazon (paperback only): 3 new from $40, 1 used from $473.01. Yes, you read that right.
Hero Games Website (Paperback and PDF Bundle) $40.00
DriveThruRPG (PDF Only):

1255. …and a 10-Foot Pole – Maxwell Bernhardt & John W Curtis III [I.C.E. Game supplement for The Standard System]

Prices of everyday items in US $. Chapter 12, “The Electric Age” covers the entire Pulp Era from before WWI through to the end of WWII. The introduction to the chapter is a very useful primer on life in the period. Mike described the book this way in his d20-supplement list, ”The Gold Standard”:

This supplement is incredibly hard to find these days. Originally published in 1999, this supplement is one of only two products that made the top-20 without actually being intended to be a 3.x supplement (it was designed for Rolemaster). It lists prices for commonly available goods in various time periods from modern times back to Imperial Rome, and all points in between. You will need to work out a conversion rate for the relevant era to the currency in use within your game; it’s then ready to use. And indispensable.
     Finding a copy can be tricky, because the title is made up of common terms; do a search on Amazon and all you will find is a heap of stuff about people of Polish descent. No offense to them, but that’s not what we’re looking for. The best technique is to search for the authors, M Bernhardt and John Curtis.

These days, you can add “… and a little expensive” to that description. Copies start at $25.60 (used) or $44.99 (new) and there aren’t very many of them left. There are a few copies outside of the page linked to, but they start at $118-plus – so they didn’t even get a look-in. Despite the price, this book is so useful and unique that we are unable to refuse it a place on our list.

1256. Forbidden Kingdoms – R Hyrum Savage & Dave Webb (Otherworlds Creations)

A “game of two-fisted pulp adventure that allows you to traverse the mundane into the world of Heroes!” Requires the d20 modern system. Copies are surprisingly affordable through Amazon for about $4 but are in limited supply or PDF from RPGNow for $9

1257-1262. Hollow Earth Expedition Roleplaying Game – Jeff Combos & others (Exile Studios)

Core rules and several supplements.

1257. Hollow Earth Expedition Roleplaying Game Core Rules

“Explore one of the world’s greatest and most dangerous secrets: the Hollow Earth, a savage land filled with dinosaurs, lost civilizations, and ferocious savages! Players take on the roles of two-fisted adventurers, eager academics and intrepid journalists investigating the mysteries of the Hollow Earth. Meanwhile, on the surface, world powers and secret societies vie for control of what may be the most important discovery in all of human history. Set in the tense and tumultuous 1930s…” ‘Powered by Ubiquity’ which may require a set of core rules, though Blair gave the impression that it was complete when discussing it, a position that seems backed up by customer reviews.

One helpful hint from one of those reviews: “Some basics for the experienced RPG-er (like Encumberance, etc.) are a little hard to locate, but the system is designed to be loose & more story- and Role-play oriented then a stickler for rules. I suggest getting the GameMaster’s Screen to keep those charts easily at hand, rather than having to try and search through the book for them.”

Amazon: $16+ and more copies at $53+

RPGNow (PDF only): $20

1258. Mysteries Of The Hollow Earth

Expands the game setting.

Amazon: $25+ and limited copies.

RPGNow: (PDF only) $17.50

1259. Perils Of The Surface World

“Compiles four adventure scenarios that span the globe and deliver a walloping punch of pulp-era adventure. Your characters will battle Nazis in the tropical jungles of Brazil, unearth monsters in the frigid wastes of Antarctica, unravel mysteries in the catacombs beneath Venice, and contend with martial arts masters in the back alleys of Shanghai.” These can either stand alone or be linked for campaign use. Also includes “optional rules for martial arts super-powers, Atlantean sorcery, supernatural terror, and more”.

Amazon: $11+ and very few copies

RPGNow: (PDF only) $10

1260. Secrets Of The Surface World (not pictured)

Not to be confused with the previous supplement. “Expands Hollow Earth Expedition to include the mysterious and perilous surface world, filled with dangerous criminals, mad scientists, and dark sorcerers!” Includes “new rules for psychic powers, sorcery, and weird science; an expanded vehicle and equipment catalog; and additional details on secret societies and surface world locations.”

Amazon: $23+ and limited copies

RPGNow (PDF only) $15

1261. Revelations Of Mars

This sourcebook expands Hollow Earth Expedition to include Mars, a dying and dangerous planet filled with strange aliens, bizarre creatures, and vast, inhospitable wastelands. … Inside you will find everything you need to run out-of-this-world adventures or give your existing Hollow Earth games a bizarre twist: guidelines for creating robot and alien player characters; new and expanded psychic powers; an unearthly bestiary and equipment list; and details on strange Martian inhabitants and extraterrestrial locations.”

Amazon: $40 and virtually no copies left

RPGNow: (PDF only) $20

1262. Various PDF adventures and add-ons at RPGNow

Use this product search: Prices are currently $2-$6.

1263. Spirit Of The Century – Rob Donoghue, Fred Hicks, & Leonard Balsera (Evil Hat Productions)

A complete stand-alone Pulp game based on the Fate system, with heavy revision to those rules. Winner of a solid handful of prestigious awards over a 4 year period (2003-2007).

Amazon: $33+ and limited quantities

RPGNow (PDF) Pay-what-you-want

NB: There are also a couple of PDF bundles that include the rules and are good value at $10 with the addition of a number of PDF adventures and supplements. These can be found using this product search

1264. Strange Tales Of The Century – Jess Nevins (Evil Hat Productions)

Goes with Spirit Of The Century (above).

Amazon: $31 and few copies left

RPGNow: (PDF) $10 but it is also included in one of the Spirit Of The Century $10 bundles mentioned earlier!

1265. Call of Cthulhu 1920s Investigator’s Companion – Keith Herber (Chaosium)

This contains useful reference on character archetypes, careers, world information such as vehicle price and performance, and other general information of value.

There are a limited number of second-hand copies of the first edition available through Amazon for about $10, and a PDF of the second edition is available from RPGNow for about $6 .

RPGNow (from the same page) also offer the softcover of the 2nd edition for $21 – these are $55 through Amazon.

So, what’s the difference? Mechanically, in most respects, nothing seems very different. In terms of reference value, the editions are interchangeable. The biggest difference that we found was in the skills lists for the two generations, and in some cases we found the older edition to be more comprehensive, in others it was the newer. The bottom-line is that there is not enough distinction between them to compel us to choose one edition over the other – get the format that is most convenient to you at the lowest price you are willing to pay.

1266. Gurps Cliffhangers 2nd Edition – Brian J Underhill (Steve Jackson Games)

Includes Background material on the world of the 1920s and ’30s, including a detailed timeline and a chapter describing each continent, with campaign and adventure seeds, suggestions on how to add the cliffhanger “pulp” style to other genres, and sample characters of both the dashing-hero and dastardly-villain varieties.

Sometimes a little over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek; we prefer being able to choose when that’s the case in our campaign (you DO need contrast, you can’t have the action turned up to “11” all the time).

1267. Undead – Noah Dudley with contributions by Andrew Getting, Travis Heerman and Mike Mearls (AEG d20 Game Supplement)

Lots of ideas that can translate to pulp very easily. Skim it and fiendish thoughts will leap off the pages and into your campaigns; read it in depth, and you will find yourself re-evaluating the underlying metaphysical philosophy of your campaign. The very existence of undead hits you over the head with deep questions about Life, Death, Souls, and the Afterlife, by definition; this book helps both ask and answer those questions, then translate the information into practical impacts on the campaign.

Mike actually considers this book to be incomplete without Libris Mortis and vice-versa, but he couldn’t persuade the others to list that 3.x supplement separately.

1268. Mystic China – Erick Wujcik (Palladium)

Game Supplement for Rifts and other Palladium game systems – massively useful even if the game details need conversion. Surprisingly affordable.


More On Treasures

Comprising three series and a handful of other books, these would have been listed on Shelf 6 but they weren’t discovered in time.

1269. Buried Treasures of the Atlantic Coast – W C Jameson

This is the ninth in this series of more than a dozen children’s books, but it’s the first that we stumbled across while chasing regional myths and cryptozoology. Written for grades 4-8, so expect this to be nothing more than a launchpad for specific research. But what a launchpad: more than 30 stories of lost riches and misplaced stashes, some of which has been found, some of which is still out there – somewhere. It’s also worth observing that we weren’t able to find copies of every entry in the series.

Kindle $7.98 or 192-page paperback (11 used from $2.99, 8 new from $7.82):

1270. Buried Treasures of the Appalachians – W C Jameson

“40 legends with accounts of caves stacked from floor to ceiling with gold ingots; of caches guarded by skeletons and curses; and of Union payrolls scattered to the four winds.”

Kindle $7.60 or 208-page paperback (30 used from $0.25, 18 new from $8.60, 1 collectible at $9.80):

1271. Buried Treasures of the Pacific Northwest – W C Jameson

“Do Native Americans know the location of the cursed “Lost Gold of Devil’s Sink”? Did Sir Francis Drake bury millions of dollars’ worth of ancient Incan treasures? Has anyone found the box of gold coins buried by a reputed giant in the Washington rain forest? Is there a noble family’s fortune buried near an old log cabin in the Cascades?”

Kindle $7.49 or 192-page paperback (10 used from $6.68, 7 new from $8.60):

1272. Buried Treasures of the Great Plains – W C Jameson

More of the same, no substantiative details available; included based on the value of the content of the other books listed.

Kindle $7.79 or 192-page paperback (20 used from $2.58, 21 new from $6.97, 1 collectible at $14.95)

1273. Buried Treasures of Texas – W C Jameson

“31 legends ranging from lost fortunes of Native Americans, French pirates, Spanish explorers, and Mexican soldiers to the early exploits of German and Scotch-Irish settlers.” One reviewer seemed to suggest that most of the stories seemed to be the same (the comment was semi-incoherent so it’s hard to be certain), eight others gave it five out of five.

Kindle $9.09 or 202-page paperback (31 used from $1.30, 20 new from $5.98, 1 collectible at $10)

1274. Buried Treasures of the Ozarks – W C Jameson

“43 legends from Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. As they are handed down and passed around, these tales share certain elements–mysterious strangers bearing maps, social eccentrics who die rich but spurned, good folk who squander their lives on the search for treasure. Again and again, an untimely death (from pneumonia!) or cave-in, a sudden flagging of hope or interest calls searchers away just when they’re on the verge of discovering untold riches. But despite their common themes, the stories are always rooted in local detail and at least partly verifiable fact.”

Kindle $7.98 or 192-page paperback (24 used from $0.93, 18 new from $8.61)

1275. Buried Treasures of the Mid-Atlantic States – W C Jameson

The twelfth book in the series (not all of them tell us that). Contains 30 tales from Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. “Lost mines, buried loot, caches of gold and silver ingots, gangsters, Indians, pirates, chests of precious stones…”

Kindle $7.79 or 192-page paperback (13 used from $4.79, 13 new from $8.60)

1276. Buried Treasures of New England – W C Jameson

More than 30 stories from the Northeast of the United States about hidden riches, forgotten war loot, and sunken treasure ships. One reviewer suggests that some of the stories have been disproven. For pulp/adventure purposes, who cares?

Kindle $7.49 or 192-page paperback (19 used from $0.01, 9 new from $6.83, 2 collectible from $6.49)

1277. Buried Treasures of the Rocky Mountain West – W C Jameson

32 stories covering everything from caches of gold to lost mines to train robberies from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. One reviewer suggested that the book might be pitched a little young, but most customers again went with 5 stars.

Kindle #9.16 or 192-page paperback (15 used from $4.38, 10 new from $8.60)

1278. Buried Treasures of California – W C Jameson

If there was one part of the US that seemed certain to generate tales of lost gold, it was California, closely followed by the Yukon (which doesn’t seem to have an entry in this series). In the latter case, cold and snow hide the loot, in the former, it’s the desert, the heat – and man. It’s arguable that anyone concealing a treasure cache in California would have to take greater pains to conceal it simply because the environment would not contribute as much to the endeavor. Which brings us to these 30 tales. For the first time, there is a substantial review which is negative in tone (and accompanies a 1-star rating), suggesting that the author relied hard on other sources and includes at least one story that is myth and not reality. At least Jameson is an honest researcher who includes a bibliography of sources. At worst, this is a distillation of several other reference books that don’t focus exclusively on the specific subject, or that are more specific than a broad overview of a number of stories. But the bottom line is that as a foundation for adventures in a fictional reality, the criticism offered doesn’t matter one bit, aside perhaps from the spelling error of one name which might briefly hamper further research, and that’s relatively trivial. If anything, the negative review is a blessing for the Pulp GM because it means more copies can be expected to be available!

Kindle $7.79 or 175-page paperback – shorter than is usual for this series (25 used from $1.88, 22 new from $8).

1279. Buried Treasures of the South – W C Jameson

Even many thousands of miles away in Australia, we’ve heard the legend of the lost Civil War payroll. The fifth book in the series, this contains 38 tales from eight states – Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. We don’t know if that story is one of them, but even if it is, there’s plenty here we didn’t know about to build adventures around.

Kindle $7.50 or 192-page paperback (24 used from $0.01, 11 new from $8.60)

1280. Buried Treasures of the American Southwest – W C Jameson

The last book in the series that we were able to locate – and yes, we know that the tally falls some way short of the numbers cited by some of the product descriptions.

36 stories, chapters on each state, location maps… “accounts of gold mines where the nuggets are piles so deep they can be gathered with a rake and hidden caverns where bars of silver are stacked like firewood and caches of treasure are guarded by skeletons.” One reviewer felt that the title was misleading; for it to be accurate, there should be more from Arizona, California (ignoring that there’s an entirely separate book for that state) and Nevada, and less from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, because ‘these are not the states that come to mind when I think of the American Southwest’. We suspect that he might be in the minority in that opinion.

More significantly, another reviewer found that he was unable to verify any of the content; this might be because the information was gathered from first-hand research and interviews with people whose “lives have been entwined with the search for particular treasures”. In terms of factual documentation, then, these stories have to be taken with a large grain of salt, as a third reviewer suggests – but in terms of the foundations of one or more adventures or incidents in a pulp campaign, they can be as valuable as the riches in precious metal they describe.

Kindle $8.61 or 224-page paperback (46 used from $0.01, 16 new from $6.10, 1 collectible at $9.95).

1281. Treasure Hunter: A Memoir of Caches, Curses, and Confrontations – W C Jameson

W.C. Jameson – author of many books listed in this section – was “an active treasure hunter for more than fifty years. He has fallen from cliffs, had ropes break during climbs, been caught in mine shaft cave-ins, contended with flash floods, been shot at, watched men die, and had to deal with rattlesnakes, water moccasins, scorpions, and poisonous centipedes. He has fled for his life from park rangers, policemen, landowners, competitors, corporate mercenaries, and drug runners. He has also discovered enough treasure to pay for his own house and finance his and his children’s education. With his enigmatic treasure-hunter partners, Slade, Stanley, and Poet, Jameson’s stories are worthy of an Indiana Jones film — except that they are all” (allegedly) “true.”

Kindle $8.12 or 276-page paperback (9 new from $10.51, 4 used from $10.73, Amazon 6 copies at $14.51)

1282. Pennsylvania’s Lost Treasures – Patty A Wilson

True stories of lost treasures from Benjamin Franklin’s lost book collection to the stolen booty of gentleman bandit Davey Lewis. This doesn’t quite meet our standards of availability but it comes close enough for inclusion.

124-page paperback – 3 used from $13.62, 15 new from $10.93.

1283. Florida’s Lost and Buried Treasures – W C Jameson

By the same author as the Buried Treasures series listed earlier, of which this book might be part. Florida’s legends are full of pirate gold, Spanish explorers, sunken treasure ships and Civil War Payrolls.

Kindle $6.32 or 158-page paperback (9 used from $7.95, 16 new from $10.95).

1284. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of The Civil War – W C Jameson

The first entry (that we found) in what appears to be a completely different (but obviously related) series by Jameson. Unlike the “Buried Treasure” series, these aren’t targeted at Children.

“…many of the lost or cached military payrolls are documented, so the fortune at the end of the search remains a real one as opposed to a folkloric or mythical one. The truth is, there are millions of dollars worth of such payrolls waiting to be discovered. Further, recovered artifacts associated with both the Union and Confederate armies can sometimes yield impressively high values among collectors. Recovered weapons caches find a viable market.”

Like the Pennsylvania book listed above, this doesn’t quite meet our availability targets.

Paperback, 202 pages; 4 used from $13.70, 14 new from $10.95.

1285. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of The Guadalupe Mountains – W C Jameson

“Many professional treasure hunters are convinced that more lost mines and buried treasures are associated with the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas than any other single geographic region in the world.” 16 stories, some only indirectly related to the subject at hand – one chapter is about another Treasure Hunter, for example.

Kindle $7.46 or 132-page paperback (12 new from $10.14, 5 used from $12.66).

1286. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Missouri – W C Jameson

There’s not enough information provided about the book to really assess it, and not enough reviews to make reliable judgments. Included on the strength of the other titles in the series. 22 stories, all given provocative titles.

Kindle $5.72 or 152-page paperback (4 used from $12.23, 13 new from $10.77).

1287. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Tennessee – W C Jameson

Suffers from the same problems as the Missouri book above in even more acute form. Extracts from the book show a list of other works by Jameson where one would expect a contents page, so we can’t even tell you how many stories are included. The usual average from a Jameson book is 4-6 pages per story, so we would expect around 30, which is also consistent with other titles by the author – but the real number could be anywhere from the low 20s to the high 30s. “Tennessee’s tales of treasure come from a multitude of sources: Indians mining silver for jewelry and ornaments, outlaws burying stolen loot, lost and hidden Civil War payrolls, personal wealth buried and never to be retrieved, and much more” – statements which are so broad and sweeping that they don’t actually tell the reader very much.

Kindle $5.36 or 160-page Paperback (13 new from $9.73, 3 used from $12.52, Amazon’s price $15.99).

1288. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Old Wyoming – W C Jameson

It’s titles like this one that give us the confidence to list the Tennessee and Missouri books above. Clearly part of the same series, this one offers plenty of informative detail and specifics. Amongst the caches, buried payrolls, hidden strongboxes and wellsprings of natural wealth discussed are “the Snake River Pothold Gold, the Hallelujah Gulch robbery loot, the lost treasure of Big Nose George, the Lost Cabin Gold Mine. There are twelve more where those came from.

Kindle $7.49 or Paperback, 144 pages; 18 new from $8.97, 12 used from $11.61.

1289. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Arizona – W C Jameson

“The famous Lost Dutchman Mine” (which even we have heard of, here in Australia) “…has lured treasure hunters for over a century into the remote, treacherous, and reportedly cursed Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. Gold and silver bars discovered in Huachuca Canyon by a soldier stationed at nearby Fort Huachuca just before World War II remain inaccessible despite years of laborious attempts at recovery. Outside the town of Yucca, bandits eager to make a fast getaway buried a strongbox filled with gold, unaware they wouldn’t survive the pursuit of a law-enforcing posse to recover their plunder. And somewhere in the Little Horn Mountains northeast of Yuma lies an elusive wash containing hundreds of odd gold-filled rocks.” Those are just four of the thirty included.

Kindle $19.95 or 184-page Paperback; 3 used from $20.94, 17 new from $20.93.

1290. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Arkansas – W C Jameson

Unfortunately, with this book there is a return to the generic waffle in the description. Again, though, the details of other books in the series make the decision to list this one a no-brainer.

Kindle $5.35 or 164-page Paperback – 12 new from $10.51, 5 used from $14.80.

1291. Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Oklahoma – W C Jameson

This book has the most unexciting cover of the entire series, which is somehow appropriate since it seems that the lost goodies of Oklahoma appear better-documented than most. Listings range from the lost loot of the Dalton Gang – another tale to have crossed the Pacific – to the Cobbler’s Gold Cache. The Kindle edition preview is based on an earlier edition through a different publisher, so the contents may vary. This book has some useful reviews pertaining to the whole series, so if you are at all hesitant about purchasing any of them, this one is worth examining more closely. It is also the last of the series that came to our attention.
166 pages, Kindle $5.72 or Paperback (4 used from $12.48, 14 new from $9.75).

1292. The Silver Madonna and Other Tales of America’s Greatest Lost Treasures – W C Jameson

The Silver Madonna was reportedly a two-foot statue made entirely of silver. This book contains information on the Madonna and the 23 other most famous lost treasures in America – from a cache of precious metals and jewelery rumored to also contain the first Bible in America, to seventeen tons of gold buried somewhere in northwestern university. One thing that all these tales have in common is that none of them have ever been found – if they are real, they are still out there somewhere!

What overlap there may be between this book and the others listed is not known, and is the only real source of hesitation on our part.

Paperback, 208-pages. The book has four different listings on Amazon, but one is $50+ and has been excluded accordingly. Of the remainder, which one is the cheapest at any given moment is unpredictable; the only solution is to check all three.

Link 1: 18 used from $7.82, 27 new from $9.90, and Amazon have 12 copies left for $12.26.

Link 2: 8 used from $12.30, 6 new from $20.78.

Link 3: 9 used from $13.67, 6 new from $30.67.

1293. Out Of The Dust: Utah’s Lost Mines and Treasures – Stephen B Shaffer

It’s said that to appreciate Shaffer you have to have an extremely open mind. Those less charitable might suggest that it needs to be open enough to have room for the flat earth and the tooth fairy. Read on and judge for yourself.

Let’s start with an extract from a negative review: “I was excited to read this book, until I read the first chapter in which the author claims a map drawn in 1776 with a river flowing through the Great Salt Lake is probably accurate as extra water may have continued flowing from “Noah’s time.” He then went on to claim that Lake Bonneville was also still in existence at that time and that the biblical floodwaters drained all around California, causing it to be an island… In 1776! In contrast, science tells us that Lake Bonneville drained almost 15000 years ago.”

And here’s another extract by a different negative review: “The introduction to this book paints a picture of Utah circa 1776 as a Spanish exploration ground in which Lake Bonneville either still existed or was at least still draining (from it bursting of its banks into what is now Idaho which they fail to mention) and by which a river was created which drained all the way to the west coast (or what the author deems was the west coast at the time citing that California was an island” at the time). “Of course the author fails to mention that the river flowing westward from the remnants of the great lake Bonneville to the sea would have to cross over the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an elevation of over 9000 feet above sea level! The known average sea level of Lake Bonneville was well below 6000 feet.”

With those obvious flaws, it is hard to place any faith in any other content in the book, according to both reviewers. But let’s ponder the case if the reviewers were prompted by some form of malice to distort the picture and check out what another reviewer – one who gave the book four stars – has to say: “…I really enjoyed this book. Many tales of adventure and treasure, both lost and found. This book, though definitely entertaining enough, does not shed a whole lot of new light on old gold. For the casual treasure hunter, it does offer some direction, but for the technical fanatic, you will find that Stephen stops short of disclosing the details.”

And yet…. okay, granted, the author has some theories that are outer fringe at best; that doesn’t interfere with his ability to research, interview, and gather anecdotes. And even if it did, even if everything in this book was completely fictitious on his part, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the stories for your own RPG purposes. Reality in a pulp campaign is what you choose to make it; it may superficially resemble the world of our history, but scratch the surface and who knows what you’ll find?

Paperback, 216 pages. There are three or four listings on Amazon but only two are what we consider affordable.

Link 1: 17 used from $9.75, 15 new from $12.70, and Amazon has 8 in stock at $19.99.

Link 2: 6 used from $14.99, 3 new for far-too-much.

1294. Quest for the Dutchman’s Gold: The 100-Year Mystery: The Facts, Myths and Legends of the Lost Dutchman Mine and the Superstition Mountains (Revised Sub Edition) – Robert Sikorsky

The Lost Dutchman’s Mine is another of those stories that has reached all the way across the Pacific to become known here in Australia. Also published under the title “Fool’s Gold”, this book is considered detailed and factual, and clearly distinguishes his own original research from the historical reports. His conclusion is, according to one reviewer, an authoritative debunking of the legend, but if you want to make it otherwise, his responsible approach makes it easy to do. Another reviewer isn’t convinced that there’s nothing too the tale, and argues his case with equal intelligence in his speculations. You can, in other words, have your cake and eat it too – at least on this occasion.

Paperback, 160 pages, 7 new from $10.42, 32 used from $4.11, 1 collectible from $29.

1295. Story of Superstition Mountain and the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine – Robert Joseph Allen

Nevertheless, you might want another source, one that doesn’t try to reach a conclusion. This is that source, although only about 1/4 of the book deals with the title subject; the balance touches a lot of other issues that go with the question. At least one reviewer, for example, describes this as the best book on the American Indians that he has ever read. That means that the Sikorsky book is probably more comprehensive, though possibly less useful. That’s a judgment call, and a case can be made for the two being complimentary more than redundant.

212 page Mass Market Paperback: 14 used from $5.85, new and collectible copies available but too expensive:

Paperback (looks identical to our eyes): 17 used from $8.43, 2 new copies from $24.95.

1296. Fascinating Facts, Mysteries and Myths About U.S. Coins – Robert R Van Ryzin

“…a compilation of some of the more intriguing stories in the history of U.S. Mint coinage,” some factual, some hobby myths. We’ve looked at a number of books on rare coins over the years and they all seem to obsess on current values and be less concerned with the things that would be useful for a GM to know – or even be interesting to read if you aren’t a coin collector. This 240-page book proves that there are such out there – if you look persistently enough.

Kindle $7.78 or 240-page Paperback (19 used from $6.49, 12 new from $8.62, Amazon has copies in stock for $12.99.

1297. Lost Treasures (Library of Curious and Unusual Facts) – Time-Life Books

We know next to nothing about this book. It’s 144 pages, the title is provocative, and the cover gives the impression that it’s relevant. Beyond that, we base this recommendation on Time-Life’s excellent and well-earned reputation for quality.

Hardcover, 41 used from 1¢, 19 new from 1¢, 3 collectible from $9.80.

1298. The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure – Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

Mike would have sworn that we had already listed this, but a search came up empty. Regarded by many at the time as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” (if only we had a dollar for every occasion when something has been described as that!). Amber Panels gifted to Peter The Great of Russia and erected years later in the Russian Imperial Palace outside St Petersburg and remained in situ for more than 200 years, a symbol of Imperial Russian might, when the Nazis threatened Leningrad they “were wrenched from the walls, packed into crates, and disappeared from view, never to be seen again”, Dozens have searched for them since, and several have died under mysterious circumstances. The authors claim to have unraveled a jumble of evidence and in boxes of previously-unseen diaries, letters, and classified reports, have developed a conspiracy theory to hide the true story of the fate of the amber panels. To be of complete use to the Pulp GM, history needs to be revised – have the panels removed in response to the attempted invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte and lost – and the cause of the mystery might need to be altered – but the results are a MacGuffin-search in which the Soviet state would actively interfere (Lenin and later Stalin would not be happy about reminding people of the heights of Imperial Russia).

416-page Hardcover (61 used from 1¢, 12 New from $9.55, 2 collectible from $9.90) or Paperback (58 used from 1¢, 20 new from $14.87, 1 collectible at $9.80).

1299. Gem Trails of Washington (2nd edition) – Garret Romaine

This book led us to another series, of which this is the first entry to be discovered. The “Gem Trails” series is more about finding gemstones and other natural bounties such as fossils than about the trails that rockhounds used historically or caches that they may have buried, perhaps because gemstones are a more portable form of wealth than coinage and bullion. The series has an emphasis on preparing the reader to go fossicking for themselves – “Site locations range in difficulty from family-friendly walks along streams and rivers to hard-rock mining with heavy tools. Each site description features detailed directions, individual maps, multiple GPS coordinates, color photographs, nearest camping spots, and the best time of the year to collect. You’ll also find additional information about nearby attractions, and whether you’ll need four-wheel drive to make the final push.”

To the last statement, our response is, ‘Four-wheel-drive? We’re talking about Pulp Adventurers, we don’t need no stinkin’ Four-wheel drive’. This book is ‘completely updated and revised’, and – unsurprisingly – some of the content is either going to be out-of-date, and because we’re talking about a lot of very specific details, the occasional error may have crept in. The series is also a little unusual in that editions are often revised by someone other than the original author – they are more like periodically-updated travel guides than books about valuables in history.

This book, like most of this series, doesn’t come anywhere close to our availability criteria, and – as usual – once copies get hard to find, the price-tag is going up. And yet, there is so much content of inestimable value to the Pulp GM that it was impossible to overlook the series or relegate it – the “dust-dry ghost towns and abandoned mines near Metaline Falls” especially caught our attention as examples. On top of that, being first and foremost a practical guide, this will be full of the detail and color that any GM of any genre will find useful when it comes to utilizing geology in their games. 26 reviewers have given an average rating of 4.4 out of 5. We’re inclined to accept their recommendations – for entirely different purposes and reasons.

248-page paperback, 2 used from $17.14, 3 new from $18.95.

1300. Gem Trails of Oregon (3rd edition) – Garret Romaine

Over 100 rock, mineral and fossil collecting sites within Oregon, including 40 completely new locations, with detailed maps, descriptive text, photos, GPS coordinates, tools required, and nearby attractions. Includes a mineral locator index, glossary, and full-color specimen photo insert. There is a web page, “Reasons not to buy Gem Trails of Oregon” which is about the 1998 edition by James Mitchell, and so should not apply to this edition, though it may sound warning bells about some of the others in the series. That said, life is a dynamic process, subject to change without notice, and anyone relying on specific travel advice from a 1998 book in a field that is especially subject to change deserves everything they get (hmmm… maybe there’s a plot in that, somewhere). Such books should be a launchpad for your own research, nothing more. Be that as it may, we don’t think that any of the criticisms detract from the value of these books to the Pulp GM (as opposed to genuine rock-hunters).

There’s no substantial “about the author” section on Amazon’s listing for this book, which was unexpected after the previous listing (above) included the story of how the author was first lured into the fields of rockhunting (amateur geology to you and me) by the gift of a copy of the second edition, never dreaming that he would be updating that very book something like 15 years later. He reportedly still treasures that weatherbeaten, dog-eared tome, full of personal notes and anecdotes from the expeditions that it inspired. That tells us that at the time it was published, the 1998 book was better than the criticism would lead you to believe – mentioned only with respect to the relevance of the complaints to the rest of the series.

Paperback, 272 pages, 11 used from $14.99, 4 new from $16.95.

1301. Gem Trails of Idaho & Western Montana (1st edition) – Lanny Ream with illustrations by William W Besse

Geology doesn’t respect state lines, we guess (though state lines will sometimes respect Geology). The usual details of 99 sites. The combination of these one-and-a-half states results in a very varied geological spread, so if there were more copies available, this would be the field guide that we would recommend “if you can only buy one”. Availability restrictions prohibit that, unfortunately.

Perfect Paperback, 276 pages, 1 new from $14.95, Amazon have 20 for the same price.

1302. Gem Trails of Arizona (Third Edition) – James R Mitchell

Amazon’s #1 best-seller in “Biology of Fossils”, for whatever that’s worth. That’s because it (and some adjoining states like Nevada) used to be an inland sea, long ago, and conditions here were perfect for fossil creation afterwards. We’ve described this as the third edition but there is a hint in the Amazon product description that this might in fact be the fourth or later edition. As some of the reviewers note, some of these sites have been promoted for rockhunting for more than 30 years and have been largely picked clean – but that shouldn’t bother anyone setting an expedition (or an accidental discovery) in the Pulp era.

Paperback, 272 pages, 10 used from $10, 6 new from $14.95.

1303. Gem Trails of Utah (2nd edition) – James R Mitchell

The usual complaints / caveats – picked clean and ten years out-of-date. This predates the widespread use of GPS coordinates, so directions are given “old school” with navigation markers, directions, and distances – which probably make it more useful for a GM.

Paperback, 242 pages, 9 used from $8.85, 4 new from $8.96

1304. Gem Trails of Northern California (Revised and Expanded edition) – James R Mitchell

“More than 76 locations where 60 varieties of California’s mineral and fossil treasures can be collected and weekend prospectors can pan for gold.” We expect without even looking that the usual caveats apply. (Thirty seconds later, having skimmed the customer reviews:) Yep.

Paperback, 191 pages, 8 used from $11.50, 2 new from $24.99.

1305. Gem Trails of Nevada (2nd edition) – Adrian and James Mitchell

Covers more than 50 sites. The usual details and caveats.

Paperback, 224 pages, 27 used from $7.22, 10 New from $12.95. Amazon’s price is lowest for new copies. Note that Amazon warn that this book usually requires 2-5 weeks to ship – typical of a low-priority print-on-demand, but there’s no other indication that this is the case.

1306. Gem Trails of Colorado (2nd edition) – James R Mitchell

More than 90 sites, including 27 that were new when this was published – in 2008. Some reviewers seem to have the idea that books magically update themselves (a gimmick that Mike has used in a number of Fantasy RPGs – it’s especially fun when 1/3 of the time, the information is biased or distorted and 1/3 of the time it’s flat-out wrong – but the remaining third, it’s gospel…). The usual details and caveats.

Paperback, 224 pages, 10 used from $12.19, 2 new from $13.95

1307. Gem Trails of New Mexico (9th revised edition) – James R Mitchell

More than 100 sites including 25 that were new in 2010. The usual details and caveats. What’s more, one enterprising reviewer has noted that much of the text remains unchanged (but supplemented) from the first edition back in the 1970s, and is therefore even less reliable and current. In fact, a number of the customer reviews are especially interesting in the case of this book: “The map and general guide for west of Albuquerque is mostly wrong or no longer valid because it’s all tribal land now. For locations north of Albuquerque, most of that territory is managed by Forest Service and you’re no longer able to rockhound at the locations I tried. For Southwest of central New Mexico, the maps are a bit off, but I eventually found the locations (and definitely 4WD recommended as the roads have changed over the decades).” “The directions to places were almost always so confusing it took twice as long to even find the places. The Texas book was so much better!” (D&D / Pathfinder GMs, are you paying attention?)

Paperback, 280 pages, 2 new from $14.95, 7 used from $42.90

1308. Gem Trails of Texas (9th edition) – Brad L Cross, edited by Nancy Fox

And, speaking of the Texas book, here it is – the most contemporary of the series, published in 2011. More than 50 sites, subdivided into six geographic regions. This book actually contains more complaints than usual about out-of-date and incorrect information surviving the “update-and-revise” process. None of which should be relevant to a pulp/RPG application.

Paperback, 176 pages, 2 used and 3 new, both from $14.95. Amazon themselves are the cheapest.

1309. Gem Trails of Southern California (2nd edition) – James R Mitchell

82 sites, the usual details and caveats.

Paperback, 214 pages, 18 used from $39.97, 8 new from $19.95.

1310. Gem Trails of British Columbia (2nd edition) – Cam Bacon

At first, we thought this was the previous series beginning to extend it’s reach into Canada. But the publisher is completely different, and there don’t seem to be equivalents for the other states – at least not yet. That said, there is a distinct familiarity to the look-and-feel of the contents. Described as “thorough yet concise” – but for us it looks short relative to the price-tag. As the only such book that we found looking outside the USA, though, it needs to be included.

Paperback, 104 pages, 2 new from $13.11. You may find more on Amazon Canada.

1311. Gem Minerals of Idaho (reissue edition) – John A Beckworth

Although the focus is more on what you might find and less on where to go looking, we were not all that surprised to find that the usual caveats and complaints were present. But then, this was published in 1972, making it 35 years old (if the cover design looks dated, that’s why)!

Paperback, 129 pages, 28 used from $0.50, 20 new from $7.25.

1312. Gemstones of the World (Newly Revised 5th edition) – Walter Schumann

Amazon’s #1 best-seller in Rock and Mineral Field Guides. 168 reviews rate it an average of 4.7 out of 5. One reviewer complained that it wasn’t comprehensive enough, and another that the images were too small. 131 other reviewers would disagree, having given the book five stars. The reason why: “The most comprehensive and informative color manual of the world’s gemstones, illustrated by 1800 examples of stones, both rough and cut, in color.” And that makes the prices below seem like pretty good value for money for any GM – even though it is clearly a niche product.

Hardcover, 320 pages, 42 new from $15.83, 28 used from 14.50, 1 collectible from $29.00. Amazon has the low price on new copies.

1313. Finding Treasure: A Field Guide – W C Jameson

How and where to look for and find valuable artifacts, precious metals, lost jewels and hidden caches, anywhere from in a local park to your attic to the open countryside. Practical tips will “get you started” and “help you protect your claim on any found treasures and authenticate the value”. And that’s a great segue into the section on practical skills….

Paperback, 148 pages; 12 used from $7.39, 17 new from $8.61, and Amazon’s price is $14.95.


Books Of Practical Advice


1314. Camping For Dummies – Michael Hodgson

Mike picked up a boy scout handbook from 1952 at a Garage sale which he has used as reference a number of times in both the Adventurer’s Club campaign and his various Fantasy campaigns. In fact, any campaign in which characters have to camp out in the wilderness can find this type of reference to be useful. Well, very old Boy Scout Manuals don’t come along every day, but “Camping For Dummies” should be a more than adequate substitute.

Kindle $13.36 and Paperback (46 used from $0.64, 30 new from $10.81):

1315. Wilderness Survival For Dummies – Cameron M Smith and John F Haslett

Take everything said about “Camping For Dummies” and double and square it for this book.

1316. Frank Reade: Adventures in the age of Invention – Paul Guinan & Anina Bennett

“Frank Reade” was the first of the science-fiction pulps, predating even HG Wells and Jules Verne, bridging the gap between the Victorian era (Steampunk) & the Pulp era. This volume collects some of the most memorable covers and internal illustrations and intersperses them with excerpts from the stories, which are further interspersed with snippets from the fictional “real-world” biography of “Frank Reade” and family, who did it all before anyone else, touching on almost all the pulp archetypes along the way.

1317. The Indiana Jones Handbook – Denise Kiernam & Joseph D’Agnese

Practical solutions to typical pulp adventure problems like Quicksand. While this book sacrifices content for style to some extent, what content there is is right on target.

1318. Why Did It Have To Be Snakes – Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg

The facts behind the Indiana Jones adventures (not a making-of-). By defining the story-behind-the-story, the GM’s own decisions as to what pulp elements they found plausible within the context of the Indiana Jones movies transforms this book into a masterclass in pulp verisimilitude; on top of that, the content is useful pulp reference in its own right.

1319. Caverns, Cauldrons, and Concealed Creatures (Expanded Third Edition) – Wm. Michael Mott

This is either an excellent example of how to cherrypick fact, fantasy, and folklore and weave them together to form a coherent campaign background, or a comprehensive overview of various mythic and literary archetypes and elements, depending on how you decide to use the content.

1320. How to climb Mont Blanc in a skirt – Mick Conefrey

This book looks like it would be useful for female adventurer archetypes but most of the examples are from outside the Pulp era. It does contain a lot of general snippets of useful information such as the contents of a 19 th century Doctor’s bag, however. Available in two different editions and covers. There are a very limited number of cheap copies available from this link and more, if they run out, at this page

1321. The Action Hero’s Handbook: How to Catch a Great White Shark, Perform the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, Track a Fugitive, and Dozens of Other TV and Movie Skills – David Borganicht & Joe Borganicht

Buy a copy and give to your players. This book is full of practical and humorous how-to’s for your PCs to use. Features dozens of action hero techniques in ways that work in real life, directly from experts in the subjects: FBI agents, stunt-men, hypnotists, karate masters, criminologists, detectives, and more, covering such topics as how to catch a great white shark, spy-proof your hotel room, win a fight when outnumbered, climb down the Mount Rushmore National Monument, and much more. Some (possibly all) editions of this book have rounded corners, and the pages are physically smaller than most paperbacks (think of it as a pocket reference).

1322. The Action Heroine’s Handbook – Jennifer Worick & Joe Borganicht

More of the same. Don’t be sexist, give them as a matched pair – and make sure to get a copy for yourself so you know what to expect from your PCs. Subjects include How to Win a Catfight, Drink Someone Under the Table, Choke a Man with Your Bare Thighs… how the real action heroines do it, direct from a host of experts including stunt-women, jujitsu instructors, helicopter pilots, detectives, forensic psychologists, survivalists, primatologists, and more. Some (possibly all) editions of this book have rounded corners, and the pages are physically smaller than most paperbacks (think of it as a pocket reference).

1323. The Adventurer’s Handbook: From Surviving an Anaconda Attack to Finding Your Way Out of a Desert – Mick Conefrey

“Life Lessons from History’s Greatest Explorers”. The great expeditions of discovery, the people who participated, the dangers they faced, what they learned from them, and some of the things that they found. Practical advice from the original diaries and logs of the real world’s most famous larger-than-life adventurers, like how to survive an anaconda attack, face a charging elephant, or survive solely on penguin stew.

1324. The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook – Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht

A volume of the most popular scenarios from all 11 Worst-Case Scenario handbooks, plus the entire contents of all the books on a fully searchable CD-ROM – how to avoid the perils of mountain lions and blind dates, avalanches and teenage driving lessons, runaway golf carts and Christmas turkeys on fire. Note that second-hand copies are usually missing the CD-ROM, and almost certainly so will the Kindle Edition, so choose your purchases carefully.

1325. The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook – Man Skills – Joshua Piven, David Borgenicht, and Ben H. Winters

More of the same, plus new content. This book will tell you how to wrestle an alligator, calm a crying child, or extinguish backyard barbecue fires (amongst a lot of other useful mini-skills), plus a full-searchable CD-ROM. Note that second-hand copies are usually missing the CD-ROM, and almost certainly so will the Kindle Edition, so choose your purchases carefully.

1326. 100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation – Clint Emerson

The author is a retired Navy SEAL, and this is a compendium of techniques from his actual training and real missions, adapted for “civilian” use. Covers everything from escaping a locked trunk, or making an improvised Taser, to tricking facial recognition software – much of which will be of no value to the pulp GM, but for every entry relating to a more modern society, there is one that scores a direct hit on the relevance target. This is Amazon’s Number-1 best-seller within the subject of Survival and Emergency Preparedness.

1327. The Supervillain Handbook: The Ultimate How-to Guide to Destruction and Mayhem Paperback – “King Oblivion” (a pseudonym)

Insight on the art of revenge, choosing your evil name, where to find the perfect lair, and much more, all delivered tongue- very firmly -in-cheek. Don’t worry about the apparent distressed appearance of the cover, that’s artistic fakery.

1328. The Supervillain Field Manual: How to Conquer (Super) Friends and Incinerate People – “King Oblivion” (a pseudonym)

The sequel to “The Supervillain Handbook”, this is “complete with every strategy the aspiring malevolent overlord needs”, including how to handle unruly hostages, control minions, deal with notoriety, and much more. Like the previous volume, the cover art is designed to look “well-used”, don’t be put off.

1329. How To Survive A Horror Movie – Seth Grahame-Smith

Still more at least semi-practical advice on topics ranging from “How to stay awake for a week”, “How to tell if an object is Evil”, “How to kill a Vampire”, “What to do if there are snakes on your plane”, “How to perform an exorcism”, and a great deal more. We have linked to the cheapest copies but there may well be more listed if they run out or start getting expensive – search for “how to survive a horror movie” on your local Amazon site. There are also Kindle editions but these are more expensive (at the moment) than the physical book. and more copies at

1330. The Rogue’s Handbook: A Concise Guide to Conduct for the aspiring Gentleman Rogue – Jeff Metzger

‘Rogue’ is used in the early 20 th century sense, which formed the basis for the ‘lovable rogue’ archetype into the mid-80s in film and television before being supplanted by the ‘bad boy’ image in the 90s. A rogue is a good guy who titillates by flirting with naughtiness. The book describes roguish behavior with examples from film and literature, typical dialogue, etc and includes profiles of famous gentleman rogues from both fiction and history, such as Winston Churchill, James Bond, Lord Byron, and Rhett Butler.

This is another book with a deliberate “distressed look” to the cover.


For-Dummies Books Of Practical Advice

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.


1331. Martial Arts For Dummies – Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts in a pulp setting is another of those problem subjects in which the reality might not be pulp enough.

Take away the lightsabers and hand out katanas and shuriken and the sort of moves you’re used to seeing Jedi make in various Star Wars movies (especially the second trilogy), with a bit of Errol Flynn and the Spider-man movies thrown in for good measure, is far closer to the mark.

So this reference could be of very limited value. Or it could be absolutely brilliant, if you take what’s here and “supersize” it for Pulp Consumption. A lot will depend on your style as a GM and just how over-the-top fantastic you want your pulp campaign to be.

NB: There is a book called “Mixed Martial Arts For Dummies” which is only tangentially relevant, at best. Don’t confuse it for this one.

Kindle $12.80 or Paperback (39 used from $0.25, 52 new from $1.38)


Afterword by Blair:

Because of the last-minute rearrangement of the shelf structure, part of Blair’s afterword (which was written in advance and only after a difficult struggle with the empty page) pertains to content that appeared on the last shelf and doesn’t touch on the added content of this shelf at all. This shouldn’t be held against him in any way, shape, or form – it’s not his fault! It’s just the way things worked out – to include the Kickstarter (giving readers the maximum possible time to participate), it was a necessary evil. As series editor, that was my decision to make, and I will cop whatever blame there is. – Mike

One of the best ways to get the feel of a pulp campaign is to track down the fiction of the period. Many novels and pulp comic strips from the era are still available in book, kindle, or compilation form, and some new material continues to be published within the genre.

Comic companies such as Dark Horse and Dynamite, for example, have done comics featuring many classic pulp characters. Publishers such as Moonstone and Altus Press have reprinted classic (and sometimes more obscure) pulp stories as well as new fiction about pulp era characters. Anthologies collecting magazines such as Weird Tales are also available. Nostalgia Adventures Inc and Sanctum have reprinted some of the classic pulp stories, complete with period illustrations!

Be cautious with anthologies simply marked “Pulp” or “Pulp Fiction”, however; these will mostly be from the “crime / hard-boiled detective” subgenre. Some American publishers in particular seem to think that this is the be-all and end-all of the Pulp Genre. These are a part of the mix, to be sure, and can still be useful, but you should be aware of the limitations entailed. British collections tend to be more liberal in scope, and some Americans get it right – but you need to keep your eyes open and read descriptions and reviews carefully.

Don’t neglect “Juvenile Fiction” from the period, either; characters such as “Nancy Drew” and “The Hardy Boys” are still available in Reprint editions. Mike remembers with fondness many Enid Blyton mysteries which are as close to Pulp as Scooby Doo, (which is to say, rubbing shoulders with the genre) and may also be useful. We had to talk him out of including in the Fiction section; they aren’t quite Pulp. Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Three Investigators” aren’t pulp in setting either, but come a lot closer in tone and style.

The Library Of American Comics has reprinted many classic comics from the era, and some pulp-style comics from outside the US such as “Tin Tin” and “Modesty Blaise” may be available in collections.

There are also many books out there offering “practical advice” on survival for pulp players and GMs. Scrutinize anything you come across with “How To” or “Handbook” in the title, and unexpected gems can fall into your lap. Often written with a tongue-in-cheek style, these are well worth looking for; every survival tip is both a tool for PCs and a plot ingredient for the GM!

And then there are the games. Many RPG companies have produced games set in the Pulp Era, or that are Pulp in style – science fiction, spy, low-power superhero, and horror as well as adventure. Heavens, even some low-fantasy swords-and-sorcery sources can be adapted! Regardless of your preferred system, there is often useful information and new ideas to be gleaned from looking at other systems. And there is quite a lot of pulp-related material now available through DriveThruRPG. Keep your eyes open and check the small publishers!

The English language is a patchwork quilt, notorious for stealing words from other languages when they have something to offer. Like superheros, Pulp is the “English Language” of RPG Genres, and umbrella under which many strange and unexpected flavors and sub-genres can shelter and collide – and collude. Transcend the limits of your definition and spark your imagination! The possibilities are endless…

Next in this series (may be slightly delayed): The 15th shelf – Inspiring Media! Don’t forget the popcorn…


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The Thrill Of The Chase

Image Credit: ‘The Line-Out’ by / peter cook

I’d like, in this article, to take a closer look at something that I mentioned in passing on a previous occasion – specifically, the concept that sports simulations and similar games can get away with less engaging storylines because competition itself generates its own narrative.

In a sporting contest, one side scores, taking the lead and the other side then has to not only outmatch their opponents once, they have to do it a second time in order to move ahead in the contest between the two; if they only score once, then the scores are tied, and if the first team then score again, the second team are back where they started. Inevitably, one team faces a greater struggle than the other, and the first team to score sets up a bias in their favor for the rest of that particular contest.

The more scoring modes there are, the greater the number of variations that can influence the game. The concept of try conversion, for example, rewards the team who scores in one mode (the Try) with the opportunity to add to their score through success in a second mode (the conversion). This doubles the number of potential outcomes from the initial scoring move, and means that the opposition may no longer have to match their opponent’s scoring move but also their secondary success. Failure to do so leaves the team behind on the scoreboard but close enough to launch a counterattack – if the first team can be prevented from adding to their total first.

Image Credit: Juanduch17 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This creates scope for tactics, both on the field and in approaching the scoring opportunities. One team may be more capable of scoring a try while the other scores less frequently but is far better at conversions. Ultimately, every contest writes its own story as the game progresses.

The same is true when considering a larger narrative structure – an annual competition comprising many games and leading to a grand final or other showdown of some sort. Instead of each play being a chapter unto itself, each game or contest is a chapter in the collective narrative.

It is often said that the reason sport is so popular is that anything can happen, and you never know what will happen next. Even in very one-sided contests, the actual story can contain twists and turns that no-one saw coming.

Image Credit: / dograapps

The same is also true of other forms of contest – boardgames, or online games such as you find on a casino site like this, or another online gaming site, like Not Doppler. You can argue that the cash incentives – and cash risks – of a Casino site more closely resemble the ‘real world’ in that there are genuine risk vs reward decisions to be made, exactly the way that characters should approach their in-game decisions – as though the world being described is real.

The RPG equivalent

There are distinct similarities between sporting contests and RPGs.

Each action in a combat situation can be seen as the equivalent of a play of the ball. Each combat therefore becomes the equivalent of a single game within a season, and each adventure can be viewed as an entire championship or series, and the campaign becomes analogous to a team’s entire history.

Or you might take a slightly longer view. Each combat, each contest, is seen as the equivalent of a play of the ball; each adventure thus becomes analogous to a single match, and each season is the equivalent of a campaign.

Of course, there’s more to an RPG than just combat; but other forms of encounter – be they with traps, roleplaying opportunities, puzzles, mysteries, or whatever – can be considered just another scoring mode.


There are several ways that this resemblance can be of use to the GM.

To start with, you can examine the reporting of sporting contest or games for clues as to what would work in reporting the events of an RPG session/adventure afterwards, in particular the level of detail; the contextual framework that needs to be provided in order for the stakes – what each team is playing for – to be appreciated; and the need to avoid repetitiveness in detailing the competition.

Secondly, you can study the way sports live commentary is used for clues as to how to describe the in-game action to the players. If using battlemaps and miniatures, television commentary is probably the most appropriate for this purpose; if not, radio commentary.

Third, both you and your players can employ the resemblance to aid in structuring the way you think about situations, placing them in a slightly different context. In terms of combat tactics, this can be especially useful, but it also applies to roleplaying encounters. How do you define “scoring” or succeeding in this particular encounter? If you keep that in mind at all times – the slightly bigger picture, in other words – and make achieving that your primary focus, everything that a character does will be performed with a purpose.

Fourth, this perspective can be a way to step back from the intensity of the game when you start losing focus. A good story always engages on an emotional level, but it should always be remembered that an RPG is a game, and the purpose is for everyone to have fun.

And, finally, it becomes possible to employ other analogies to help analyze a situation and develop tactics. If the PC’s goal is to place a mystic gem in the bellybutton of the stone idol – or liberate same – is that not the equivalent of scoring a touchdown? A blocking line is the traditional way of preventing that, and impairing the mobility of whoever is in possession of the “ball” while restricting that character’s capacity to pass to another. That’s the view from the GM’s side. For the players, knowing that the opponent’s focus is on the “ball” enables strategies such as a player breaking away from the pack and then receiving a long pass – there’s no such rule as “off-side” in an RPG!

Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more detail.

Image Credit: ‘Hockenheim 2005’ by / Dirk Federlein

The Reporting Application

Reporting on a sporting event is always about what you leave out. Blow-by-blow accounts grow increasingly dull and hard to follow with increasing irrelevant detail.

For example, here’s a writeup of an entirely fictional twelve lap motor race:

“Lap 1, Tomkins leads. Lap 2, Tomkins leads. Lap 3, Tomkins leads. Lap 4, Tomkins leads. Lap 5, Tomkins leads. Lap 6, Tomkins pits, Harkness leads. Lap 7, Harkness pits, Dumphries leads. Lap 8, Dumphries pits, Tomkins leads. Lap 9, Tomkins leads. Lap 10, Tomkins leads. Lap 11, Tomkins leads. Lap 12, Tomkins leads. Tomkins wins.”

Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Adding a handful of incidents involving other drivers can improve it – very slightly. But the real way to improve this story is by telling it as a story. Start by providing a context, and use every word that follows to describe events in terms of that context.

“Tomkins has pole position for the fourth time in a row, but his car has been plagued with mechanical fragility all season. If he doesn’t start scoring soon, the defending champion will have no hope of retaining his crown at the end of the season. Unfortunately, he knows it, and his driving all weekend has had an air of desperation. Standing between him and the victory are second-place qualifier Harkness and third-place Dumphries, both of whom have picked up the scraps from Tomkin’s failures. Harkness in particular has been driving with a confidence and composure that we haven’t seen from him before, and is emerging as a real threat to take the title. Of course, the contest between Tomkins and Dumphries is personal, the two have a real dislike for each other and have been sniping at one another in press conferences all year. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to put the two in one team must surely be regretting that decision.

“Tomkins swept into the lead despite a challenge for the first corner from a fast-starting Dumphries, an audacious attempt that left Dumphries vulnerable to Harkness on lap 2. Mayhem ensued behind as Gentry and Milkin collided, a stray wheel bouncing across the infield perilously close to Tomkin’s car, and forcing him to take evasive action. On lap 6, rather earlier than expected, Tomkins pitted, and everyone feared that his mechanical gremlins had struck again, but the pitstop went smoothly, leaving him in third place. Over the next two laps, his rivals were forced to do likewise, and on lap 8 the race order was restored. But Tomkins, warily assessing every rattle as the checkered flag approached, held on to claim the win and was visibly relieved and emotional after the race.”

This report could be trimmed or expanded as necessary, but it demonstrates what’s fundamentally important – every word is about Tomkins’ pursuit of a much-needed win, even the accident of two other cars. He is also painted as the underdog, even though his qualifying position argues otherwise.

At the beginning of any race season, there can be five or six or more contenders who have the ability to win the championship if everything goes their way. Because reporters don’t know which of them will emerge as the most successful, they have to detail the events of all of them. In addition, anyone who emerges as an unexpected Dark Horse needs to be watched for and mentioned. But in almost every case, there are just one or two stories that matter in the wider context, and the rest are mere footnotes.

That’s how to report on a race in isolation – establish the context, then deliver the story as it relates to that context. A GM should synopsize events in the last game session or last adventure in exactly the same way. If something doesn’t immediately relate to that context, no matter how important it may prove to be in the long run, it shouldn’t be mentioned until it becomes significant – if that means dropping a reminder of a specific past event into the middle of narrative, the time to mention it is when it becomes important, because that is the context for whatever encounter it is important in relation to.

You would not use this exact text to report on an entire season, because the context of each race description is created by the races that precede it. That means that you need a season-wide context, and then you describe each of the races that follows. There are two goals: eliminate repetition of information, and eliminate anything that doesn’t contribute to the storyline defined by the context.

Similarly, a campaign-wide synopsis of an RPG would be structured differently. There might be multiple plot threads, and you would describe each of them in succession, drawing information from different adventures as it becomes relevant – then polishing so that it flows as a narrative. Anything irrelevant to the current adventure should be eliminated as redundant because the adventure provides the context of the synopsis, whose purpose is to refresh the player’s recollection of the things that they need to know to participate in this particular adventure. The summation of the past that goes with this adventure should not be the same as that for the next adventure. Anything else that you need to remind them of gets mentioned at the time it becomes relevant, within the adventure.

The Commentary Application

When it comes to sports on TV, there is poor commentary, good commentary, great commentary, and fantastic commentary.

Image Credit: / Pexels

Poor Commentary tells you exactly what you can see and explains nothing. It’s completely redundant. Most baseball games that I’ve seen have exceptionally poor commentary, full of technical terms and abbreviations that aren’t explained, or worse yet, simply using the numbers without giving the term that identifies what they mean. I’ve also seen some motorsport commentary that falls into the same trap.

Good Commentary tells you about events that you can’t see, or haven’t seen, and reminds you of things that you might have forgotten as they become relevant, and doesn’t confuse the listener. You might not understand everything if you don’t follow the sport regularly – is 0.7 RBI a good number? What does a track temperature of 50°C mean? – but over time you can come to associate a context with the raw statistics.

Great Commentary tells you what the significance might be of what you can see, analyzes situations and provides insights and meaning. It assumes that you have eyes and that the time spent on-air can be better spent delivering something more than poor commentary, then fills up the odd corners with ‘good commentary’ and ‘color’. The better the commentary, the less of it will be ‘poor commentary’ – which sounds completely obvious, but I mean it quite literally. The distinction crystallized for me when Australian television broadcaster SBS first got the rights to televise the Ashes series being played that year in England; the commentators analyzed what the ball was doing, how that related to the positions adopted by the fielders, what specifically the bowler would be trying to achieve in order to take advantage of those field positions, how all that related to the abilities and characteristics of the batsman, and how the batsman should respond. When you watched the game, you understood everything that was going on – at least, you did if you knew anything about test cricket.

Fantastic Commentary does everything that Great Commentary does but enables you to understand what you are seeing even if you have never watched it before. The best example I have ever seen comes from the first movie in the Major League franchise (the others come close but fall just a little short of the mark) – at every point, the commentary enables you to understand what you are seeing even if you don’t know the game. The commentary throughout the Mighty Ducks movie series also approaches this standard. Quite obviously, all of these examples have the benefit of being pre-scripted, so that the ‘commentators’ knew exactly what was going to happen on-screen and had time to refine and polish their scripts accordingly. Does that make it impossible to achieve in a live-sport context? Not at all; I’ve seen it in motorsport commentary (Martin Brundle and Neil Crompton are both capable of achieving this standard on a good day, and reliably hit the “great commentary” level, in my opinion), and some Test Cricket and Soccer World Cup commentary also meets the mark. No doubt, if I watched more sports, I would have other examples. So it is achievable.

Can it be learned, or do some have the ability while others simply don’t? The case of Craig Baird, who co-hosted Formula One races on Network Ten/One in Australia a couple of years back, argues the former. His commentary was judged against the standard set by the aforementioned Crompton, and fell woefully short at first – “Bad Commentary” at its worst. By mid-season, though, and to his credit, he had improved to the point of delivering “Good Commentary” on occasion, and by the end of the season, he was doing so reliably and occasionally reaching the “Great Commentary” standard.

So, let’s relate all this to RPGs. To some extent, you have the Movie Advantage in that at least some narrative content can be pre-scripted. Most of it, though, will be the equivalent of live sports commentary. When pre-scripted, your descriptions of events should achieve the “Great Commentary” standard as a matter of course, and the rest of the time, “Good Commentary” should be the minimum standard that you will accept from yourself.

It’s not easy to do. Clarity, context, emotive, rich in detail, specific, lively, and making sure that your audience – the players – understand exactly what’s going on, is a lot to achieve without waffling on for far too long. You won’t hit these marks every time, but they should be your goals.

Image Credit: / keijj44

The “Scoring” Application

With every encounter that takes place – using the term in its broadest possible sense – you should always know what constitutes a “win” for both the players/PCs and NPCs involved, and what they can do to achieve it.

“The Win” might be the players learning a particular fact, or gaining access to a particular region of the map, or rendering an enemy/trap unable to impede the PCs’ progress, or successfully performing an action, or getting one step closer to solving a mystery. There are many more possible “victory conditions” than there are types of encounter.


As GM, it’s part of your job to make sure that the players have the information they need to be able to decide ‘the victory conditions’ (it’s part of their job to actually convert this potential into reality).

It’s also part of your job to make sure that this is achieved in an interesting and engaging way. Quite often, you will need to make it more difficult to achieve – a task that is much easier if you know what they should be trying to get out of the encounter.

If things don’t go according to plan, knowing what the PCs should have been trying to achieve enables you to provide alternative routes should they be needed, and knowing why that constitutes a “victory condition” allows you to assess the important consequences of the failure.

In particular, you want to make sure that no failure is game-ending. Not even a TPK should stop the music!

Ensuring that every encounter has a definable “Victory Condition” and that the players are capable of identifying that in advance means that every encounter propels the story forwards.

This is especially important when it comes to random encounters or encounters that happen just because two individuals happen to be in the same place at the same time.

A PC is passing through a marketplace? To bring the scene to life, there needs to be an encounter of some kind – even if it’s just a merchant trying to interest the PC in his wares. If you don’t know in advance what constitutes a ‘victory’ for the merchant and what a ‘victory’ for the PC look like, you will have to make up details on the spot – and that’s how game-breaking devices and plot-breaking mistakes can worm their way into your campaign.

The Perspective Application

When emotions run hot – and they will, from time to time – deliberately using a sporting metaphor can undercut the emotion and lend perspective. “They have definitely scored a touchdown at your expense”. “He’s hit a home run, I’m afraid.” “The score is 40-love, but it’s not too late for a comeback.”

There’s not a lot more to say about that, but the value and importance of this capability should not be underestimated.

Image Credit: / Saekawaii

The Tactical Application

In some respects, this can be the most valuable benefit of them all. The sporting analogy permits you to think about how the opposition to the PCs can work together to become greater than the sum of their parts. It does this by giving the group an overall objective, formulating a strategy for success, and assigning roles within that strategy to each member of the group based on abilities that they posses.

For example, let’s say that you have a Giant Spider, a pair of Minotaurs, and a Beholder. Your objective is to get past the PCs to a lever on the far side of the room with a creature that has arms – it’s no good getting there with the Beholder! Pulling the lever will open some floodgates and begin lowering the ceiling, drowning the PCs. Furthermore, neither Minotaur on its own is strong enough to withstand a single PC; they need to function as a pair.

You might decide that this is the equivalent of scoring a touchdown against the opposition team in a game of football, and send the Minotaurs wide while the Spider and Beholder keep the PCs occupied, and – in particular – use their abilities to prevent the PCs from going after the Minotaurs. Or you might decide that it could be more like kicking a goal in a game of football, because that can be done at range; the Beholder has to break up the ranks of the PCs, isolating one at a time, which the Minotaurs flank and pound on, while the Spider goes up the wall and across the ceiling until it gets close enough to the level to attach a line of webbing to it, activating the trap in the room. You can even start with one of these strategies and switch to another if it’s not working.

So the Beholder starts off with his Charm Person, and Flesh to Stone eye powers, each targeting a different PC. The Charmed person will be instructed to stand between the Minotaurs, while the Stone person stays exactly where they were, obviously. Depending on how many PCs there are, that could break the party up into three or four groups. The spider will climb the wall and drop some webbing on any PCs who are still mobile from the ceiling when it gets there before going for the goal. The Minotaurs will pound on any PC not affected who comes to the protection of the character who is Charmed, and only attack the charmed character when he has no defenders.

PC#1 makes his saving throw against the Charm but PC#2 is turned to stone. PCs 1 and 3 move to engage the Beholder, flinging dust into its eyes, while PC #4 shoots arrows or lightning bolts or whatever at the Spider. Clearly, the first strategy has failed. So the Beholder backs off to clear its eyes (difficult without hands) while the spider webs PC1, dropping onto them from the ceiling. PC 3 can pursue the Beholder, take on the Minotaurs alone, or try to protect PC1 from the spider. If he goes for the Beholder, the Minotaurs are free to reach the lever. If he stays to protect his teammate, it gives the Beholder a chance to recover and get back into the fight, while the Minotaurs are free to reach the lever. If he goes for the Minotaurs it will be two against one and they should win, removing the last obstacle between the NPC monsters and the lever.

Of course, there is still PC#4, who can continue to target the spider, who can shift his attention to the Beholder, or who can delay one of the Minotaurs. They will need to be careful not to let him target both of them. But one of the two should survive long enough to pull the lever and activate the trap. One way or another, then, you will get to up the ante.

Given that they haven’t drawn a lot of attention to themselves, attacking the Minotaurs is probably the least likely option. The PCs have blocked strategy #1 but in the process, have opened themselves up for Plan B. And you have an engaging narrative on your hands.

Image Credit: / rihaij

The Thrill Of The Chase

To be honest, the sports metaphor isn’t the only way you can approach some of these tasks. It might not even be the best way to handle some of them. But, if there is one task that RPGs seem to do universally poorly almost by default, that one is a chase.

There have been a lot of attempts to rectify this problem over the years.

I generated a method of creating a-game-within-a-game using playing cards, some years ago – it appeared in Roleplaying Tips issue #335 – which was better than nothing but I’ve never found any technique that really captured the essential thrill of a chase. Game mechanics are too slow and always take you out of the moment, and avoiding that problem always involves unsatisfactory translation of character skills and capabilities, and even if you solve that problem, you quickly find yourself resorting to chase clichés because it’s very hard to create original incidents that will distinguish one chase scene from another, and when you need a new incident every turn, you can quickly run out of ideas.

The sporting metaphor, the sporting analysis, can be the solution. Why? Because you can nick ideas from almost any sport. Steal the finish to Stephen Bradbury’s Olympic ice-skating victory. Steal the leap of a gymnast over the athletic horse. Steal the sidestep of a footballer avoiding a tackle. Steal the slide toward home of a baseball batter. Throw in a bunch of people firing arrows, or machine guns, or whatever is appropriate.

If you’re talking about a car chase, you may need to interpret these a little liberally, but the basic series of ideas is there. It increases the number of sources you can draw upon many-fold. And that alone justifies adding this storytelling technique to your repertoire.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 11: Campaigns


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

If there’s one subject that I’ve written about regularly in these pages, it’s campaigns. Of the 867 posts, 354 have used that tag, or almost 41% of them. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the concept of the campaign is at the heart of RPG gaming as far as Campaign Mastery’s contributions to the art are concerned.

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

Experienced GMs and those who like a lot of realism in their games should note the Kickstarter campaign featured later in the article.

One question that I always try to find fresh ways to examine is the core question, “what is a campaign?,” because the definition illuminates everything else that happens at the game table, and every variation on that definition shifts the light source just a little bit to one side where it can highlight different aspects of the process.

(For the umpteenth time:) What Is A Campaign?

For the purposes of this article – and there’s method to this madness – I’m going to define a campaign as A group of adventures with connective threads binding the whole together into something greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

At it’s simplest, a single adventure can be considered a potential campaign. Every campaign starts with a single adventure, after all, and if it’s a colossal train-wreck, it might be the only one. But let’s forget such pronouncements of doom and gloom for the time being and focus on the positive alternative.

The Nascent Campaign

So you’ve played a stand-alone adventure, and the players enjoyed themselves so much that they want to do it again. Or perhaps the adventure in question was always intended to be the first chapter in something larger. Either way, you’ve got yourself a Campaign.

campaign structure 1

Right away, the dominant question to be raised concerns the relationship of one adventure to the next, and to the whole. Again, at it’s most elemental, a campaign consists of isolated adventures with the PCs as the connecting threads.

campaign structure 2

Of course, not all your players might stick around. Some may drop out for whatever reason, and, if you’re lucky, a replacement be found, though there may be an adventure or two before that happens. Campaigns need to be flexible enough to be prepared for this.

campaign structure 3

The next stage of campaign evolution is to have one master villain featured throughout the campaign.

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Before you know it, your campaigns have one overall plotline connecting the individual adventures together, whether you intended that or not.

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The next stage in campaign evolution adds subplots and character plot arcs that further bind the elements of the campaign together by linking character development to the broader storyline.

Finally, you get a sophisticated campaign in which the villains come and go from the plotline only to re-enter the tale, and the identity of the “main villain” is not known until the end – if there even is such a thing. But that’s going a little far and a little deep for a campaign refereed by a Beginner – which is why I haven’t illustrated it.

Clearly, it is these overarching plotlines and plot connections – villain(s), overall plotline, and interconnecting subplots – and the inter-adventure links and contexts that they provide, that comprises the “extra” that is “more than the sum of its parts”.

Campaign Structure

Of course, a real campaign might consist of dozens of adventures, and there are all sorts of different ways that you can delimit an “adventure” when you move beyond the simple, standalone adventure.

A campaign’s “structure” is a formal (but not necessarily rigid) way of defining those boundaries and how they will connect with each other.

You might decide that the structure that makes the most sense to you is to have one dominant plotline in an adventure that can exist in isolation but is given greater context by what has gone before and what will come after.

Or you could decide that the structure that works best is to define a “change of adventure” in terms of dominant themes – an adventure can comprise any number of vignettes and plotlines, but when these dominant themes change, one adventure has ended and another begun.

That can be represented by a cliffhanger ending, or by some milestone event in the larger plotline, making those appear to be the demarcation points that separate one adventure from another.

Once you start talking about a campaign, the definition of an adventure is one that is provided by the way the campaign is structured.

Other, campaign-level, traits have been identified over the years, and these also form part of the Campaign Structure. A defined style of play – simulationist vs. gamist – or the strength of the bonds between adventures, i,e, strong continuity vs. episodic adventures – are two of the most common.

More complex structures are also possible. Once again, however, anything more is beyond what a Beginner should contemplate, so I won’t go into that in any greater detail.

Some definitions in case the terms are new to you:

Simulationist is the attitude that the rules are simulating a “real world” with an internal consistency and coherent game-world physics and/or metaphysics; where these principles clash with the rules, it is the rules that gives way.

Gamist is the attitude that the rules are an abstracted reality, simplifying complex things like game physics into a set of, well, ‘rules’ that describe the way in-game events are resolved. While characters might pretend that there is a coherent game-world physics and/or metaphysics, if that should clash with the rules, it signifies an error in that physics or metaphysics.

There are also all sorts of intermediary positions – most games are neither purely one nor the other. Quite often, the dividing point is pragmatic efficiency – my Zenith-3 campaign has a strong campaign physics that overrides the rules regularly, but in some areas, practicalities of play mandate that an approximation or simpler abstraction be employed that is ‘close enough’. On a scale of 1-10, it’s probably about 7/10 Simulationist and 2/10 Gamist – with a gray area where circumstances tip the balance one way or the other.

In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, the “game physics” is looser and far less defined, and the “pulp style” is used to override both simulation and rules when necessary. 60% of the time, the campaign is gamist-with-stylistic-override, 10% of the time, it’s profoundly simulationist – and there is a far bigger gray area in which circumstances and the pulp genre and style dominate, and can swing any individual rule or law of physics aside as necessary.

Finally, some contend that there is a third axis, Narrativist, which places story in a position of supremacy over everything else. I disagree with that position mostly because it implies that story can and will be sacrificed by adherents of the other two philosophies, and that game physics is anything more or less than a story element and enabler, to be revised until it supports the story that you want to tell.

Strong Continuity,, also referred to as Serial Campaigns, are campaigns in which each adventure follows immediately after another with minimal hand-waving of time, and with conditions, statuses, and effects from one adventure persisting into the next.

Episodic Campaigns are those in which this effect is attenuated or even absent altogether, with most of the campaign world ‘resetting’ at the end of one adventure, ready for the next. What continuity there is rests with the PCs and perhaps a key NPC or two who continue to develop in abilities within the context of the game world.

The Zenith-3 campaign has VERY strong continuity. It’s rare for a game day to pass without something happening to or around a PC. Sometimes when events would be repetitious, there can be a little judicious hand-waving of time in-play, but outside of those occasions, the longest gap between notable events has been about three days, and I use personal life ‘events’ to deliberately fill the intervals between adventures with something significant.

The Adventurer’s Club campaign, by contrast, has a very weak continuity, though there is a consistency and persistence of unresolved side-issues. Most developments in the personal lives of the characters are introduced in the form of prologues to the main adventure which exist as much to update the players on where the characters are and what they have just been doing when the adventure proper commences, though if there is a significant mid-adventure gap, we will often fill it with more ‘personal lives’ activities, so there is stronger continuity within an adventure than there is between unrelated adventures. However, at one point we had a major “miniseries” within the continuity in which multiple adventures, linked by the one overarching plotline, exhibited stronger continuity.

Once again, there are all sorts of variations in-between the extremes. Neither of the two campaigns mentioned are completely defined by one orientation; there can be episodic periods in the Zenith-3 campaign, and there have been strong-continuity periods in the Adventurer’s Club, as I explained a moment ago.

Sandboxing Vs Temporally-constant Campaigns

Sandboxing simply means that the only areas which need to be developed are those required for the immediate adventure at hand; the rest of the game world exists in some (metaphoric) nebulous limbo, unchanging, until the PCs next go there.

If there is a single consistent term to describe the opposite of sandboxing that gets universal approval, I haven’t found it. For this article, I’m using “Temporally-Constant”, an accurate but somewhat unwieldy term. The meaning is far more agreed-upon, however; it means that time and events continue to occur even when the PCs aren’t around to notice them. News of such events may travel and eventually intersect with the PCs location, or word may not reach them until they return to the location of the event, but they have still taken place.

The Advantages Of Sandboxing

The big advantage of Sandboxing lies in prep-time. By only preparing what you need for the local area around the adventure and paying nothing more than lip service to anything beyond that, you substantially cut prep time; for a beginner, when prep requirements can seem overwhelming and when you don’t have the experience to correctly estimate how long various prep tasks will take, this can be a life-saver. And even when you become more experienced, the time saved can always be applied to putting greater polish on the content that will be called upon.

That doesn’t mean ignoring anything that lies beyond the bounds of your immediate needs; you can quite happily accumulate ideas and notes for when the time comes that a new area needs to be defined. You can happily name things, and even drop in some everyman knowledge on the subject. Every citizen would know the name of the capital city, for example, and would have some (possibly greatly distorted) impression of the place, even though they had never been to it or even known anyone else who had done so.

This suggests a couple of secondary benefits to the sandboxing practice: First, you have a longer time for good ideas to accumulate, resulting in a better quality of content when actually detailing a new area in the future; and second, because you already have a number of ideas on file, the prep time when you do get to the area in question is reduced.

You can even deliberately build the anticipation of these advantages into your campaign plan by starting your campaign a long way removed from what will eventually become the nexus of campaign events and journeying to that destination in a couple of steps along the way. The first area will be the least polished, because there has been minimal stockpiling of content ideas; the next will be only a little better, because there has been very little; the third would be better again. By the time of the fourth or fifth adventure, when the PCs finally reach the nexus point that will be central to the campaign proper, you’ve had time for both benefits to accumulate.

The Sandboxing Downside

I’ve thought long and hard about Sandboxing, and there are some downsides. First, it is far harder to be inspired to establish interconnections between the local activity and the areas to be detailed; the latter are just an inchoate and fuzzy collection of possible ideas. The regions of the world are constructed in relative isolation, and that makes them far less integrated that they would be if prep time was invested in all of them pre-campaign.

Second, it’s a lot harder to be consistent. It’s like having a jigsaw puzzle in which each piece is being individually crafted rather than being cut from a larger whole, and in which there are margins of error. Each successive piece that you craft and set in place hems in the remaining empty spaces, and quite often pieces won’t quite fit no matter what you do.

Third, these two combine to weaken the verisimilitude of the campaign setting. If you have an in-game incident as part of an adventure, especially one that transpired at some past point in the recent history of the region, and later introduce in the nearby capital an organization or group with both the means and motive to intervene, you need to then explain why they did NOT intervene. It can be very easy to become trapped by an inconsistency.

In fact, when detailing a new area, it becomes necessary to backtrack through every adventure and past region in order to ensure consistency with the details that were given to the players at the time. In one of my early campaigns, long before sandboxing was invented, I ran headlong into this problem; solving it required the capital to build walls around the city only to see them destroyed not once, not twice, not even three times, but four times in succession. Trying to work out plausible and different problems to befall the construction each time became increasingly difficult; by the fourth occasion, I was down to having a Genie simply up and steal the whole thing overnight, for reasons unknown. All this because some people had reported the walls under construction and unfinished, and some plots were predicated on that being the case, while others had them functional and complete – and there were conversion errors in the dating (each race had their own calendar in that campaign).

This problem starts small and grows worse as the campaign grows and develops, and can become bad enough for you to swear off sandboxing forever – better a couple of extra months playing board games while you dot i’s and cross t’s! (And yes, that was my reaction at the time, even though sandboxing as a concept had not yet been introduced – this was back in the early 80s).

Fourth, a logical consequence of the above is that sandboxed campaigns grow more stressful and less fun for the GM as they progress, just when you would hope for things to get easier so that you can focus on and polish up a suitable end to the campaign, and start working on the next one.

It also means, fifth, that the prep workload progressively increases over time – and can even outstrip the workload savings from Sandboxing in the first place.

The pain of being temporally-constant

That doesn’t mean that life is necessarily a picnic on the other side of the coin, however. Even assuming that you let irrelevant gaming areas stagnate and only focus on those that still matter to the campaign, the prep-time requirements start higher than sandboxing, and gradually but regularly increase over time as more and more significant elements – places, situations, NPCs – are introduced and need to be updated.

Of course, over time the simplification and focus that comes as you close in on a campaign conclusion begins to bite into those prep requirements; the result is a shape that resembles a parabolic arc.

Now, the complexity of gaming attracts the unrepentantly nerdy, but I don’t want to make assumptions about Campaign Mastery’s readership, and certainly don’t want to demean them, so I’m going to assume that none of you played around with the mathematical functions that describe parabolic motion when you were in high school, or that if you did, the memory has long since faded. Me, I played intensely with them for a couple of weeks and then moved on to other issues of interest.

In a nutshell, the initial speed of release of a projectile and the angle of release dictate how far it will travel, ignoring air resistance, wind, and other such. Aim too high, and the projectile will expend more of it’s energy gaining elevation and then lose it again as gravity overcomes its upward motion; it will fall short of it’s optimum range. You can also achieve exactly the same landing point by aiming at too low an angle (assuming there are no obstacles).

The curve that results if you plot the effort involved in a temporally-constant campaign is not a perfect parabola; the downward leg is shorter and sharper and the peak effort comes somewhere in between the mid-point of the campaign and its conclusion. Somewhere around when the effort required starts decreasing is where the regular effort required for a sandboxed campaign overtakes that of the temporally-constant campaign. But it’s also notable that the initial levels of effort involved are significantly greater than those of a sandboxed campaign.
prep effort graph

A Third Option: The Phased Campaign

There is another choice, and its the one that I usually recommend (and employ), especially for Beginners. I call it the Phased Campaign, and it’s something of a hybrid between the two, avoiding the worst vices of both, but not completely capturing the benefits of either. The graph at the side compares the three types of campaign structure in terms of effort required over time (with, perhaps, a slight exaggeration when it comes to Sandboxed campaigns) just to keep the differences visibly clear.

Yellow depicts a Sandboxed Campaign that suffers more than most toward the end of the campaign. The trend is fairly clear, however – prep effort starts low and progressively rises in difficulty. Shown in red is a reasonably typical temporally-constant campaign, while a phased campaign – the example graphed uses three phases, but there can be more – is shown in light blue. The somewhat-fuzzy white line is the overall average.

You can see that the initial effort levels required for a temporally-constant campaign are about double those of a sandboxed campaign, and not that far below the overall average, while the effort required for a phased campaign is somewhere in between the two. Shortly after half-way through the campaign, the increasing demands of the sandboxed campaign lead it to overtake the phased campaign in terms of effort. The real payoff takes place toward the end of the campaign, when the phased campaign most closely resembles the temporally-constant campaign, though a little higher in effort required.

The other feature that can be noted is the shape of the curve for the phased campaign – a series of fairly flat parabolic arcs, each with end-points that are always higher than the start point. The first arc typically has an end-point very close to its start-point, no matter how constant an effort you try to maintain; the end-point of the second is far closer to the “peak” of the parabola, and it has a peak that is only a little greater than the peak of the first, while the third phase is much higher in peak demand. The more phases you have, the flatter these curves and the less elevated is the final demand.

You’ll see why this pattern of effort required results as I explain just what’s involved in a phased campaign. But first, there are a few fundamentals that need to be examined: the Aspects of a campaign that can be subjected at least somewhat independently of each other.

Aspects Of Sandboxing

There are five respects or aspects in which a campaign can be sandboxed or phased. There are also a couple of exclusions that are treated as temporally-constant even in a fully-sandboxed campaign.

  • Aspects:
    • Relevant Background
    • Metaphysics
    • Events: Plotlines, Society, & Politics
    • Environment
    • NPCs
  • Exclusions:
    • The Weather Exclusion
    • PC-triggered Exclusions
    • “Fuzzy” Sandboxing
    • Villain-triggered Exclusions

Sandboxing the background simply means that you deliver no more of the campaign background than is required for the next “sandbox”. Sometimes, that will be no more than has already been revealed, sometimes it might be quite a bit. Another way to think of this type of sandboxing is “compartmentalizing” the background.

Sandboxed backgrounds can actually be the driving force that unifies a campaign. Sandbox 1 details the immediate situation that the PCs have known all their lives. Sandbox 2 delves into why that situation came into existence. Sandbox 3 deals with what was around before that, and so on. Each stage goes farther back into the campaign history, gradually revealing and placing into context everything that has already been revealed – with surprising twists and turns deliberately incorporated along the way.

“If the world was created yesterday, complete with past history and memories, how would you know?” I know it’s not a completely original thought, but it is the first deeply philosophical question that I devised entirely on my own, while walking down the back lane to my Grandmother’s place, at about 9 years of age. (I concluded that it made no difference, because we would be unable to perceive any discrepancy, and therefore one had to proceed as though the apparent past was actual; only from a privileged position beyond space and time as we understand them would it be possible for any distinction to be observed). I should also add that this concept continues to influence my RPGs to this day in that there are metaphysical relationships and events in most of my campaigns that can only be observed from the ‘outside’).

In a way, that’s exactly the conundrum that sandboxing poses to the PCs. Each time they expose a new layer of the onion, it doesn’t matter if the new ‘reality’ was only created yesterday by the GM, complete with false history – the PCs have to treat it as though it were reality and proceed on that basis. The only thing that can be known for certain is that the new layer is incomplete until it fully encloses the layers already known and explored.


It’s quite often a good idea to limit the influence of Magic, both arcane and spiritual, at the start of the campaign. In terms of the PCs, that limitation happens naturally simply because their capabilities in these areas are low in most game systems; but in terms of the metaphysical foundations of adventurers, the natures of the adversaries faced, the rewards bestowed, and the degree to which fundamental and major existential concepts play a direct role in the campaign, there is scope for the GM to carefully control the introduction and depth of metaphysical content.

Events: Plotlines, Society, & Politics

Picture this: everywhere beyond the immediate sight of the PCs, everything is frozen in time, in perfect stasis, only coming to life just as the PCs are about to perceive it. An extension of the philosophical conundrum posed earlier, this is perfectly describes what is meant by Event Sandboxing. Or, to put it into gaming terminology, “Every event can and should be handwaved into existence unless a PC is in a position to interact or observe the event.”

Villages are created complete and frozen until the moment a PC enters. The moment they leave, the celestial puppeteer lets the strings fall loose and picks up the next objects to be animated.

The sandboxing of events permits the creation of that village to be deferred until a PC is about to be in a position to enter it. That’s the power of sandboxing.

It’s even possible to create a village or two in advance and simply stack them in a queue; the first is the next village that the PCs enter, wherever that might be, and the second is the one after that. All that remains is to determine the maximum number that might be needed in any one game session and for the GM to ensure that he has at least that many ‘pre-loaded’ and ready to drop in before play begins.

You can get craftier by subdividing this workload according to one or two characteristics. Size and population are the usual first choice, within broad limits; and a second might be the dominant political type, or it might be the status of the defenses, or any of a dozen other criteria. This slightly increases the number of settlements that need to be prepared in advance but means that the one you pull out of your pocket will more closely match the needs of the plot/geopolitical context at that point. If the village is located in an area with many hostile forces around it, a village with strong defenses is logical, while one without such makes no sense. If the area was recently surrounded by hostile forces but the wilderness was pacified a generation or two back, a settlement that has begun to extend beyond its decaying former defenses is rational. Expect to see the former city walls being slowly cannibalized for building materials. And so on.

Another way of looking at the concept is that every location is frozen at the instant of maximum adventuring potential. Let that thought sink in for a moment.

It’s even possible to state that it takes a certain population level to sustain a given number of potential plotlines – so the maximum number of possible adventures will occur within a large city, while their might only be one in a small hamlet. But that is formalizing things too much for my tastes – and demands that you think up those potential adventures and prepare to run them, knowing that all but one are likely to remain unused. Sure, you can recycle them for other locations, or hold them in readiness for the next time the PCs visit (if that’s likely), but it still represents wasted effort at least some of the time.


Similar concepts are entailed in Sandboxing the environment – don’t draw anything but the most superficial of maps until the PCs enter a space. Don’t work out any geographic details until the PCs can see them.

Consider the (very rough) map below:

sandboxed map

There is a village, there is some forest, there are some rivers, there are some roads, and the only other thing depicted are some mountains that would be clearly visible from the village. One road leads up to a mountain in the north, the others are isolated. Aside from these visible features, the remainder of the map remains unexplored and undiscovered. That’s what a sandboxed environment is – nothing gets defined except what the PCs can be expected to see and interact with in the course of the current adventure. In fact, since the town is a moderate size – at least 2,000 residents, possibly as many as 5,000 – you could base several adventures in the vicinity, adding to the map as necessary. Right now, it seems fairly clear that the first adventure is in the mountain to the (presumably) north of the town, with preliminaries and aftermath possibly within the town itself.

blank map large thumbnail

Incidentally, if anyone wants it, I’ve also provided a larger version of the “blank map” for download. Just click on the thumbnail.


By far the most time-consuming part of running an RPG, week in and week out, is keeping the NPCs up to date. A lot of GMs don’t seem to realize that these, too, can be sandboxed – which means that you only update them when you have to, i.e. when the PCs are going to interact with them.

The Sandboxing Exclusions:

There are a few exclusions to these principles.

The Weather Exclusion

The seasons generally continue their march, whether the PCs are in a location or not. That’s because going someplace and finding it’s still autumn while the place they just came from is in late winter tends to be sufficiently disconcerting to break verisimilitude completely.

PC-triggered Exclusions

If a PC triggers an event and then goes elsewhere to do something else while waiting for the event to play out, time keeps happening even without the PCs presence. For example, if a PC orders a suit of armor to be made to his measurements and specifications, and it is going to take 6 weeks, he might well go on another adventure without waiting for the armor to be complete. When he returns, 5 weeks later, the armor is almost complete.

“Fuzzy” Sandboxing

However, there can be some “fuzzy” sandboxing applied to such situations, in that the GM can simply ignore the passage of time until the PCs return to the scene of the event, at which point time “catches up” with them.

Villain-triggered Exclusions

Similarly, if the villain sets something in motion, it will continue to play out regardless of what the PCs may be doing. If he’s gathering an army, for example, they might go on an adventure and return to discover that instead of an army of 2500, they now have to deal with an army of 4,000.

This is also subject to “fuzzy” sandboxing, though this must be done more judiciously. For a villain to be credible, he should encounter (and overcome) the occasional setback and the occasional wild success, neither of which the PCs have any responsibility for, and both require some planning in advance.

Progressive Campaign Developments

So, with the fundamental concepts dealt with, I can now return to the question of Phased Campaigns.

A phased campaign is a campaign that is broken into stages. These are typically larger than a single adventure, and represent a goodly proportion of the total campaign. The simplest such breakdown is divide the campaign into three phases: beginning, middle, and end. Each phase is sandboxed with respect to the other phases, but internally, employs temporally-constant methodology. Most people will be fairly familiar with the trilogy concept, phased campaigns simply apply the concept to an RPG.

Such a simple concept, and yet – as stated earlier – it can have a profound impact on campaign structure and the workload involved in running one.

It works because for each phase of the campaign, a certain amount of previously-completed prep will carry forward, but nothing is done in a given phase that is not needed for that phase, other than the accumulation of notes and ideas. Thus the benefits of both sandboxing and temporally-constant models are partially conferred on the campaign.

More importantly, the downsides of both are also mitigated, and this effect is more pronounced and significant even than the transferred benefits:

  • There’s no problem establishing interconnections between areas and events that pertain to the current phase because they are all being designed and created at the same time.
  • The problem of “jigsaw puzzle pieces” that don’t quite fit is greatly reduced, and virtually eliminated, because each phase is a “bigger” puzzle piece in its own right that is then subdivided perfectly as necessary. What’s more, while there are still the troublesome transitions from one phase to another where thee problems can arise, you now have an entire phase, multiple adventures, in which to resolve them.
  • That means that the third problem with sandboxing is also reduced massively, if not eliminated completely. To take the example offered earlier, the organization in question either already exists when you create the adventure, so that you can take its existence into account, or the adventure has already taken place and you can solve the verisimilitude issue when creating the organization, enriching its history.
  • With the causes of the fourth problem mitigated or eliminated, the fourth problem also goes away.
  • Which, collectively, means that the crippling exponential rise in workload is also dissipated.
A brief note on Note Organization

I was going to make the point earlier that collecting ideas while in sandboxing mode requires a robust system of organizing those notes so that you can locate everything relevant when the time comes to extract everything that has already been made known about the next ‘Sandbox’. But the initial draft of this article also made a similar point regarding the organizational needs of a temporally-constant campaign – which, since it deals with the entire campaign world simultaneously, imposes even greater organizational demands. Nor is this problem greatly mitigated by the phased campaign approach, though it is reduced in intensity somewhat; notes made in phase 1 can only apply to the remaining phases, so automatically there are fewer notes to search through, and there are fewer sandboxes into which they have to be sorted. In a three-phase campaign, the organizational needs are 2/3 the size; in a four-phase campaign, they are 3/4; and so on. As each phase transpires, the problem also becomes less – once in the middle phase of three, all notes must pertain to the final phase, by definition; in a four-phase structure, they can only apply to phases three or four, and so on. That means that this hassle becomes less at exactly the time when you want to devote more time to polishing, wrapping up loose ends, etc.

Background Phases

Phases can be separated by the amount of campaign background that’s relevant. More to the point, any campaign background that isn’t relevant can be ignored until you are prepping the next phase, so long as you build into the opening parts of the phase a means for that information to be delivered to the PCs.

However, there is a caveat, or, more precisely, a trap to beware of. Background can take longer to generate than you expect, and the need to finish it can interrupt and disrupt a campaign. That’s what happened with my Fumanor campaigns – I had to shut them down to generate the background, and even had to resort to presenting the background here at Campaign Mastery as the Orcs and Elves series so that I could devote the time that would otherwise be spent writing articles to writing the background. Even so, after six months (and only about half-done – okay, maybe 2/3rds done), the players made the decision to put the campaigns on hold and play something else.

I avoided that trap when doing the background for the current Zenith-3 campaign by designing the campaign so that it could proceed even if the background was unfinished – which it was. The players were given more of it than appeared here at Campaign Mastery (in the Imperial History Of Earth Regency series), but it still wasn’t complete – lacking mostly the everyday life of citizens in the Empire and the most recent 20 years of history.

In fact, it actually turned out to be an advantage; I could detail the most-important, most-relevant parts of the background in the course of each adventure, rather than relying on the players memories. What they had actually been given was foundation.

There’s scope for another piece of practical advice, here. I created most of the detailed campaign background in question in the form of single-line longhand notes based on a general outline. If a new technology was to be developed on a certain date, like the flying cars that are a ubiquitous part of the setting, I also listed the technological and scientific breakthroughs that led to those developments, and looked for other applications of the technology and listed the development of those, as well. These were then cut up and placed in envelopes labeled by year. One year at a time, I then took out all the slips that pertained to that year and – using real world history as a guide if there was any – sorted them into logical sequence, by month. Finally, in the exact sequence, these were glued to pages under the year, month, and day.

These days, I would do it all in a text file and employ cut-and-paste. Back then, I didn’t have a laptop, and wanted to work on the project during Christmas holidays at my mother’s place. These notes survived for many years – but eventually the glue gave out when the bundle of pages was accidentally dropped, scattering and landing out of sequence, and – in some cases – blowing away before I could retrieve and gather them up again.

That practical advice: label everything, and don’t rely on glue! The pages weren’t labeled clearly – only when there was a change of year – and the notes weren’t labeled at all. If I had only taken the time to number them when I put them in order…. oh well.

Metaphysical Phases

The phased approach works really well in terms of the metaphysical sandboxing that I described earlier. Another way that you could label the phases might be “low fantasy, middle fantasy, high fantasy”. In the first phase, you deal with everyday ordinary problems in adventures; in the middle one, magic becomes a significant element; and in the last, you grapple with fundamental forces within the campaign like devils and demons.

Campaign Phases

Or, you could delineate the phases in terms of the tone of the campaign. That’s (in broad terms) what I’ve done with the Zenith-3 campaign, which is now approaching Phase 2 of 9, in which the threats they face become more significant and start to pile up faster than they can be resolved, and in which a distant threat begins looming on the long-term horizon. In phase three, that threat begins to influence events, however indirectly, and there is a slow transition from isolated problems to those problems becoming aspects of a bigger issue. In phase four, the true nature and shape of the distant threat can be discerned; the problems faced by the team begin to lessen in number but increase in difficulty still further. Phases five through eight is all about the precursor effects of the major threat as it comes to dominate the campaign. Phase nine is the crisis itself coming to a head, and phase ten deals with the aftermath and the consequences. Each of these phases is shorter than the one that precedes it in terms of the number of plotlines and individual adventures, but those adventures increase in length and complexity, with the exception of phase ten, when things simplify again.

Rules Phases

One trick that can be very useful is to build your campaign around a low-fantasy game system that is flexible enough for you to incorporate higher-fantasy elements and concepts as the campaign enters a new phase. I’ve seen this done successfully with Conan the RPG as the foundation, and with GURPS. There is absolutely no rule that says that each phase has to use the same game rules, either, so long as you have conversion techniques worked out.

Song Of Swords Hardcover

Cover art by Bob Kehl. Click on the image to visit the kickstarter campaign.

Song Of Swords

I’ve just learned of a new option that may interest readers. It’s a low-fantasy RPG called Song of Swords. As I write this, it has just crossed the line to be fully funded (with 30 days still to go) – stretch goals would be in view.

The goal with this RPG is to be more historically-accurate than most RPGs, and to focus on a richer combat system than is usual. Combat is built around a d10-pool concept in which players can select where they attack an enemy, and how much effort they put into that attack.

It balances increased effort with an increased risk, making for a very tactical experience.

Character progression is story based, something that I have advocated for a long time.

The creators hope to make this a response to the recent glut of “quick and easy” games that have been emerging over the last couple of years; the goal is depth and elegance of mechanics, a revival of old-school virtues for veterans who would enjoy a more advanced game, but with modern art and design sensibilities, and an introduction to the virtues of historical accuracy for those with less experience.

There’s a lot more to the game than this very abbreviated capsule summary. Check out the full details at the kickstarter page.

I have the feeling that this is going to be another of those success stories that come along every now and then. It might not be success of the same magnitude as the record-breaking 7th Sea 2nd edition, but blowing through a reasonable funding target in less than two days and selling out of the top two reward tiers in less than one is noteworthy, so check it out by clicking on the link provided or on one of the illustrations for the RPG.

Song Of Swords hardcover book opened

Character art by Nathan Park (other character art is by Eric Belisle, of Pathfinder fame). Click on the image to visit the kickstarter campaign.

Advanced Tools

Although this article is directed at the Beginner, there are some advanced tools that are worth mentioning because even a Beginner can use them to good effect, and they are good habits to get into. Individual examples for a beginner might be – should be – less complex than those from a more experienced GM, but the principles and premises are valid.


Campaign Themes can be the defining focus of a Campaign Phase. This is achieved by arranging those themes so that they spell out a story. For example:

  1. “For evil to prosper all that is needed is for good men to do nothing.”
  2. “Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.”
  3. “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.”

These define the phases of the campaign. In this case,

  • Phase 1: Isolated adventures while the ruling society around the PCs becomes increasingly corrupt, little by little.
  • Phase 2: The Corrupt nobility finally commit an atrocity so repellent that everyone notices. Some citizenry respond with protests and marches and small rebellions, which are crushed ruthlessly and disproportionately. Others are bought off with favors and the mechanisms by which corruption spreads. Most are simply apathetic – the problem is too big, and those responsible too far away. A case of mistaken identity puts the PCs on course for a direct confrontation with the authorities, whether they want it or not (the actual culprit is a PC’s family member). In this phase of the campaign, the PCs are hunted by the authorities, whose minions wield some hitherto-unknown dark magic.
  • Phase 3: A divine vision (or something) tells the PCs that there is more to the story. They must undertake an arduous quest to obtain answers before it’s too late, then confront the court and expose the true source of the evil.

…is the sort of campaign that I would build around those three themes.

Or you could make the themes emotional in nature:

  1. Fear
  2. Hate
  3. Revenge

A theme is simply a unifying concept that links the adventures together in some fashion. Each season of Babylon 5 had one, though these were often more subtle than the rather overt ones that I have used as examples:

  1. Signs and Portents
  2. The Coming Of Shadows
  3. Point Of No Return
  4. No Surrender, No Retreat
  5. The Wheel Of Fire

For those who have seen the complete series, the first four themes are fairly self-evident, but the last could have multiple interpretations, none of them especially compelling at face value. I’ve always considered it a metaphor for the dozens of smaller conflicts and problems that broke out in the aftermath of the Shadow War, with Babylon-5 functioning as the nexus around which these problems orbit. But I don’t consider that any more compelling than any of the other possible interpretations.

Nested/Parallel Plot Arcs

If every major character (including the PCs) have their own plot arcs, the campaign consists of the amalgam of those plot arcs and the occasional random event. While such a campaign construction is a fairly advanced one, especially if campaign themes are connected into the plotlines, there is no reason why the concept cannot and should not be applied in a simpler, more direct, and more limited form.

These are essentially a set of minor plotlines divided into individual episodes that take place around the main plot of each adventure. They then proceed in parallel with each other. The more advanced form of the technique has these relating to, and influencing, other plot arcs.

In it’s simplest form, decide how many adventures there are in a phase and then, for each character to be allocated a plot arc, break a side-plot into that many episodes or events.

If stretching the plotline that far doesn’t make sense, or it appears repetitive, it’s time to cut them back, leaving gaps; another minor plotline for that character of the required number of episodes then fills those gaps. These ‘nest’ within the larger plotline.

For example, here’s a 22-episode plot arc:

  1. Character is nominated for a position in a local volunteer charitable organization, something like the Lions Club or Rotary Club. He is not expected to decide right away.
  2. Character accepts the invitation.
  3. Character attends his first meeting and learns of an upcoming public/charitable service in which he is expected to participate that involves theatrical makeup in some fashion. The Treasurer reports that the makeup has been ordered and will be delivered to him before the event.
  4. Character assists in performing some public/charitable service involving theatrical makeup in some fashion.
  5. Character assists in performing a different public/charitable service.
  6. When a member of the committee falls ill, the character is elected to replace him.
  7. Character attends a social function organized by the group.
  8. The Treasurer of the group commits suicide. No motive can be found.
  9. After the funeral, the character is appointed the new Treasurer.
  10. Some of the account ledgers are missing. The character attempts to find them, without success.
  11. The character, with expert help if necessary, begins recreating the missing ledgers.
  12. The President of the group advises them that he will be away for several weeks on unspecified personal business.
  13. Several people swear that they saw the Treasurer around town.
  14. The recreated ledgers show a huge discrepancy – the group should have a lot more money than it does. Did the former treasurer know? Was he responsible? Is that why he killed himself? Or was he silenced?
  15. The character finds evidence that the President of the group (still absent) is responsible. Has he absconded with the money?
  16. Another member of the group gives the President an alibi without realizing the significance of his statement.
  17. The character verifies the alibi. The President returns from his trip.
  18. Digging deeper, the character finds evidence that the body who was buried was not that of the Treasurer.
  19. Investigating further, the character finds that the former Treasurer’s wife has dissapeared and discovers a hidden location in the former Treasurer’s home that was big enough to hold the missing money. It is now empty. The mystery deepens when the grave-site of the Former Treasurer is disturbed and the body exhumed and removed by parties unknown.
  20. An overlooked unpaid invoice turns up for the theatrical makeup used in Episode 4. Someone has added some items to the bottom of the list in different handwriting to that of the missing, possibly deceased, Treasurer. The items would enable someone to pass themselves off as the Treasurer..
  21. Someone other than the character stumbles across a body. When the character is notified and investigates, he discovers that With the remains are the elements of the disguise added to the invoice. The body is confirmed as that of the Treasurer by the President. Nearby, the character discovers a scrap of paper with a list of several ships and departure times, probably dropped by whoever was wearing the disguise.
  22. Attending the departure of the next ship scheduled to depart from the list, the character captures the widow of the deceased Treasurer, who has the money that she embezzled under her husband’s nose in her possession. She confesses to the murder and the subterfuge, designed to make it look like her husband was responsible when she is interrogated by the character. The embezzlement operated by intercepting the real invoices and replacing them with dummies that she had created for higher amounts, then paying the original and pocketing the difference. This was exposed when a vendor noticed a mistake on an invoice that he had issued and a correction and refund was sent to the treasurer; when he checked his ledger, the original amount of the invoice did not match what he had recorded. Not realizing that his wife was behind it, he confided in her and planned to investigate quietly, after the charitable event, giving her time to plan and execute the murder and her escape with the loot.

Most of these are brief events, covered in no more than a couple of minutes of game time. They are designed to be fitted into the character’s spare time, and separated by an interval of time.

Half-an-hour at the start of each adventure can be profitably spent running the different PCs through such plotlines before commencing the main plot of the day, guaranteeing each player a chance at roleplay under circumstances and in situations that the character wouldn’t normally encounter.

Of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign, one is studying creative writing, one is becoming an oil painter, a third is a member of a rock climbing club who he has just persuaded out of the indoors and onto the real thing, and the third is a cook and member of a restaurant-of-the-week club, which he attends when not otherwise engaged.

Usage For The Beginner

These tools, even when applied in simple form by a beginner, can add substantial depth to a campaign. Ultimately, that’s all a campaign really is – an anthology of related stories, each ‘told’ as well as possible. Everything else is about how these stories relate to each other. It only takes a few minutes to decide which of the options are going to suit you best, and then you’re ready to start accumulating expertise in the craft of being a GM. If you utilize the phased campaign approach, even in its simplest form, augmented with themes and plot arcs, you will keep the campaign prep demons at bay. Which aspects of the campaign you choose to phase is up to you. Any and all of them can work; a campaign is nothing to be scared of.

A fortnight or so from now, the final part of the current trio of articles will look at Relations. Not sure what that might be about? I’ll bet that it’s something other than what you’re expecting…

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The Answers They Seek: Truth, Omission, Error, Distortion & Falsehood


There must be something in the air. Or maybe it’s a reaction to Alternative Facts. I had this week’s article scheduled and outlined before I even became aware of Updated: Elf or Scroll, Handling the Info dump by Phil over at Takes Of A GM on essentially the same subject. Since I agree with everything Phil has had to say, the question then became, did I have enough to add to make this article worth writing?

Clearly, since you are reading this, the conclusion reached was a ‘yes’… but not before this article underwent a substantial restructuring and a slight change of direction.

I’ve long advocated that anything the GM delivers as an ex-cathedra pronouncement should be completely truthful in terms of what the PCs “experience”. That doesn’t mean that it has to be complete, or even completely accurate; but it should be a faithful description of what the PCs could see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. Interpretations should be left to the player, and no accuracy is guaranteed.

Beyond these limits, truth cannot and should not be assumed or taken for granted. No, the expectation should be omission, Error, Distortion, and Falsehood – and the occasional grain of accuracy.

Whenever I’m providing information to the players that their characters are not directly experiencing, there are five questions that I need to answer to my own satisfaction before I can proceed:

  1. What Truth Need Be Told?
  2. Who is doing the telling?
  3. What is their source?
  4. Why and How are the wrong?
  5. How and When are the PCs to extract that minimum of Truth?

The answers to these four questions tell me everything I need to know in order to determine the source and degree of inaccuracies in the information provided. They are modeled on the questions I pose of everything I read on the internet, leaving out only the maxim, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, which I also apply right at the beginning.

What Truth Need Be Told?
What is the absolute minimum accurate information that I need to have the players emerge with at the end of the scene?

Who is doing the telling?
More specifically, what motivation do they have to lie? What is their intention? What biases do they have, what prejudices, what agendas? What are the flaws in their information, their understanding, their logic – and should these be immediately obvious to the PCs?

What is their source?
How do they know what they are saying/writing? Every time they accept someone else’s results, information, or conclusions, it adds another layer of capacity for… let’s put the gentlest face on it and call it ‘inaccuracy’.

Why and How are they wrong?
Knowing the sources of inaccuracy, I am in a position to identify possible inaccuracies. In an RPG, I get to generate and provide the inaccuracies – something I’ll get to in short order, because that’s at the heart of today’s article.

How and When are the PCs to extract that minimum of Truth?
These two questions are deeply interrelated. ‘How’ will often require resources that the PCs don’t have access to at the current moment, and the resulting ‘when’ is relative – defined in terms of gaining access to those resources. Most of the time, the truth should emerge by the end of the scene; in most of the balance, the truth will emerge later in the adventure; and, in just a few cases, it may be quite some time before the truth comes out – if it ever does. But the road to truth needs to be an explicit consideration.

Correcting The Players

The inaccuracies that I might/will build into any infodump are not the only source of confusion, however, and the rest must be carefully guarded against. On many occasions, I’ve given information to one player because his character saw or otherwise experienced events first-hand, only for the report they subsequently make to the others to contain wild errors, ad-hoc assumptions, or misinterpretations reported as confirmed fact. It’s also a common occurrence for a player to misremember something, or – more properly – to remember a theory or interpretation as fact.

If these are inaccuracies being generated by the player when the character would not make those mistakes, I don’t hesitate in correcting the record; doing anything else only encourages confirmation bias.

If they are being generated by the character then on his own head be it. When opportunity presents, I’ll make sure that the player has an accurate recollection and that his character intended to willfully deceive the others, and leave it at that.

As GM, you absolutely need to control what falsehoods are in play. Players are going to make decisions based, directly or indirectly, on those falsehoods, and you need to not only know what those decisions are likely to be so that you can do game prep accordingly, you need to ensure that the truth eventually comes out so that everything makes sense to the players, or they will become paranoid and turn that paranoia against you.

Types Of Inaccuracy

I ran through the basic list in the title of the article: Truth, Omission, Error, Distortion & Falsehood.


There are times when the best way to deceive is to tell the gods-honest truth – but in a way that won’t be believed. If three people have told you something and a fourth tells you something different, the temptation is to believe the three, for example. But if those three are all getting their information from the same place, the weight of numbers suddenly vanishes. There are certain people who I wouldn’t believe if they told me the sky was blue – not without independent spectrographic analysis. At best, I will take what they say at face value, subject to later confirmation.


Has anything been left out because it didn’t seem important? Dismissing exceptions to expected results of testing is a natural thing to do, but it makes the basic assumption that the exceptions are the results of error and do not invalidate the results. This is one of the most subtle and pernicious forms of confirmation bias – you expect to see certain results, so you discard every result that doesn’t match that expectation.

Another source of omission can be ‘common knowledge’ – not including some key fact or assumption simply because everyone knows it. That results in presenting a fact, and then presenting an interpretation as the logical consequence when the information provided is insufficient to support that interpretation. At the time, these unspoken assumptions may have been so widespread in their belief that the conclusion did indeed follow logically – but if the conclusion is later found to be invalid, or to have exceptions, or is simply forgotten, it leaves the conclusion on shaky ground.


That leads directly into inaccuracies by error. People make mistakes all the time, and sometimes those errors are preserved as part of the record. Errors of logic, errors of assumption, errors of source, errors of authority, they can all abound.


Exaggeration. Hyperbole. Bias. Prejudice. These can all cause people to interpret or misrepresent facts, or even ignore them, because they don’t fit the picture of the world held by the person doing the reporting. These are the flaws that lead to other sources of error not being detected.

It’s usually much harder for specifics to be subject to distortion, while sweeping statements and generalizations are more subject to this problem.

There are any number of people who I consider sincere in their beliefs while regarding those beliefs as flawed, unfounded, or wildly inaccurate. My level of trust in these people is directly proportional to the extent to which they permit pragmatism to overrule their beliefs, their willingness to compromise and reevaluate.

The same should be true of information sources in an RPG. Sincerity is no measure of accuracy.


All the preceding types of inaccuracy have one thing in common: they can be ‘honest inaccuracies’, reported as truth by people who believe what they are saying, no matter how absurd others might find it. But for every one of them, there is a darker variety – the deliberate falsehood or deception.

Sometimes there are good reasons for such to enter the official record. Deceiving an enemy in war, for example. Protecting sources of intelligence. National security or prosperity.

Most of the time, there are less obviously-valid reasons. Some of these remain understandable, even pitiable – defending a family member’s reputation, for example, or denying taint by association.

But the majority are pure self-interest, calculated or instinctive attempts to satisfy a priority need of the source – one that outweighs probity and honesty in their ranking of needs – or simply because an individual has adopted a pattern of deception.


This ranking of inaccuracy sources has one uncomfortably-gray area: self-deception. This is when an individual perpetuates a falsehood because they have convinced themselves that it is true, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Self-deception straddles the areas of Distortion and Falsehood, presenting a type of falsity which is nevertheless an “honest inaccuracy”.

Application Of Theory

Every source of information that is presented to a PC will suffer from one or more of the above, usually in different areas or subjects. Unless you start by understanding the source, it is very difficult to reconcile any random assemblage of types of inaccuracy as applied to an individual with a coherent world-view; it is usually far easier to determine a coherent world-view and use it as a guide to the types of inaccuracies that their information will contain.

Such world-views are most simply expressed as a core belief or priority or value and a sequential series of sub-beliefs, priorities, and values (for the sake of brevity, let’s call these principles when the terms are used collectively in this way) that assume dominance unless contradicted by one of higher rank. Asimov’s three laws of robotics work in exactly the same way.

Characters are often at their most interesting when contradictions emerge that force the reappraisal of a higher-ranked principle, or when a high-ranked principle forces a character to act in a way that we would consider abnormal. It’s not even necessary to identify “normal”; we can all recognize something that falls outside that pattern. Such conflicts are inherently dramatic in nature.

By identifying the principles that drive the source who is providing and infodump, either in written or dialogue form, you can quickly identify any content in the infodump that would be rendered in an inaccurate manner as a result. At least, you can after you determine one additional answer, an extremely critical one – but one that can’t be answered until you have profiled the character’s principles.

Does the source have any reason to deceive the intended recipient of the information?

Every communication is aimed at someone. If you are writing a book, your information is aimed at the generalized population of your readers. The same applies to a blog like Campaign Mastery. In any other form of mass communication, the target is some identified subpopulation of the total audience – whether that’s making a speech, giving a televised or published interview, or communicating through social media. If you are writing a letter, the content is aimed at a named recipient unless you have good reason to believe that someone else will become privy to the content, muddying the waters. If speaking privately one-on-one or to a specific group of people, they are the intended recipients. Some official reports are aimed at the general public, others at the immediate superior.

The relationship between the source and the intended recipient is always the primary source of distortion within the content, or lack thereof.

An example: Lord Vuillan in the Zenith-3 campaign

In the Zenith-3 campaign, the PCs are currently engaged in an encounter between three NPCs: Lord Vuillan, Vuillan’s companion – a giant lynx-like creature named Laissan – and another person named Skazgrath Dragonfang. Vuillan and Laissan are capable of merging to form a giant humanoid of immense power. When the PCs first encountered them, they were in that form, and it was in the midst of an emergency; they immediately got the PCs on-side by rescuing some children endangered by that emergency.

They then separated and Lord Vuillan introduced himself. The opening paragraph of that introduction established the principles by which the PCs could assess his story:

“My name is Lord Vuillan. I come from a very distant place in a realm very different to that which I see around me. In my home, Magic is sentient, alive, and aware. Some is positive, an ally, aide, and friend. Some is dark, dominating,and evil. Each strives to overcome the other. Both manifest in various forms of inherently magical creatures, like Laissan, here.” The lynx nods his or her head in greetings, then gently nuzzles the man, who turns his head to look into it’s eyes for a moment. “Yes, I agree,” he says to it, before turning back to St Barbara (The PC on point, and team leader). “Much of what I am about to tell you should not be divulged, it is not my place to do so, but Laissan recognizes you as the Noble Defenders of this realm, and that earns you the right.”

So the intended recipients of his communication are the PCs, and is calculated to either get them onside or prevent their interfering in whatever he’s doing. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue; but that is a clear potential distortion, a context into which everything else that he announced must be placed.

“Lately, something has changed in my homelands. Some white spirits have become subtle, sly, and corrupt, while some dark forces have begun to find common cause with their former enemies. Why this has occurred is unknown to us. We have come to refer to those white spirits who have secretly turned to the dark as Fallen, while those former dark spirits who have turned to the light are the Redeemed.

“One of the Fallen corrupted a human advisor to the throne. Skazgrath Dragonfang, once one of the most trustworthy and honorable in the lands, who was seized, little by little, with an insatiable craving for the thrill of exerting power over others. Dragonfang eventually committed an unforgivable act of Treason, handing over the infant son of King Althea to be raised by Dark Spirits.

“Of course, the child’s disappearance was discovered.almost immediately, and a search commenced, but no trace could be found. Clearly, the abduction had been performed by magical means, and since the Royal Palace was warded against Dark Spirits it could only have been by one of the Fallen and his human companion. Accordingly, King Althea reached out to his allies amongst the Redeemed, who eventually learned much of the story and relayed it back to the Throne.

“In the meantime, I was assigned the task of hunting down whoever was responsible, a task which Laissan was more than willing to join me in pursuing.

“Not suspecting the culprit to be one of his trusted advisors, the King shared his intelligence with them and sought their counsel. It was Dragonfang who pointed out that the child had now been missing for so long that he would now be irredeemably besmirched of spirit by the encounter, and so must be considered dead in terms of the succession. ‘A Lord’s first duty is to those he rules,’ he reminded King Althea, ‘and he cannot forsake that responsibility in order to indulge in emotions as would any other man.’ Though the King acknowledged the truth in this counsel, his heart was rent by the desperate need to rescue his only child and the pain caused by the mere suggestion that he would have to abandon him to his fate. His spirit crumbled into ruin with every passing hour; he seemed to age three decades overnight. Unable to face this terrible need for the moment, he dismissed his advisors and retired to the arms of his equally-devastated wife, Queen Martrude. Immediately the rumors began to spread that he was no longer fit to rule, having been overcome by grief.

“While most of those present also struggled to reconcile the hard truth laid bare by Dragonfang, and the Royal Family was overcome by grief anew, the traitor fled, knowing that it was only a matter of time before his true role in this tragedy stood revealed by the Redeemed. So desperate was he that he that he abandoned our realm altogether and went into hiding here, foregoing the casual use of magic – for Laissan was empowered to sense it whenever he cast a spell, and could find no trace of him – that is, until his gate spell went so badly awry, leading us here just in time to rescue the innocents he placed into danger.

“Understand this: Dragonfang and his companion spirit – whomever that may be – are incredibly dangerous foes. This world is endangered by his presence here, for he cannot resist the urges that led him to this pass. He is also the most wanted villain in our history, an advisor who betrayed his trust and his throne and made a civil war all but inevitable, a generation hence. He must be captured, alive, and returned to my realm to face judgment and stern questioning if the child is to be rescued before all hope of undoing the harm he has wrought is extinguished. We will do whatever is needful to achieve this goal. we would rather we do so with your consent and aid, but will go through you if we must. What say you?” he asks as he and Laissan re-merge..

Now, the PC being addressed was also attempting to rescue the children, so Laissan could surmise that ‘protective of children’ is a trait of the intended audience of his statement. Everything he said could be truth, or it could be a complete fiction based on this observed trait. The last paragraph spells out what he wants the PCs to do. Or the truth might be there, but shaded slightly to appeal to his ‘target audience’.

As it happens, much of the circumstances and inclinations of the group also accord with his story, so the PCs have accepted it at face value. But they have only Vuillan’s word as to the cause of the emergency; it could all be a deception to engage the PCs as allies in his take-down of Dragonfang. Have they bought a bill of goods, or is there substance to his claims? Time will tell. But there are some hints that the truth may be more complicated – Dragonfang’s advice to the King is something that Vuillan clearly agrees with, even though it was delivered when Dragonfang was supposedly deeply corrupted.

It’s entirely consistent with the known and experienced facts for Vuillan and his too-cute-for-words companion to be the “bad guys” of the situation, responsible for the kidnapping of the Prince, forcing Dragonfang to flee in desperation before he was stitched up for a crime he didn’t commit, and enlisting the PCs as unwitting cats-paws. The rescue of the children could be a hint that he is not completely dark-spirited, or it could be a coldly, callously, calculated maneuver to win the assistance of the PCs.

The PCs have made their choice. We’ll see, next game session, how it pans out for them – and whether or not its too late to change their minds if they have to do so!

Written Obscura

If there’s something that you want the players to be able to refer to in the future, one option is to provide a handout. There are three alternatives worth contemplating in terms of layout.

Where the information is essentially factual, a straightforward layout is most efficient.


Where the information may be unreliable or incomplete in whole or in part, consider a two-page layout like that shown to the left, in which empty panels are placed opposite each block of text so that players can write ‘corrective notes’ as the truth comes out, then compare the two, placing their ‘revised versions’ of each passage in context with its neighbors. Variations use two columns, one with text and one with empty space, or large empty areas underneath each block of text.

The major drawback of this approach is that it makes it obvious that space is being provided for something in the document. One way around that is to provide a copy of the document in an editable form to a player who brings his laptop to the gaming table, and let him change it as new facts are uncovered.

But – and this is a new trick that I’ve just thought of – you can simulate the effect by producing two copies of a document: one complete for the GM to use, and one with selected words obscured or removed completely that alter or remove the meaning of the passage of text. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives work best, but the occasional critical pronoun can also pay big dividends. There’s a big difference between “He”, “I”, “They”, “We” and “You”!

If you’re feeling particularly nasty, you might provide in-text alternatives for the players to cross out as they are proven incorrect – ones that completely transform the text: “In the era of the great worm/blight/mushroom, when the trident/stalk/shadow of time/place/home did wander freely upon the farm/court/place was the enemy of passion/revenge/security imprisoned in the eternal bonds of nightmare. Woe unto us/them/you when he is released!”

What can you really get out of the above? “Sometime before I write this down, something wandered around, and someone was locked up ‘in the eternal bonds of nightmare’, who will cause trouble for SOMEONE when is released.” The minimum truth, and only real clue: ‘the eternal bonds of nightmare’.

Summing Up

There are four sources of information to the players in an RPG.

Ex-cathedra Narrative accurately describes what the PCs see, experience, remember, decided, or how they have interpreted those things. Flaws are based on the limitations of their senses and/or any errors in their logic and/or active deceptions being perpetrated against them.

Written text & other records are written by someone to be read by someone else, and reflect the relationship between those entities and the principles and flaws of the source. The information may contain a grain of truth, or may be misinformation that can be exposed by the PCs – if they say the right thing to the right person, ask the right question, compare with an alternative source, or find out the hard way. Its reliability can be anything from 0 to 100%. There are various practical methods of obscuring meaning that may be of value.

Verbal information overheard is essentially the same as written text, though the PCs may or may not be amongst the intended recipients.

Verbal information directed at the PCs is also essentially the same as written text, but the specific relationship between the source and the PCs is the dominant factor.

Handling infodumps can be one of the trickiest things to get right. Just about the worst approach is for the GM to drone on and on about something. The more interactive you can make your presentation, the better. But be prepared to implement the required levels of obfuscation, distortion, error and outright falsehood. Your players may hate you for it – but will be grateful in the long run.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 13th Shelf


The Thirteenth Shelf: Odds & Sods I – GMing, Tools, and Fiction – Introduction by Mike

Being the GM can be isolating at the Game table, especially when a problem strikes. It’s usually too late when you’re in the hot seat to do much research into solutions (unless the problem is so grave that you end the game session early). Sure, if it’s only going to take a couple of seconds, go for it; but most of the time you can’t know that for certain.

One of the most effective ways of combating that problem is to have built up a stockpile of answers and advice and experiences in advance, letting them lie fallow in your subconscious / memory until the conditions are right for them to spring to mind. And that’s where the books on this shelf, and the next, come in. Not to mention Campaign Mastery (and like sites) in general.

It’s frequently too much to ask of yourself that you remember every piece of advice that you’ve ever heard or read, let alone the factoids and contextual information that you’ve soaked up through reading. It can be argued that knowing where to obtain a fact or procedure is more important and useful than having that fact or procedure memorized. Even having some idea is better than none.

There some tools and techniques that can help place the information you need at your fingertips, and I’ll do an article on the subject sometime soon – not that my recall is all that good!

But in the meantime, the best thing you can do is read, and to read a variety of books on a variety of subjects. The more isolated a fact is, the more likely it is to be forgotten. Reading a book on Greek architecture lays groundwork for the next book you read (at least for a while); if there are any connections, they will link up. An article on Orcish temple practices, perhaps, which also reminds you of a brawl in a house of parliament somewhere in the world, and before you know it, you’re associating church administrative practices with styles of government without even realizing that “Greek Temples” has established the connection.

The more you read about GMing, the more you stockpile other people’s experience and expertise in your own head, even as you open that mental landscape up for new readings and experiences to slot into surprising and unpredictable connections that help you remember the important things.

Relevance to other genres

To a certain extent, genre is irrelevant to the craft of GMing. Characters are still characters, adventure is still adventure, narrative is still composed of words describing locations, people, and events. The principles of what makes an interesting character don’t change, either.

Yes, there are nuances that can profoundly impact on these things differently from one genre to another, but the heart of the process remains unchanged.

A large percentage of references that can assist the pulp GM will also be useful to others. The degree of overlap will vary with the type of resource, but there can be surprising moments of serendipity even in references that are not obviously or directly applicable. A lot of sci-fi can be applied to magic systems, for example.

many books on many shelves

Photo by / carlo lazzeri

Shelf Introduction

This shelf is divided into four major sections, the first of which has been subdivided into four subsections. Because there’s nothing on the list that doesn’t fit into one of those subsections, they have been treated as though they were sections in their own right everywhere but in this introduction and in the master taxonomy.

The observant and astute (with memories like elephants) may have noticed that the taxonomy of the next two shelves has been rearranged (don’t bother checking the front desk, that’s been updated to the new structure). While part of the reason was to balance a number of additional books on treasure to be included on the next shelf, an equally great consideration was the time-limited item which leads off the Steampunk section.

1. Fiction & Books about Fiction – In an ideal world, every idea would be completely original, every time, except where it deliberately wasn’t. In the real world, inspiration can be required. We’re listing fiction (an extremely select and limited selection) and books about fiction in four categories.

1.1 Steampunk – There is more than a little crossover between Pulp, Steampunk, and Scifi – and ample content-oriented justification for inclusion of selected works from the genre on this list. Steampunk is slightly-sci-fi-oriented-pulp-adventuring-set-in-an-earlier-era, or at least, it can be considered that.

1.2 Pulp Fiction – If we simply listed pulp fiction, there would be many hundreds of entries in this subsection. If we attempted to cull the list, we would be sure to cut someone’s favorite, or praise something they hated, or lambaste something they liked. We’ve kept this list manageable by not doing anything of the sort. But there are still a few resource that can’t be ignored.

1.3 Alternative History – Mike has mentioned in a number of articles at Campaign Mastery that one of the keys to keeping the entrepreneurial spirit and sense of optimism that followed the First World War (people really did think that it was the War To End All Wars) in the Adventurer’s Club was to make the Great Depression shorter and milder than in real-world history. Blair and Mike knew that they couldn’t eliminate it altogether for two reasons: first, they wanted some of the ramifications to take place, and second, the depression was an inevitable outgrowth of the economic and financial policies of governments, investors, and banks in the 1920s. Monkey with things too much, and the results would have been unrecognizable. That immediately put the campaign in an Alternative History, one that has required careful shepherding by them ever since. They are perpetually finding social or economic consequences to either the Depression or to the New Deal, which loses a great deal of its imperative when the Depression is more minor. Fortunately, both Blair and Mike were well schooled in Alternative Histories. And, of course, with every adventure since, the drift away from the world we all know has continued, sometimes by a little, and sometimes by a lot.

1.4 Period Sci-Fi – Some pulp is undeniably early sci-fi in a 1920s-1930s setting, and some early sci-fi is undeniably pulp in orientation. Once again, it would have been very easy for this subsection to overwhelm the rest of the list. We have very deliberately been restrained in dealing with this sub-section as a result. Because it is likely to have less direct relevance, we have deliberately included very little space opera.

2. General Books & Tools – Some resources are useful regardless of genre. There was always going to be a section dedicated to those resources. We could have vastly increased the size of the list if we had listed websites that we use for various things – timezone calculations, for example. There are a heap of these that we have accumulated over the years, mostly by identifying a need and searching for a site that satisfied it, sometimes by finding a site and realizing that it could satisfy a need that we had not yet encountered. At some future point (after this series finishes), Mike will put together an article specifically on those internet resources. But, in the meantime, here are resources that come in printed form.

3. Names – Mike has written a major series of articles on choosing the right name, the benefits that result, and the approach that he uses, and has taught to Blair. In a nutshell, he contends that getting the name right not only does half the character generation for you, it does half the work of delivering characterization of NPCs to the players. That is, perhaps, a slight exaggeration, but in principle, and as a writer, Saxon has to concur. These are some of the books that they refer to in order to select those names.

4 Writing – And, speaking of writing, it too is a major threat of articles here at Campaign Mastery. There have been not just one but several series of articles dedicated to the subject. Ultimately, the act of GMing is a task of creation and communication; the first is in common with writing for other purposes, and the second is the entire purpose of writing. Books about the art of writing are an easy fit for the GMing part of the list.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation. But in some cases, that was more than eight months ago.


Fiction & Books about Fiction

Steampunk Kickstarter Campaigns


Spacer Boston Metaphysical Society

1185. Boston Metaphysical Society Trade Paperback – Madeleine Holly-Rosing (writer/creator), Emily Hu (artist), Gloria Caeli and Fahriza Kamaputra (colorists), and Troy Peteri and Shawn Aldridge (letterers), cover by Emily Hu and Gloria Caeli

The Boston Metaphysical Society Trade Paperback collects the six issues comic series and adds a new ten-page story, “Hunter-Killer” which features an Airship Battle. The overall narrative is about “an ex-Pinkerton detective, a spirit photographer, and a genius scientist who battle supernatural forces in late 1800’s Boston. The comic also includes such notable historical figures as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Harry Houdini as part of the story line.”

Now, even if that collective bunch didn’t sound like a bunch of Pulp PCs (it does), those notable historical figures were definitely around during the pulp era. But even beyond such relevance to the pulp genre, the entire comic sounds like a case study in how to adapt existing history to suit a campaign, and especially a pulp campaign.

The comic has been consistently nominated for awards since the project started in 2013.

Right now, it’s in Kickstarter (ends March 3, 2017): (In the interests of full disclosure, we have to add that both Blair and Mike are backers, and Saxon may be considering it).

If the Kickstarter Fundraising has concluded (and these posts will be around for a lot longer than the campaign!) then head to the The Boston Metaphysical Society website to inquire about availability and prices But it’s fair to say that it will never get cheaper than it is right now.

One of the backer levels also gets you an anthology of short stories and novellas that includes background for some of the characters.

But on top of that, there is stretch goal number two, which has only just been achieved (as these words are being written) which includes a PDF comic bundle, and we want to especially call attention to those.

The Ballad Of Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete

Stretch Goals

First up, The Ballad Of Sally Sprocket and Piston Pete (Pictured, Story and Art by Alejandro Lee) – this may be a steampunk western strip but it reads like a pulp adventure cast backwards in time. A “last-of-his-kind robot getting by in life in the Wild West as a tinkerer. Things take a turn when he saves a mysterious little girl from death, and she is remade into a cyborg whom he adopts and names Sally Sprocket. Follow this unlikely duo’s adventures as they battle electromagnetic mad scientists, steam-powered prospectors and more!”

The Legend of Everett Forge is another steampunk western set in an alternate 1889 where machines control the American West. This one is slightly less pulp-applicable but if Dr Tesla is around somewhere to open a portal into another dimension for the PCs to explore, who knows?

Bayani and the Old Ghosts has, as its protagonist, an 11-year-old island boy who tries desperately to care for his sick father and feed his small family – but the sun has been shining for a month and night refuses to fall, the land is growing parched and fish are moving farther and farther from shore. Bayani and his friend Tala undertake a perilous quest to rescue the nine kidnapped daughters of Lady Moon and ultimately save their village at the instigation of the Rain God, Pati’. This is right out of the ‘noble savage’ sub-variety of pulp. How well it would adapt to a more “high-tech” group of PCs, I don’t know, but the potential is there.

Sepulchre is a fantasy adventure in which the two protagonists take on a crime family that has inflicted terrible harm on both of them. Nothing pulp about that, then, is there? Are you kidding – that plot outline could have come straight out of a pulp magazine!

As of right now, we don’t know what the next stretch goal will be, but M Holly-Rosing has been dropping hints that it’s going to be mega. But it’s hard to see how this deal could get much better for a Pulp GM. Check out the Kickstarter, because by the time you read this, the new stretch goal should have been announced.

Those links again:

Books About Steampunk


The Steampunk Bible

1186. The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature – Jeff VanderMeer and SJ Chambers

“The Steampunk Bible is the first compendium about the [Steampunk] movement, tracing its roots in the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells through its most recent expression in movies such as Sherlock Holmes. Its adherents celebrate the inventor as an artist and hero, re-envisioning and crafting retro technologies including antiquated airships and robots.” 152 customer reviews give this book 4.4 out of 5.

Hardcover, 224 pages, 53 used copies from $7.56, 41 new from $13.51.

The Steampunk User's Manual

1187. The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Illustrated Practical and Whimsical Guide to Creating Retro-futurist Dreams – Jeff VanderMeer and Desirina Boskovich

“…offers practical and inspirational guidance for readers to find their individual path into this realm. Including sections on art, fashion, architecture, crafts, music, performance, and storytelling, The Steampunk User’s Manual provides a conceptual how-to guide that motivates and awes both the armchair enthusiast and the committed creator. Examples range from the utterly doable to the completely over-the-top.” By the same author as The Steampunk Bible (above).

Kindle ($15.18) or 256-page Hardcover (23 used from $9.43, 41 new from $12.76).

Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos

1188. Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos: A Maker’s Guide to Creating Modern Artifacts – Thomas Willeford

In the same vein as the previous book, this is “filled with do-it-yourself projects, Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos: A Maker’s Guide to Creating Modern Artifacts shows you how to build exquisite, ingenious contraptions on a budget.”

Kindle ($11.51) or 240-page Paperback (34 new from $13.98, 29 used from $10.67, 1 collectible at $31).

The Steampunk Adventurer's Guide

1189. The Steampunk Adventurer’s Guide: Contraptions, Creations, and Curiosities Anyone Can Make – Thomas Willeford

Another book on the same subject by the author of the previous listing – this is not our primary field of expertise (though it is tangential to it), and so we’re hedging our bets by listing several works that look equally promising.

Kindle ($11.80) or 240-page paperback (33 used from $3 and 41 new from $5.07).

1,000 Steampunk Creations

1190. 1,000 Steampunk Creations: Neo-Victorian Fashion, Gear, and Art (1000 Series) – Dr Grymm

“Packed with 1,000 full-color photographs, 1,000 Steampunk Creations features a stunning and mind-boggling showcase of modified technology, art and sculpture, home décor, fashion and haberdashery, jewelry and accessories, and curious weapons, vehicles, and contraptions.”

320 pages. Paperback (21 used from $14 and 16 new from $31.77) or Flexibound (18 used from $8.98 and 9 new from $16.64).

Books About Pulp Fiction


The Blood'n'Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction

1191. The Blood ‘n’ Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction – Ed Hulse

Lavishly illustrated but with depth of narrative to go with the pretty pictures, this is the most promising work on the subject that we can recommend. Outside our normal price limits, but beggars can’t be choosers – and these are at least affordable (barely).

The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines

1192. The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines – Peter Haining

Haining’s books have a reputation for being long on images and short on text. This book sounds no different, but there’s a shortage of quality affordable works on the subject and Haining is better than nothing. The cheapest copies are currently available at this link but if they run out (or go above $30) there are more at this link:

NB: Library listings and Amazon leave the “s” off the end of “Magazines” even though it is clearly visible on the cover.

Danger Is My Business

1193. Danger Is My Business: an illustrated history of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines – Lee Server

Although the book contents suggest that this is lavishly illustrated, reviews suggest that the 157 illustrations on 144 pages are chosen for their significance and not for their eye-candy value. Though Server admits that many of the estimated one million stories that appeared in the pulps were mediocre (and he gleefully quotes from examples of the worst), he argues that the pulps created “an innovative and lasting form of literature” whose descendant genres now dominate mass entertainment.

The Art of the Pulps

1194. The Art of the Pulps: An Illustrated History – edited by Douglas Ellis, Ed Hulse, and Robert Weinberg

This book breaks all sorts of rules for us, but it’s too relevant to deny. It’s twice our acceptable price range, but that’s because it’s brand new – or, at least, it will be on September 28, 2017, because that’s when it is being published. That’s still more than eight months from now!

Surprisingly, for a book so far removed from publication, there are extensive details of the contents available, and those details are enticing.

“Award-winning authors and collectors Douglas Ellis, Ed Hulse, and Bob Weinberg assemble a team of experts in each of the ten major Pulp genres, from action Pulps to spicy Pulps and more, to chart for the first time the complete history of Pulp magazines—the stories and their writers, the graphics and their artists, and, of course, the publishers, their market, and readers.
    “Each chapter in the book … is organized in a clear and accessible way, starting with a 1500-word overview of the genre, followed by a selection of the best covers and interior graphics, organized chronologically through the chapter.” There are “more than 400 examples of the best pulp graphics …
    “All images are fully captioned (many are in essence “nutshell” histories in themselves). Two special features in each chapter focus on topics of particular interest” (the two examples cited aren’t especially pulp-relevant but are both topics that rarely get much attention).
    “There are two additional chapters focusing on the great Pulp writers and artists.”

All of which sounds excellent. In fact, our only reservation (despite the price) is the page count – 240 pages seems rather short to pack all those graphics into, never mind the chapter text and special features. Of course, the page size (which we haven’t been told) might ameliorate this situation; all we can say at the moment is that the pages are square in proportions. If the pages are 5 or 6 inches to the side, our concerns would be vastly increased, if 9 or 10 inches, they would be greatly relieved.

240 pages, hardcover, $39.99, released September 26, 2017.

Books About Alternative History


The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories

1195. The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories – edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates

This collection of short stories and novellas includes some that were commissioned exclusively for the volume and a number of classics of the Alternate History subgenre. Since virtually every Pulp Campaign will take place in an alternate-history world, there can be any number of useful ideas and tidbits to be extracted.

Kindle ($6.91) or Paperback, 512 pages (19 used from $2.87, 11 new from $8.31).

What Might Have Been

1196. What Might Have Been: Imaginary History From Twelve Leading Historians – edited by Andrew Roberts

“Award-winning historian Andrew Roberts has assembled a team of his prominent colleagues to consider what might have happened if major world events had gone differently… George W. Bush’s former White House adviser, David Frum, considers a President Gore response to 9/11, while Conrad Black wonders how the U.S. might have entered World War II if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor. Whether it’s Stalin fleeing Moscow in 1941, as envisioned by Simon Sebag Montefiore, or Napoleon not being forced to retreat from it in 1812, as pictured by Adam Zamoyski, these essays posit a fascinating, sometimes horrifying parallel universe.”

The writers are experts in their individual fields of knowledge, but some people found that this did not necessarily qualify them to tell a good story (or even to tell a bad story well), and some seem to assume that the reader knows almost as much as they do. There was also criticism than none of the alternate histories leads specifically to the cover image of the Nazis planting a flag on the moon, though there are a couple that could lead to that outcome.

Kindle ($13.82) or 224-page Hardcover (23 used from $0.41, 7 new from $25.93).

Paperback (38 used from 1 cent, 19 new from $6.04).

If The Allies Had Fallen

1197. If The Allies Had Fallen: Sixty Alternative Scenarios of World War II – Dennis E Showalter and Harold C Deutsch

“From the Munich crisis to the dropping of the first atom bomb, and from Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States to the D-Day landings—historians suggest “what would have been” if key events in the war had gone differently.” This book was originally published under the title “What If? Strategic Alternatives of WWII”, which led to one customer being very unhappy. Written by experts, this is consequently a relatively dry and academic book to read according to some, suffering from the same problems as the one previously listed. What’s more, they clearly were disinclined to speculate too far beyond the central variation at hand, largely discounting the potential for one change to have domino effects on those not directly involved. On the other hand, the minutely-detailed expertise lends the stories a far higher quotient of plausibility, and makes it relatively easy to search for more information on any scenario that piques your interest.

The other failures of this book are two-fold, one excusable, and one less so. Firstly, we are still learning things about the War, for example about the economic plight of Germany shortly prior to and during the war years (the Germans were running up massive deficits and printing money like confetti, and destroying the ledgers immediately they were no longer needed to hide the true state of the economy, Stalin entered into the Pact Of Steel expecting Hitler to betray the alliance, buying time until he learned whether or not the Japanese were again going to invade Siberia as they had previously done; on learning that they had no such intentions, he was able to redirect the manpower and material from the East in time to counter the invasion when it finally came; without that intelligence, Leningrad might well have fallen before the Winter, and Moscow shortly afterwards). Much of this information came from KGB files only released after the end of the Cold War, and without it, the behavior of two of the principles – Hitler and Stalin – cannot be understood. That undermines the credibility of the entire book, but worse is to come; the second flaw is the assumption that, unless directly affected by the postulated change to history, events will follow the same course as those of history, completely ignoring the possibility that the cause of the divergence may have other repercussions.

Despite these flaws, as a foundation and starting point for your own what-if games, this is a useful book to have read and fully digested, and so we recommend it.

Kindle ($9.48), 304-page hardcover (20 used from $0.01, 10 new from $13)

Paperback (42 used from 1 cent, 33 new from $9.84)

Hitler Triumphant

1198. Hitler Triumphant: Alternative Histories of World War II – Peter G Tsouras

This is a book similar in concept to the preceding one, but the variations are based around analysis of battle strategy and key decisions by the Nazi leadership. Far more often than we often realize, history is shaped by a failure of the imagination (which was the ultimate cause cited for the Apollo I fire, many years later) or, in some cases, by an excess of it when applied to how we envisage events unfolding in consequence of our actions. Both effects were rampant throughout the war.

While this book still suffers from the problems of ignorance, and the assumptions, interpretations, and biases used to fill the resulting gaps in understanding, in every other way this avoids the pitfalls of the previous offering. It is quite readable and more willing to embrace the wider ramifications of the changes of circumstance that lead to the specific historical alteration under consideration. However, to accommodate that breadth, some sacrifice in breadth and variety of potential variation are sacrificed; the individual speculations may be more credible, but there are not as many of them within these pages.

The authors of each essay are military historians and experts in tactics, so the expertise and detail level remain high, but there is a greater appreciation of the principles of the old tale of “for want of a shoe”.

Paperback, 256 pages, 23 new from $10.84 and 25 used from $3.99.

The Collected What If

1199. The Collected What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been – edited by Robert Cowley

This omnibus collection brings together two books previously released as a series, “What If?”, “What If 2”, both with the same ’eminent historians’ subtitle. The first dealt entirely with military questions, while the second included non-military variations on history. Most emphasize the actual history and limit speculation to immediate and reasonable possibilities, which limits the scope of the book somewhat as there is limited consideration of the snowballing of implications. As such, these serve as foundation and inspiration only; actually using any of these as foundations for a campaign will still require research and effort by the GM.

At least one Amazon customer remarked that the book was too self-indulgent without really explaining the remark. The more serious critique provides substance to explain many of the less-informative low-scoring reviews, in the form of a non-committal attitude to the speculations being entertained: “It’s not written like ‘this is what would happen’…it’s more written as ‘this is what happened… but kind of could have been different, maybe if this happened… but it probably wouldn’t have happened… and anyway it didn’t’.” That reviewer also added, “Every story ends with a preachy ‘but history HAD to happen this way because it would have been worse…’ [statement.]” The suggestion is that in trying so hard to avoid writing historical fiction, the contributors – or perhaps the editor – have fallen into the trap of historical inevitability.

Nevertheless, since we aren’t overburdened by any such need to be felicitous to historical truth, this book can be extremely useful to the GM of several different genres of campaign.

Hardcover, 827 pages, 24 new from $7.83, 190 used from 1 cent, 5 collectible from $9.80.

The two volumes collected in this omnibus are also available individually, but there are so many cheap copies available of this omnibus that we haven’t bothered listing them here.

What Ifs of American History

1200. What Ifs? of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been – edited by Robert Cowley

A third volume in the series, reviews of the Omnibus listed above lead us to believe that the content are not included in that single-volume collection, but that might be incorrect information. We recommend the exercising of caution – if interested, buy the omnibus first and then verify for yourself that this is not incorporated into that work.

“In this new collection of never-before-published essays, our brightest historians speculate about some of America’s more intriguing crossroads. Some irresistible highlights include: Caleb Carr on America had there been no Revolution; Tom Wicker on the first time a vice president, John Tyler, succeeded a deceased president and its surprising ramifications; Jay Winik on the havoc that might have resulted if Booth had succeeded in his plan to assassinate Johnson and Seward as well as Lincoln; Antony Beevor on the possibility of Eisenhower’s capture of Berlin before the Soviets’ arrival there in 1945; and Robert Dallek on … what might have happened if JFK hadn’t been assassinated.”

One reviewer offers the opinion, “Where the majority of the essays fail is that they don’t provide details of how significantly American History would change due to those non-events happening & in the case of the essay on John Tyler say he had to be president. For fans of alternate history, this book is a bust simply due to the lack of attempts at re-writing history which is what made the previous 2 installments work.” However, because the contributors all have experience in writing for popular consumption, the readability level of this book is reportedly even higher than that of the previous volumes in the series.

Hardcover, 320 pages (20 new from $4.98, 91 used from 1 cent, 10 collectible from $4.45) or Paperback (32 new from $4.98, 93 used from 1 cent, 4 collectible from $7.50).

Books About Period Sci-Fi


Before The Golden Age

1201. Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s – edited by Isaac Asimov

Anyone who has ever read one of Asimov’s anthologies knows what to expect – to anyone else, you’re in for a treat. Not only does Asimov give an introduction to each story, these often contain his personal recollections of the period in question. And value for money is a given, which is why this (and its sibling volumes below) are our primary recommendations in this category.

Hardcover, 986 pages (that’s not a typo), 26 used from $13.98; paperback, 1 collectible at $18.00.

This book has also been split up into a trilogy of smaller books (Before The Golden Age, Books 1, 2, and 3). These are often in shorter supply than the omnibus hardcover listed, but can also become a cheaper alternative, even in aggregate – if the omnibus grows short in supply and high in price:

Book 1
Paperback: 23 used from $0.01, 8 new from $32.95, 4 collectible from $4.99
Mass Market Paperback: 4 used from $14.95, 1 new at $26.99, 1 collectible at $29.95

Book 2
Mass Market Paperback: 10 used from $3.49, 3 new from $38.94, 1 collectible at $29.95

Book 3
Hardcover: 26 used from $13.98
Mass Market Paperback: 5 used from $7.49
Mass Market Paperback (different cover): 17 used from $1.98

Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction

1202. Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction: 36 Stories and Novellas – edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg

Okay, here’s where it starts to get a little tricky. This is not the same anthology series discussed above. These stories were published in 1939 and 1940, the above dates prom earlier. but this is a compilation of two volumes of another series, “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories”, volumes 1 and 2 – copies of which you can also sometimes find available here and there, and which usually include one or more additional stories each that have been omitted from the omnibus. This is actually a reprint of a much earlier edition of this book; Mike was given a copy for Christmas in 1983, and it is one of his most treasured and possessions and sources of inspiration for everything from Fantasy to Pulp to Superheros to, yes, Sci-Fi.

Hardcover, 350 pages, 21 used from $4.25, 7 new from $31.98, 3 collectible from $14.

Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Second Series)

1203. Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Second Series): 28 Stories and Novellas – edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg

Sequel to the above, collecting the next two volumes of “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories”. 1941 and 1942.

Hardcover, 723 pages, 32 used from $0.43, 7 new from $20, 3 collectible from $20

Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Third Series)

1204. Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Third Series) – edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg

Sequel to the above, collecting the next two volumes of “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories”. 1943 (omitting The Iron Standard by Lewis Padgett) and 1944 (omitting Far Centaurus by A.E. van Vogt; Deadline from Clive Cartmill; Sanity from Fritz Leiber and Invariant from John R. Pierce). Unfortunately, this is the only entry for which specific information about exclusions has been made available.

Hardcover, 633 pages, 18 used from $4.29, 6 new from $24.99, 5 collectible from $9.83

Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Fourth Series)

1205. Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Fourth Series) – edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg

Sequel to the above, collecting the next two volumes of “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories”. Some omissions reported but not specified.

Hardcover, 632 pages, 51 used from $0.01, 6 new from $43.29, 7 collectible from $9.80

Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Fifth Series)

1206. Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Fifth Series) – edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg

Sequel to the above, collecting the next two volumes of “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories”. 1947 and 1948. Some omissions suspected. Contains 33 classic stories and novellas.

Hardcover, 641 pages, 37 used from $0.01, 10 new from $10.05, 3 collectible from $9.00

Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Sixth Series)

1207. Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction (Sixth Series) – edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg

Sequel to the above, collecting the next two volumes of “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories”. 1949 and 1950. Some omissions suspected. Contains 33 classic stories and novellas.

Hardcover, 624 pages, 23 used from $0.01, 9 new from $12.75, 2 collectible from $9.80

The History of Science Fiction

1208. The History of Science Fiction (Palgrave Histories of Literature) – Adam Roberts

What is Science Fiction? The heart of this scholarly history of the genre is the author’s contention that it can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece but was specifically founded in its modern form by the Reformation in the 17th Century. However, if you read the customer comments at Amazon, you will quickly learn that the book can be of immense value to the GM even if you don’t buy into that theory. One review seemed relevant in multiple ways: “This books is bad news, especially since it should have been such good news. Science fiction is in need of a good historical survey, but this isn’t it. The writing is choppy and labored. The author endlessly uses phrases close to “this x reflects science fiction’s central dialectic,” but in neither the preface nor the postscript does he do an adequate job of explaining this dialectic[1]. At times, the factors in contradiction within the dialectic seem to be as simple as the tension between technology and mysticism. At other times, Roberts has a more complex theory involving the interplay between Catholicism and Protestantism, which, believe me, don’t ask. The narrative aspect of the history is awkward and lacks flow. The only primary sources used in the text is the science fiction itself; the author has apparently visited no archives [2,3]. The bulk of the book is taken up by plot summaries.”

[1] Dialectic: (1) the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions; (2) inquiry into metaphysical contradictions and their solutions.

[2] The commenter appears to mean archives of past critical review and literary history.

[3] This claim is a little rich, as later in his review, he complains that the author has clearly based an argument on a number of past critical analyses, and in fact comes close to plagiarizing them, without identifying or crediting the source.

Bottom line on this book: its comprehensive and focuses on the published works themselves, wrapped in the superstructure of a definition of science fiction that may be too broad for some, but that at least ensures that the entire field is covered, however briefly.

524 pages, hardcover ($69+ for a new copy, used cost almost twice as much) or paperback (5 used from $25.13, 22 new from $21.61).

Trillion Year Spree

1209. Trillion Year Spree: The History Of Science Fiction – Brian W Aldiss and David Wingrove

In 1973, Aldiss wrote “Billion Year Spree” as a history of Science Fiction and embedding some controversial ideas into the text, such as the contention that the prototypical modern science fiction novel was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (I agree, others don’t) and that Hugo Gernsback did more harm to science fiction than good (I disagree as do most others I know). This 1986 work expands and updates the original without modifying those opinions one iota, adding six new chapters. In particular, once the work reaches the Gernsback era, objectivity and reference value appear to be discarded in a fit of obstinate pique that would have done Harlan Ellison (who is legendary for such displays) proud. Unfortunately, the commencement date of Gernsback’s professional association with the era is 1926, meaning that most of the content pertaining to the pulp era is tainted by what one commentator described as ‘petulant over-defensiveness and hypersensitivity’.

In our opinions, the Aldiss perspective is a reflection of the distinction between critical success and popular success, the same force that leaves many people shaking their heads at the end of each Oscars/Grammies Night wondering ‘what were they thinking?’ We think that both have their place and are equally valid, but that much critical review and praise is pretentious self-aggrandizing and social politics, attempting to shape opinion on broader issues than to simply provide a functional appraisal of the work in question. But that’s not especially relevant.

It’s also worth adding that this book won the 1987 Hugo Award for best non-fiction.

For reasons of the criticism of the treatment of the Gernsback era and resulting damage to the utility of the book as a reference, the Roberts book got the nod as a preferred reference recommendation despite the flaws reported, a choice confirmed by the availability standards we have set for this series. But we aren’t here to make up people’s minds for them; when superiority is not clear-cut, our preference is to present both choices, warts and all, and leave readers to make up their own minds, which is why we are granting an exception to those restrictions and listing this book.

Hardcover, 511 pages, 15 used from $5.14, new copies and paperback also available.

Sci-Fi Chronicles

1210. Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction – edited by Guy Haley

Promises “an arresting blend of incisive text, infographic timelines, and stunning photographs, each chronologically arranged entry features an entertaining overview written by a science fiction expert”. Specialist subjects such as the life-cycle of sci-fi creations (book to movie to TV series to books) get in-depth spotlighting, as do major franchises within the genre. The book is divided into 5 sections, of which the first two (1818-1940 and 1920-1950) are directly relevant to the pulp period. The book gets extra kudos for looking beyond the mainstream with entries focusing on everything from Russian Cult Classics to Australian Franchises. Covers movies, novels, video games, manga, graphic novels, and more. Every such book has a natural focus on three things: cover art, imaginative art in general, and media (TV/movies), simply because they provide the “visuals” to accompany a “visual history”.

Paperback, 576 pages, 21 used from $5.49, 30 new from $5.93) or Hardcover (10 used from $22.95, 16 new from $22.84).

The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

1211. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn

“Science fiction is at the intersection of numerous fields. It is literature which draws on popular culture, and engages in speculation about science, history, and all varieties of social relations. This volume brings together essays by scholars and practitioners of science fiction, which look at the genre from different angles. It examines science fiction from Thomas More to the present day; and introduces important critical approaches (including Marxism, postmodernism, feminism and queer theory).”

Robert Moore of Vine Voice has this to say about this book: “Anthologies are notoriously inconsistent. Most contain several essays considerably below the level of the best pieces and many contain a few utterly miserable ones. On the downside, no essay in this collection truly stands out; on the upside, there really isn’t a weak entry in the volume. I honestly cannot think of another collection of which I can make that statement.”

“The essays in the book are broken down into three separate sections. The first section deals with the history of Sci-fi, from precursor works to the magazine age to various decades after. The second and most academic section deals with various academic approaches to Sci-fi, including Marxist, feminist, postmodernist, and queer theory. The final and most wide-ranging section covers a variety of themes such as gender, race, hard science fiction, alternate history, space opera, film and TV, and religion.” (It’s also worth noting that though academia may recognize some of these divisions, many fans and authors do not, and oppose attempts to impose artificial restrictions and hierarchical categorization on the field, while others are militantly supportive of a particular subgenre).

Kindle (rent $10.52, buy $28.13), 323-page Paperback (34 new from $24.49, 21 used from $19.95), Hardcover (28 new and used from $96.17).

The Secret History of Science Fiction

1212. The Secret History of Science Fiction – edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

We were of two minds about including this book of relatively modern sci-fi until we read the description of the content that we are about to quote. As you do so, note the asterisks:

“Exploring an alternate history of science fiction, this ingenious anthology showcases eighteen brilliant authors leading the way to a new literature of the future. These award-winning stories defy trends, cross genres, and prove that great fiction cannot be categorized.
    “Two strangely detached astronauts orbit Earth while a third world war rages on. A primatologist’s lover suspects her of obsession with one of her simian charges*. The horrors of trench warfare dovetail with the theoretical workings of black holes*. A dissolving marriage and bitter custody dispute are overshadowed by the arrival of time travelers*. An astonishing invention that records the sense of touch is far too dangerous for Thomas Edison to reveal*.”

That’s five stories cited, four of which – marked by the asterisks – seem directly translatable into a pulp setting, and at least two of which a profoundly provocative to at least one of us.

Paperback, 380 pages, 38 used from $0.27, 28 new from $8.77.

Science Fiction Of The '30s

1213. Science Fiction of the ’30s – edited by Damon Knight with Jo Knight

There are lots of science-fiction references and autobiographies on individual authors of the period, the result of a resurgence of interest in the roots of the genre which took place in the 1970s. There are also innumerable science fiction anthologies. This book contains three essays by Knight on the subject, covering (respectively) the beginning, middle, and end of the period, and 18 stories, but it is not without its shortcomings. It’s noted and noticeable that Knight is not a fan of this period of the genre, resulting in some criticism of a lazy job of selecting the content, and there is virtually no information provided on the stories themselves, though some can be gleaned from elsewhere (Wikipedia is your friend).

Why does any of this matter? First, the writers are obviously going to be available as NPCs during the pulp era. Second, there is the general applicability of period sci-fi creations to pulp technology (rocket packs, etc). Third, the way these writers saw the future (or even variations on their contemporary era) can tell you quite a bit about how the perceived the times they lived in. And fourth, there can be useful ideas for genre-appropriate plots and adventures.

Hardcover (23 used from $0.79, 1 new from $77.04, 1 collectible from $9.92) or Mass Market Paperback (17 used from $0.47, 2 new from $75.09):

More copies: Hardcover (15 used from $3.49, 3 new from $27.99, 1 collectible at $14.50) or Paperback (2 used from $19.95, 1 new at a totally absurd price just shy of $2500):

Armageddon 2419 AD

1214. Armageddon 2419 AD & The Airlords of Han by Francis Nowlan (Sci-fi novel)

If you aren’t familiar with the title, here’s a name that you are more likely to know: Buck Rogers. Bears VERY little resemblance to the TV show of the late 20th century – and, for that matter, only passing resemblance at times to the character’s appearances in various comics and movie serials. As with a great deal of fiction from the era, there’s an undercurrent of xenophobia and racism, but – under the social and historical background of the novel’s setting – that’s not entirely a negative.

The novel itself takes the side of the American protagonists, and like many B-grade movies and stories, grants them superiority due to the purity of their hearts, empathy, and superior tactical abilities. Lest any Asian readers be upset at the stereotypes depicted, let us point out that – at least initially – they are shown as having advanced in technology farther and faster than the Americans, and being far superior in tactics and numbers – but in the process, there has been a dehumanization. This is a morality play about the blind pursuit of technology wrapped up in an underdog-vs-the-system heroic rebellion and war yarn. And the technology and style are very pulp.

NOT to be confused with the version published under the same name and author AFTER being rewritten (and drained of all charm) by Spider Robinson, even if the rewrite does often have the prettier covers. There are hints that copies are beginning to run out, but we also note at this page that a new edition is to be published any day now.

Paperback $10 Kindle $1.99


1215. Gladiator by Philip Wiley (Sci-fi novel)

Aside from the collections and anthologies listed earlier, there are only two novels that we all felt strongly enough about to list in spite of our general rule of thumb against fiction (plus, of course, the occasional ringer that Mike has snuck through when the others weren’t looking). This is the second of them.

“Gladiator” is one of a number of sources believed to have been instrumental in inspiring the creation of Superman, dating from eight years prior to that characters first appearance. Hugo Danner, the protagonist, is born with superhuman strength, speed, and intelligence thanks to genetic experiments by his father. Compelled to conceal his abilities from a suspicious and uncomprehending world, his attempts to find a place in society that will accept him for what he is lead to a series of occupations – boardwalk strongman, Foreign Legionnaire, politician, and archaeologist.

While it would be unusual for a pulp PC to be as ‘blessed’ as Danner, it would be entirely acceptable for a group of PCs to posses those abilities collectively, and much of the ‘outsider’ subtext is also appropriate to pulp heroes – or more modern superheros, for that matter. Lastly, of course, the publication date of the original and the fact that it had a contemporary setting at the time makes this a window into the pulp era for the vast majority of us who weren’t around to see it first-hand.
Paperback from $5.07 Kindle $0.99

Paperback (pictured) $3.95 Kindle $8.37


General Reference Books and Tools


The Universal Almanac 1997

1216. The Universal Almanac – John W. Wright, General Editor (Andrews & McMeel)

We have newer almanacs and Wikipedia but time and time again we turn to the 1996 version of this volume to find the information we’re looking for. Strikes a better balance between the US and the rest of the world for general reference than most Almanacs. There may not be enough cheap copies of the one we use, but there are for some other years:
1992 –
1994 –
1996 (the one we use) –
1997 (pictured) –

The People's Almanac

1217. The People’s Almanac – David Wallechinsky

Dirt cheap and very readable, covering subjects that most almanacs don’t even glance at in passing, such as “Footnote people in history”. However, it has been criticized for wild inaccuracies and a tendency to accept a good story over an honest one. Since the world in which we game is open to reinvention as necessary, as a pulp resource, that might actually make this a more valuable reference. There are two more editions, reportedly with the text completely rewritten each time – we have linked to the one with the most copies available. The second is entitled “The People’s Almanac 2” and the most recent is “The People’s Almanac 3”. Both are also available through Amazon.

The CIA World Factbook 2014

1218. The CIA World Factbook

On those few occasions when Wikipedia and both of the above-listed volumes let us down, the CIA World Factbook has our backs. This is the material the US Government compiles for their public servants, embassies, etc, to use for preliminary briefings on what they need to know about various countries. Of course, there have been many changes in the world since the 1930s, so liberal interpretation is sometimes required. One year, we gave copies of this plus a third almanac that we found cheap on Amazon to all our players for Christmas for their own use as reference material. It’s hard to come up with a better recommendation than that. Updated and republished annually, ironically, the older the volume, the more useful it is liable to be for pulp purposes by cutting out more subsequent history.
Kindle editions go back as far as 1990 but the earliest print edition with enough copies available cheap (second-hand) is the 2014 version (pictured). As you would expect, the newer the edition, the closer the price becomes to the Amazon price of about $13, so if the cheap 2014 copies run out, check the 2015, 2016, and (yes) 2017 editions.

Positive Trait Thesaurus

1219. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A writer’s guide to character attributes – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

This volume contains a number of positive traits that can help characters achieve their goals, each on a single page. Each entry describes reasons why that trait might realistically emerge, associated attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. There are also character examples from literature, film, and television, advice on using them to hook readers while avoiding common personality pitfalls (useful for the GM in creating plots that enable the PCs to shine), insights on human needs and morality, and guidance on how the traits can be used to overcome character flaws. Last year for Christmas, we gave our players copies of this and one of the two related volumes that follow – again, the highest recommendation we can offer.

Negative Trait Thesaurus

1220. The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A writer’s guide to character flaws – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

if you’ve read the preceding entry, you know exactly what to expect from this volume, which is arguably as useful to the GM as it is to a player.

Emotion Thesaurus

1221. The Emotion Thesaurus: A writer’s guide to character expression – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

Presented in a similar format to the above-list books by the same authors, this volume assigns a page or more each to 75 emotions and lists body language, thoughts, and visceral responses for each. The goal is to convey the emotional state of a character as effectively and stylishly as possible as quickly and effortlessly as possible. We don’t know any GM who hasn’t struggled with that from time to time, or who doesn’t think they can improve in that respect. Nevertheless, we only bought this volume after being impressed by the two preceding ones. It didn’t let us down.

Urban Setting Thesaurus

1222. The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A writer’s guide to city spaces – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

A new entry in the series from the same authors, we have copies on the way but have no hesitation in recommending this one, sight unseen. A list of the sights, smells, tastes, textures and sounds for 120 types of urban location is just the start and more than enough justification for inclusion in this list.

Rural Setting Thesaurus

1223. The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A writer’s guide to personal and natural spaces – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

Discovered at the same time that the “Urban Setting” volume came to our attention, at first glance this might seem less useful to the Pulp GM than that is expected to be. That was our initial impression, too – but then Mike reviewed how many past adventures from the Adventurer’s Club campaign had some sort of wilderness or natural setting element – 21 out of 28 adventures (including some that haven’t yet been run). Minimum. But this volume also deals with locations in school and home settings, and that easily elevates the relevance even beyond this score, which more or less speaks for itself. I think we were misled initially by the term “Rural” in the title – learn from our mistake and put this on your shopping list.

Master Lists for Writers

1224. Master Lists For Writers – Bryn Donovan

Polish your narrative passages, plots, dialogue, and characters using this excellent resource which contains, according to Amazon: • lists of phrases for describing facial expressions, body language, gestures, physical appearance, and emotions • 175 master plot ideas, including romance, high-stakes, family, and workplace stories • lists of words for writing action scenes and love scenes • inspiration for figuring out character traits and quirks, backstories, occupations, motivations, and goals • lists for describing settings and writing dialogue • lists of good character names for contemporary stories…plus medieval England, Regency England, Wild West, and WWII settings • and more!” The physical book is available (unknown quantities), and there are also Kindle editions available from each of the amazon sites we checked.

How to Draw Fantasy art and maps for rpgs

1225. How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps: Step by Step Cartography for Gamers and Fans – Jared Blando

This book isn’t one that any of the authors have read, but it gets 4.5 stars on Amazon and a similar rating across a number of RPG sites & Reviews. That tells us that it’s worth listing here. Second-hand copies start at about US$9.00, which is only fractionally cheaper than the Kindle edition – which in turn is only a whisker cheaper than the price of a new copy.


1226. Mapping – David Greenhood

This isn’t explicitly for RPGs, but it holds a similar rating to the book listed above. While there’s nothing about fantasy art (so far as we can tell), this instead includes information on how to get the most out of existing maps. In fact, that seems to be about half the book – and that makes it worth including as an additional reference.

Public Speaking For Dummies

1227. Public Speaking For Dummies – Malcolm Kushner

This book has two-fold relevance. First, a lot of what the GM has to do is somewhere in between a private conversation amongst friends and public speaking, so under the logic detailed under “Creative Writing For Dummies” (elsewhere on this shelf), this is worth listing. Secondly, many NPCs will give speeches in the course of a GMs campaigns, and knowing how to give that verbal narrative the extra “oomph” of a ‘good’ public speaker can only help (if there was a “Speech Writing For Dummies” we might have listed that instead – but there isn’t). If you’re lucky, you may be able to get a copy of this for as little as 1 cent.

Voice & Speaking Skills For Dummies

1228. Voice & Speaking Skills For Dummies – Judy Apps

Another offering not listed on the official “For Dummies” site (that we could see), discovered in the course of gathering links. The relevance should be obvious after the above. Copies start at $5.95.

Voice Acting For Dummies

1229. Voice Acting For Dummies – David and Stephanie Ciccarelli

Some people are naturally gifted at this. Some people aren’t. Even if all you get out of this book is a tip or two on making two NPC voices, engaged in a conversation, distinctive, this is worthwhile putting on your shopping list. There are lots of separate listings for this book but most of them are ridiculously overpriced – one enthusiast is even trying to get $195 for his copy. Prices on the page we’ve linked to start at a far more modest $10.50.

For-Dummies Books of General Use

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.

Cognitive Psychology For Dummies

1230. Cognitive Psychology For Dummies – Dr Peter J Hills PhD and Dr J Michael Pake

The science of how people understand and think about things. Players are people. So, in a manner of speaking, are characters. While a more technical book on the subject would be too much for a GM’s needs, this book should provide the perfect foundation. There are reports of historical inaccuracies but for our purposes it seems fine. Mike lobbied hard for the elevation of this book into the main list but his coauthors were unmoved.

From $12.20.

Critical Thinking Skills For Dummies

1231. Critical Thinking Skills For Dummies – Martin Cohen

This book didn’t actually appear on the publisher’s supposedly complete list and was discovered while gathering links for the others listed. Would you like to be able to think faster and more clearly, be better able to identify what’s important and what’s not, identify assumptions and assess conclusions and in general think more independently? That’s what this book aims to teach you to do. Reviews show that this book is not suited for dip-in reading but is completely worth the effort of reading cover-to-cover. From $5

Drawing For Dummies

1232. Drawing For Dummies – Brenda Hoddinott and Jamie Combs

The ability to sketch an illustration, diagram, or map on the spot is invaluable. Even if no GM really likes relying on his ability to do so, again, any help is worth considering if you can’t already do this – so much so that we almost elevated this into the main list, being held back only by doubts as to the direct utility of the content when applied to RPGs.

The latest edition starts at $2.44 but there are copies of the older edition (pictured) available for as little as 1 cent

Dungeon Master For Dummies

1233. Dungeon Master For Dummies

The following comments refer to the 2006 edition: This was possibly the most disappointing For Dummies book that Mike have ever read. He was hoping for something on the order of “Through Dungeons Deep”, with tips on characterization and roleplaying interactions and… well, this isn’t that book. Quite frankly, the examples in the 3.x Player’s Handbook will make you a better GM than this will. It’s not even the right genre (though there’s enough overlap in the art of running an RPG regardless of genre that if this was any good, we would recommend it anyway). To read the product blurb, you would expect it to be brilliant. It isn’t, don’t buy it. In fact, we’re not even providing a link.

We notice that there’s a new, 4th edition, and that a third co-author has been released. But Mike was so bitterly disappointed by the 2006 edition which contained not one word of information that was useful to him that he doesn’t trust it, and would not be budged from that position.

Mechanics Of Materials For Dummies

1234. Mechanics Of Materials For Dummies – James H Allen III

We haven’t actually read this book, but the relevance is easy to state: How strong is concrete? If it’s been doped or cut? How about steel – and substandard steel? How much weight can a wooden beam support? If it’s been sawed through three-quarters of the way? The textbook Mike studied at university was too technical to recommend, but it is hoped that a “For Dummies” will be simple enough to give you the information you need on the subject as a GM – or at least provide the foundation for understanding Wikipedia pages on the subject.

There are some copies from $11.46
and more here for a little over $15

Note that all the editions on offer (and there were lots more that we didn’t link to) describe themselves as the “First Edition” even though (so far as we could tell) there is no Second Edition.

Probability For Dummies

1235. Probability For Dummies – Deborah J Rumsey

If there’s one subject that’s at the heart of RPGs, it’s probability. Mike has read several books on the subject – or, more accurately, the relevant chapters of many books on mathematics in general – and found that some explain it clearly and some confuse even someone who already knows the subject well enough to study higher mathematics at a university level. And that’s without factoring in the way that some explanations can be clear to one person and so much Greek to the person sitting next to them. We haven’t read this book, and so don’t know which camp it falls into. The subject is sufficiently central to RPGs that we’re recommending this anyway.
Copies start at $1.18.

Statics For Dummies

1236. Statics For Dummies – James H Allen III

Did you read “Statistics”? A lot of people do. If so, look again.

Any dummy knows that the strength of a material is only half the story when it comes to assessing loads. “Statics” is the other half – the calculation of how much force the material has to resist with that strength.

This is being included mostly at Mike’s insistence (neither Blair nor Saxon had even heard of the subject), simply because of the number of occasions when he has found the introductory course on the subject that he studied at university to be useful, either directly, or as an analogy for some other complicated situation that’s arisen in-game, like estimating in-play the point of overload of an electrical grid.

The cheapest copies seem to be about $8.50.

Strategic Planning For Dummies

1237. Strategic Planning For Dummies – Erica Olsen

Villains are going to make plans, that’s just a fact of the GM’s life. Strategic Planning is all about identifying and minimizing the risks of failure of plans, i.e. making those plans more effective. The orientation may be toward business, but isn’t villainy business-as-usual for arch-enemies and world conquerors?

Note that when we visited Amazon to gather the link to this book, they were incorrectly describing a companion work, “Strategic Planning Kit For Dummies” as a newer edition of this book. Mike notified them of the inaccuracy, so hopefully this is a completely redundant warning, but just in case: It’s not, don’t be fooled.

Copies start at $0.01.


Books About Names


The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook 2nd Edition

1238. The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook 2nd Edition – Sherrilyn Kenyon

May contain factual errors that would lead to character names that would not stand up in a published novel, but useful for the general English-speaking GM who only wants characters whose names sound realistic. For anything further, use as a starting point, nothing more. If only it had an Australian Names section… Available with both the fancy cover (shown) and a much plainer cover but don’t be fooled, they are the same book. Copies ranging in price from $0.40-$10 and $12-$22

Amazon also lists more expensive copies if you search for them (be sure to include the author’s surname) and there is also a Kindle edition.

100,000 Baby Names

1239. 100,000+ Baby Names: The Most Complete Baby Name Book – Bruce Lansky

We have (and use all the time) a much older edition that only lists 50,000 Baby Names. Offers lists of christian names both common and uncommon, with meanings and alternative formulations, by nation, which is why we find it so invaluable. Need an Armenian name? No problem. How about a Sanskrit Name? You’ve got it! A Zuni name? Coming right up! Also has an invaluable section on creating a unique name.

To use, find the country you want, select the name that “looks” or “sounds” right (or is at least close), then look up the name in the main book for more information.

Amazon $0.01-$10 and if those run out, there is a Kindle Edition available.

penguin dictionary of surnames

1240. The Penguin Dictionary Of Surnames – Basil Cottle

Alphabetic list of British surnames with meanings and what part of the country they come from.

Encyclopedia Of Surnames

1241. Encyclopedia Of Surnames – John Ayto

An alphabetical listing of British surnames, providing famous people of that name (both real and fictional), links to other surnames, and meanings. With similar content to the previous recommendation, readers should decide for themselves if they need both resources. We are uncertain as to how much overlap there is; all we can say is that the Penguin book seems to have more entries.

Names Through The Ages

1242. Names Through The Ages – Teresa Norman

Lists of names from various periods in history, starting in the Middle Ages and ending in the recent present, with notes on the society, politics, religion, and naming conventions of the era. Only covers the British Isles, France, and the USA. Useful more for the naming of older NPCs and historical figures (we think) because our impression is that it jumps from pre-WWI to post-WWII.



Books About Writing


The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creative Writing

1243. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Creative Writing, 2nd Edition – Laurie E. Rozakis

We looked at several books in this particular category but only this one seemed to hit the mark. The others were full of advice and information that was irrelevant to an RPG application (though not necessarily to preparing a game supplement or adventure for Publication, which is a whole different bouillabaisse. Copies start at 1 cent.

Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up

1244. Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up – Martha Engber

Tools and techniques for character development. Cheap New Copies are becoming limited in number but there are still plenty of second-hand ones spread amongst several Amazon listings.
– search for more with the title and author’s surname by clicking here.

Create A Character Workshop cover

1245. Create A Character Clinic 2nd edition – Holly Lysle

Mike has recommended this book on multiple occasions and even built whole articles around it, notably Not Like My tribe – Sophisticated Primitives, Part 1 & Part 2 and Creating Alien Characters: Expanding The ‘Create A Character Clinic’ to Non-Humans. Get your copy from for US$10 (PDF only).

Careers For Your Characters

1246. Careers For Your Characters: A writer’s guide – Raymond Obstfeld & Franz Neumann

This isn’t all that useful for developing characters for an RPG (or a novel) because it is haphazard and incomplete. It works as a starting point for the development of feature characters and for developing caricatures that are effective as minor NPCs – which is what a GM needs, a lot of the time. There is also some inspiration to be had from the ‘myths about the job’ section. Details provided include job descriptions, earnings, educational requirements, daily life on the job, the profession in fiction (a list of characters/works with characters belonging to the profession in question, and the aforementioned ‘myths’ sections. We’ve linked to the cheapest copies but all three Amazon sites checked have more – search for “Careers For Your Characters Obstfeld” to find them if the cheap copies go over about US$20 or equivalent.

This is also one of those unusual situations in which the hardcover can be cheaper than the paperback, so look closely at your options.

Plot & Structure

1247. Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish – James Scott Bell

We haven’t read this book (yet) but it sounds excellent and it is quite likely that this caveat will change in due course. and there is also a free kindle edition.

For-Dummies Books About Writing


Creative Writing For Dummies

1248. Creative Writing For Dummies – Maggie Hamand

Writing RPG adventures is an art unlike any other. Part radio play, part novel, and part improvisational theater. Occasionally the GM may have to throw in anything from the lyrics of a hit song to a stanza of poetry to a blow-by-blow description of a sports game. Anything that might just possibly help with this ridiculously complicated task is worth considering. This book promises expert insights into plot, character, setting, genre, style, and dialogue and to help unlock your creativity. All of which sounds good to us!

From $11:

Playwriting For Dummies

1249. Playwriting For Dummies – Angelo Parra

Refer comments on “Creative Writing For Dummies”, above.
Copies start at $7.88.

Screenwriting For Dummies

1250. Screenwriting For Dummies – Laura Schellhardt

Refer comments on “Creative Writing For Dummies”, above.

There are two editions of this book; the newest one starts at $5.38 but the older one (pictured) is probably good enough for our purposes and costs the relatively attractive price of just $0.01!

Writing Fiction For Dummies

1251. Writing Fiction For Dummies – Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Refer comments on “Creative Writing For Dummies”, above. You can currently pay just $5.41 for this book However, it’s entirely possible that the book below would be more appropriate to the genre.

Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies

1252. Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies – Deborah Halverson

See above.

So, why would we suggest that Young Adult Fiction might be a better foundation for writing Pulp than general fiction? It comes back to something Saxon said while we were negotiating discussing the fundamental nature of pulp as a genre (after all, we needed to have at least a working definition in order to exclude as much as possible that wasn’t relevant), and then reiterated in his afterword for the third shelf: “In a pulp campaign, every[thing] should be extraordinary, dramatic, exaggerated, hyped, energized, distinctive.” Subtlety and Nuance are tied up in the back of the railway car leaving town, and anything else that might get in the way of action/drama/melodrama either has to get with the program or take a back seat.

That includes adult relations (to phrase it delicately) and copious quantities of blood and gore and extremes of language – in fact, all the things that might turn a PG- / NRC- into an M- or R- rating. And those just happen to be exactly the things that have to be toned down or sanitized for young adult fiction. Sultry, not sluttish, is the guiding principle. “Exaggerated violence” – Indiana Jones and Die Hard – not realistic or extreme violence. You can nudge and wink at adult relations – but then draw the curtain and turn the camera elsewhere.

Copies start at just under $8.|

Complete Idiot's Guide To Writing A Novel

1253. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing A Novel – Tom Monteleone

While there were a number of “For Dummies” books on specific types of writing, “Novels” weren’t one of them – though it would probably form part of the remit of “Writing Fiction For Dummies”, which we listed earlier. This is another ringer.

We were divided over whether or not the Fiction-vs-Young-Adult-Fiction would also limit the value of this book to the point where it should not be listed. Ultimately, though, it was decided that the term “Novel” encompassed both, earning it recognition on this list.



Afterword by Saxon:

One consequence to the reshuffling of content is that the afterwords that were written in advance not only had to be reversed in planned sequence, but now risked referring to content removed from that shelf. The danger of a logical disconnect is one of the prices being paid for extra time to back the Kickstarter. For example, Saxon’s opening comments make more sense when you realize that he expected them to be part of the second-last shelf of the reference library. If you notice anything of that sort, don’t blame the writing; it’s just the way events worked out!

As we get towards the conclusion of the Pulp Reference series we’re also getting towards the pointy end of running a campaign. Not just coming up with a high concept, creating a setting and crafting characters to live in it, then writing stories to entertain the players. We’re talking about the actual running of the game. This can be daunting. Fortunately the advice given by the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is always relevant: ‘Don’t panic’.

Role playing gaming is fortunate enough to have several decades worth of games mastering advice and tips on hand.  Stuff from the earliest days of printed magazines and carrying forward through numerous internet articles. Some of it has been by professionals, others has been by fans who have shared that such-and-such a technique worked for them. A lot of it has then been distilled down into guides, some of which are system specific but a lot of which are general in nature.  

It doesn’t necessarily need to be RPG-specific advice either. There are many guides for writing in general or for specific genres that may have useful tips on plot structure, creating mood, or using pacing to maintain suspense. As a pulp-specific example, Raymond Chandler’s line “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” has been expanded into the advice that when the plot begins to slow and the characters have time to think, that’s when to give them some urgent new problem to deal with.

That said, a large amount of this advice is for use in the middle of the game, when the pressure is on. Nobody can be expected to remember everything, and even the old adage – that you don’t need to know everything, you only need to know where to look it up – will only take you so far when you’re so busy multi-tasking that you don’t even notice that you’re overlooking something. Fortunately I’ve found that practice makes things easier over time (although the nervousness beforehand has only diminished rather than vanished altogether). But in any case, remember that all tips are support tools. Don’t be afraid to make things up. Don’t be afraid to tell the player, “I don’t know. Let’s try it this way for now, and maybe we can come up with something better later.” Never forget that role playing is supposed to be fun for the games master as well as the players, and that stress is not conducive to that.

Now go play, have fun.

Next in this series (in early February): The 14th shelf – More Odds & Sods!


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The Brute Force Inspiration Solution


I’m trying a new layout approach in this article. It sacrifices some screen real estate for indented subsections. Do readers like it? Let me know what you think of it!

A lot of the advice here at Campaign Mastery sometimes gives the impression that there’s a shortcut to solving every problem, because offering alternative perspectives on different problems often identifies a solution without the tedium of doing things “the hard way”. This article will address the elephant in the room that has been ignored for far too long – that sometimes shortcuts simply don’t work, usually because there are a wealth of possibilities to choose from and you don’t yet know which one – if any – will be the “right” answer.

That’s when it becomes necessary to roll up your sleeves and actually work hard – hopefully for just a short period of time.

I’m fond of the jigsaw analogy to describe the process of compiling and assembling the right building blocks for a campaign, adventure, or encounter, because it is singularly apt. In any given situation to which you need to devise a solution, there will be some things that are known and some that are unknown. As anyone who’s ever solved a jigsaw puzzle knows, sometimes the edges of a couple of known pieces leave only one piece that can possibly “fit”; most of the creative shortcuts that have been offered come down to either “sorting” the available pieces or knowing which “edges” to look at in trying to identify a match.

An example of the first is The Backstory Boxes – Directed Creativity, and an example of the second is the more recent article on The Pentagon Of Encounter Design.

As with an algebraic expression, as soon as a second variable enters the picture, or there is a second adjacent empty piece so that there is more than one possible edge to “match” with, everything becomes a lot more complicated. It’s the difference between a disk and a sphere, or between a topographic map and a rather more abstract road map – an additional dimension has been added, vastly increasing the complexity of the problem.

I’ve been in this game (pun intentional) for long enough to know that sometimes, the only answer is to apply a brute force approach to the problem, and to have devised ways of taking as much hard work out of that process as possible.

One of the reasons for the long delay in addressing this aspect of the design process has been the difficulty of explaining those techniques; I’ve started this article half-a-dozen times or more and scrapped it every time. Finally, though, I think I’ve devised a method of doing so. The key is in using a simpler example to demonstrate the process, and educating the reader in a couple of stages, rather than trying to give – and explain – the full technique in one hit.

Basic Tools: The one-variable problem

So let’s assume that you are working on an encounter for your upcoming game session, because an encounter is the smallest possible element of an RPG.

You know some things about the encounter, but not everything. There is one “piece” of the proposed “jigsaw” that is not immediately obvious, because your box contains the pieces from four or five or twenty different “puzzles”.

You may know the climate, the terrain, the creature, the relevance to the overall adventure, the relationship of the adventure to the campaign as a whole, the tone that you are striving for, some of the backstory of the encounter, and even the difficulty of the encounter and how it is to relate to other encounters within the adventure. The missing piece is the actual location.

Example: Hot, dry; grasslands and scrub along a river; a gnoll who has had his abilities supernaturally augmented by a ring; the ring is one of a set, and the arch-villain of the adventure has another; the tone is to be epically spooky; the Gnoll has used the powers granted by the ring to forge/force an alliance of various fallen races, and become dominant in the local region, but something about the location has prevented him from further expanding his sphere of authority; and the difficulty is to be quite high, relative to the PCs, some of which can come from the Gnoll’s augmented capabilities, and some of it from those flunkies that he has gathered around him, but some of it has to come as tactical advantages from the location; and, finally, the PCs need to capture and analyze the ring in order to learn how to defeat that arch-villain, or at least cut him down in size to the point where they have a chance at doing so.

Because you know almost everything about the encounter, the “edges” of the missing “piece” are almost trivial to identify, and I’ve no doubt that any experienced or half-talented GM could immediately think of something to fill the empty hole in the picture, and run this encounter quite successfully. In fact, you can probably infer most of the adventure that surrounds it from the information provided, it’s that complete. That’s not important; what matters is that the simplicity of the situation makes it easy to illustrate the basic tools that will then be applied to more difficult problems.

The basic process is:

  • Step One: Identify the parameters
  • Step Two: List the possible solutions
  • Step Three: Cull the solutions to something manageable
  • Step Four: Choose the solution
  • Step One: Identify the parameters

    In this case, we need something that would provide a power base for the Enhanced Gnoll, and that would appeal to such a creature; it has to be something that confers a tactical advantage to him and his forces, but that also explains why his conquests stopped after this victory; and it has to convey that tone of “epically spooky” since nothing else on our list of “known ingredients” is really doing so. These requirements are the parameters that our solution to the problem must satisfy.

    Step Two: List the possible solutions

    There are a number of possible solutions. A grass hut; a village; a fortified village; a town; a keep; a castle; a ruin; a city; a subterranean enclave within a city; a system of natural caverns; a lost temple; a tower; or some combination of the above. All of these – with the exception of the first – are big enough to contain a graveyard, creating the foundation for the “spooky” tone. They all confer a tactical advantage, if used properly.

    Step Three: Cull the solutions to something manageable

    How many of them can be called “epic”, though? How spooky are they, aside from the vicinity of the assumed graveyard? And do any of them explain the lack of progress after the conspicuous success? The larger the location in terms of pre-Gnoll population and fortifications, the more it fits the “epic” label, but the harder it becomes to then resolve the second question.

    At first glance, the “epic” criterion lets us cross off the grass hut, the caverns, a village (fortified or not), and even a more substantial town lacks the prerequisite aura of significance. Towers are more associated with mages than with “spooky” and its countering. These can all be dismissed without a second thought.

    There is also a temptation to add “a keep” to that list of exclusions, but a ruined city with a Keep that has been captured largely intact remains an option. The lost temple, on its own, similarly falls short of the mark, but a ruined city which contains an intact temple is a viable choice.

    Another option listed that might be dismissed at first glance as insufficiently spooky is the subterranean enclave within a city, but if there are supernatural manifestations of some sort that have driven the regular occupants out (or killed them), it can remain a contender – that probably means losing the “subterranean” part of the description, though.

    None of them, as described, are enough to explain the lack of progress since this victory. We would need to add something more to the location and its backstory to do that, probably in the form of an opposing force which can more or less sustain the situation in equilibrium until the PCs arrive to tip the balance. Mulling that point over leaves only two viable options.

    Step Four: Choose the solution

    Solution number 1 is a still-viable and occupied city. The Gnoll forced his way through the city walls in a violent and bloody confrontation with the city’s defenders and occupied a temple that they defiled and corrupted, from which a supernatural menace exudes that has driven the residents out. Almost a quarter of the city has been consumed by this malevolent influence, a region in which it is always night and from which foul weather regularly erupts; the citizens have done their best to fight back, but have succeeded in doing nothing more than contain the evil. To defeat the evil, the PCs will have to penetrate and cleanse the Temple and then confront the source of the evil, the Gnoll.

    Solution number two is a city that was devastated by the conquest of the Enhanced Gnoll, with a keep that has largely survived intact and now forms the base of operations of the Gnoll. In a desperate attempt to repel the invaders, a temple within the city resorted to forbidden rituals which have raised the dead populace; most simply attack any who venture within the walls of the city, or who attempt to leave, but some few priests and temple guardsmen, transformed into supernatural enemies of all who live, have directed their enmity against the Gnoll and his besieged forces; two evils, each holding the other in check. To succeed in the overall objective (in plot terms), the PCs will have to penetrate the city, avoiding or fighting off its spectral defenders, and cleanse the temple, ending the siege of the Keep and luring the Gnoll out for the ultimate confrontation of the encounter.

    The first one sounds epic, the second one more so; both explain the sudden cessation of progress by the Gnoll, though the second one does so perhaps more credibly and certainly with an ironic element that the first lacks; and the first one has supernatural spookiness tacked on, while the second has it as a fundamental part of the concept. And its those last two factors that make the difference between the two, in my book: I would choose the second.

More to the point, this illustrates the core three stages of the process: parameters, solutions, cull solutions using parameters.

Something more difficult: The two-variable problem

With the basic process established and demonstrated by this relatively straightforward example, even though the brute force approach was overkill given the tight definition of the parameters, we can now expand the principles to a more complex problem, and then use that as the process template for expanding the scope of the technique to as many unknowns as have to be filled in.

The two-variable process is considerably longer than the one, as you would expect. At the same time, though, the individual steps will look very familiar after the example provided above.

  • Step One: Identify the parameters of variable X
  • Step Two: List the possible solutions to X
  • Step Three: Cull the ‘X’ solutions to something manageable
  • Step Four: Identify the parameters of variable Y
  • Step Five: List the possible solutions to Y
  • Step Six: Cull the ‘Y’ solutions to something manageable
  • Step Seven: Create a list of paired XY solutions
  • Step Eight: Cull the list of paired XY solutions
  • Step Nine: Choose the XY solution
  • Steps One to Three

    These are quite obviously the same as steps one to three of the single-variable process. An example might be the preceding example without the keyword “spooky” – this was one of the key values used in culling solutions, and was instrumental in making the final choice. Ideally, you want to get your list down to two or three possibilities; four or five would be a more realistic ambition. Six, Seven, or Eight are not out of the question, because there are going to be many more contenders on the original list – “spooky” was used as a guide to restrict the number of choices the first time around. This time, you would have “clearing”, “underwater”, “unnatural mountain”, “young volcano”, “cloud caste”, and a whole heap of others – and that’s still with the “grasslands” terrain as the dominant local feature.

    If all you know is that you want the tone to be “epic”, there are LOTS of alternatives that remain available. Narrowing it down requires applying the same process to the second missing (or, in this case, incomplete,) variable – tone.

    Steps Four to Six

    So that’s exactly what you do in steps four through six. “Spooky” won’t be the only choice that comes out of the process, but it – or some synonym – should be one of them. Some possible tones would be easily ruled out as inappropriate to an Enhanced Gnoll as antagonist – “heist” and “political” and “romantic”, for example. But others, like “Quest” or “Infiltration” or “War” would remain quite viable.

    Step Seven: Create a list of paired XY solution combinations

    For the sake of argument, let’s say that steps 1-3 give four possibilities, A, B, C, and D; and steps 4-6 give five possibilities, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. That means that there are four times five combinations, or twenty in total. This should make it clear why it’s so desirable to cull, HARD, in those first steps.

    In fact, I generally go further: some combinations will be obviously incongruous or incompatible. “Epic Quest to the Small Village”? I don’t think so. I won’t bother wasting my time listing or assessing those, in the interests of keeping the results more practical.

    Step Eight: Cull the list of paired XY solutions

    This is done in exactly the same way as step three of the one-variable process. The difference is that you are now working on a paired solution and seeing how well that pair ‘meshes’ with the things that you know about the encounter already.

    Step Nine: Choose the XY solution

    Finally, having culled your way down to a handful or less of viable combinations, pick the one that works best or holds the most appeal, and that is most unlike the other adventures that you’ve run recently.

With an understanding of how to expand the process to deal with multiple variables, it remains only to look at the nuances of doing so.

Applying the principles to a larger problem

What if you had three unknowns? Or four? Or five?

The principles are the same. But there are some practical tricks that are important to note.

Culling of each variable is critical. You’re dealing with exponential growth, here. Let’s say you have three variables: if you can cull each down to three choices, that’s 27 possibilities, less any incompatible ones. If your culling leaves you with four choices, that’s 64 possibilities, less the incompatibles. If five possibilities, you have up to 125 to consider.

That’s a huge difference.

It only gets worse when you have four variables. Three Choices = 81 possibilities, four choices = 256 combinations, five choices = 625 potential solutions.

Additional Culling Stages

The more culling you can do in one hit, the less work overall. That means that it’s better to produce two sets of variable pairs, cull each, and then look at the four-way combinations of the culled lists. Call them the XY and AB pairs.

Proof of this claim is simple: let’s start with 4 variables and 4 choices for each. XY combinations: 16. AB combinations: 16. XYAB combinations = 256.

XY and A = 64. Every possibility from this pool that you eliminate also eliminates 4 combinations from the XYAB pool. If you can get rid of half of them, that’s 32×4 = 128 possibilities eliminated – but still leaves 128 to do.

Culling half of the XY possibilities and half of the AB possibilities before you consider the XYAB pool means that you are dealing with 8×8=64 possibilities. Each possibility from the XY pool that you cull removes 16 from the final XYAB pool. Ditto each AB combination that you can rule out.

Additional Culling Criteria

Longtime readers might remember my 2010 article, Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow. A key point of it was the way in which I identify additional criteria for use in adventure generation – Level Of Action, Level of Fantasy, Level of “Cosmic” content, intensity of Tone – rate each adventure according to these criteria and then sequence the adventure ideas within the campaign for variety. For a fantasy campaign, I might use different criteria: “social” content, “arcane” content/emphasis, “spiritual” content/emphasis, “big picture” relevance – but the basic approach would be the same.

In more recent times, I’ve taken to defining and using campaign Themes. If you want to explore that more thoroughly, the place to start is my 2014 article Touchstones Of Unification Pt 1 – Themes, and (to a lesser extent) the entire Touchstones Of Unification series. I also discuss themes at length in the New Beginnings series, especially New Beginnings: Phase 4: Development.

All of these represent additional criteria that can and should be brought to bear in culling the options, especially when you have trouble culling using the techniques described earlier. You see, each unknown reduces the available criteria for culling every other variable.

Think about that for a moment. If you have twenty possibilities and five known criteria, three or four is an entirely reasonable expectation, post-culling (divide possibilities by one more than the number of known criteria). If two of those five become unknowns, five is about the best you can hope for, and six is entirely possible. If three of them become unknown, six-or-seven is as good as it will get, and if only one of the five is known, the best you can hope for is ten possibilities.

Technically, the mathematical relationship is total possibilities, all variables = (P / [k+1]) to the power of (T-k), where T is the total number of criteria, k is the number of them that are known, and P is the size of the initial pool for each variable. The bigger k gets, the more the final number is cut down, and its that final number that ultimately determines how much work is involved.

If you know only that you want the PCs to have an encounter of some type, the field is wide open, and you have innumerable combinations of possibilities. The more you know beyond that absolute minimum, the more you shrink the field, and the more manageable the process becomes. Having additional culling criteria that can be applied to reduce P without increasing T can make a HUGE difference.

Variable Sequence

Altering the order in which you assess the variables can also make a huge difference. There are three basic approaches:

  • Logical dependence,
  • Variable Compatibility, and
  • Variable Incompatibility.
  • Logical Dependence

    Where one variable can be shown to be logically dependent on another in large degree, bundling them together as a pair early in the process greatly reduces the number of viable combinations that will survive the culling process.

    Variable Compatibility

    That doesn’t happen very often, and frequently requires rather special circumstances to apply. Most of the time, you will be left with doors number 2 and 3.

    Door number two, in this case, describes situations in which the two variables being combined and culled have something to do with each other, some logical fit in terms of what they are describing – location and terrain, for example. Neither defines the other, but both restrict the viable choices of the other.

    Variable Incompatibility

    Door number three is when the two variables being combined have no apparent relationship. Climate and anything plot-related, for example, are usually incompatible as a combination of variables.

    The rest

    While most variables will fall into one of the two categories, there will always be some that aren’t clear-cut. Many people might suppose that the relevance of an encounter to an adventure, and the relevance of the adventure to the campaign, are either strongly compatible or even dependent. In fact, they are completely independent – there’s nothing to prevent a combat encounter in a romantic plotline, or a humorous encounter in a cosmic quest. And yet, at the same time, it would be a very brave soul who defined them as being completely irrelevant to each other, so they can’t be incompatible, either.

Choosing A Variable Sequence

The objective of preferring one choice over another always has to be in culling more options. Whichever approach does that is infinitely superior to any alternative.

Always pair logically-dependent items together because they will produce a superior cull, by virtue of the dependence.

That’s fairly clear-cut – but from that point on, it becomes rather murkier. There are two lines of argument: The first is that because two compatible items relate to each other, they make a superior choice by culling incompatible options. The second is that because two incompatible items collectively describe more of the encounter, they make a superior choice by culling undesirable/incompatible combinations. Both arguments are valid.

In any given case, one will be more influential than the other. As a general rule of thumb, the more unknowns there are, the less there is to get a grip on in terms of combination viability, and the more dominant compatibility will be over incompatibility – there are simply too many unknowns to make the latter approach viable. But this is very much a “most of the time” thing, and not a hard-and-fast rule.

For that reason, when there is no clear cut choice – four variables, two of which are logically-dependent, means that you put those two together and the partner up the other two by default – I will often cheat by doing things out of order. Specifically, I will generate the pre-cull list of choices for each variable, cull for the known factors, and then do a quick comparison in my head – X with Y? X with A? X with B? Which combination of variables is the most effective?

I am guided in this assessment by the principle of the small variable.

The Principle Of The Small Variable

This is something that I noticed when I was studying basic trigonometry in high school, and found applicable to all sorts of unlikely purposes since – everything from bubble-sort efficiencies through to chained skill checks (where one skill check must be made to give the character a shot at making the meaningful skill check). The principle is simple: the closer to each other two numbers are, the larger the product of those two numbers:

1 x 5 = 5
2 x 4 = 8
3 x 3 = 9
4 x 2 = 8
5 x 1 = 5

The larger the “high number” is, the more obvious this pattern becomes.

1 x 10 = 10
2 x 9 = 18
3 x 8 = 24
4 x 7 = 28
5 x 6 = 30
6 x 5 = 30
7 x 4 = 28
8 x 3 = 24
9 x 2 = 18
10 x 1 = 10

The other fact to notice about this pattern is that it’s fairly diffuse. There’s not a lot of difference between the 4×7 result and the 5×6 result, for example. In this application, it means that a choice of two variables that dramatically reduces the population of one pool is better than a choice that reduces both pools by a smaller amount.

That’s what I look for when choosing variables to partner with each other: the one best combination for culling results in this particular case. And if you have a large pool of choices and a small choice, it’s better to partner them than to partner each with a medium-sized pool.

To illustrate that, let’s look at four-variable combinations: 3, 4, 5, and 7 options, respectively. All things being equal, the best approach might initially seem to be partnering the 3 and 7 pools (XB), leaving the other pair to partner (YA), but appearances can be deceptive: 3×7=21, 4×5=20, cull both to maybe 11 and 10 respectively, 110 combinations to consider in total – instead of the ‘raw combination count’ of 3x4x5x7=420. Compare that with an alternative configuration: 3×4=12 and 5×7=35, cull to 6 and 18, 6×18=108 combinations to consider. The third configuration is sort of in-between these: 3×5=15 and 4×7=28, cull to 8 and 14, 8×14=112 combinations.

The principle of the small variable is to always partner small variable pools, all else being equal.

But most of the time, it won’t be. What if the 5×7 option was such that 75% of the results could be excluded instead of half? Instead of 35, culling to 18, we get 35, culling to 9 – and 6×9 is only 54 combinations to consider.

Or things might go in the other direction, and the 5×7 combination only culls 25% of the options: 5×7=35, which culls by 9 to 26, 26×6 = 156 combinations – almost triple the workload!

I have gone into this in a fair amount of detail because I want to emphasize that these are NOT trivial choices, and NOT always obvious. The fastest approach is to list all the possible values for each variable, cull, and THEN decide which pairs to partner up, unless the choice is clear through the power of logical dependence.

Broader Applications

The same approach can be used for the creation of Adventures, and even campaigns. It’s all a matter of listing the alternatives and using parameters to cull the choices down to a manageable selection.

I described at some length the process of writing the current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign in Paving Over Plot Holes: A Masterclass in Adventure Creation. When I started working on that adventure, aside from the campaign-connectivity subplots, all I knew about it was that it was a mystery analogous to a locked-room mystery (but one in which a different parameter was the “impossibility”. So I listed my options, making sure to avoid all the pitfalls of bad mystery writing, culled the different combinations, and selected one. Then obfuscated the heck out of it.

I’ve used the same general approach when I had nothing but the name of a (minor) villain to go on – in fact, the encounter that leads off that Zenith-3 adventure was created in just this manner, simply because I had too many options to pick from, none of them compelling.

You won’t, and shouldn’t, need this technique every time. Encounters should, generally, flow logically from the adventure that they are part of, and adventures should flow naturally from the campaign that they are part of, and campaigns should be the product of inspiration and experience. But it is an indispensable tool in my repertoire for those occasions when something has to happen but you don’t know what.

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Ask The GMs: Shared Worlds and Co-GMs

There’s a whole spectrum of collaborative modes in existence these days, ranging from the cameo appearance or recurring pastiche all the way through cross-overs to the tightly-knit true shared creative spaces that are almost completely collaborative in nature. Although in literature, the Thieves’ World series is generally thought of as the first shared world that was explicitly created to be “co-owned” by the contributors as a setting in which each could set stories, and whose protagonists could interact with characters created by the others, a broader perspective suggests that the deliberate move by Marvel Comics in 1961 to set each of their comic books in a common “universe” permitting the characters to interact, or even the creation of the Justice Society Of America in 1940-41 as the formative introduction of the concept.

The latter claim is dismissed by some because the creators of the shared group were strictly forbidden from making fundamental changes to the characters or their supporting cast in the course of these adventures. At first, Marvel’s integrated universe also had similar restrictions in place, but over the years those restrictions were relaxed. Nevertheless, it was often frustrating to see one writer/editor combination make significant advances in a character’s personal continuity only for that character to be essentially unchanged in their next appearance. It was in the original Secret Wars that this paradigm was changed for the first time in a significant way, and in fact this was used as a selling point for the series. But this event post-dates the 1978 publication of Thieves’ World, so while the comics may be considered precursors to the shared world, edging closer and closer to the concept, for my money, the original anthology in that series takes the prize – but there are multiple places in which the dividing line can be drawn.

Of course, shared collaborative spaces in TV series are nothing new, and each series has its own way of uniting the efforts by its writing team into a cohesive audiovisual entity. The various behind-the-scenes extras in the Stargate SG-1 DVD series is most instructive in this respect, as is “The Making Of Star Trek”, which showed how a writer would submit an script which would then be partially or wholly rewritten in-house to incorporate character developments that would then become canon to the series.

The key word that connects all of these together is continuity, and the degree of independence available to the contributors.

This entire range of collaborative possibilities can also be applied to an RPG. Which brings me to the question posed by Sharky for this Ask-The-GMs.

Ask the gamemasters

Sharky wrote,

“I’m trying to start a campaign. It’s been years since I was in an RPG. We were considering taking turns being the GM. We are a group of 3 so far.

“The point of the RPG is that it’s a world [that combines the products of] each of our imaginations. Each of us has a character that will be able to understand part of the things going on. The characters will have to cooperate to try and figure out how their worlds got fused together and get everything back to normal.

“I feel like something is missing I just can’t put my finger on it.

“I found this place and I said to myself, ‘Why not get some advice?’

“So I’m here asking for advice to make this into an interesting RPG. Any ideas?” (edited for clarity)

A discussion of the question (and the issues that it raises) between myself and two of my usual players over the weekend proved quite broad-ranging, covering everything from the foundations of collaboration through to specific analysis of the stated campaign premise. We were looking for answers to four specific questions:

  • What advice do you have for GMing a Shared World?
  • What problems can be foreseen for this specific premise?
  • What is the “something” that is missing? and finally,
  • What can be done to make this a more interesting game.

Shades of Collaboration

When Blair and I co-GM the Adventurer’s Club, it’s a fully collaborative effort. We are both GMs at the same time, we have both taken part in crafting the adventure, and we aren’t afraid to take a five-minute break to discuss any problems that arise and how we are going to resolve them. We share the responsibilities, kudos, and blame equally.

That’s not the only way to do it. Another approach is the sequential God-spotlight in which each GM takes the Big Chair in succession, but in which part of the campaign has been developed in collaboration. There are three major variations on this approach:

  • Rotation by game session
  • Rotation by adventure
  • Rotation by plotline
Rotation by games session

The DC Challenge was a 12-issue out-of-continuity comic book in the 1980s which functioned as a round-robin. Creators had to end their stints on a cliff-hanger, had to start their share of the comic by resolving the previous cliff-hanger, couldn’t use any of the characters that they regularly worked on (and if they were left with such a character already involved, had to write them out as quickly as possible), and – in between – had to advance the meta-plot. No consultation between the writers was permitted, only a hint – in the form of the title to be used for the next ‘chapter’ – was permitted.

Applying the concept to a shared-universe RPG gives the Rotation By Game Session model. It’s good practice to end any given game session at either a point of plot conclusion or at a moment of high drama – a cliff-hanger or key decision, in other words. That means that it’s then up to the next GM to oversee the resolution of that dramatic moment or to instigate the next part of the plotline.

Unfortunately, this also leaves the campaign vulnerable to the problems that befell the DC Challenge. It immediately devolved into an effort to stump the incoming writer by leaving a character in an almost-impossible situation, in particular since – in place of the usual letters page – the next issue would include how the original writer intended to get the character out of that “impossible” situation, which shed light on the creative thought-processes of the respective authors. All this made the series great fun to read, but rather less fun at times for the creative personnel involved. Another key problem was that no-one had any clear idea of what was supposed to be really going on, so the series bounced around quite a bit. Ultimately, the contributors had to lock themselves away together to collaborate on a solution to the overarching plot for the final issue, which (as it turned out) had to be double-sized in order to tie up all the loose ends.

It’s a fact of life that knowing that someone else is going to have to clean up after you encourages laziness, and as the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Throw in even a modicum of competitiveness between the three GMs and remove any strong oversight – more on that later – and the DC Challenge story is the inevitable result.

And that’s before you throw in any emergent ill-will as the GMs manipulate the world to cross-purposes. It’s only human to feel these petty irritations from time to time, it happens to all of us – and they fade just as quickly if given the chance. But there exists a real danger under the rotation-by-game-session model for feedback loops to set in and amplify any such irritations turning a minor molehill into Caddyshack’s gopher war.

That’s not to say that this approach can’t be made to work; it can. But it’s unlikely to be stable by accident.

Rotation by adventure

A more stable situation results when each GM takes the reins for the entirety of a single adventure provided that there’s no concern about adventures taking unequal amounts of time to complete. In theory, this enables one GM to be crafting his next adventure while another is running the game, and the third enjoys some downtime and can engage in long-range planning and idea development. Because each GM’s contributions are largely self-contained, the potential for functioning at cross-purposes is greatly reduced, and can be reduced still further by forbidding each of the other GMs from making major changes to the “supporting cast” during their stints without the approval of the GM introducing them.

There remains some potential for conflict over the direction of the shared universe, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but this is the simplest approach with relatively few problems.

It does require some communication between the GMs at a metagame level – “I expect the current plotline to wrap up next game session, maybe part-way through the day, be ready to take over” – but that’s about all that is needed, assuming the fundamentals have been agreed to. I’ll deal with that issue a little later in the article, because it’s common to all possible approaches.

Rotation by plotline

Perhaps the safest option of them all when it comes to avoiding plotlines is for each GM to take charge of one overarching plotline of their own devising, one of which has to be the central mystery of what has created this ‘shared world’ in the first place. This leaves almost no room for cross-purposes to emerge. Another approach is to divide up the aspects of the shared world and hand one bundle to each of the GMs to use as the basis of his contributions – one might focus on trade and law-enforcement (the civilian functions) between the different realms, another deals with politics and conflict (the military/control functions) while the third handles the arcane / spiritual / natural law consequences (the scientific functions), which would naturally lead to an understanding of the causes and potential to undo whatever resulted in the shared world,

This is certainly the approach that I would favor, for reasons explained later in the article. But it (or rotation by adventure) might mean four, five, or even six months before the next GM gets his turn under the rotating “god-light”, depending on how often you play – if everyone is fine with that, there’s no problem, but if that seems too much to anyone, it’s time to get more creative.

Other Variations

Another possible approach is the concept of “inheritance”, in which each GM advances the plots and leaves notes for the next GM on the situations, relationships, decisions, and ‘established facts’ that they will have to work with. That means that if one GM decides that the shared world is the work of demons, the rest are bound to at least pay lip service to the appearance that demons are responsible. By gradually amassing a body of shared lore that has resulted from their individual efforts, and applying plot-twist principles to anything that they have inherited and don’t like, the game can be constantly evolving, with even the creators unsure of where it will go.

Most importantly, this shared inheritance would contain things that the GM has decided that have not yet come out in play. If you want to replace something you don’t like, your new explanation has to be consistent with the actual experiences within the game to date. This is actually a very loose form of collaboration, and one modeled on the usual techniques of television series. The primary purpose is to protect the shared continuity of what has happened so far.

Other, more exotic, solutions can also be devised. Each GM might be able to establish a specific and limited number of “fixed facts” that all must adhere to, and each fact must not relate to any other chosen by that GM – which means that GM #1 might decide that a dark god was responsible for the ‘blending’ of the worlds, but could not decide his motives or how he achieved it, not definitively. He could present his theory of these things, but as ‘unfixed and unfixable facts,’ either of the other GM can choose something different – and can even make that one of their ‘fixed facts’ if they feel that strongly about their choice. You could have these facts agreed to at the start, or you could preserve the surprise factor by letting each GM choose a ‘fixed fact’ per adventure.

Shades of Independence

There is an absolutely huge assumption implicit in the described campaign – that the different nations, and the PCs that have derived from them, will cooperate with each other. The reality is that when something this dramatic occurs, they will all be looking for someone to blame, and the most ready targets are the other nations. This is especially true if one is belligerent or a would-be conqueror.

There are two possible solutions: the first is to have this part of the story happen pre-game; the second is for the first adventure to be how the three first come into contact and agree to work together, risking charges of treason in the process. You would need pretty compelling and convincing reasons to cooperate before you undertook such a risk.

This exposes a huge question that needs to be resolved before play can begin – how much of the background of the blended reality will be decided ahead of time? And how much freedom will each GM have to create, independently of the others, content for the shared world? Any answer is acceptable, but everyone needs to be on the same page before things start happening in-game.

Part of the problem is the presumed equality of the three GMs. In television production, one voice is usually elevated to a position of supremacy (and ultimate responsibility) over the others, and there is usually no need (or desire) for the different contributors to keep information from each other. That changes when you are a player in the RPG 2/3 of the time; if the other GMs already know everything factual that you are putting into the adventure in terms of the overarching meta-plot, actual play becomes an exercise in going through the motions until your characters know what you do.

Similarly, in the comics world, there is an editor-in-chief – a third party with the responsibility of overseeing the whole, settling disputes, and lobbing in ideas from the outside when the line editors and writers get stuck – and who also has the clout to say “no”. Such a position can be in the privileged position of knowing everything – a privilege that excludes them from playing in the game. It doesn’t preclude them from being a GM in the game, it simply means that for 1/3 of the time they are fully the GM and for the other 2/3 they are a collaborator and co-GM with the other GMs involved.

Often, that sort of privileged position is accorded to the person who came up with the idea in the first place, but it doesn’t have to be so. This is certainly an alternative to the simple rotation models proposed earlier.

Other decisions need to be made in advance by the GMs in collaboration, unless the game is to be truly exotic. Game System. House and Optional rules. Even rules interpretations, where these are contentious. None of these are insurmountable difficulties, but the solutions won’t just happen – they will have to be solved in advance and in collaboration with the others. Again, most of these issues go away with the appointing of a GM-in-chief.

The Malleable World

Another possibility, one that permits the maximum independence with the minimum conflict, is for history and/or reality to be malleable. This obviates most of the need to be consistent with a fixed history by changing reality. If that seems too wild and woolly for you, consider fixing it with respect to some other factor – sequential months, or the seasons, or whatever. “Every 28 in-game days, reality warps and changes, and history runs down new paths to a different now. Only the PCs, who are somehow protected from the effects know that this is happening. Each GM will handle a successive 28-day period. When Steve is at the helm, the nature of the world will be Shadowrun; when Peter is in control, it will be Pathfinder; and when I’m in charge, it will be GURPS Fantasy, with some rules mods. The same NPC will have three different incarnations and no memory of the other two; because history itself is morphing, an individual can even be dead in one of the three realities and absolutely fine. Any plotline that is unresolved at the changing of the GMs is suspended until that GM again takes the hot seat.”

Of course, this example cheats a little by having all three be fantasy, because that makes integration a little easier. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t blend fantasy with sci-fi with steampunk or something else equally strange. “Your spacecraft morphs and shifts around you, becoming a viking ship sailing between the stars…” “…you reach the alien world of Narizeth just as reality shifts around you, and Narizeth transforms into a ball of magma floating in the elemental plane of fire, the inhabitants becoming Elementals and Fire Giants…”

The more diverse the malleable world, the harder it will be to have a consistent plot through-line, but this hardly matters. What if the original cause of the shared world’s existence was a “serendipitous” (calamitous) confluence of separate acts in each reality? Or perhaps the reality is a shattered timestream in which the same civilization is represented by three different eras of its history – a history that is rendered malleable by virtue of the shared existence?

The Geographic Solution

Border crossings can be transformative at the best of times. Some people behave differently as tourists to their natures at any other time in their lives! “Tourist” clichés abound. Another way of dividing up the GMing responsibilities – one that completely ignores any concept of equality of GMs and lets the chips fall where they may – is for each GM to take charge whenever the PCs cross the border into the world for which they are responsible. This works best if the world is NOT malleable, and everyone is using the same game system, and there is rough technological parity between them, though more diverse options are also possible. One GM name-drops the identity of an NPC in one of the other realms in the course of his stint; when the PCs follow up by traveling to that realm, the GM responsible for that ‘reality’ is in charge of creating the NPC in question, and of handling the consequences of the encounter. Is the named individual an Elf or a Lich, a shopkeeper or a priest, an ally or an enemy? Will they divulge what they know willingly, can they be bribed, or must the knowledge be forcibly extracted?

This solution clearly settles the problem of mutual cooperation; all three sometime-PCs can come from the same reality/society.

The problem with this approach is that one reality will be ‘home’ and almost certainly one of the alternatives will be preferred by the majority over the other. One GM will get a disproportionate share of the “god-light” at the expense of one of the others – hence my comment about ignoring the concept of equality between the GMs.

Ultimately, that was where my TORG campaign – a completely different form of shared reality, all under one hand – fell over. The players were simply too scared of my redesigned Orrorsh to be willing to go there; they’d had a small taste of it through a ghost ship and that was more than enough for them. Or maybe I just did too good a job of selling it! Since campaign-critical events were to take place there, that was where the campaign collapsed. Up to that point, they had simply wandered from reality to reality, enjoying the local color and local threats and the unique way each reality was interacting with the others; this was where the campaign was to get its direction.

Again, if the PCs are going to be forced by the meta-plot or by the other GMs to spend a roughly-equal amount of time in each of the other realms, this isn’t as much of a problem as it might be. There are ways around it that can be put in place – but those decisions will need to be conscious ones on the part of the GMs involved.

Dispute Resolution

By now, you probably know what I’m going to say in this section. Some system of dispute resolution needs to be in place and enforceable without ill-will before play begins, and everyone will need to know and agree to it. These disputes could range from character misappropriation to rules arguments. There are lots of possible solutions, and any of them would work; but it’s a major point of agreement that has to be reached in advance.

Solutions include an outside arbiter (but that can hold up the game), majority rules (but what if none of the three agree?), a “GM-in-chief” as described earlier, or a geographic-based primacy. There are others that could be devised; since the whole situation is profoundly unnatural, such decisions could be made by a roll-off!

Reality Fraying At The Edges

Game physics, and in particular how the realities will interact at the line of contact, is another decision that will need to be very clearly understood. This is especially true of Malleable Worlds, where the dysfunction can be quite extreme.

These are all issues that confronted the designers of TORG and while their solution is well-implemented at a game-mechanics level, the explanations of “why” reality works that way at an in-game level are somewhat wanting. In fact, my entire TORG campaign is built around one possible answer to those conceptual holes. Copies are getting rare and expensive at the moment:

  • There are two collectible copies here for $35 and $44.99 respectively plus P&H;
  • There are three more copies here (one new at $125 + P&H, two used at $175.95 and $839.61 plus P&H, respectively);
  • There’s a game supplement for the system that I haven’t read, called “Torg: The High Lord’s Guide to the Possibility Wars (The GM’s Guide To TORG)” which may contain the relevant system information. Amazon have 11 used from $26.99 (and probably climbing steeply in price), 6 new from $80.61 (ditto), and 1 collectible at $54.69;
  • And finally, there is TORG, Revised and Expanded (I have no idea what’s changed) – Amazon lists the hardcover with 9 used copies starting at $116.99 and 5 new copies from $197.92.
  • Last time I went looking, I found a handful of copies on e-bay at more reasonable prices (but often with much higher P&H than Amazon) – here’s one. Search for “TORG” on for more.

If you can get your hands on one at a reasonable price, or if you are lucky enough to have access to one already, crack it open for a re-read and some heavy thinking about house rules. If you have one and aren’t using it, think about listing it on Amazon; you could buy an awful lot of new stuff for even US$100 (never mind the optimist who wants over $800 for his copy).

If there’s one area where disputes and GMs acting at cross-purposes can have a long-term serious impact, its the fundamental game physics of the shared world. I mentioned the idea of giving each GM a conceptual foundation for their adventures, with one person specifically responsible for handling the physics and metaphysics; this is the reason.

Reinforcing The Continuity

If I could offer only one piece of advice on the subject to Sharky, it would be this: add more players. Not more sometime-GMs, but at least one and preferably two or three players who do nothing but experience the continuity of the campaign from a non-GM point of view – then get regular feedback from them about any rough edges they experience in the course of the transitions from GM to GM.

With only three PCs, one of whom is an NPC at any given time, continuity is almost certain to suffer. Too often, a character will react in the way the GM-to-come wants them to react, or can be accused of doing so. The omniscience that comes from being a GM will inevitably taint the decision-making process in-play from time to time if not more often.

Having a core of full-time players around which the sometimes-PCs can fit themselves reduces the degree to which foreknowledge can influence the game. Getting the feedback I mentioned earlier can identify problems while they are still small. This is true in any campaign, but especially critical in one exposed to the unusual stresses and conditions of a shared world.

The Fan-boy idea

The overall impression that all three of us got, when reading Sharky’s submission, was that this was a fan-boy idea that would have “sounded like fun” but that insufficient thought appeared to have been put into the practicalities of implementation.

There’s nothing wrong with “fan-boy” ideas per se; we all have them, and with sufficient development and attention to detail, they can become all the more compelling as a result. Many of the best comics, novels and TV series started as a “fan-boy idea”, a “wouldn’t it be cool if…”. For reasons of licensing and editorial oversight they then get divorced from their origins, and a series of redevelopments and rewrites then produces a work that is able to stand on its own merits and originality.

It’s a formula that I’ve used myself on a number of occasions: think of an episode of a TV show that you enjoyed, find a variation that looks like fun, subtract everything that’s excessively derivative of the original, creating new content to replace it, rewrite to integrate that new content – like adapting a proposed episode of Star Trek for use in Doctor Who, or as a Star Wars project, except that the “universe” is the one in which your game takes place. Above all, erase any and all expectations that the PCs will follow the plot of the original, because they won’t. Ever.

In this particular case, it can also be a solution where no one of the GMs has enough free time to commit to running a campaign full-time, or even developing one on their own. And, make no mistake, the collaborative process itself can be a heck of a lot of fun, especially when ideas are flowing freely and being bounced off one another.

The very act of collaboration means expanding the range of your ideas to accommodate the creative input of someone else. Even without the synergistic sparks that fly, that immediately doubles the level of creativity involved; factoring that in produces a total that is more than the sum of its parts. Adding in a third font of conceptual brilliance amplifies the effect. A shared world can be the most creative space imaginable; this is a phenomenon that I see all the time in music and literature.

I agree with Jesse Meixsell who wrote in VentureBeat that ‘fanboy’ is an overused and often misconstrued term, especially when it is used in a derogatory sense. I am using it only in the sense that the idea is one that fans of a particular source often come up with – “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Enterprise visited Babylon-5?” – mashing incongruent ideas together and (hopefully) wresting rationality from them. Some can be surprisingly good – there’s an exceptionally good one in a star trek / dr who crossover which can be used to resolve canonical conflict in the history of the Cybermen, for example, and I used another in the last adventure of my Dr Who campaign to make the Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing canonical within my game universe (Doctor 2b) by drawing plot threads from several other stories, some early, and some recent.

If anyone wants to backtrack my work, here’s the summary of it that I wrote up:

The 2165 Invasion Of Earth; ten years from now, the Daleks’ plan will be revealed by the first doctor as an attempt to turn the planet itself into a weapon. And a year before that, rebels – who will have survived and grown effective, against all probability – will capture experimental time machines from the Daleks and attempt to use them to undo a series of wars between 1973 and 2174 that enabled the Daleks to conquer the earth so easily in the first place. That threatened to destabilize the entire history of the galaxy until the Third Doctor saved a peace conference in 1973 from an explosion. The Doctor always assumed that this threw the entire Dalek Invasion into an alternate timeline, a branch in reality that would naturally have sealed itself off, perpetually in a state of collapse because history had changed and no longer led to those events, it was only the time travel into the past of the rebels that kept the alternative timeline from completely vanishing.

With Dalek efficiency, it should not take them more than a year to pacify the planet. Something must delay them by another 9 years. Furthermore, they were only just stopped by the first Doctor; the slightest change to events and his first self might fail. Not only would Human history collapse like a house of sticks, not to mention his own personal history, but the history of whichever world the Daleks intended to use the Earth as a weapon against would suffer a temporal cataclysm.

In the first Cushing movie and the TV episodes adapted from them, the Daleks were assumed to be contemporary to the era, variously identified as 2150 and 2165. In fact, this was a backup plan by Davros in case his control of Satellite Five was broken; the Daleks were given “old” body casings and sent back in time to turn the Earth into a weapon against Gallifrey. This explains how they came to have temporal technology for the rebels to steal, despite not being shown to invent that for many centuries to come.

In 2030, The second Dr encountered would-be world conqueror Ramon Salamander, that Dr’s physical double, who had already conquered half the world and gathered it into his “United Zones Organization”. The populace had been deceived into believing the world devastated by Atomic Weapons and had retreated into underground domes, but this was not appreciated by anyone for some time. Opposition was centered around Giles Kent, the former Deputy Security Leader for North Africa and Europe, and his ally, Alexander Denes. Salamander planned to cause or take advantage of foreknowledge of various natural disasters to complete his takeover. Ultimately, it was revealed that Kent and Salamander had been partners all along, but the plans came unstuck when Salamander turned on his ally and the deception began to unravel at the hands of better men. Salamander then attempted to escape using the TARDIS by impersonating the Doctor, just as the Doctor had impersonated Salamander to get proof of his guilt. Prematurely triggering the dematerialization process with the TARDIS doors still open was Salamander’s undoing; he was blown out the doors and into the Time Vortex.

When the 2nd Dr was forcibly regenerated by the Time Lords into the 3rd after his trial for interference, it did NOT use one of his Regenerations, but he doesn’t know that. The lost Regeneration was “captured” by Salamander during the struggle in the Tardis, and will – when Salamander is seemingly killed – regenerate him into a very confused Peter Cushing ‘doctor’.

By sending this alternative “doctor 2” back in time to “invent” the Tardis and “recruit” the people who think of themselves as Louise, Susan, and Tom Campbell (in fact, these are actually comatose contemporary patients who can healed and imbued with false memories by the Doctor (manipulating Salamander’s regeneration energy), The Doctor (PC) can create a new dead-end branch of time and seal most of the Daleks off in it, leaving just enough to delay the conquest until his *real* first incarnation arrives. A timespan of 15 years should be just about perfect – and will falsely give the “new doctor” the impression that the date is 2150. The key to success is adapting the technology that enabled the Daleks to enter this branch of time into a Temporal Discriminator so that they end up in one or the other branch of time and aren’t duplicated in both.

There was more to it, but those are the central points.

Process Is Not Enough

“Process” refers to the practical nuts and bolts of actualizing the shared world. Without some degree of shared vision, as the campaign unfolds, it will inevitably start to run into conflicts. There has to be at least some degree of collaborative vision in terms of what has happened and how the world will work.

Shared Purpose Is Not Enough

The three GMs having characters who function as PCs when their creator is not running the game with a common purpose is not enough either. There are conceptual gaps that stretch and strain credibility. Even their cooperation is not something that can reasonably be taken for granted without being written into either the plot or the shared background.

In any shared world, there needs to be a collaborative foundation.

The Never-ending Complication

Done well, a shared world can be the most breathtakingly exciting game environment imaginable – or even beyond the imagination of any one creator. But it is also a never-ending source of complications that need to be carefully managed, or better yet, avoided.

In the case of Sharky’s proposed campaign, it falls short in both of the areas nominated above, at least based on the description provided. The process is insufficiently defined and there is not enough collaborative foundation to give the campaign direction, but the latter shortcoming is masked by the vague statements, “Each of us has a character that will be able to understand part of the things going on. The characters will have to cooperate to try and figure out how their worlds got fused together and get everything back to normal.” This is a premise that could work if presided over by a single visionary who could develop and integrate a consistent solution within the campaign as it unfolds, but which would require well-developed collaborative mechanics to function within a shared world.

We think that is the “what’s missing” that Sharky couldn’t put his finger on, and why it wasn’t obvious.

Making it more fun

Finally, do we have any suggestions for making the campaign more fun? Well, yes we do. There’s a lot of entertainment, and fascination, to seeing how someone else has twisted something that you’ve created. Ian Gray came up with a trcukload of encounters and backstory for the Zenith-3 campaign because his character had supposedly been running around and getting into trouble for months (game time) before the other PCs even showed up. A lot of this material was stuff that the DM (me) needed to know but that his character did not know. To prevent him using his foreknowledge and to keep the campaign interesting for him, there was little if anything that I didn’t give an additional twist to. In some cases, the reinvention was almost total; in others, his basic concept is still recognizable at the core of an encounter. Because he never knows quite what to expect, the encounters are as fresh and surprising to him as they are for any of the other players. It works because I’m always careful to respect the ‘history’ of his ‘past encounter’, either staying consistent with what happened in his description of events or providing him with an updated version at the start of play.

In the same way, each of the three GMs can contribute ideas to each other’s worlds without knowing how that GM will make use of their creation. They can strengthen the bonds that tie the world together by making at least some of these ideas a result or consequence of interaction with the part of the game world that they are creating. A limited creative round-robbin like this, with content that the GM creating that part of the game is free to reinterpret, revise, or twist, means that none of them know everything about even their own parts of the game, keeping it fresh for everyone.

A single paragraph, consisting of less than a handful of sentences, is more than enough to convey the core of an idea with plenty of scope for adaption, revision, and convulsion. Call it ‘free inspiration’ – something that never goes astray.

About the contributors:

As always, I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights:


Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.


Saxon has been vaguely interested in gaming since the early 1980s, but only since going to university in the late 1980s has the opportunity for regular play developed into solid enthusiasm. Currently he plays in two different groups, both with alternating GMs, playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed., the Hero system (Pulp), a custom-rules superhero game (also based on the Hero System), Mike’s “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign, WEG-era Star Wars, FASA-era Star Trek, and a Space 1889/Call of Cthulhu hybrid. When it’s his turn he runs a Dr Who campaign. He cheerfully admits to being a nerd, even if he’s not a particularly impressive specimen. He was a social acquaintance of both Mike and Blair long before he joined their games.


Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more.

Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting (based on his prior experiences). Amongst the other games he now runs, Mike and Blair currently play in his Star Wars Edge Of The Empire Campaign.

In the next ATGMs: Equipment Issues!

NB: This is not the post that I expected to be making this week, but it’s been so hot and uncomfortable that it has negatively impacted on my health this week, and left me unable to even contemplate finishing the next shelf of the Essential Reference Library as scheduled. So I’ve brought this item forward – by how much remains to be seen! Fortunately, Summer is almost over…

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Why Are Stories So Important In Video Games? A lesson for RPG Campaigns

game controller

Image provided by / Michel Zarcharzewski

Modern video games are becoming more dynamic when looking at console capabilities, online functions and graphics. The diversity in game types is also increasing. It is never enough these days to have wonderful graphics; so many games with outstanding graphics end up failing, as they lack the story element. When we look at the very best RPG games in the video-game sector, the one thing that is always common is a well-thought and highly developed storyline. But that begs the question, is this a universal law? Quests may basically make a game more attractive but are stories really vital for game success – and what does that say for tabletop RPGs?

Story Vs Plot

When looking at the game’s story aspect, the most important thing is to understand the difference between the two.

A plot is linked to what will happen. It will track character physical movement, at least in gross location. One event will basically lead to the next one. A story is going to serve didactic functions, i.e. it will teach the player something (even if that something is only relevant in the context of the video game narrative).

Stories are a flow of ideas that are arranged and presented through the plot.

As an example, when looking at Assassin’s Creed, the plot revolves around the feud between Assassins and Templars. The story of good versus evil is an oldie but a goodie that never grows stale; it will continue and will lead to gamers wanting to know what will happen.

Character Development

A story is not just about the plot. Characters are very important a these are the movers of the plot, the manifesters of the story, and the point of emotional connection. A story needs them for the players or readers to love or hate.

Judging video game characters is similar to how you look at the characters you normally see in a book. In video game history there are many characters that were so well built that players wanted to know everything about them. This led to the appearance of sequels in some cases.

Stories without great characters are practically impossible these days. There are so many game-makers out there of adequate or better technical skill that any given game needs something to lift it above the noise, and the universally resonant quality, the thing that makes the difference, time after time, is a great story with enticing, compelling characters.

Technical improvements aside (many of which are the product of improvements in the technology, anyway), that’s the biggest difference between video games of the 70s and 80s and those of the modern day. There was a time when it was enough to boast a broader color palette, or faster refresh rate, or snazzier graphics; these days, these can be safely assumed (save when deliberately violated for stylistic effect, I suppose). To take the next step in popularity, aside from great gameplay, we need to see something in a game that has some emotional resonance for us – events that we can relate to and/or characters that we can relate to.

Different Video Game Types

When we read a novel we have to see central characters that are rounded, together with a good story. The smaller their plot role, the flatter the characters can be. In many video games the same usually applies, but it is not always the case. With sports games in particular, titles like NBA Live or Madden NFL do not actually need a story.

Such games do not need a story tacked on, the competition – provided that it is not pre-scripted – constructs its own narrative.

We also have games that benefit from the story and from the actual gameplay at the same time. In this case it is the story that will add depth and that will help those gamers that see stories as particularly important.

Personal Preference

Obviously, at the end of the day player preference is going to dictate the success of a game and whether or not the story is really important for success.

It is really important that game developers focus on both elements. A great story aspect never detracts from a game’s value; it can only enhance it.

Storylines have been proven to make games more successful but only when they were captivating. Similarly to novels, some are a lot better than others. This directly impacts the success of a video game. A great story can even overcome deficiencies in gameplay.

The Tabletop Relevance

Having looked at video games from as many directions as we can, let’s turn our attention to tabletop games and see which of the emerging lessons apply.

First, there is the direct ‘competition’ aspect of sporting games. This is analogous to the basic dungeon bash, in which the challenge is simply to overcome whatever combat challenges the GM places before the characters, and to a certain extent, that can be enough to satisfy; however, directly comparing two games, one that has just this component and one that has both this component and a great story, it can be seen that the difference is night and day. In days long past, it might have been enough to have impressive monsters, or even great visual aids to help manifest them in the minds of the players; that’s no longer the case.

Even a basic dungeon bash needs to have some level of story through-line connecting the events. Every improvement to the story over that minimum requirement simply adds to the value of the campaign.

Second, there needs to be a strong correlation between story and plot. You can’t simply strap the story on like a backpack; it needs to translate into concrete day-to-day manifestations and events. This is often where GMs struggle; there are ample tools and schools to improve your writing skills that can be adapted to the purpose, and getting better at game mechanics is simply a matter of experience and practice; it’s bridging the gap between the two that is different and unique to RPGs, even from the similar problems faced by adapting a story into screenplay (though that probably comes closest).

Third, the PCs are automatically semi-compelling by virtue of being a player’s character, but every enhancement to that compelling, quality that makes the characters more rounded once again functions as an enhancement to the basic value of the game. Furthermore, that basic semi-compelling quality is no guarantee of a rounded character, and contains no promises of interest to any other player. It is incumbent on the GM to fill the gap by ensuring that the NPCs, common to all the players, are as compelling and interesting as possible. That doesn’t mean necessarily compromising them; it can mean mixing your already-dark villain with even darker shades of black.

Video games and RPGs are growing more alike all the time. It’s no longer good enough to have prettier pictures than the guy at the next table; it’s no longer sufficient to have compelling characters whose lives simply meander from random event to random event. The things that produce a compelling video game are also the things that produce a compelling tabletop RPG campaign.

If you were marketing your RPG campaign as a video game, what could you say about it that makes it better than the one in the next booth? Unless you can tick every box, there is room for improvement. And no-one can ever tick every box; as soon as you do, it’s time to raise your standards – because everyone else will be raising theirs.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 10: Rhythms


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

(I’m sure some have been wondering when it would resume – Part 9 was published in September 2016, after all…) I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the first part of three articles in the second-last block of the series.

There’s a tool between the ears of every GM for diagnosing problems and improving their games that few GMs – even those who could claim to be experts – are even aware of, let alone to have mastered. It’s the innate sense of rhythm that we all possess to at least some degree.

This is even cutting-edge stuff so far as my own gaming is concerned. And yet, it seems to me that the less experienced you are, the more easily you can adapt to the needs and the bigger the benefits that you can yield through the use of this tool.

That’s because habits set in and become entrenched over the years, and changing habits of any kind is a lot harder than never forming those habits in the first place. This is one of very few advantages that a beginner can have over an expert, and one that enables the beginner to compete for time, attention, and players even against the most expert of GMs.

It’s also something that’s not all that easy to explain clearly. As I said, I’m only dimly grasping it, and its potentials and implications, myself, so there may be a certain amount of fumbling around in the course of this article. Bear with me!

Circadian Rhythms Of The Game

Every RPG has its own natural rhythm, a complex compounding of players, GMing style, game mechanics, setting, and a whole host of other factors. Often submerged beneath the surface, much of the time you won’t even be aware of it. Only when the rare occasion comes along when blind chance puts you in sync with that rhythm and you notice how much easier, more dynamic, more engaging, and more exciting the game becomes as a result, do you notice it.

Both beginners and Experienced GMs who do so will often (even usually) fall into the trap of trying to replicate the experience by doing the same things a second time on another occasion, but there are so many contributory variables that such attempts inevitably fail.

The circadian rhythm of a game is the call-and-response of combat. That’s when the fundamental rhythm comes to the surface and becomes most noticeable. When everything is synced into the fundamental rhythm, there is a discernible timing pattern to the call-and-response exchanges between players and GM: Action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects, next character, action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects, next character, action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects… it doesn’t matter if the ‘next character’ is a PC or an NPC, there’s a pattern, a definite rhythm, in which each of these steps takes the same amount of time or close to it.

The exact length and timing of those steps varies. Hitting the mark comes most easily when everyone knows what they have to roll or has it clearly shown on their character sheet, where they are able to respond to changing circumstances without having to think about it, but it can still happen when it takes the same length of time for such obstructions for each. The shorter the interval, the more easily you can fall into pattern, so you also tend to notice this more with simpler game mechanics.

That’s all right, more sophisticated systems like D&D, Pathfinder, and the Hero System have their own compensatory advantages; making the rhythm of the game a little harder to access is one of the prices that you pay for that sophistication and depth.

This description makes the process sound very mechanical. In fact, it’s not; because the mechanics of the system are part of the pattern, they actually become less noticeable, mere implementations of and shapers of, the narrative flow of the action.

The existence of this rhythm becomes most obvious when something happens to disrupt it – if a player has to stop to look something up (be it on their character sheet or in a rulebook) and isn’t ready to take their turn when it falls to them to do so, for example.

Awareness of time

Because awareness of time is not a constant, especially without some metronomic influence, there is a certain amount of ‘give’ in the pattern. In particular, a pause that fits into the dynamics of the rhythm permits it to be restarted as thought it had never stopped – you hear this in music when a song stops, falling silent for a moment. This is usually a full bar or two or even four, but there have been some cases when 1/4 or 1/2 a bar have been used to “punctuate” the music.

Quite often, such pauses – especially shorter ones – will be “filled” with a drum-roll or some other piece of musical “color”.

This isn’t a blog about musical composition, so I won’t go into examples or details – listen analytically to pop music from the last 50 years and simply by paying attention to what you are hearing, you will find and identify many for yourself.

But the same thing happens at the gaming table. My rule of thumb is that if a player isn’t ready – hasn’t decided what they want their character to do, or needs to look something up – their action may start when the initiative/action rules say it does, but isn’t completed until after those who also act on that initiative/action number. If they still aren’t ready, their action doesn’t complete until the end of the next character’s turn – and repeat this last as necessary.

This keeps the rhythm going and turns the “offending” player’s turn into a couple of “drum fills” within the rhythm.

The alternatives? Well, the worst thing you can possibly do is to wait and then pick up with the next character immediately. There may be a certain amount of tolerance within the perception of rhythm – which will also vary under all sorts of circumstances – but the greater likelihood is that the “beats” will now fall in the wrong places and the rhythm will collapse into anarchic arrhythmia in terms of the perceptions (conscious or otherwise) of those taking part.

No, the better alternative is to momentarily interrupt combat to engage the players on some other level. Give them something else to think about/take into account (“the tires on the burning truck explode”, “with a rumble, the staircase that was damaged earlier collapses”, whatever), or have an NPC say something (even if it’s just a sneering threat, an encouragement to his side to “Keep fighting, we can still win this,” or sounding a voice of doubt “They are so much stronger than we thought they would be!”). This little “splash” of something different resets perceptions of the rhythm so that even if the combat then resumes, the rhythm can re-establish itself from zero.

The human response to music

It’s long been known by musicians that when people experience a compelling rhythm, heartbeats and other bodily functions tend to “lock into” that rhythm. Some are exciting, some naturally get the feet tapping and heads nodding in time, others are gentler and almost force people to relax. These are some of the many considerations beyond musicality that the soundtrack faces; to some extent, the composer can change the soundtrack to better fit the on-screen action, but to some extent it’s necessary to actually reedit the visuals to match the dynamic rhythm of the sounds. In films, the music tends to yield, even to the point of being recomposed to suit – watch the soundtrack-related extras for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for more insight. With music videos, the music is (usually) inviolate, and it is the vision that has to be edited to fit. Studying both – or simply paying close attention to both – and listening to interviews about the “making of” both was part of the process by which I became aware of the phenomenon, especially when I began looking for gaming relevance to the observations I was making.

In particular, “Close To Me” by the Cure, Video by Tim Pope, shed light on the relationship between images and sounds; the band actually remixed the song for the video, and it was this remixed version that was ultimately released to become the hit single. The creaking door at the start is the most obvious change that was made but other more subtle variations also resulted.

I’ve written about this sort of phenomenon before, being aware of it as part of the tools available for the emotional pacing of an RPG adventure or campaign. But that application has as much to do with the content as they rhythm; the subject today strips away much of that layer of relevance to look at something more fundamental, and more hidden.

“Swing” in music

It’s possible to change the “feel” of a piece of music quite markedly by relative adjustments of when a note falls, relative to the beat of the music. You can use the same basic four-by-four drum pattern and bass notes, and – depending on how you adjust it – get anything from reggae from disco. Drummers can also vary the “feel” of a piece by similarly adjusting when their drumbeats fall, even by a tiny amount; many do this by pure instinct, trying to get a particular sound or style.

Applied Principles

The same fundamentals can be applied to an RPG. Rolling for damage after you’ve rolled to hit, or rolling for damage at the same time and ignoring the roll on a miss, for example, changes the dynamic properties of the rhythm of the combat.

Again, most GMs tend to formulate such practices by instinct – they find something that works reasonably well for them and build their gaming practices around it from that point on, without really knowing what they are doing.

Once you do become aware of the phenomenon, however, you can begin to experiment and deliberately manipulate the process, looking for a pattern to give the combat the “feel” that you want. Subconsciously, you will begin to build up a “library” of rhythmic variations, something that happens naturally to some extent over time anyway. Better yet, if you pay a little conscious attention to the effects of these variations, you can start using them to manipulate other aspects of the game “feel” during combat.

For example, if you end each turn of combat with something that suggests the opposition are recovering, getting a second wind, or getting stronger, you can make the same battle seem far more difficult and threatening.

Experiments on the side

It’s even possible to do a bit of experimentation on the side. To do so, you need to find an example of play, especially an example of combat, one that gives the blow-by-blow of all the mechanics. Copy this text – even if you have to type it up yourself – into a word processor. Rewrite it into a series of dialogue statements by the players and GM if it isn’t already in that format. Then take a copy of it, and start making your experimental variations on that copy. Insert an additional line of color narrative after every action, or at the end of each turn. If “someone” pauses combat to ask a question, drop in one of the solutions to the “delay” described earlier. With each change, read the original to establish the rhythm, then read the modified version to assess the consequences. Read at different paces – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – to see what impact that has. And so on.

An hour or two of such experimentation can usually be squeezed in somewhere or other, since it’s all a one-off use of time. And if you get interrupted, so much the better – it means that your rhythmic base-line will be reset to zero each time. This exercise can actually be more effective as five minutes here and ten there than as a continuous block of time.

I’ve also found it enlightening to have different pieces of music playing – at a low volume – in the background, so that I can try to match my ‘reading” to the tempo and rhythm of the music.

The Rhythms Of Dialogue

Combat, because of the frequency of back-and-forth – the musical term would be “call and response” – may be the most noticeable manifestation of the game rhythm, but it’s far from being the only one.

Anyone who has written fiction knows that there is a rhythm to good, natural, dialogue. The cadence of the words forms the “metronome”; the number of such “beats” that comprises what one character says should be an even, simple, multiple of the number of beats to either side, and the greater the multiple, the less like dialogue and the more like a lecture the result. Commas and other pauses complicate things; sometimes these are a whole beat, and sometimes a half-beat. If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat”, like the ones in this sentence.

If I take that last sentence and remove the second comma, changing “ones” to “one”, it still makes a reasonable level of sense:

‘If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat” like the one in this sentence.’

It makes even more sense, and gets its point across more clearly, if that word is changed to one with an extra half-beat in it:

‘If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat” like the rhythm in this sentence.’

But the simplest solution is to do what I did with the original, and drop in a matching half-beat comma (and, for those interested, the first comma in this sentence is an example of a “full beat” comma; the natural inclination is to take in a silent breath at the end of “with the original”, lengthening the pause.

Well, that’s all fine for the novelist, who controls both sides of the conversation. It gets a little trickier when there are two separate parties involved, and you only control half the conversation.

But, if you pay close attention to real-world conversations, you will find that they tend to follow this same pattern. One person will say something, and the other person will say something that’s about as long in reply (counted in beats of the natural cadence), or twice as long, or three times as long. And, furthermore, there will be an instinctive reaction on the part of the person listening to that response to “punctuate” the full measure with a nod, or an “okay”, or something – they have naturally fallen into rhythm.

If the reply is short of matching the full multiple of the initial question, the overwhelming temptation will be to adjust the length of the reply to the reply either to the amount that it is short, to tell the other speaker to “continue” or “go on”, or to make the response a multiple of the statement or vice-versa, establishing a new rhythm to the conversation. But that doesn’t happen very often; there is a natural tendency to fill such gaps with information-zero “filler” content, humanizing the conversation. Very few conversations are 100% to the point from start to finish, and those that are seem terse and militaristic, not conversational at all.

That’s also why monosyllabic replies always seem abrupt, and can often end a conversation, even if the topic isn’t yet exhausted.

If you don’t yield to this temptation, the second speaker will be compelled, almost subconsciously, to pod their reply to get back into the same rhythm, or to adjust their next reply to the new rhythm; the more strongly the pattern has been established, the more they will tend toward the first choice.

There’s a lot more to this than I’ve related here; I haven’t touched on the impact of emphasis of certain words, for example – but this is a good starting point, and lets me get to the point of relevance: Canned dialogue and improvised exchanges between characters. If you want to understand more, study a textbook on speech-writing and oratory.

Application 1: Improvised Dialogue

Improvised dialogue will naturally tend to fall into the rhythmic pattern of the conversation. Knowing what it happening, with practice, you can manipulate your side of those conversations to influence the other side, creating gaps into which characterization and roleplay get inserted without the player even realizing what’s happening at the time. The more deeply into-character they are, the more those “fillers” will derive from the character and the less they will be verbal attributes of the player.

Application 2: Canned Dialogue

The following is an extract of canned dialogue from the next Zenith-3 adventure:

“St Barbara, this is the Bright Cutter.” (reply)
    “There is a matter that I would like to discuss with you. Is this a convenient time? I can call back if you’re busy.” (reply)
    “Defender approached me for a chat earlier this morning. I understand that he has been systematically doing so for all the team members, so I was flattered to be included.” (reply)
    “We discussed a wide range of subjects, covering everything from sociology to automata independence, from orbital combat tactics to human/non-human relations.” (reply)
    “In the course of the latter subject of discussion, he suggested…”

First, notice that the second sentence from the Bright Cutter (10 beats) is roughly the same length as the first (8 beats), but a third and fourth sentence then follow which total roughly the same length again (10 beats). Even if the first reply is only a word or two long, without much social chitchat, the rhythm of the conversation becomes established by this repetition of length. The second reply will almost certainly be 8-10 beats long – “No, this is fine, what’s on your mind? (9 beats including two half-beat commas), for example.

The third line of dialogue from the Bright Cutter has two halves, totaling about four times the original 8 beats. But the first sentence is 9 beats long in my usual speaking voice, continuing to reinforce the pattern. There’s not much that can be said in reply aside from a prompt for more information, a social nicety – “go on” (two beats, or 1/4 of the original length), or “what did you talk about?” (4 beats) are both likely responses that perpetuate the rhythm.

The fourth line of dialogue is almost exactly the same length as the third, but leaves unanswered the question of why this conversation is relevant to the PC at the other end of the conversation, which is the subject of the likely response from the player.

The fifth line, of course, starts to answer that question, but I have very deliberately redacted the rest of the planned conversation; suffice it to say that there is only another line or two planned and that the rest of the conversation will need to be improved as the two react to each other’s statements, and since I don’t know for certain how St Barbara’s player will react to the ‘meaty bit’ of the conversation, I couldn’t pre-script it.

No doubt, as you read the extract, the replies would be filled in almost automatically. This is how I used canned dialogue: to impart specific information (which I have redacted from this extract), to establish the character of the speaker through his speech patterns – in this case, intellectual, submissive, meek, even a little attention-starved, and asserting himself in a way that is most unusual for him – which usually signals trouble for the PCs, because it only happens when there is good reason for it.

Here’s another extract, presented without context:

“Mah gudness! Uv co-ahse ah wull hulp in aneh whay ah can. Yuh have come tuh the raght place, Hon-ahy!
    “In 2023, thuh city was menaced by Hurricane Inguh, but thuh levee banks held, though it wuz a close thing fo-ah a while. It wuz then that thuh Society realized thut today is the history of tumorrah, und that we needed tah conserve whut wuz all around us, raht now. We partnered with Ghugle to examine and catalog everah building, everah fixtuh. Und we made shoah to preserve ut least won uv everahthang. Let muh just consult ow-uh datuhbase…”
* Pretend to type on a keyboard for “datuhbase” x2

This is an example of a larger block of text, presented in “lecture” mode, i,e, the PC isn’t expected to make any substantiative contribution to this part of the conversation – it’s an NPC talking to the PC, not an exchange between them. It does eventually migrate into such an exchange, and has already been one for the exchange of social niceties and the PC telling the NPC what he or she wants from them.

Notable is that I have deliberately used phonetics to help me establish a distinctive accent (which I rarely do), in this case something vaguely akin to a southern drawl. There’s also loads of characterization built in – the speaker is clearly bubbly, enthusiastic, educated, and passionate about their cause. Again, eventually, this will need to become an improvised exchange as it becomes more of a conversation, but the most important content – game background, history that the PC doesn’t know (Hurricane Inga and its social consequences within this person’s narrow context) – gets imparted in the pre-planned dialogue, which is its primary purpose within the adventure.

(And apologies to anyone who feels I haven’t really captured the southern accent!)

These blocks of text are clearly long enough that unless the PC responds at length, any pattern is broken. And yet, there IS such a pattern – the first line is three sentences of three beats, ten beats, and nine beats, respectively. The second line up to “Inga” (phonetically, “Inhuh”) is ten beats long, the next part (up to “held”) is five beats long, and the third part is ten beats again. The first half of the next line is 14 or 15 beats long if I drawl out the end of “tumorrah”, and the rest of the line is another 15 beats (thanks to the inclusion of “, raht now” at the end. So, after the initial 3-beat exclamation, everything is following a multiple-of-five-beats rhythm. I continue that rhythm through the next passage, and then deliberately break it with the final sentence, 7 beats in length, enabling me to pause for three beats to indicate action being taken by pretending to type on a keyboard.

Also note that one of the primary characteristics of the faux-accent imparted phonetically is to draw out some words, and break others that would normally be one beat long into two. If I could “put on” an appropriate accent off the top of my head, the phonetics would not be necessary, but I would have to read the text aloud to get the rhythm right. I can’t, so I make the phonetics do double duty. And yes, it does give my spell-correction routine fits!

Dialogue/Narrative Rhythms

Anyone can count out rhythms within pre-planned lines of dialogue. Anyone can tell whether or not a line of improv’d dialogue falls into the rhythm of the conversation, or is too long or short – and will usually instinctively try to pad their dialogue to correct the problem. But most people aren’t aware of the presence of these patterns, let alone thought about what happens when they are violated – never mind intentionally doing so for effect. Yet, these techniques are as accessible to beginners as to experienced GMs, if not more-so.

Your primary focus for any line of dialogue or canned narrative should always be to achieve its’ primary purpose, usually the imparting of information. Your secondary focus should always be adding as much depth of flavor (narrative) or characterization (dialogue) as you can squeeze in. Being aware of the rhythms recognizes the existence of a third layer of impact, one that can enhance or interfere with those primary functions of the text, and one that can be manipulated for effect.

The Wider Picture

Having found rhythms in combat, and looked at how to manipulate them for impact and nuance and flow, and then finding them in dialogue, and – by implication – in narrative, and looking at how to manipulate those and what the effects are of doing so, there doesn’t appear to be much of the game that does not have underlying patterns and rhythms.

Even beyond the topics discussed, the basic give-and-take between player and GM qualifies – and is subject to the same manipulations.

The Emotional Pacing series of articles (Part 1, Part 2, The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson, and the Further Thoughts On Pacing series of four articles) talk about whole-of-adventure and even whole-of-campaign patterns and rhythms that can be found implicit in the content of what takes place – the plot and the context in which it occurs. In a way, this is a deeper layer of the same subject.

You can spend a lifetime mastering this one aspect of the GMs’ craft. But even partial mastery is available to anyone, no matter what their experience level as a GM, and progress is easier for Beginners than it is for experienced GMs from at least one point of view (it can also be argued that the very experienced, who have enough of the craft down pat that they can focus attention on other things also have an advantage), and the benefits of doing so are immediately accessible. The sooner you start paying attention to this stuff, the faster your game and GMing skills will improve.

In two weeks time (give or take), this series will continue with Part 11: Campaigns!

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With A Polished Pen

gold fountain pen writing

Image provided by / len-k-a

During the week I thought up a design for an infographic that would have encapsulated last week’s post in a single, easy-to-digest/use diagram. But Infographics aren’t my strong suit and I have no experience at doing them, and it became clear that it was going to take longer to complete than it was worth – or that I could spare. So, instead, you get this rather short article to chew on.

A conversation over the weekend got me thinking about the fact that there are still some things that I find easier to do with old=fashioned pen-and-paper than I do with a word processor. That, in turn, led me to reflect on how some things are far more easily done with hardcopies than with text files. And it occurred to me that some people out there might be missing a bet by not taking advantage of the format that is best-suited to the needs they have at the moment.

Baseline: What’s a Word Processor Good For?

A word processor has four big advantages. There’s a guarantee of legibility – that should never be underestimated. You can move or insert blocks of text around, seamlessly (or as close to it as sometimes-fussy technology permits. You can type over the top of what’s already there, perfectly replacing it. And you can provide someone else (or another device) a copy of the text at will, one that is guaranteed to be identical to the original at the time of duplication.

I take advantage of all four of these on a regular basis; my gaming wouldn’t be the same without them.


The legibility side of things is fairly self-evident and self-explanatory. Any problems in relaying/implementing what I’ve written, especially when the text is augmented with action codes, is due to my limitations and imperfections, not the source material that I’ve created. Action Codes are little symbol strings that give function and meaning to what I’ve written. These are usually fairly self-explanatory when they first appear, but do vary from time to time.


  • *** = instructions, eg “CON Check -4” which instructs the PC being addressed to make a CON check. If necessary, or it might be unclear, I specify which PC. That sometimes happens when the modifiers – the “-4” – are different from one character to another. This also indicates a key decision by the players.
  • [space]-[space] = narrative/interpretation branch based on the outcome of the instructions. Examples include “- success”, “- fail”, “- critical”, and so on. I prefer whenever possible to keep these to one line or less, if necessary pointing at numbered paragraphs/sections of text that follow. So one might read, “- success: PC gains entry, read parag 4a.” At the end of parag 4a, there will be another instruction, of the type I’m about to describe.
  • – – > [parag number]= “go to paragraph and keep reading.”
  • %%% = instructions to me as GM, especially relating to how I want to deliver the next block of text, the emotional tone, etc – “%%% sadly” for example, or “%%% cover mouth with wiggling fingers”.
  • [ ] or ( ) = external reference, directing me to show or consult that reference. I use these for three different things: “[Pic 15]” means show the image that I’ve labeled as number 15; “[Hand out X]” means that I have produced a handout of some kind and this is the right time to issue it to the players; and [p158 RBook] tells me that the table I am about to need is on page 158 of the rulebook – though I’m usually more explicit about which rulebook I’m referring to – “PHB”, “DMG”, or whatever.
  • <[condition]: [text]> and <[PC]: note #> indicates a paragraph of optional text and the circumstances under which to read it, or to give a written note to a player.
Move or insert blocks of text

One of the key techniques that I employ is rotating the spotlight around the table at regular intervals at break points in the plot/narrative. This is how I handle a party that has split up. But it’s far easier to write up one character’s entire narrative in one hit and then break it up.

For example, Let’s say I have four PCs: Aldo, Brutus, Clair, and Dobbins. In scene 4 of the plot, they have each gone their separate ways to each tackle a different aspect of an investigation. The entire scene is expected to take about 40 minutes, and should share the spotlight evenly into four ten-minute blocks. I start by writing the 10-minute plot block for Aldo, then do the one for Brutus, and so on.

But ten minutes is too long to maintain the spotlight on one player without getting the others involved. 2-3 minutes is acceptable, 1-2 minutes is better, 4-5 minutes is the absolute maximum – though that varies with genre and a whole heap of other factors. In this case, I would usually split the text of each character’s solo plot thread into three or four sections, as evenly as possible. Then I cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop – usually more the first than the second those sections to interweave the narratives, ending up with scenes 4a, 4b, 4c, and so on.

These blocks of text don’t have to be contemporaneous; one might be “now”, one might be “an hour from now”, a third might be “tomorrow”, and a fourth might be set in the “overnight” in between. That’s better than having two players twiddle their fingers for 20 minutes and the rest do so for 30 minutes.

Nor do they have to follow a rigorously fixed pattern of “A1, B1, C1, D1, A2, B2, C2, D2, A3…”; I employ the pattern that best fits the emotional intensity that I want to the situation with, and also take into consideration travel time and the like. The smaller the passages that you break the narrative into, the more flexibility you have. I might want the sequence to be “B1, A1, C1, D1, C2, A2, B2, C3, D2, B3, D3, A3.”

With practice, you can even break them unevenly, both in length and in number, within the constraints given earlier, though this can be risky – you need to be pretty sure that the plot won’t go off-script, or that you have the bases covered. By the time you incorporate optional text blocks – ones that only happen if a PC does a particular thing – the structure can be quite complex.

Overtyping Text

As I described in One Word At A Time: How I Usually Write A Blog Post, I usually plot things out in synopsis form and then expand on that. In fact, there are usually three stages: I outline the action in sequential blocks, synopsize each block, intersperse them as described above, and then do the final expansion into ready-to-play text in play sequence. This permits a new level of sophistication in which PCs can contact each other, contribute to each other’s plotlines, step into one sub-scene (briefly interrupting their own plotline) and then step out again, even trade plotlines. But this is a very advanced application of the technique, it’s something I’ve only just started to master. And it won’t work at all if you aren’t good at keeping the big picture in mind while micromanaging the individual plot sequences; as soon as one PC goes off-script (and that happens all the time) you will hopelessly lost, otherwise.

This lets me incorporate counterpoints and subtexts and plot twists and more polished forms of plot structure in ways that would be otherwise far more difficult. I can have one character caught up in a situation that is very different from the one he was expecting even as another character is discovering why the situation is different, and a second is discovering a context to the situation that makes it more important than it seems – or less, or just different.

The easiest way to do all this is to complete one pass of the plot structure, then copy-and-paste and overtype. Paragraph becomes bullet points becomes interspersed bullet points becomes plot and narrative.

Here’s part of a real-world example from an upcoming session of the Adventurer’s Club (with details redacted as necessary to protect our secrets):

SpacerDH01 +2 SpacerApproached… Backstory to the DH mini-plot
SpacerFR01 +3 SpacerContacted by…, Backstory to the FR mini-plot
SpacerCF01 +8 SpacerThe Approach & The Deal
SpacerEB01 +1 SpacerOld Friend in trouble, Backstory to the EB mini-plot
SpacerSB01 +3 SpacerA visit from…
SpacerFR02 +3-+6 SpacerFake, Fortune, or Scrap?
SpacerDH02 +3 SpacerVisit and view
SpacerSB02 +4 SpacerConsult [another PC]
SpacerFR03 +7-+8 SpacerDecision
SpacerDH03 +4 SpacerDay or Night?
SpacerSB03 +5 SpacerVisiting …
SpacerCF02 +11 SpacerBoarding
SpacerEB02 +1 Spacer[place] to [place] to On [place] to [place]
SpacerFR04 +8-+9 SpacerGetting … Involved
Spacer… and so on

The first column identifies the PC and the scene within their semi-solo plotlines, the second is in days since the end of the last adventure, and the third contains the (redacted) “bullet point summary” of that part of the plot. If you examine this closely, you’ll see every one of the techniques I’ve touched on in use – from two PCs getting part three of their plots before everyone else has their part two’s; time being shuffled between the different PCs by as much as 10 days just in this section of the whole; crossing plotlines (in SB02) – the dating information is for us to use if the PCs go off-script so that we can see at a glance where the other PCs are supposed to be and what we expect them to be doing.

In short, because my adventures would have to be structured differently without the use of the ability to copy, paste, and then overtype, the adventures themselves would be different.

Perfect Replication

In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, it’s normal for us to use two laptops – one to display images and maps, and the other to show us the adventure as we have written it up. But there have been times when it’s been useful to have them both showing different parts of the same adventure at the same time, and (to make sure they don’t get lost), we only make notes about the adventure on one machine, then port a fresh copy of that over to the other machine using a USB memory stick.

What’s more, most things are written on a third machine again – the one I am currently using to write this article. So the actual playing technique that we employ would be different without this attribute of a document file.

Hardcopy advantages

Hardcopy is also perfectly legible (printer supplies and problems excepted). Hardcopy isn’t power-dependent. You can scrawl notes, and express abstract ideas directly on the page. You can easily sketch battlemap layouts, or thumbnails of a scene to help organize and structure your thoughts when drafting plots or narrative, you can attach sticky notes, you can highlight key passages or things that need more attention, you can have multiple copies that are identical, and you can easily look at one page right next to a completely non-sequential page without the text becoming unmanageably small. Hardcopy can be physically manipulated. You don’t have to stop doing one thing to look at something else. Finally, hardcopy can be selectively distributed – we will always preference hardcopy for player notes, for example – Print them all and then slice them up. Those are some very useful attributes to have.

There was a time when everything we did was geared for hardcopy; we had no laptops. If we couldn’t produce it physically, we didn’t have it.

Even now, we will keep key Adventurer’s Club NPCs in hardcopy – making it easy to find and re-use them the next time that NPC appears.

The next Zenith-3 adventure has so many NPCs that I produced a hardcopy list of them to make sure that when I added another one, I didn’t repeat a name. Some of these are intended to recur from time to time, others will remain in the background to recur when the PCs want to involve them, or the next time we need someone in that particular role, and some are intended to vanish into obscurity immediately after their scene ends.

With this mighty pen

It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that hardcopy bridges the gulf between pen-and-paper and text document. It shares most of the advantages of both – so much so that (aside from the perfect legibility), the advantages list for one would seem to be much the same as for the other.

Not so. The process is different, and that imparts its own, additional, set of advantages – and potential drawbacks. When you write something long-hand, you have to think about what you are writing a lot more; with a word processor, thoughts tend to flow onto the page far more readily (and, sometimes, sloppily). That, in turn, makes it easier to absorb and memorize something.

Layout is another big issue – while they have grown more sophisticated, it still can take quite a bit of effort to create the layout of a complex table in a word processor, and mistakes can be extremely difficult to figure out. Doing your design on paper first can save lots of grief. This is especially true when you haven’t figured out exactly what you want yet, when your thinking is still vague and abstract.

Similarly, if I were to attempt algebra using a word processor, I would continually have to stop and think about layout instead of thinking about the equation, and have to count brackets to be sure I hadn’t missed one – or inserted one too many. I can draw them as big as I need them without thinking about it, doing analysis on paper. Here’s an expression from my Spam-track spreadsheet: IF(L3<1,7+I3+J3,INT(((0.6*((E3*INT(E3+0.5*F3)+F3)*(1+0.904257878278)+G3+(H3+0.5)^2+I3+J3))-7)/3+7.5)) – this determines, from the different variables I have defined, how long a specific condition should be applied for. That condition might be “monitor”, it might be “block”, or it might be the equivalent of “on parole”. If it yields a value higher than a threshold, the originating IP gets tested for permanent blocking – with the default answer being “yes, unless…”.

Trying to come up with this in-spreadsheet would have been very difficult – in fact, I tried doing that and made a mess of it. Three messes, in fact – the E3/F3 complex was wrong, the H3 factor was wrong, and the final range was scaled incorrectly (that’s the “-7, divide by 3, add 7.5” part of the expression at the end). But, when I put it down on paper, with the freedom to put variables where I needed them to be in relation to each other and with brackets big enough to make the relationship between them obvious, it became clear what the right answer was. Because each step of the calculation is built on its own specific logic and guidelines, it gives the right answers.

And, lastly, I used to be able to handwrite much faster than I can type, even now. Not as neatly – not even close – but when time-crunched, the ability to write a page every minute or so can be a life-saver!

Bottom line: There are things that can be done more easily with pen and paper than with any computer. There are things that might only be possible to someone that way, just as there are things that can be done more quickly – or possibly, only – with a computer. Every GM is different – explore the possibilities to find out what works for YOU.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 12th Shelf


The Twelfth Shelf: Beliefs III – Superstition, Mysticism, and More – Introduction by Mike

Strange creatures. Strange beliefs. We pass no judgment on the reality of any of them; in fact, from a game point of view (and regardless of any personal opinion) there’s always room for the fantastic in an RPG.

In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we’ve had Zombies. We’ve had mutated homeless people living in the sewers under New York City (no alligators yet, though – just one piece of alligator-skin luggage). We’ve had Chinese Vampires, and something a little more traditional in the European sense. We’ve had giant, mutated alligators in the Florida Swamps. We’ve had Nazis pretend to be ghosts, and almost convince the players that the PCs were encountering genuinely supernatural phenomena. We’ve had modern-day descendants of Dinosaurs, and an unknown species of Great Ape (actually, that last was all Blair). We’ve had Vodou Houngans. We’ve had something suspiciously like alchemy and something that was definitely gem-based magic.

The supernatural has been a recurring, ongoing, plot element within our Pulp Campaign – simply because it expands our palette so much more than a more real-world hard-nose “none of this is real” approach would do. Sometimes, the weirdness is central to the plot, sometimes it’s peripheral; sometimes, it’s central to an encounter, sometimes not.

Our general rule of thumb is that belief in science multiplied by the population density of those who so believe creates a “suppression field” that declines as the inverse square of distance. Which means that if you have a large population who believe science has, or will have, all the answers, magic and the supernatural have a very hard time of it, and science is mostly right and reliable – in principle. The farther away from that population you get, the more scope there is for things to get strange. And if there’s a large population who aren’t completely convinced that science holds all the answers, science may not hold all the answers – but the closer to that population the adventure occurs, the more rigorously nature will conform to local belief. Go to the wrong village in Germany and there really might be a Troll under the bridge, even as Nazis goose-step across it.

But we have also demonstrated on a number of occasions that there are ways for the paranormal to be “enhanced” so that it can function entirely adequately even in the heart of the most modern metropolis. Pentagrams, potions, enchanted gems from the outside, even a little smoke and mirrors to make the viewer receptive… The way in which it manifests may be more explicable by science (or may not), but it works, nevertheless. The phenomena themselves change gear to conform to local expectations.

Which means that if alligators ever do (or ever have) gotten flushed into the New York Sewers, look out! Belief – be it in urban legends or in the supernatural – is the primary agent in dictating the reality, and is therefore self-reinforcing. And there is always more to the story than meets the eye.

But belief remains the common thread that binds it all together into a cohesive whole. And it’s also what binds the content of this shelf of the Reference Library together.

This shelf became a monster, which in a way, is strangely appropriate, given the content. It contained more than 240 recommendations, which would have made it the second-biggest to date (the prize-holder would still be Shelf 5, with 269 recommendations). That’s roughly six times the size that it was originally projected to be, when the taxonomy was laid out. At the eleventh hour last week, the decision was made to split the intended eleventh shelf in two, the first half with ghosts (and a little overflow from the 10th shelf), and this one with everything else that reflects the power of belief.

Relevance to other genres

We can’t think of any subject more ubiquitous to RPGs, regardless of genre, than this one. Where would D&D be without it’s strange beasts? Where would Star Trek be without it’s not-quite-humans? Where would a James Bond RPG be without secret organizations? Bond would be unemployed, for a start!

There really is something for everyone on this shelf.

book with countryside spilling out of it

Image provided by / Mysticsartdesign

Shelf Introduction

We have divided this shelf into five sections and sixteen subsections. Many of them are very small, with only one or two entries; others are vast.

I mentioned a moment ago that what was originally going to be Shelf 11 had become a monster. There are two very good reasons for this:

First, the late discovery of a number of series of books, some of which have now been extracted into their own subsections; and second, the very high degree of crossover between the different sections, which made it almost-impossible to subdivide the shelf into more manageable chunks. Take the regional myths and legends – some are True Crime, some are rumors, some are Cryptozoology, some are superstitions, some are ghosts, and some are extracts from indigenous religious beliefs – all within the one book.

Editorially, Mike did his best to slot things into a logically-progressive sequence, but don’t just look in the section devoted to any particular subject of interest or you will miss a LOT of potentially-valuable references.

That nice, neat taxonomy was blown to pieces by separating the two halves of the monster-sized shelf, but I have retained the section numbering (which usually doesn’t get displayed) so that readers who want to read the entries in the context of the backstory to the article can do so. Some of the comments may not make a lot of sense, otherwise!

2. Vodou – There are lots of books about “voodoo” and most of them aren’t worth the paper they are printed on except as sensationalist idea-fodder. Most serious books on the subject use the correct term, Vodou.

3. Secret Societies – “Secret” is perhaps a misnomer. While some of these qualify, a better description might be “Secretive” – and even that is changing in some cases. We cover Knights Templar, Freemasons, Intelligence Organizations, and more. And are only too keenly aware that we probably didn’t look hard enough for content for this section – there’s nothing on the KGB or its predecessors? How did that happen? Pardon me while we correct that!

3.1 KGB / Chekists – The KGB wasn’t formed until after World War II, but it’s not a difficult matter to temporally relocate that formation into the later pulp era if the GM thinks the recognition-factor benefits of the notorious intelligence service outweigh the probative value of historical accuracy. Fortunately, the books we have selected are equally useful, either way.

3.2 Allied intelligence/security services – You can’t really list the KGB and their forebear agency without at least paying lip service to those who opposed them. The CIA weren’t created until 1947, a final response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1942 to 1945, they were preceded by the OSS, but that had a definite War orientation. “Prior to the formation of the OSS, American intelligence had been conducted on an ad-hoc basis by the various departments of the executive branch”; “It had no overall direction, coordination, or control.” So that leaves us with only a couple of choices in this category. But we’ve found some good resources relating to them.

3.3 Kali Worship / Thugee Cults – Mike used all his best material in reviewing “Children of Kali” for this subsection. History may say Kali Worship wasn’t a problem during the Pulp Era, but as Pulp GMs we’ve never been afraid to ignore, stonewall, corrupt, manipulate or outright fabricate, history when that suited our game needs and purposes. Or anything else, for that matter.

3.4 Cults in general – A healthy rivalry is always a good thing, and for Pulp Purposes, that principle extends to having several different cults and groups of nut cases running around to get in the PCs way. These books should help.

3.5 Knights Templar – The Knights Templar were active, according to history, from 1129 to 1312, according to Wikipedia. But they were caught up in the legends of the Holy Grail, and anyone who’s seen Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade knows that this makes them Pulp-relevant – especially if rumors of their organization’s dissolution were greatly exaggerated.

3.6 The Freemasons – Secrecy was a watchword for this society up until recent times, and it led to the most extraordinary conspiracy theories. We don’t want to get lost down that particular rabbit hole, but as a real group who were definitely active during the pulp era, we can’t ignore them, either. Fortunately, they have started to become far more open, perhaps in reaction to those conspiracy theories, and so we have a couple of books about the reality and not the myths.

4. Urban Legends – A select group of books from a very wide field. There’s something for everyone in these pages – ghost stories, cryptozoology, true crime, and more.

4.1 Regional Myths & Legends – In the course of researching and compiling the Cryptozoology section, we came across a number of books best described as “regional cryptozoology” (and grouped that way, see below). There were about a dozen of these in a clearly-related series which we have referred to as the “Monsters Of” series. These were set aside for Mike to review and drop-in as 11th-hour additions to the original shelf. In the process of doing so, he discovered a related series, the “Ghosts Of” series, and that, in turn, led us to the “Myths and Mysteries” series that leads this section off. Along the way, he found other books that also fitted into this category. Mostly US-oriented.

5. Cryptozoology – Cryptozoology is the study of creatures that are not acknowledged as having valid existence by “conventional” zoology. The term was coined in the 1950s and has been a staple of sensational reporting ever since. We’ve tried to distinguish and discern between those books that take the subject seriously and scientifically, and those written by “True Believers” – and there are some ring-ins from popular culture and literature, as well.

5.1 Monsters and outer-fringe Cryptozoology – Part of that effort is to group some books that openly deal with the cryptozoology depicted in movies and literature, and some that seem less… “plausible” isn’t quite the right word. Less-rigorous? That will do…

5.2 Regional Cryptozoology – Researching topics in this entire shelf was a maze, as one discovery opened up new avenues to other works. The open invitation into this rabbit-hole was the first book listed in this section. Others followed… US-dominated at first, but eventually a couple of more broadly-based reference works were found to round out the section.

7 General Mysticism, Superstitions, and Other Strange Stuff – This started out as a dumping ground for everything else that fitted under the superstition / mysticism / strange stuff category. When it started getting too anarchic, Mike subdivided almost everything into the subsections below.

7.1 Mysticism/Mystery Compendiums – These books contain a little bit of everything. Those usually head off a shelf, but here they are used as a last word on most of the subjects.

7.2 Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy – We’ve been very strict in this section and listed only a bare minimum of 1 or 2 comprehensive references.

7.3 Gemstone Lore – Similarly, we specifically wanted to avoid getting tangled up in the New Age spiderweb in this section, because that has limited utility to most GMs.

7.4 Strange (but mostly True) Stuff – There aren’t many books listed in this section but the ones that are have obvious utility.

7.5 Documentaries about Strange (but mostly True) Stuff – Mike persuaded the others that in the pulp era, “Hypnotism” was viewed with almost superstitious awe, and these documentaries which get to the heart of what one of the best in the world can do with his talents and skills and what limitations he has to overcome along the way were essential subjects for the Pulp GM. Expect jaw-dropping moments in the course of watching these. It’s also worth noting that these are a very select choice, if you enjoy them, there are more to seek out.

7.6 Strange (but mostly Dubious/Fringe) Stuff – Since this is what the entire shelf is mostly about, almost everything has been separated out into other categories and subcategories. This is what was left.

7.7 Crystal Skulls – We hummed and ha’d quite a bit over where Crystal Skulls should be listed, after overlooking them completely for most of the research phase of the series. They get a mention in the fringe science section – should they have been a dedicated subsection on that shelf? Are they mere archaeological artifacts, placing them in the “valuables” section of the “things” shelf, or in the “treasures” section of the odds-and-sods shelf? Ultimately, the strangeness and sheer variety of beliefs concerning these objects won us over for inclusion here.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation. But it some cases, that was more than four months ago.


Books About Vodue


Spacer Creole Religions of the Caribbean

1050. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo (2nd ed.) – Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

The nations of the Caribbean have always been a melting pot of influences from all over the place, and yet these syntheses always seem to be more than a simple blending of the sources. This process, when applied to culture and religious beliefs, is so distinctive that it has been given a name: Creolization, the coming together of diverse beliefs and practices to form new beliefs and practices. This book provides “a comprehensive introduction to the syncretic religions that have developed” in the Caribbean, from Vodou (frequently dogmatized be western sensationalists as ‘Voodoo’) to Santeria, from Regla de Palo to Obeah, and more, it traces the cultural origins of the beliefs and places them into context.

New copies cost $17.42 or more, used start at $13.31. There is a Kindle edition for about $10, and a few hardcover copies for as little as $6.67 – but most of those cost considerably more.

Haitian Vodou

1051. Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition – Mambo Chita Tann

This book would have been useful on several occasions when we had to rely on Hollywood ‘interpretations’ (more sensationalism) and a little historical knowledge that Blair brought to the table. It includes discussions of Customs, beliefs, sacred spaces, and ritual objects, the Characteristics and behaviors of the Loa (the spirits served by Vodou practitioners), Common misconceptions such as “voodoo dolls” and the zombie phenomenon, Questions and answers for attending ceremonies and getting involved in a sosyete (Vodou house), and provides an extensive list of reference books and online resources. 36 of 43 reviews rated it five stars out of five, the rest rated it 3-4.

Available in Kindle and Paperback.

Tell My Horse

1052. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica – Zora Neale Hurston

Believe it or not, this is Amazon’s #1 best-seller in Travel Guides for Haiti (or it was at the time of review)! Anyway – given what we’ve said in the previous recommendation, you might wonder what this book is doing in the list. The Amazon description will answer that question: “Based on acclaimed author Zora Neale Hurston’s personal experiences in Haiti and Jamaica—where she participated as an initiate rather than just an observer during her visits in the 1930s—Tell My Horse is a fascinating firsthand account of the mysteries of Voodoo. An invaluable resource and remarkable guide to Voodoo practices, rituals, and beliefs, it is a travelogue into a dark, mystical world that offers a vividly authentic picture of ceremonies, customs, and superstitions.” This is the foundation book for the perception of “Voodoo” in the Pulp Era.

Paperback and Kindle.

Voodoo In Haiti

1053. Voodoo In Haiti – Alfred Metraux, translated by Hugo Charteris

Metraux is described as “one of the most distinguished anthropologists of the twentieth century” – which may well be true; the record detailed on his Wikipedia Page is certainly impressive. Born in 1902 and dead in 1963, this is a “rich and lasting study of the lives and rituals of the Haitian mambos and adepts, and of the history and origins of their religion.” The description further claims that this is an “accurate and engaging account” of the culture. The book is described as informative but full of the most extremely condescending tone possible. This 432-page edition dates from 1989, quite obviously the first was a lot sooner. Even though Metraux was a prodigy, he was in his twenties when he began his research, and post-WWII he was engaged in other activities, leaving only a small window of 21 years in which this book could have been written, with a greater likelihood of it being from the first half of that period or so, ie 1924-1935. Once again, this appears to be directly relevant to the Pulp period.

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Voodoo

1054. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Voodoo – Shannon R Turlington

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Voodoo – Shannon R Turlington
Mike definitely wants a copy of this for his non-Pulp Zenith-3 campaign (in which the PCs are based in 2056 New Orleans), but it would have been just as useful in the first adventure that he and Blair collaborated on for the Adventurer’s Club campaign. And when the Houngan Priest from that adventure was recruited to join an alliance of the Adventurer’s Club’s enemies, a while later. And when Saxon’s character had his encounter with giant mutated Alligators in the Florida Everglades in a solo adventure based loosely on a blend of the origin stories of The Man-Thing (Marvel Comics) and Swamp Thing (DC Comics) and the original series Thunderbirds episode, “Attack Of The Alligators!”, when it wasn’t clear whether it was science run amok, or sorcery, .or some confluence between the two, that was responsible. Or when another Houngan was encountered in Hell. That’s nearly 20% of the adventures that we’ve run – and more than enough justification for the inclusion of this book.

Paperback: 24 used from $8.94, 6 new from too-expensive):

More copies: 16 used from $14.95, 14 new from absolutely-too-expensive):


Books About Secret Societies

We have employed the broadest possible interpretation of the term “Secret Societies”, one that covers everything from Knights Templar to MI6 and some strange points in-between.

The Atlas Of Secret Societies

1055. The Atlas of Secret Societies – David V. Barrett

A good overview of various secret societies and where they were supposed to be located, with great photographic reference. Deals primarily with historical Secret Societies.

Secret Societies Inside History's Most Mysterious Organizations

1056. Secret Societies: Inside History’s Most Mysterious Organizations – Edited by Kelly Knauer (Time)

Another good overview, contains some that aren’t in the the Barrett book. Some of the entries are more modern than the Pulp Era.

The Element Encyclopedia Of Secret Societies

1057. The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies – John Michael Greer

An encyclopedic listing of a broad range of secret societies, concepts, and major members. Available in three formats, which Amazon has listed separately for some reason, all with slightly different covers:

Kindle & some paperbacks; Paperbacks (pictured, many cheaper than those found at the previous link); and Hardcover & expensive paperbacks Of these, we recommend the hardcover be your first choice if you can afford it because it is described as an “Expanded Edition” with almost 700 pages vs almost 600.

Conspiracy Theories For Dummies

1058. Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies For Dummies – Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon

This book is supposed to cover the most famous (and infamous) conspiracy theories and secret societies of history. Even if it misses a few or deals with the subject in too shallow a manner, this is still going to be a good starting point for the subject.

Kindle $13.66; Paperback 26 new from $13.40, 36 used from $6.16

More paperback copies: 7 new from $21.49, 10 used from $11.38

Books About The KGB / Chekists


The Sword And The Shield

1059. The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB – Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

Based on one of the greatest intelligence coups in history, in which Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled the most classified documents out of the KGB every day for 12 years before he and his entire archive was exfiltrated in 1992. The archive covers the entire period from the Bolshevik Revolution to the 1980s. While most of this will focus on the Cold War, the pre-KGB period of the Pulp Era receives its share of the attention.

The Book is plentiful and cheap. 736 pages, hardcover from $6.49 and paperback from $3.68, with hundreds of copies available between these formats (most second-hand, but there are also more than 60 new copies on offer).

Chekisty A History of the KGB

1060. Chekisty: A History of the KGB – John H Dziak

This book traces the history of Russian Intelligence in a concise format from 1917 to approximately 1988. Which may make it more useful as a reference.

288 pages, Hardcover (35 used from $0.01, 6 new from about $38) or Mass market paperback (27 used from $0.01, 5 new from $41 or thereabouts).

Russia and the Cult of State Security

1061. Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition from Lenin to Putin – Julie Fedor

This book doesn’t meet our criteria for listing but it is too essential for anyone who wants to pursue further studies of this subject, because this includes details of who Putin, like Stalin and Lenin before him (just to name two), has attempted and continues to attempt to rewrite history and the mythology that he has attempted to create / recreate perpetuate. That makes it invaluable for detecting and decoding manipulations of the record when examining modern information sources.

304 pages, Kindle (rent $14.92, buy $40.81), paperback (12 new from $30.74, 9 used from $32.58) or hardcover (from $116.85).

Near and Distant Neighbors

1062. Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence – Jonathan Haslam

Other histories, including those listed above, have focused on the KGB and its antecedents, largely neglecting the military intelligence and the special service (who specialized in codes and cyphers). This book redresses that balance. While focused on the period from the start of the Cold War through to the modern-day under Putin, this history begins with the October Revolution.

We were slightly concerned by one aspect of the product description – “…crucial to the survival of the Soviet state. This was especially true after Stalin’s death in 1953, as the Cold War heated up and dedicated Communist agents the regime had relied upon –Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs, Donald Maclean — were betrayed” – not “were exposed”. This suggests a potential bias, though whether that is simply the soviet view of those events coming through or actually reveals bias on the part of the author is too subtle a question for our limited review capabilities. Just bear it in mind.

400 pages, Hardcover from $5.60, Paperback from $6.58, or MP3 CD from $13.49.

Books About Allied intelligence/security services


Secret Agent

1063. Secret Agent: The True Story of the Special Operations Executive – David Stafford

The Special Operations Executive were a British WWII covert Military organization. Ian Fleming combined the real-world MI6 with the SOE to create the fictional version of MI6 which employs James Bond in the movies and novels. If you want to move the creation of Mi6 to predate the War, as Blair & I have done in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, this is essential reading.

The Secret War Between the Wars

1064. The Secret War Between the Wars: MI5 in the 1920s and 1930s (History of British Intelligence) – Kevin Quinlan

And this is the essential other half of that story. Unfortunately, this is another book that doesn’t meet our standards of price and availability, but is just too directly relevant to set aside. Each chapter is a case-study in the techniques of spycraft in the era – everything from the use of diplomatic cover to recruitment to defections and debriefings.

278 pages, Kindle ($28.10) or hardcover (13 used from $29.99, 19 new from $28.18).

In the President's Secret Service

1065. In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect – Ronald Kessler

Mike would have sworn that this book was already listed, but a search of all the likely locations on the shelves of this series (both published and unpublished) failed to turn it up. Deciding that it was a lesser failure to list a reference twice than to leave out a vital one, here it is (again?).

The US Secret Service traces it’s history back to the US Civil War, when their mandate was anti-counterfeiting (a task that they continue to this day). Because of the temptations they faced, Standards of acceptable behavior were even higher than other high-profile institutions such as the FBI. Early in the 20th century, that led to the Service receiving the Presidential Protection mandate, which has (in the public’s eyes) come to completely overshadow everything else the Service does.

Notoriously close-mouthed and secretive, this is the first book written about the Service “from the inside”, based on hundreds of interviews with both current and former agents.

Kindle ($9.80) or Paperback (hundreds of copies available starting at 1¢):

Hardcover (hundreds more copies starting at 1¢):

Books About Kali Worship / Thugee Cults


Kali The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar

1066. Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar – Elizabeth U Harding

Some reviewers gush over the author’s ability to bring the Goddess to life in her pages, others describe this as extremely academic and difficult to read, while still others describe it as “a rambling cacophony of the author’s personal experiences, intermingled with lots of quotes from other books” – though negative reviews are definitely in the minority. That blend of descriptions actually reminds us very clearly of the Kali page (and associated pages relating to the subject) on Wikipedia, which we also found a struggle but ultimately rewarding. It soon becomes clear from any unbiased source that you consult that there is far more to Kali than oversimplified western notions of death cults. We gave the Kali “reality” our our own spin in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, based heavily on the “rest of the story” of Kali worship (you can read about our version in Pieces Of Creation: Lon Than, Kalika, and the Prison Of Jade if you’re interested).

The other thing that these disparate comments bring to mind, and the reason for listing this amongst our recommendations, is Mike’s anecdote about the beneficial interplay between “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guides”:

A few years back, I was a quite successful self-taught composer of original music. When I received a gift certificate from Dymocks, one of the major book retailer chains in Australia at the time, I used it to buy both the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition and Music Composition For Dummies, and discovered something very interesting: The two complimented each other perfectly. What one explained very poorly, the other made very accessible, and vice-versa. Invariably, too, the one that was harder to grasp went into greater technical detail on that aspect of the subject. The combination made for a far more effective self-educational tool than either one alone.

It is our hope that this book performs a similar role with respect to other sources such as Wikipedia, with one clarifying what another leaves confusing. But don’t expect easy, light, reading.

Kindle ($13.85) or 352-page paperback (55 used from $2.27, 44 new from $12.22).

Children Of Kali

1067. Children of Kali: Through India in Search of Bandits, the Thug Cult, and the British Raj – Kevin Rushby

Whenever someone raises the question of the influence (or lack thereof) that Pulp has had on western popular culture, there are two responses that rebuff the implied irrelevance of the genre. You can talk about the Pulp Heroes as the progenitors of superheroes – the Shadow and Doc Savage clearly blur the lines between the two, for example – or you can talk about the presence in the popular zeitgeist of the Thuggee. There is a pronounced pulp association between murderous Kali worshipers and cultists fomented by representations in various pulp fiction and movie serials that creates an impression that these were active between the turn of the century and the beginning of World War II. The reality is that the Thuggee were an active cult in the early 1800s (not the 1900s). The modern impression is purely a product of the pulp genre infiltrating popular perceptions.

And yet, there is something so deliciously pulp about the concept that it can’t be neglected in these lists. Which brings us to this book, which deals with both the original criminal mythology and with the modern-day bandit who was (at the time of publication) India’s most-wanted man (a quick check of Wikipedia reveals that he died in 2004 in a trap set by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force). There’s a lot there to inspire the Pulp GM…

292 page Hardcover (56 used copies from 1¢, 16 new from $9.03, 3 collectible from $5.97)

Paperback (21 used from 1¢, 12 new from $4.95, 2 collectible from $24.22) and more copies of the hardcover (8 used from $2.90, 7 new from $27.21)

Four more used copies of the paperback from $0.46 at this page:

and some more copies at this link (2 used hardcovers from $12, 1 new paperback at $28.51):

…and there were more copies that fell way outside our price standards and so have not been listed here.

Books About Cults in general


Cults and New Religions

1068. Cults and New Religions: A Brief History – Douglas E Cowan and David G Bromley

Each chapter reviews the “origins, leaders, beliefs, rituals and practices of a NRM” [New Religious Movement], “highlighting the specific controversies surrounding each group.”

Deals with legitimacy of religious movements and – by implication – the difference between a divergent religious movement and a cult; tests the validity of claims of brainwashing techniques, and the fears that cults engender (amongst other related subjects).

Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University, New Orleans, writes “The second edition of Cults and New Religious Movements is an astute and accessible textbook written by two eminent scholars of new religions. Through eight case studies the text examines key issues that arise in relation to new religious movements, thereby shedding light on the study of religions in general.” Others describe the book as “concise” and “authoritative”, “erudite and lucid” (quoted reviews from the back cover, so take them with a grain of salt).

240 pages, Kindle ($16.43) or paperback (19 used from $19.05, 30 new from $16.60).

Cults a bloodstained history

1069. Cults: A Bloodstained History – Natacha Tormey

As you would probably expect from the title, the overwhelming emphasis in this book is negative. The author has good reason to be critical of cults, based on her own life experience; she was raised in the notorious sex cult, The Children Of God aka The Family International. (Don’t read her Amazon bio or your deja vu will have a serious case of deja vu, it’s the same two lines repeated about 5 times).

Tormey starts with Joshua in 1500BC, through the Zealot Riots, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and eventually reaches the cult murders and suicides of the 20th century. In the course of the discussion, she attempts to find rational answers to the questions that such incidents naturally give rise to – “How can an ordinary person or group of people be manipulated to such an extent that they willingly murder another life or take their own? What drives the leaders of such movements to turn their followers into war machines or killers? Is religion in itself to blame or are the culprits the interpreters of religious doctrines?” (and more, but those are the topics of relevance to the Pulp GM, and which make this a doubly-useful reference).

Kindle ($7.76) or 208-page paperback (15 used from $4.45, 21 new from $10.85).

Books About the Knights Templar


The Templar Code for Dummies

1070. The Templar Code For Dummies – Christopher Hoddap and Alice Von Kannon

The Templars are one of those organizations that can be subject to many different treatments in a pulp campaign, from a relatively straightforward role (such as the one in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) through to fanciful ideas of Templars cursed with Vampirism or Lycanthropy and struggling to find redemption – which in turn lets all of Vampire: The Masquerade become Pulp background material. In the adventurer’s club, we went with the full-on “supernatural curse” concept and had the last of the Templars opposing a Nazi super-soldier program on Rugen Island, for example. This places the organization in the unusual position in which too much real-world information can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how much of it you decide to integrate and how much you invent / romanticize to fit your concept of the Templars. But it’s always better to have reference material that you can then choose to ignore or cherry-pick than it is not to know and have to create it all yourself. Which is where this book comes in and why it deserves a place on these lists.

Kindle ($12.68) or paperback (27 used from $5.13, 21 new from $8.75):

More copies (7 used from $12.40, 5 new from $15.35):

Crusade Against The Grail

1071. Crusade Against The Grail – Otto Rahn

This book, by a prominent Nazi Archaeologist, offers his theories of the interplay between the Templars, The Cathar Sects, and the Church of Rome, but pre-dates Nazi control of Germany. There are few other works that discuss possible interactions between these societies, and that makes this book worth listing. On top of that, the reader may gain insights into the psychology of Nazi Germany and the trend toward Fascism in western Europe.

Possibly too academic for casual use, and assumes a lot of preexisting expertise on the part of the reader; questionable in its factual accuracy, but contains several fun elements for pulp GMs if you can wade through the heavy going.

Available in both Kindle and Paperback formats.

The Templar Revelation

1072. The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Jesus Christ – Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince

Suggests that the Templars are the “secret guardians” of the subtitle. The Priory Of Sion (an alleged French secret society – Wikipedia entry), Rennes Le Chateau (refer the entry on “The Holy Blood and Holy Grail, item 915, on shelf #10), and Freemasons (see the subsection below), all get a mention.

One reviewer on Amazon offers a summary that we agree with: “…for a while at least you’re likely to find yourself at sea as the authors switch from one subject to another in kaleidoscopic fashion. In fairness, the evidence does seem by its nature to be complex and often ambiguous. Prepare to bring patience when you open the book; eventually, a sort of mosaic picture does emerge.”

The Templars and the Ark Of The Covenant

1073. The Templars and the Ark Of The Covenant: The Discovery of the Treasure of Solomon – Graham Phillips

This book is actually about the author’s search for the Gemstones from the High Priests’ breastplate in England, but he does connect things with the Templars. To lots of people who have drunk the kool-aid, this is a brilliant book. Fortunately, as with most of the books in this section, it doesn’t matter if you think the author is a genius, a madman, or both – its grist for the mill, and has the advantage of reading like an adventure novel.

The Templar's Secret Island

1074. The Templar’s Secret Island: The Knights, The Priest and the Treasure – Erling Haagensen and Henry Lincoln

Presents the theory that the Templars used “sacred geometry” to bury treasure on Bornholm Island in the Baltic – which is certainly strange enough to spark a pulp plotline! Released with at least three different covers, we’ve chosen the one we think is the most stylish, even though it’s not the same one showing on the copy we have linked to (for price/availability reasons).

Pirates and the lost Templar Fleet

1075. Pirates and the lost Templar Fleet: The Secret Naval War Between the Templars & the Vatican – David Hatcher Childress

Connects the Templar Fleet with the discovery of America and the Caribbean pirates, bringing the Sinclairs (a Scottish family with alleged links to the Templars and the Grail) of Rosslin (home of Rosslin Chapel, Wikipedia Page which featured in both the book and film The DaVinci Code, and the Templar Treasure, into the mix.

The Templar Pirates

1076. The Templar Pirates: The Secret Alliance to build the new Jerusalem – Ernesto Frers

Constructs a maritime history for the Templars that connects them with Pirates, Freemasons, the early history of the USA and the Caribbean, Oak Island (site of the “Money Pit”) (Wikipedia Page), and more.

Books About the Freemasons


Freemasons For Dummies

1077. Freemasons For Dummies – Christopher Hodapp

Speaking of “secret societies”, the Freemasons are one of the most legendary – and completely real. They have, of late, cracked open the wall of secrecy just a tiny smidgen, having tired of being placed at the center of every second conspiracy theory aired.

2005 edition (pictured): MP3 CD (from $51.09) or paperback (53 used from $3.80, 14 new from $18.80);

2013 edition (same page count): Kindle ($10.15) or paperback (24 used from $9.84, 36 new from $10.27).

We recommend the 2005 edition until prices outstrip those of the more recent edition. The Pulp GM will almost certainly be reinventing large parts of the society for story purposes, anyway; this is to serve as inspiration, guidance, and a source of additional color.

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Freemasonry

1078. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Freemasonry – S Brent Morris Ph D

We were more than a little uncertain about listing this book given the default assumptions regarding overlaps between it and “Freemasons For Dummies”, but decided that the subject matter was sufficiently esoteric and just distinctive enough that the two could stand separately. It’s the difference between the organization and what they believe/practice – a subtle but important difference (though there would be a lot of overlap).

First Edition (pictured): 334 pages, paperback (66 used from 1¢, 23 new from $3.67):

Second Edition: 352 pages, Kindle ($11.35) or paperback (25 new from $5.78, 29 used from $1.24):

More copies of the 2nd Edition: (8 used from $7.51, 7 new from $19.93):

If price is important (and it might be, given the number of references in this article / this series), go with the first edition until the prices go beyond those of the second. If comprehensive coverage is more important, it’s hard to overlook the extra 18 pages in the 2nd edition, buy from whichever of the two links is cheapest.


Books About Urban Legends


Encyclopedia Of Urban Legends

1079. Encyclopedia Of Urban Legends – Jan Harold Brunvand

A comprehensive introduction to the subject, lots of copies available at a very affordable price.

The 500 best urban legends ever

1080. The 500 best Urban Legends ever – Yorick Brown & Mike Flynn

From the Phantom Hitchhiker to Raining Whalemeat, these are either pulp-period or easily translated to that time-frame. Limited copies available.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

1081. The Vanishing Hitchhiker – Jan Harold Brunvand

Urban legends and possible meanings, specifically referring to American Culture

The Mexican Pet

1082. The Mexican Pet – Jan Harold Brunvand

More urban legends and some older myths.

The Choking Doberman

1083. The Choking Doberman – Jan Harold Brunvand

Still more urban legends and some more old myths.

The big book of urban legends

1084. The Big Book of Urban Legends – Jan Harold Brunvald

And still more urban legends, presented in a comic-book / illustrated format and part of a series (The big book of conspiracies, the unexplained, weirdos, hoaxes, etc).

Chicago History The Stranger Side

1085. Chicago History: The Stranger Side – Raymond Johnson

“Former criminal investigator, author, and local historian Ray Johnson takes a new look at nine popular Chicago locations and their history, digging up strange new discoveries and connections.

Who may have murdered sisters Barbara and Patricia Grimes in 1956? Who is the seventh body located under the 1893 Columbian Expo Cold Storage Fire Memorial at Oak Woods Cemetery…when there should only be six? Is there more of a link between H.H. Holmes and Chicago’s White City than previously thought, and could there also be another connection to England and other murders? What ties Chicago to the Titanic disaster of 1912? What rituals were being performed at El-Sabarum (currently The Tonic Room) that could explain some of the bizarre occurrences reported there?

Most (if not all) of these incidents could easily be the basis of a Pulp adventure (some may need more revision than others). Most (if not all) could also be revised to place them somewhere and somewhen else for use in a non-Pulp genre. To use them in a Fantasy milieu, for example, all you need to provide is a reason for the PCs to care – like one of them being accused of the crime…

Paperback, 160 pages, 17 used from $3.99, 25 new from $10.20

Weird Europe

1086. Weird Europe: A Guide to Bizarre, Macabre, and Just Plain Weird Sights – Kristan Lawson and Anneli Rufus

“A Guidebook to Europe’s dark side. From strange natural wonders to the handiwork of mad scientists, dreamers, and zealots, Europe harbors hundreds of fascinating-and occasionally gruesome-surprises. In these pages, you’ll discover Two-headed animals, Erotic museums, Creepy catacombs, A cathedral made of salt, A railroad operated by children, The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, An all-ice hotel, Ancient pagan rituals, Mines, Sewer tours, A museum of espionage, UFO landing sites, Pictures drawn by the dead, A frog museum, Pancake races, Oddball art, Underground cities, Giants, freaks, and Siamese twins, The Temple of Echoes, and more.” … “Covering twenty-five countries, with complete directions, opening hours, and admission prices for nearly a thousand wild attractions, Weird Europe is an indispensable guide to a world that you never knew existed.”

Some of these we had heard of – the Salt Cathedral and Ice Hotel, for example – while others were definitely new to us. We figure that between 1/3 and 2/3 of these post-date World War II, but even so, there should be enough material here to neatly ‘weird-up’ any number of trips to the Continental Mainland by adventurers – and there’s always the possibility of retroactively “installing” something modern back in the pulp era, if it seems to fit. The ice hotel would certainly be a good example!

Kindle ($5.32) or 352-page paperback (41 used from 1¢, 10 new from $22.22, 2 collectible from $9.85).

Regional Myths & Legends

The “Monsters of” series (Which will appear in Cryptozoology later on this shelf) led us to the “Ghosts Of” series which was included on Shelf #11, and that in turn led us to the “Myths and Mysteries” series that leads this section off. There are far too many titles for detailed review, even though not every state is represented (Louisiana’s absence was especially surprising!). Heck, Amazon haven’t even provided book descriptions for some of them! We’ve extracted what details were quickly available but in some cases that is nothing more than availability information.

However, we are comfortable with doing so; there are enough details from enough of the books that a series pattern can be easily discerned, so while we may not know anything about the exact content, we can predict the type of content with a high degree of confidence.

Each book is a combination of historical anecdote, famous murder cases, cryptozoology, and other forms of local legend; the exact break-up of the content varies from state to state. Where possible, we’ve included a very brief and necessarily incomplete summary of the content. The most recent entries in the series have a common cover design; somewhat older entries had relatively individualized cover designs; and the oldest had a different common design with a common illustration and mostly common cover text, making it harder to distinguish one book from the next. We noted that at least two of those were through different publishers, which is why not all the books have kindle editions available.

In the course of compiling the links for the “Myths and Mysteries” series, we noticed some books from a rival series dealing with the western states, and deliberately sought out a couple of other entries as ringers in the name of comprehensiveness. Unless noted otherwise, assume that the above description covers these as well. There may also be one or two overlaps between the different series. Within each series or thematic grouping, we have roughly alphabetized the entries.

Most of these books are by different authors, and – even more-so than the “Monsters of” series – there is every indication that there is little or no overlap in content, though we have not been able to verify this with complete certainty. Hope for the best, live with the reality.

Finally, we have deliberately chosen to ignore our usual price/availability criteria in this section in the interests of being comprehensive.

Myths and Mysteries of Alaska

1087. Myths and Mysteries of Alaska: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Cherry Lyon Jones
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 168 pages, 23 used from $0.79, 13 new from $7.74.

Myths and Mysteries Arizona

1088. Mysteries and Legends of Arizona: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Sam Lowe
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

A haunted hotel, America’s last Stagecoach robber, a mysterious disappearance in the Grand Canyon in 1928, the Lost Dutchman Mine, Apache Leap, and the story of Ira Hayes, a Prima Indian and reluctant war hero who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima.
Kindle ($9.38) or 208-page Paperback (21 used from $4.99, 15 new from $7.73)
See also “Arizona Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of California

1089. Myths and Mysteries of California: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Ray Jones and Joe Lubow
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Contents range from the head of Zorro to The Big One, from William Randolph Hearst to the alleged shootout during WWII between Los Angeles antiaircraft gunners and an alien spacecraft, to the Shadow God of California.
Kindle (9.37) or 168-page paperback (30 used from $1.48, 22 new from $7.01)

Myths and Mysteries of Colorado

1090. Mysteries and Legends of Colorado: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Jan Murphy
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Contents range from the Anasazi cliff dwellings and the Towers of Hovenweep to the tale of Buffalo Bill’s questioned grave-site, from UFO sightings to rumors of buried treasure. Plus PT Barnham, legends of a Russian Spy, the lost loot from the 1864 Reynolds Gang bank robbery, and the naming of Colfax Avenue.
Paperback, 144 pages, 35 used from $1.93, 27 new from $5.58, 1 collectible at $10
See also “Colorado Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of Florida

1091. Myths and Mysteries of Florida: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – E Lynne Wright
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Kindle ($9.43) or 208-page paperback (26 used from $1.28, 22 new from $2.43)

Myths and Mysteries of Georgia

1092. Mysteries and Legends of Georgia: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Dan Rhodes
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

12 chapters, covering everything From a puzzle of lost confederate gold to a woman who mysteriously spent her life waving at more than 50,000 passing ships.
192 page paperback, 14 used from $5.27, 8 new from $9.90
See also “Georgia Myths and Legends” below, which might even be the same book.

Georgia Myths and Legends

1093. Georgia Myths and Legends: The True Stories Behind History’s Mysteries – Don Rhodes
(Legends of America series)

Although this appears to be a completely different series to Myths and Mysteries, the product description at Amazon is an almost-verbatim recapitulation of the generic description used for many of the books in that series. Certainly, at least some of the content overlaps, and there is a remarkable similarity in parts of the back cover text, and the names of the authors are suspiciously similar (“Don Rhodes” vs “Dan Rhodes”, and the publisher is the same, and this is described as the “Second Edition”… despite all that, they might be different books. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Kindle ($9.40) or 224-page paperback (17 used from $3.24, 21 new from $9.89).

Myths and Mysteries of Illinois

1094. Myths and Mysteries of Illinois: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Richard Moreno
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

14 chapters, each detailing a separate incident or event. The ghost at Parks’ College in Cahokia is a notable omission.
Paperback, 208 pages, 26 used from $4.23, 23 new from $6.70

Myths and Mysteries of Kansas

1095. Myths and Mysteries of Kansas: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Diana Lambdin Meyer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Kindle $10
Paperback: 176 pages, 19 used from $2.35, 15 new from $7.75, 1 collectible from $4.76

Myths and Mysteries of Kentucky

1096. Myths and Mysteries of Kentucky: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Mimi O’malley and Susan Sawyer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 208 pages, 17 used from $8.33, 29 new from $8.79

Strange But True Louisiana

1097. Strange But True Louisiana – Lynne L Hall

Having noted the curious absence of Louisiana from the Myths and Mysteries series, we deliberately went looking for something to plug the gap. There may be other holes in the coverage of that series, but this is the biggest one that we noted. (nor, for that matter, did we spot anything much for the rest of the world, despite searching for the generic term “Myths and Mysteries”… could it be that only Americans are fascinated by this sort of thing? Surely, not…)

“Wacky Wonders and Strange Sights you won’t see anywhere else fill the pages of Strange But True Louisiana.” ”The Frog Capital of the World”, “the world’s smallest church”, “Cities of the Dead”, “An oil and gas festival”, and the voodoo queen herself populate these pages, amongst others.

Page-count makes this slightly less value-for-money than most of the Myths and Mysteries series, too. Which is why we didn’t go looking for more from it. But if you spot another omission from the collection, a missing state, that would be the first place we would look.

Paperback, 143 pages; 13 used from $3.45, 9 new from $3.99.

Stay Out Of New Orleans

1098. Stay Out of New Orleans: Strange Stories – P Curran

It’s been a while since we had an outright ringer! While there might be some overlap between this book and the previous one in terms of content, our impression is that New Orleans can more than hold its own when it comes to weirdness, and the description seems to bear that out. “A writer who had just moved to the French Quarter … thought: ‘What if I wrote a collection of Robert Aickman stories set down here, starring all these lowlifes I hang out with?’” … “Pieces from the resulting book wound up in various print magazines, but the collection itself existed only in bound manuscripts passed around by the ever-shrinking downtown netherworld that had inspired it. Until now. A bohemia stretching back to the dawn of absinthe. A town of hidden doors and open secrets. Each day a fresh crime eager to happen, transcendent, fertile. Death lurking in every bar. No one knew this was a Golden Age. See what the flood washed away.”

Yes, this focuses on New Orleans in the 1990s in all it’s Gothic splendor, but there’s more than enough that can be translated back into the Pulp Era (or anywhere else) to justify it’s inclusion, from “energy-feeding vampires to crackpot-religious teenage cult members to the would-be Rear Window sleuth who can’t really be bothered to care whether her neighbor is a serial killer”.
Kindle ($5.41) or 326-page paperback (14 used from $10.80, 17 new from $11.00, Amazon’s price is competitive at $15).

Myths and Mysteries of Michigan

1099. Myths and Mysteries of Michigan: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Sally Barber
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

From the back cover:
“Twelve Mind-Boggling Tales from the Great Lakes State.

  • Does a legendary pirate treasure lie beneath the waters of Lake Michigan near Poverty Island? Legends dating back to the Civil War tell of massive chests of gold flung into the water that were never seen again. Or were they?
  • What really happened to Jimmy Hoffa? The legendary Teamster leader drove away from the elegant Red Fox Restaurant in July 1975 and was never seen again, but theories abound as to his final resting place.
  • Is the Great Lakes Triangle as deadly as its Bermuda counterpart? Hundreds of baffling events and unexplained shipwrecks have occurred between longitudes 76 degrees and 92 degrees west and latitudes 41 degrees and 49 degrees north.

“From the true story behind folk hero Paul Bunyan to the last voyage of the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, Myths and Mysteries of Michigan makes history fun and pulls back the curtain on some of the state’s most fascinating and compelling stories.”

Kindle (8.98) or 176-page paperback (24 used from $1.89, 14 new from $7.74)

Myths and Mysteries of Missouri

1100. Myths and Mysteries of Missouri: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Josh Young
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Out if 10 customer reviews, eight give this book five stars out of five (and the other two, 4/5). Thirteen chapters, each detailing a separate tale, many of which were long-forgotten even by local residents.
Kindle ($9.40) or 208-page Paperback (25 used from $5.20, 26 new from $9.67)

Myths and Mysteries of Montana

1101. Mysteries and Legends of Montana: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Edward Lawrence
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 144 pages, 21 used from $0.01, 19 new from $3.95, 1 collectible from $14
See also “Montana Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of Nevada

1102. Mysteries and Legends of Nevada: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Richard Moreno
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

14 “True” stories, or 17, depending on who’s doing the counting, Amazon or the back cover, respectively. Mystery surrounds the death of a US Senator – was he kept on ice until after the election, as some believe? Is the Governor’s mansion haunted? Did a monster named the Ong live in the depths of Lake Tahoe? Does a monster named Tahoe Tessie live there now? What evidence is there for a tribe of red-headed giant Indians in the state’s North? What led a 1924 newspaper to suggest that the Garden Of Eden lay within the Silver State? Plus abandoned mining villages and ghost towns!
Kindle ($9.52) or 208-page paperback (27 used from $1.94, 14 new from $11.34, 1 collectible at $12)

Myths and Mysteries of New England

1103. Mysteries and Legends of New England: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Diana McCain
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Yes, we realize that “New England” is not a US State, but a region containing several US States! Don’t blame us, we didn’t edit the series! Kindle ($8.99) or 192-page paperback (24 used from $4.98, 25 new from $4.14, 1 Collectible from $7.99)

Myths and Mysteries of New Hampshire

1104. Myths and Mysteries of New Hampshire: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Matthew P Mayo
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Includes Betty and Barney Hill’s alleged alien abduction, a corpse-like man who accosts hikers on Mount Moosilauke, the New Hampshire “Mystery Stone”, Sasquatch, buried pirate treasure, and more.
Paperback, 208 pages; 16 used from $7.41, 29 new from $9.84.
More copies: 14 used from $11.83, 12 new from $23.16:

Myths and Mysteries of New Jersey

1105. Myths and Mysteries of New Jersey: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Fran Capo
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Eleven reports including the Dark Side of Thomas Edison (whose experiments led to the execution of thousands of animals and one man), the ghosts of Overbrook Asylum, the Robin Hood of Pine Barrens, the New Jersey Devil, and the voyage of the Morro Castle.
Kindle ($8.99) or paperback (23 used from 1¢, 15 new from $2.57).

Notorious New Jersey

1106. Notorious New Jersey: 100 true tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels – Jon Blackwell

If we’d found this book in time, we would have included it in the “Crime” section. But there’s enough weird stuff in its pages to justify placing it here, as well.

In addition to the more expected “…accounts of Alexander Hamilton falling mortally wounded on the dueling grounds of Weehawken; Dutch Schultz getting pumped full of lead in the men’s room of the Palace Chop House in Newark; and a gang of Islamic terrorists in Jersey City mixing the witch’s brew of explosives that became the first bomb to rock the World Trade Center,” are stranger stories such as the nineteenth-century murderer whose skin was turned into leather souvenirs, and the state senator from Jersey City who faked his death in a scuba accident in the 1970s in an effort to avoid prison,” and some historical whodunits such as “was Bruno Hauptmann really guilty of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby? Who was behind the anthrax attacks of 2001?” and a number of notorious characters, both the convicted and the merely condemned.

Despite this obvious historical focus, most of the criticism seems directed at the contents not being about “relative modern times” (sic). The fact that at least three of the critical comments are verbatim repetitions also makes us question how much credence to lend them.

Fundamentally, for RPG purposes, who cares about a Tabloid-style “punching up” of historical incidents? Lots of these will fit right into a Pulp campaign, and many more will slot neatly into the background of such a campaign.

Paperback, 424 pages; 38 new from $11.55, 44 used from 1¢.

Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico

1107. Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Barbara Marriott Ph D
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Thirteen reports including the disappearance of the lawyer who defended Billy The Kid and his son, whose bodies have never been found, an old mining town buried 75 feet deep in Bonito Lake which was the setting for an unpremeditated, unexplained, and unpredictable murder, the lost Adams gold and legends of Lincoln.

Kindle ($9) or 200-page paperback (14 used from $6.92, 13 new from $7.93, 1 collectible from $7.37)

See also “New Mexico Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of New York

1108. Myths and Mysteries of New York: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Fran Capo
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Many commentators suggest that the title should be “…of New York City”, or words to that effect. Others are critical of the depth of coverage or suggest factual errors (especially noted in the stories marked “NB” below). Tales cover sunken treasure off Manhattan, Sewer Alligators, ghost sightings, the Lake Champlain monster (NB), the ghostly hostess of Skene Manor, and the Leather Man (NB) as well as the Montauk Project and it’s alleged connection to the Philadelphia Experiment.

Kindle ($8.99) or 208 page paperback (29 used from 1¢, 21 new from $6.66).

Myths and Mysteries of North Carolina

1109. Myths and Mysteries of North Carolina: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Sara Pitzer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Content includes the disappearance of the settlers on Roanoke Island sometime between 1587 and 1590, the devil Tsul ‘Kalu of Cherokee lore, the hanging of Tom Dula in 1868 for allegedly murdering his fiancée (a conviction that remains in doubt to this day), Pee Dee A.D., and the Spirits of Salisbury.

Kindle ($9.02), Paperback 176 pages (17 new from $10.94, 23 used from $3.57).

Myths and Mysteries of South Carolina

1110. Myths and Mysteries of South Carolina: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Rachel Haynie
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Lost (and possibly mythical) gold mines, buried confederate gold, aviation Pioneer Paul Redfern who vanished after pioneering the air route to South America, Spanish Horses, a submarine pioneer, and the Atomic Bomb that fell on a farm in Mars Bluff in 1958. We’ve deliberately listed this out of sequence to keep the Carolinas together.

Kindle ($9.47) or 192-page paperback (22 used from 70¢, 12 new from $4.31).

See also “South Carolina Myths and Legends” below.

South Carolina Myths and Legends

1111. South Carolina Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Rachel Haynie
(Legends of America series)

After making the notes on the Georgia book in the Legends Of America series (above), we made it our business to check the details of this one, as well. Same almost-verbatim description, same publisher, same author, same “2nd edition” notation. But the content… well, Aviator Paul Redfern and hidden Confederate Gold are common to both, but beyond that, the content featured on the back cover is NOT the content featured on the back cover of the other book. We’re not 100% convinced, either way, and postage to Australia is too high to buy both on spec just to check it out. So it’s a case of Caveat Emptor and You Have Been Warned (again).

Kindle (9.63) and 208-page paperback (10 used from $12.02, 23 new from $8.66).

Myths and Mysteries of Ohio

1112. Myths and Mysteries of Ohio: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Sandra Gurvis
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

“…this is an absolute masterpiece. There are stories you have heard before, like Hell Town, but then there are things happening that you have no ideal about like the Golf coarse Mound controversy, and a theater that reminds you of the Phantom Of The Opera… …the map is a nice touch; many books like this, you wind up needing a map just to get your bearings.” We have no idea if the other books in the series also include map(s), but thought it worth highlighting this one which explicitly does.

Kindle ($9.84) or 224-page paperback (20 used from $1.84, 29 new from $8.55)

Myths and Mysteries of Oklohoma

1113. Myths and Mysteries of Oklahoma: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Robert Dorman
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

“Introduces the reader to a dozen or so Oklahoma mysteries. However, if any of them are of interest to you, please seek out additional information. This is very high level and doesn’t always give the most interesting facts regarding the situation.”

Paperback, 200-pages; 18 used from $2.19, 34 new from $8.01.

Myths and Mysteries of Oregan

1114. Mysteries and Legends of Oregon: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Jim Yuskavitch
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

11 Chapters, despite some sources claiming 14; the difference lies in counting things like “Introduction”, “Bibliography”, etc. Contents include Lewis and Clark’s submerged forest, a legendary lost 22,000-pound meteorite, a haunted lighthouse, the disappearance of DB Cooper, and Bigfoot. This definitely includes a state map showing the locations of events described.

Paperback, 192 pages; 26 used from $0.90, 19 new from $8.85.

Myths and Mysteries of Pennsylvania

1115. Myths and Mysteries of Pennsylvania: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Kara Hughes
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Kindle ($9.61) or 192 page paperback (21 used from $1.28, 20 new from $6.20).

Myths and Mysteries of Tennessee

1116. Myths and Mysteries of Tennessee: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Susan Sawyer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 176 pages, 18 used from $6.01, 24 new from $8.80)

Legends & Lore of East Tennessee

1117. Legends & Lore of East Tennessee – Shane S Simmons
(American Legends Series)

“The mountains of East Tennessee are chock full of unique folklore passed down through generations. Locals spin age-old yarns of legends like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Dragging Canoe. Stories of snake-handling churches and the myths behind the death crown superstitions dot the landscape. The mysteries surrounding the Sensabaugh Tunnel still haunt residents.”

One customer review was astonished at how many of the stories included were new to him/her despite having grown up in the region, and the author was able to provide additional details even of the stories that were known. The description quoted above gives the impression that there’s more history and less ghosts / cryptozoology / other weirdness, but (a) that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and (b) at least one customer review hints to the contrary.

Kindle ($7.49) or 128-page paperback (11 used from $15.07, 16 new from $11.45, Amazon’s price (includes P&H) $15.88).

Myths and Legends of Texas

1118. Mysteries and Legends of Texas: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Donna Ingham
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

4.3 stars out of 5 from 12 customer reviews. Twelve stories from Texas history and folklore, including the Navidad Wilman (is it hard to find Bigfoot because he’s migrated to Texas?), the blood-sucking chupacabra, the mysterious Marfa lights, Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure, the hanging of Chipita Rodriguez, the love story of Frenchy McCormick, and the many ghostly sightings in Jefferson that lead some to claim it as the most-haunted city in Texas, while others cede that recognition to San Antonio, which has enough ghosts to justify three different ghost tours.

Kindle ($8.98) and 192-page paperback (29 used from $1.67, 13 new from $10.01)

Mysteries and Legends of Utah

1119. Mysteries and Legends of Utah: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Michael O’reilly
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Twelve stories, including Jedediah Smith’s final moments, Bigfoot sightings, the rise of an unlikely uranium magnate, the mysterious end of Butch Cassidy, Caleb Rhoades lost cave of Gold Artifacts. Damaging the credibility of this collection is the following from the back cover: “’Alien’ Dave Rosenfeld and other members of the Mutual UFO Network have plenty of out-of-this-world stories to share. Among the questions that arise: Have reptilian aliens infiltrated human society? Was Fort Duchesne the site of a modern-day Roswell incident?”

Paperback, 192 pages, 29 used from $3.50, 19 new from $4.66, 1 collectible $19.99.

Mysteries and Legends of Virginia

1120. Mysteries and Legends of Virginia: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Emilee Hines
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

The Kidnapping and abandonment as a child of the strongest man in the Revolution. The Vampire of Church Hill Tunnel in Richmond. Anna Anderson Manahan, either the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia (as she claimed) or a Polish-born waitress and best actress/con-woman of the twentieth century. The Witch of Pungo. The Parkway Killer. And more, in the over-a-dozen chapters.

Kindle ($8.99) 192-page paperback (25 used from 1¢, 15 new from $10.81).

Myths and Mysteries of Washington

1121. Myths and Mysteries of Washington – Lynn Bragg
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

A cover design that’s completely different to all the others in the series, and the absence of the usual subtitle, yet it’s clearly part of the same series. Contains fifteen tales from the 19th and early 20th centuries, verifying some of them from multiple accounts and exposing what may have really happened in the case of others. Puget Sound’s Demon Of The Deep, Captain Ingall’s lost treasure, strange saucer-shaped things flying in the skies of Mount Rainier, the hunt for skyjacker DB Cooper (see also the Oregon entry in the series), and the ghostly aura of the Mad Doctor’s Mansion, are just some of the contents.

Paperback, 176 pages, 34 used from 1¢, 18 new from $4.79, and 3 collectible from $14.00.

See also “Washington Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of Wisconsin

1122. Myths and Mysteries of Wisconsin: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Michael Bie
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

When Blair and Mike wanted an American NPC for the Adventurer’s Club campaign from an epically dull and ordinary background, Wisconsin was the first place that came to mind for both of them. This was obviously because they had never read this book. Or those in the Ghosts section. “Most Wisconsin history books cover important highlights, but somehow they miss the stories of headless bankers, the part-time Santa visited by a saucer from space, and the Wisconsin pirate who killed a man. With a piano.” So wrote Dennis McCann, former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist, when reviewing this book. 14 stories, ranging from a Civil War veteran and Menominee Indian who was also alleged to be the illegitimate son of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the murder of HC Mead in the Exchange Bank of Waupaca, and pirate ships, to pancakes from outer space.

Paperback, 160 pages; 26 used from $3.74, 25 new from $7.99.

Myths And Mysteries Of The Old West

1123. Myths And Mysteries Of The Old West – Michael Rutter

This book serves as a gateway to the final subsection of this collection of regional mythology. A lot of people in the modern era have the impression that the wild west was a LONG time ago, a myth that Mike busted handily with his 2016 article (and useful tool) Throw Me A Life-line: A Character Background Planning Tool.

According to Mike’s research, the ‘great years’ of the American Wild West (as romanticized in the 20th century) took place within the period 1880-1898. Any adult character’s parents would have seen this time-period first-hand, and any character who is more than 22 years old at the start of the Pulp Era (1918) would have (at the very least) memories of it as a reality. For every campaign year past 1918, add a year to the age for this statement to hold true. The Adventurer’s Club campaign is set mid-1930s – if we say it’s 1935 (it isn’t, not completely), that’s another 17 years, so a 39-year-old would have been 3 or 4 years of age at the end of the Wild West. Every year above that age increases the strength of the connection, until you reach the point of adding another 36 years – at which point, and for anyone older, they would have been an adult at the start of the Wild West.

For the Adventurer’s Club campaign, based on the 1935 yardstick, that means 75 years of age or more. There’s also enough fudge-factor (is it 1933, instead? Sometimes…) (and just what age conferred adulthood in the Wild West? This calculation has used 18 years, but 14 or 15 could be plausibly argued…) that you could say anyone from 70-years-on would have memories of the start of it, and anyone older than 52 would have memories of the end of it. And that’s from as late as 17 years into the Pulp Era…

>Ahem,< getting back on track, that means that myths and legends from the wild west are certainly living memories for some, and can be motivation, or personal history, or the foundation of a modern-day adventure. This book absolutely deserves a place on this list, therefore. However, while there are hundreds of books on the subject of the West, and the subject of the “real” Wild West, trying to pick and choose between all of those is a bit beyond the scope of this series, which is quite big enough already! Consider this to be placing your feet on the path to your own discoveries.

Available in 161-page Hardcover (44 used from 1¢, 17 new from $2.71, 3 collectible from $6.98) or paperback (62 used from 1¢, 39 new from $2, 2 collectible from $9.85).

Arizona Myths and Legends

1124. Arizona Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Sam Lowe
(Legends Of The West series)

And so, to the Legends Of The West Series, whose inclusion is justified on the basis of direct relevance, as explained above. There may be some overlap between the contents and those of the other books listed for the state within this section, but we would expect a lot of differentiation. That said, the cover design looks suspiciously like those of the Legends of America series (above); this also gets a “second edition” notation; the publisher is the company behind the early editions of the Myths and Mysteries series; and the author is the same. So we would expect at least some overlap.

Kindle ($9.83) and 224-page paperback (18 used from $10, 29 new from $9.17).

Colorado Myths and Legends

1125. Colorado Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Jan Murphy
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. Specific content cited is mostly different, but the previous listing was incomplete.

Kindle ($9.61) or 164 page paperback (10 used from $9.03, 27 new from $8.33).

Montana Myths and Legends

1126. Montana Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Edward Lawrence and Michael Ober
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. Ober wasn’t listed as a co-author on Mysteries and Legends of Montana offering hope that at least some of the content is different.

Kindle ($9.63) or 160-page paperback (9 used from $12.03, 20 new from $9.69).

New Mexico Myths and Legends

1127. New Mexico Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Barbara Marriott Ph D
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. The contents listed on the back cover are virtually identical, as well.

Kindle ($9.37) or 232-page paperback (8 used from $6.45, 6 new from $13.78).

Texas Myths and Legends

1128. Texas Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Donna Ingham
(Legends Of The West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. No content details.

Kindle ($9.59) or 200-page paperback (14 used from $10.06, 23 new from $9.89).

Washington Myths and Legends

1129. Washington Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Lynn Bragg
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. This time, even the back cover text is the same.

208-page paperback, 14 used from $2.91, 19 new from $10.18.

Myths, mysteries and legends of Alabama

1130. Myths, mysteries and legends of Alabama – Elaine Hobson Miller

We came across this book while gathering the rest of the list, and noticed that Alabama was another notable exception to the inclusions of the Mysteries and Legends series. We are as sure as it’s possible to be that this is not part of the series; different publisher, different cover design. The content of the 12 stories is very familiar in style, though: The legendary Civil War soldier who was supposedly buried alive, the Pecan tree that cried, the Indian Chief who caused and earthquake, the winter that UFOs buzzed an Alabama town, cattle mutilations without leaving a trace of blood, and a strange beast that prowled an old cemetery.

Paperback, 136 pages, 16 used from $2.89, 5 new from $9.95.


Books About Cryptozoology


Cryptozoology A To Z

1131. Cryptozoology A To Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature – Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark

Short entries on numerous cryptids (“an animal/creature whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated”) and some of the people involved in cryptozoology. Described as “the first encyclopedia of its kind” by the Amazon editorial review – a statement which we dispute (see the entry for “The Book Of Imaginary Beings”, below) – this is, nevertheless, the most comprehensive reference on the subject available. The encyclopedia format makes it great for looking things up, but not easily read cover-to-cover as an introduction to the subject. For that, you should turn to one or two of our other recommendations.

The Book Of Imaginary Beings

1132a. The Book Of Imaginary Beings (1970) – Jorge Luis Borges (shown incorrectly as “George Luis Borges” on Amazon’s listing) with Margarita Guerrero, translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni


1132b. The Book Of Imaginary Beings (2006) – Jorge Luis Borges, illustrated by Peter Sis, translated by Andrew Hurley

Publisher’s Weekly describes the history of this book as follows: “[Borges], writing with sometime collaborator Guerrero, compiled 82 one- and two-page descriptions of everything from ‘The Borametz’ (a Chinese ‘plant shaped like a lamb, covered with golden fleece’) to ‘The Simurgh’ (‘an immortal bird that makes its nest in the tree of science’) and ‘The Zaratan’ (a particularly cunning whale) in ‘An Anthology of Fantastic Zoology’ in 1954” (retitled ‘A Handbook Of Fantastic Zoology’ in 1957). “He added 34 more [entries] (and illustrations) for a 1967 edition”… “and it was published in English in 1969.”

The 1970 edition is the one Mike has, which makes the point that the book wasn’t simply translated by di Giovanni, it was “revised, translated and enlarged”…“in collaboration with the author”. Many of the weird and wild creatures reported by 16th, 17th, and 18th century travelers are listed in this book, which thereby moves it beyond basic cryptozoology. The translation somehow makes the language seem more turn-of-the-century, the slightly Victorian language of HG Welles, at least to read.

The 2006 version (pictured) adds 20 illustrations by award-winning artist Peter Sis There aren’t quite as many copies available and they cost slightly more. The page-count of the two are identical, and the editorial description of the newer one lists the same number of entries – but, since this appears to be a new translation, the language might seem a little less archaic (which could be a plus or a minus, in our view).

In either edition, this book is more difficult to use than we would like because, while some entries are under the names of the creatures, others are not – there is a general entry under “F” for “Fauna of the United States”, for example. Fortunately, there is an index. This book is probably not as useful as the “A to Z” listed above, but without taking time that we don’t have to confirm it, our suspicion is that this will list creatures not found in the A-Z and vice-versa, and that’s why we’ve included it.

A Menagerie of Mysterious Beasts

1133. A Menagerie of Mysterious Beasts: Encounters with Cryptid Creatures – Ken Gerhard

We haven’t read this book, which was discovered in the course of researching this article. What makes it particularly useful is that these are all first-hand accounts (which may bear little or no resemblance to the “truth” of any given story as you imagine it to be in your campaign world. Indeed, you could build and entire Pulp campaign around the concept of attempting to verify these encounters (in some sort of random order). There is a Kindle edition in addition to the paperback that we have linked to.

Breverton's Phantasmagorica

1134. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria – Terry Breverton

A compendium of myths and legends and the reality behind them, plus lots of fevered imaginings, tall tales, strange real-world creatures and real-world theories from other people.

Monsters Among Us

1135. Monsters Among Us: An exploration of Otherworldly Bigfoots, Wolfmen, Portals, Phantoms, and Odd Phenomena – Linda S. Godfrey

In addition to the usual cryptozoological fare, this contains entries on the Lost Lizard People of Los Angeles, people stalked by invisible predators, and more. We’re recommending this unread by us because at the time of writing this text, the book has not yet been published. That’s due to happen on October 11th 2016, so the situation will have changed by the time you get to read this entry.

My Quest For The Yeti

1136. My Quest For The Yeti – Reinhold Messner

One man’s quest in Nepal and Tibet to find the world’s best-known cryptid. We’ve linked to three different editions of this book with virtually no differences, save cosmetic ones, that we are aware of.


Paperback 1:

Paperback 2 (pictured):

The Complete Guide To Mysterious Beings

1137. The Complete Guide To Mysterious Beings – John A Keel

As with all these books, this one lists things that the others omit and vice-versa. This one covers (amongst others) Angels, Demons, the mothman, contemporary dinosaurs, Bigfoot, the abominable snowman, a real-life ‘land of the giants’, the Silver Lake sea serpent, leprechauns, and carnivorous plants from outer space. There are two different editions but only one that meets our availability standards.

Paranormal Animals of North America

1138. Paranormal Animals of North America – Nigel D Findley
(Shadowrun 1st edition supplement)

A lot of these creatures are directly insertable into any pulp campaign (relocate to elsewhere in the world as necessary) even if you need to convert the game details. Some ambitious sellers want $850 for a copy, but there are some available for about $4.

Paranormal Animals of Europe

1139. Paranormal Animals of Europe – Carl Sargent
(Shadowrun 1st edition supplement)

Fewer surprises, but still a great source of nasty encounters.

The Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology

1140. The Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology: Werewolves, Dragons, Skyfish, Lizard Men, and Other Fascinating Creatures Real and Mysterious – Deena West Budd

Details, interviews, and stories about 40 different cryptids seen all over the world by credible eyewitnesses like policemen, rangers, and doctors. Coverage ranges from the “traditional cryptids” (Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman and Nessie), to mythical cryptids (unicorns, vampires, dragons, and werewolves), to lesser-known cryptids like bunyips (waterhorses), Encantado (Dolphin Men of Brazil), thunderbirds, mothmen, and chupacabra. Includes a brief history of the field and surveys all the creatures for which any credible amount of research exists. Includes “tips on how to spot them” and “cautionary advice on how to interact with them”, both of which are gold for the GM, regardless of game genre.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good out there. One review was harshly critical of this book – “This does not read as a Field Guide, more like “Deena Wast Budd’s Musings on Cryptids and Other Beasts.” Each entry is a cursory look at what the author thinks of each creature, no depth of history, modus operandi, characteristics, etc.” Another associates the excessive use of exclamation marks as contributing to an excess of sensationalism, while a third laments the paucity of specific detail and the excess of opinion. That said, many others comment on the light, breezy, engaging style, and how it facilitates an easy introduction to the subject.

In terms of “objective cryptozoology”, then, this is a disappointment. As Pulp GMs, though, we only care about objectivity when it suits us. Use this as a launchpad and inspiration for your own takes on these creatures, modify, discard, re-engineer, revise or accept content as you see fit! So long as you bear these limitations in mind, you’ll do just fine with it. But when you find a contradiction between sources on Cryptids, this is the one that has to be considered “less reliable”.

Kindle ($9.99) or 192-page paperback (24 used from $5, 33 new from $9.41).

Cryptid Creatures From Dark Domains

1141. Cryptid Creatures From Dark Domains: Dogmen, Devil Hounds, Phantom Canines And Real Werewolves – Timothy Green Beckley et. al.

And, speaking of sensationalized accounts, this book is full of them, and suffers from the flaw of considering anecdotal evidence to be “proof”. This is a compilation of material from “experts” in various cryptids – Phantom Cats, Dogmen, Hell Hounds, and more. Not exclusively North American in approach and content, which may make this useful when no other reference contributes – and is why we have chosen to list it.

Kindle ($8.54) or 236 page paperback (8 used from $19.82, 15 new from $17.95).

See Also:

“Mysteries of the Deep,” compiled by Frank Spaeth, in our “Places” section – Entry #283, 4th Shelf.

Monsters and outer-fringe Cryptozoology

Some people consider these creatures to be Cryptids, others are more circumspect (and want to be taken more seriously, we suspect). Certainly, “Wolf-men” would be ‘legitimate’ cryptids, but Werewolves? Maybe not. Vampires and Zombies? That’s really starting to bend the definition of ‘Cryptid’ out of shape, in our view. So we have isolated books on those subjects to this subsection. Make no mistake, though – we’re equally sure that there’s a grain of truth somewhere in most legends of these creatures. It might just be exceedingly small. Which has zero bearing on whether or not we’ll use these in our Pulp Campaign – indeed, we have already done so in the case of Vampires.

Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Creatures of the Night

1142. Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Creatures of the Night: Facts, Fictions, and First-Hand Accounts – Varia Ventura

”Huffington Post Weird News columnist and author Varla Ventura takes readers on a wild ride through the shadowy hills of rural Ireland, the dark German forests, and along abandoned farms and country roads across the world to discover some of the most frightening and freak-tacular tales, tidbits, and encounters with all those beasties that go bump in the night.” This is a mixture of myth, anecdote, and fiction, leaning more heavily toward the literary sources. Since most books on Cryptozoology take the subject matter seriously as “real world” phenomena, it provides a compelling counterpoint and expands the scope of foundations for GM-crafted creatures and encounters.

Kindle ($10) or 256-page paperback (27 used from $5.49, 39 new from $8.50).

The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters

1143. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters – Rosemary Ellen Guiley

600 entries provide definitions, explanations, and lists of suggested further reading. Focuses on cross-cultural mythology, folklore, historical cases, and the presence of shape-shifting creatures in arts, media, and pop culture.

Kindle ($63.78 – who do Amazon think they’re kidding?) or 352-page paperback (44 used from $4.24, 9 new from $29.95):

Hardcover (17 used from $16.69, 10 new from triple-figures-so-forget-it):

True Werewolves of History

1144. True Werewolves of History – Donald F Glut

This is a hard book to assess. Glut uses “contemporary chronicles and new research to bring to life the stories of over 100 werewolves from the pages of history. This new 21st Century tour-de-force brings together real tales of werewolves (not to mention “were” bears and “were” jaguars) from throughout the world and across the centuries.”

The only review of the book states, however, “This book has nothing on Werewolves in folklore or legend (no lore, anyway). It’s just a compilation of ancient stories. However, these may be still of some use… especially the stories about phantom werewolves (that is, lycanthropes that have returned from the grave as ghosts).”

Are the contents fictional accounts? Spooky stories from before the industrial revolution to before the age of the printing press?

As usual, however, the Pulp GM cares not about this issue, being only interested in grist for the mill. And, since no other reference we’ve come across has explicitly mentioned “phantom werewolves”, this promises to add at least one new bolt to our crossbow.

136 pages, hardcover (7 used from $13.99, 18 new from $9.17) or paperback (12 used from $6.83, 19 new from $7.83, 1 collectible from $9.99).

The Werewolf Handbook

1145. The Werewolf Handbook: An Essential Guide to Werewolves and, More Importantly, How to Avoid Them – Robert Curran

This book is very highly rated. Despite that, the one and only critical review is so lengthy and expert in its comments that it is not only impossible to quote but impossible to ignore; we recommend that you read it for yourself (opens in a new tab; ignore the three-star “top critical review” and scroll down to the 1-star review by André Geissenhoener).

Back already? Yeah, we only skimmed it, too, but we got the gist of what the reviewer had to say, and spotted enough specifics to know that he is very well versed in the subject. It must also be reiterated that thirteen of the twenty reviews gave this 5 stars out of five, and nineteen of them rate it as three-star or better. So, with that as context and caveat, let’s consider the actual content: Types of werewolf, including some that we hadn’t come across before; where they live; telltale traits; advice on how to avoid becoming one; tips on what to do when attacked; and more than 100 color illustrations that are reportedly excellent at conveying mood and atmosphere.

We think there’s enough value there to make this a useful resource, despite the problems highlighted by André’s review; but there’s enough doubt on our parts that we wanted to present the case to the reader to make up his own mind.

Hardcover, 80 pages, 37 used from $0.99, 9 new from $37.

The Monster Hunter's Handbook

1146. The Monster Hunter’s Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Saving Mankind from Vampires, Zombies, Hellhounds, and Other Mythical Beasts – Ibrahim Amin

“…details everything a new generation of valiant monster hunters needs to know to vanquish antiquity’s biggest?and baddest?beasts.”

“From a hellhound’s three-headed assault to a brain-eating zombie attack, The Monster Hunter’s Handbook instructs readers in the background of each creature and the dangers each present. It also includes an impressive catalog of the pre-modern world’s most powerful armament.”

As always with a creature-oriented encounter, the GM’s first goal has to be ensuring that firearms don’t end the encounter ‘prematurely’; once that is done, this fully-illustrated book becomes right-on-point to the pulp RPG.

224 pages, hardcover (24 used from $15.12, 12 new from $28.37, 1 collectible at $48.99). There is also a paperback (13 used from $19.56, 3 new from $132.18) but prices suggest that interested purchasers should grab the hardcover while they are still affordable.

The Werewolf Book

1147. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings (2nd Edition) – Brad Steiger

Possibly the most-complete compendium of this information available, covering myth, legend, literature, true crime, and media depictions of shape-changers (many of whom would not be considered werewolves at all) – everything from “hirsute mass-murderer Albert Fish and Fritz Haarman, who slaughtered and ate his victims, selling the leftovers as steaks and roasts in his butcher shop” to 140,000 years of myth and legend to classic and modern werewolf movies, with stops along the way to look at gargoyles, totem poles, and internet depictions, television shows, songs, and computer games. In fact, it is this very comprehensiveness that is the source of most of the criticism of the book. Not for the serious cryptid researcher / true believer, but wonderful for a GM.

Kindle ($10.07) 384 page paperback (28 used from $4.95, 19 new from $5.95) plus first edition with library binding* (10 new from $5, 13 used from $5, may have a different cover).

* Library Binding is the process of rebinding books with more durable materials. This may include replacing covers, repairing damaged pages, and plastic-covering covers to provide increased protection. Amazon sometimes fails to distinguish library-bound older editions from current editions, as in the case of “The Werewolf Book” above, as can be discerned by the clearly visible “second edition” text on the cover of the product on offer and the absence of that text on the version accessible through the “library binding” tab on the product page.


The Complete Idiot's Guide To Vampires

1148. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Vampires – Jay Stevenson

There does seem to be a greater willingness on the part of the Complete Idiot’s Guides to embrace “fringe subjects” than the “For Dummies” books. This is another volume that we couldn’t resist – we have no idea of the content, and whether or not it would have been useful when we hit our players with a Chinese Vampire who had stowed away on their ship, but even without that, it raised our eyebrows.

Kindle ($10.21) or paperback (37 used from 5¢, 10 new from $25.69, 2 collectible from $9):

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Zombies

1149. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Zombies – Nathan Robert Brown

Mike has never been a big fan of the Zombie Horde in movies or fiction (with one or two little-known exceptions) – he far prefers intelligent opposition in his games. But the irony of enjoying the relentlessness of the Terminators isn’t lost on him. Nevertheless, Zombies and Voodoo go together like swamps and mosquitoes – and, as mentioned earlier, 20% of the adventures he has collaborated on have had a Voodoo element, as does his Zenith-3 campaign. So this book definitely deserves a place on the reference shelf.
Kindle $11.76 or paperback (31 used from 1¢, 9 new from $28.97).

The Genesis Shield

1150. The Genesis Shield – Steven Spruill

Two things have to be said straight up: First, this is a work of fiction. Second, Mike is listing it (at the very last minute) without consulting the co-authors of this series.

Why? Because aside from being the most entertaining zombie book or movie he’s ever seen, bar none, it also has an excellent pseudo-scientific foundation for its sentient, conniving, cooperating zombie horde – and never even comes close to using the term Zombie, which would undermine that credibility. He also loves the perverse twist on the Captain America origin concept.

How adaptable to Pulp would it be? Well, there would need to be some changes made, that’s for certain, but it’s a matter of replacing one or two details with something more period-appropriate, and the central chain of logic would then hold true. Those changes would also change the scope of the problem from nation-wide to relatively local (no artificial weapons of mass destruction yet) – which makes this more suitable as a Pulp plotline, not less.

Paperback. 25 used from $0.01, 4 new from $65.21, 8 collectible from $2.75.

More copies: 13 used from $0.01, 4 new from $89.05, 1 collectible from $2.34.

Still more copies: 5 used from $14.49, 3 new from more than $200.

Regional Cryptozoology

The discovery of the first book listed in this section made us aware of the existence of “regional guides to weird stuff” for the first time. The next thing that we uncovered were the books listed in the haunting/ghosts section, followed by the remainder of the items in this section, and then the “Regional Myths and Legends” sections’ contents as the piece-de-resistance.

The Mystery Animals of Pennsylvania

1151. The Mystery Animals of Pennsylvania – Andrew Gable

The product description at Amazon tells us about the author and nothing about the book. Fortunately, there are two customer reviews that are more on-point. “Decent book with a few good stories about various cryptids in Pennsylvania. Overall, the book is good, my only complaint is that it’s a little disjointed in places and isn’t really well organized. In addition, most of the information is taken from other books, for example the chapter on thunderbirds is mostly taken from Lyman’s books about Potter County, PA.” – “‘Mystery Animals of Pennsylvania’ is by far the best work available on the zoological mysteries of the state. Gable’s attention to historical detail gives the work an almost scholarly feel, and the breadth of topics covered make the book a consistently interesting read from cover to cover.”

228-page Paperback; 8 used copies from $21.40 (but were a lot less when we listed the book), 15 new from $13.67. For a buck-fourty, we’ll look the other way.

Monsters of Maryland

1152. Monsters of Maryland: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Line State – Ed Okonowicz

Maryland seems to be well-populated by Cryptids to judge by the content list for this book, which covers Bigfoot, the Sea Serpent Chessie, the Snarly Yow, the Bunnyman, goat-men, swamp monsters, and more. Five of 7 readers have it five stars (and the other two gave it four), so that’s approaching a consensus in our book. The biggest criticism offered is that the Bigfoot chapter is “a little boring”.

Kindle ($9.46) and 160-page Paperback (19 used from $2.89, 25 new from $7.54):

More copies of the paperback (7 used from $5.79, 7 new from $24.02):

Still more copies of the paperback (10 used from $6.87, 9 new from $16.47):

Monsters of North Carolina

1153. Monsters of North Carolina: Mysterious Creatures in the Tar Heel States – John Hairr

Nick Redfern, another author, provides the product description: “From supernatural lake monsters to giant snakes, Bigfoot to big cats, and wild men to strange, flying things, Hairr covers them all . . . and then some!” Also includes some ghost stories.

Kindle ($9.27) and 128-page Paperback (13 used from $7.13, 15 new from the same price):

More copies: 9 used from $17.05, 9 New from $18.79:

Strange Pennsylvania Monsters

1154. Strange Pennsylvania Monsters – Michael Newton

We were going to recommend another in the “Monsters Of” series, but at almost $40 a copy, the price was too high. Fortunately, Mike spotted this alternative. Not much more need be said about it, you know exactly what the book will be about.

Paperback, 192 pages, 20 used copies from $8.27, 14 new from $10.

If you want a Kindle edition, “Monsters Of Pennsylvania” offers one for $8.99.

Monsters of Virginia

1155. Monsters of Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Dominion – L B Taylor, Jr.

Bigfoot, The Wampus Cat, Chessie the sea serpent, The Snallygaster, and Other strange phenomena including vampires, werewolves, thunderbirds, goatmen, and out-of-place animals.

Kindle (9.58), 144-page Paperback (27 used from $2.50, 19 new from $7.26).

Monsters of West Virginia

1156. Monsters of West Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Mountain States – Rosemary Ellen Gulley

Mothman, The Grafton Monster, The Wampus Cat, White Things, and other bizarre creatures including Bigfoot, lizard people, and out-of-place panthers.

Kindle ($9.59) or 144-page paperback (18 used from $5.32, 15 new from $7.42).

Monsters of New York

1157. Monsters of New York: Mysterious Creatures in the Empire State – Bruce Hallenbeck

‘Champ’ the Lake Champlain Monster, the Adirondack Bigfoot, the Kinderhook Creature, Sewer Alligators, the Montauk Monster, Catamounts, and more. In fact, everything up to and including aliens, courtesy of this offering from Fortean Researcher Bruce Hallenbeck. It certainly impressed another ‘true believer’.

Kindle ($9.06) or 144-page paperback (15 used from $7.16, 17 new from $7.25).

Monsters of Massachusetts

1158. Monsters of Massachusetts: Mysterious Creatures in the Bay State – Loren Coleman

Some consider Loren Coleman to be the leader of the pack when it comes to Cryptozoology. Massachusetts mysteries like the Dover Demon and the Bridgewater Triangle have names because Coleman ‘discovered’ and named them. This book includes, amongst others, the Dover Demon, the Gloucester Sea Serpent, Hockomock Swamp’s Beasties, Pukwudgees, and of course, Bigfoot.

Kindle ($9.02) or 128-page paperback (18 used from $7.30, 20 new from $7.41)

Monsters Of Illiinois

1159. Monsters of Illinois: Mysterious Creatures in the Prairie State – Troy Taylor

Bigfoot, the Big Muddy Monster, the Piasa Bird, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and other strange creatures, including vampires, alligators in the sewer, out-of-place panthers, thunderbirds, and lake monsters.

Kindle ($8.99) or 128-page paperback (22 used from $0.98, 15 new from $7.29)

… and there, the “Monsters Of” series seems to end. But not the Cryptids!

Strange Minnesota Monsters

1160. Strange Minnesota Monsters – Christopher S. Larsen

Minnesota eyewitnesses allege sightings of Bigfoot in Two Harbors, Wendigos in Roseau, lake monsters in Lake Pepin, Mothman near Rochester, and trolls in Cannon Falls. (The book description then adds a witty remark about Prince as a Cryptid). Deliberately excludes ghosts, as the author has another book covering Ghosts of Southwestern Minnesota.

Paperback, 192 Pages; 18 used from $2.59, 15 new from $8.90.

It Came From Ohio

1161. It Came From Ohio: True Tales of the Weird, Wild, and Unexplained – James Renner

An investigative reporter, Renner reports on 13 tales of “mysterious, creepy, and unexplained events in the Buckeye State, including the giant, spark-emitting Loveland Frog; the bloodthirsty Melon Heads of Kirtland; the lumber-wielding Werewolf of Defiance; the Mothman of the Ohio River; the UFO that [allegedly] inspired “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and more.”

Kindle ($3) or 116-page paperback (15 used from $3.98, 15 new from $4.17).

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and other mystery primates

1162. The Field Guide to Bigfoot and other mystery primates – Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe

“…a comprehensive study of the astonishing variety of puzzling primates that are being reported by eyewitnesses around the world – but that science has failed to recognize. This fully illustrated volume … contains … references, range maps, and typical footprints.”

“…attempts to sort out the different creatures, coming up with a classification of eight possible mystery primates. But this book makes no real attempt to persuade skeptics of the existence of any of them. It’s [a] sort of speculative taxonomy…”

Many of the reviews seem to value the book based on the degree to which the content agrees with their personal theories and biases. Some note that there’s an absence of fluff; this doesn’t report on sightings so much as compiles available information on what was sighted. Which makes it a great reference book on the subject.

Kindle ($7.90), hardcover 224 pages (13 new from $22.95, 9 used from $26.54) or paperback (same page-count, and our recommendation) 23 new from $14, 17 used from $6.91).

The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep

1163. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep – Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe

After the listing above, you should know exactly what to expect from this book.

Kindle ($9.98) or 380-page paperback (38 used from $1.29, 31 new from $7.86)


Books About General Mysticism, Superstitions, and other Strange Stuff


Superstitions of the Sea

1164. Superstitions of the Sea: A Digest of Beliefs, Customs, and Mystery – Jim Clary

A late discovery, this book is a compilation of the strange, mythical, and often comical beliefs of mariners from ancient times to the present. Although not the primary field of interest of the author, he kept discovering maritime folklore entwined within whatever he was studying at the time, finding himself lured off-topic for hours at a time as this or that maritime superstition held him spellbound. This book is the inevitable result.

Clary has built the book around a classification system for the myths and superstitions that he had encountered over the years, including anecdotes on: animals, burials, charms, demons, evil eyes, figureheads, ghost ships, hexes, icebergs, Jonahs, knots, launchings, myths, navigation, omens, people, romance, shipwrecks, triangles, the unexplained, Vikings, and weather phenomena. His own experiences have been supplemented by research in old volumes of maritime lore and contemporary interviews with sailors.

Free Audiobook or 360-page hardcover (36 used from $2.66, 19 new from $25.92, 2 collectible from $19.95).

Mysticism/Mystery Compendiums


Mysteries Of The World

1165. Mysteries Of The World: Unexplained Wonders and Mysterious Phenomena – Herbert Genzmer and Ulrich Hellenbrond

Short entries on a number of unusual phenomena, one of several candidates to substitute for our preferred choice, which does not have enough copies available. There are lots of cheap copies and it seems reasonably comprehensive.

Mysteries Of The World - Parragon Books

1166. Mysteries Of The World – Parragon Books

Not to be confused with the book of the same name listed previously (and the “rr” in “Parragon” is also not a mistake). Like the two previous suggestions, this appears to stake a wide territory and is reported to be lavishly-illustrated with few stock photographs – and that alone might make it an excellent companion to either of the preceding recommendations. Reviews suggest that the author is too quick to swallow anything UFO-related and relatively skeptical of biblical anecdotes, a bias that might need to be taken into account.

100 of the world's greatest mysteries

1167. 100 Of The World’s Greatest Mysteries – E. Randall Floyd

This reportedly takes a more serious and less credulous look at the subject. Floyd is a news journalist and professor of history, so his approach is relatively no-nonsense – providing balance to the other suggested works. Some reviews have been critical and suggested that there is nothing new in the content, however. Used copies start at 1 cent (plus P&H) so it’s not unreasonable to find out for yourself.

Books about Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy


Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy

1168. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy – Emile Grillot De Givry, translated by J Courtenay Locke

395 pages and 373 illustrations of the iconography of occultism. If you can’t get at least 100 pulp plots out of this book, you aren’t trying hard enough. Some of them might be awfully similar to each other, though. The original edition was published in 1973 and is the copy we have based this referral on (pictured) but it was republished in 1991 (with a very different cover). Although there aren’t many copies of the later edition around, the few that are tend to be cheaper than the older version – so try this link first, and if they are all gone (or more than about US$7 a copy) try this one

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Alchemy

1169. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Alchemy – Dennis William Hauck

Everyone knows that the “Holy Grail” goal of Alchemy was to turn a base metal (cheap) into gold (valuable) [Irrelevant side-note: there is actually an atomic reaction that turns iron into radioactive gold]. But Alchemy was much more than this, being a foundation for both Chemistry and Pharmacology. Throw in the arcane associations with the subject (largely the result of populist writers of books about the paranormal who were also known to be interested in, or believers in, Alchemy), and you have ample foundations for a pulp adventure or even a whole campaign.

Kindle ($11.76) or paperback (32 used from $7.21, 44 new from $9.55):

More copies (11 used from $11.54, 8 new from $27.65):

Still More Copies (23 used from $11.54, 17 new from $39.49):

These are all exactly the same book, so buy from whichever page is currently the cheapest.

Gemstone Lore


The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones, Volume 1

1170. The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones – Volume 1: Superstitions, Talismans & Amulets, and Crystal Gazing The Classic Writings of George Frederick Kunz, Ph. D.

See below for description.

The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones, Volume 2

1171. The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones – Volume 2: Astrology, Birth Stones, and Therapeutic & Religious uses – The Classic Writings of George Frederick Kunz, Ph. D.

Kunz was the most respected researcher into Gemstones and Gemology of the early 20th century, so much so that a century later, many of his works are still in print. Quantities of this book fall just short of our standards, but we’ve made an exception.

The Curious Lore of Precious Stones

1172. The Curious Lore Of Precious Stones

This may be a compendium of other books, including the two listed above, or it may be a completely separate work. We suspect the latter from comments, but don’t have a copy (yet) to state so, definitively. This is a 512-page compilation of folklore and folk-beliefs relating to gemstones from all over the world as well as an in-depth study of the history of gemstones. Don’t expect light reading, this is a serious book by a renowned expert.

Books about Strange (but mostly True) Stuff


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols
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1173. The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs & Symbols – Adele Nozedar

We were unsure quite where to list this one, described as “The Ultimate A-Z Guide from Alchemy to the Zodiac”, so we created this category to hold it – then added other things to the mix.

The paperback is cheaper but the hardcover (pictured) is also affordable. Also available in a Kindle Edition for a price in between the two, from either of the links provided.

Documentaries about Strange (but mostly True) Stuff



1174. Derren Brown: Messiah

This is a TV special from Channel 4 in the UK, featuring hypnotist and stage magician Derren Brown, one of several that we recommend. This special explores the relationship between confirmation bias and belief in the supernatural and theological. Conversions to Christianity with a touch are just one of the feats that Brown demonstrates.

Unfortunately, it appears to never have been released on DVD. You can read about the special at this Wikipedia page which is better than nothing.

Derren Brown - The Specials

1175. Derren Brown: The Heist

Under the cover of a motivational seminar, Derren Brown convinces a group of ordinary British businessmen and women to steal £100,000 in what they believe is an armed robbery. Available as part of a collection, “Derren Brown: The Specials” (the others are worth watching, too).

There aren’t many copies left in the US (and it is a UK import, which may not play on some DVD players) but they are reasonably-priced: Readers from the UK have a slightly more generous supply, also at good prices: Once again, Canadian readers are the most poorly-served in both supply and price:

Derren Brown - The Experiments

1176. Derren Brown: The Experiments

This is a series of 4 specials, each of which stands alone.

The first is “The Assassin”, in which the power of suggestion is used to turn an ordinary person into a willing Assassin without their consent or knowledge.

The second investigates the power of deindividuation, in which a group will do things that the individual would not find conscionable without really understanding how things reach that point – this is directly relevant to the way the Nazi state persuaded its citizens to carry out atrocities before and during the second world war.

The third, “The Guilt Trip”, shows how a completely innocent person can be persuaded to not only confess to a crime they did not commit, but can be completely convinced that they did in fact carry out the crime.

The final episode is “The Secret Of Luck” and it’s the only one that isn’t directly relevant to the Pulp GM. It’s about the perception of lucky or unlucky streaks and how they influence behavior. Okay, maybe it’s relevant after all!

Once again, there are limited copies available through Amazon US and these are UK imports which may not work in domestic players: Also once again, UK readers fair rather better in terms of both availability and price: As usual, there are fewer copies available to Canadian readers and they are more expensive, but still reasonable in price.


1177. Kuru: The Science And The Sorcery

Kuru is a disease that is transmitted solely by cannibalism and is endemic to the wilds of New Guinea where that practice is a recurring ritual. This tells the story of how the disease was discovered (during the pulp era or close to it), how the native tribes react to an outbreak, what limited treatments are available even in modern times, and how Papua New Guinea tribal society is evolving as a result. Includes interviews with family members of sufferers and footage of sufferers which some viewers may find disturbing. This is NOT one to show the kids. While this documentary has been released on DVD, we were unable to locate any available copies through any of the usual vendors. We did find it on YouTube, however:

Books about Strange (but mostly Dubious/Fringe) Stuff


The Complete Books Of Charles Fort

1178. The Complete Books Of Charles Fort – Charles Fort and Damon Knight

A collection of unusual anecdotes such as rains of fish etc that might be useful to the Pulp GM.

Those who want a physical book should buy the volume listed (pictured), but anyone with a Kindle should instead look at “The Fortean Collection” which appears to contain an extra “book” not in the “complete books” and costs a lot less.

Secret Of The Andes

1179. Secret Of The Andes – Borther Philip, illustrated by David Singer

“Secret of the Andes contains messages from the Brotherhood hidden high in the Andes Mountains. There, ancient truths and knowledge from highly-evolved cultures have been stored for thousands of years. From the monastery of the Seven Rays.” Ohhhkayyy, if you say so.

Second- and third-hand information is taken as fact and used as the foundation for wild speculation in this early new age book – that isn’t even very well written. But throw all that aside and keep the interesting parts for your campaign – “High in the Andes there is a secret Brotherhood living in something called ‘The Monastery Of Rays’ that preserves secret truths and knowledge from past highly-evolved cultures until…” write the rest yourself.

Hardcovers are too expensive for this list, but paperback copies (144 pages) start at around $10.

Crystal Skulls

The resources in this section are presented in a very specific sequence, from as mainstream and non-fringe as we could find through to extremely strange – what conventional science might describe as “fruitcake fringe, with added nuts”.

By the way, and (almost) totally off-topic, while gathering these links we came across something truly remarkable, the most expensive Kindle book that we’ve ever seen! There is a book (we’re not bothering with a link for reasons that will become obvious) named “Crystal Skull: Thirteen gates, Quetzalcoatl, Eldorado, archeology, interest and egg”. There is one second-hand copy available for $187.72; there are 6 new from $178.59; Amazon wants $200; and the Kindle edition is a “mere” (wait for it) $158.06. For a 107-page book claiming to be in its 78th edition, and written for 5-18 year olds… oh, and it has one customer rating (wonder if it’s from the person with the one second-hand copy available?) in the form of a completely unrelated poem, which rates the book as having five stars…


The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls

1180. The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls: Unlocking the Secrets of the Past, Present, and Future – Chris Morton and Ceri Louise Thomas

We couldn’t possibly put it any better than the back cover blurb:

“Native American legend tells of thirteen life-size crystal skulls said to contain crucial information about humankind’s true purpose and destiny. The legend prophesied[1] that one day, at a time of great crisis for humanity, all thirteen crystal skulls would be rediscovered and brought together to reveal information vital to the very survival of the human race. To date several skulls have been discovered.

“This book is the definitive guide to the facts and legends that inspired the May 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It explores what these mysterious crystal skulls are, where they came from, and what they may have to offer. The book follows Chris Morton and Ceri Louise Thomas on their journey of discovery from the ancient temples of the Maya to the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and to the crystal laboratories of Hewlett-Packard, where scientific tests on one of the skulls — made from the same quartz crystal used in today’s computers[2] — lead to the conclusion, “This skull shouldn’t even exist.” Their journey also leads to Native shamans and elders who reveal the sacred knowledge and vital information that these skulls hold about coming Earth changes and humanity’s imminent destiny.”

Our footnotes:
[1] Past Tense? It doesn’t prophecy this any more? Or the prophecy has come to pass?
[2] This is drawing rather a long bow. Quartz was used in computers back in the 80s for digital watches and other electronics, but had nothing to do with memory or processing power – they simply set the clock speed, the speed of the electrical impulses that were, in turn, used to control the computers. It’s like pointing to a plastic milk bottle and saying, “this is made from exactly the same compound, plastics, as used in modern after-market wheel hubs, so this bottle must have something to do with transportation.”

Of course, the authors have drunk deeply of the kool-aid. The British Museum and Smithsonian crystal skulls have been discovered to be modern fakes, and the Mitchell-Hodges skull is also a fake according to the sworn testimony of his adopted daughter, Anna, who was with him at the time.

This book takes them all as genuine and dismisses or ignores all evidence to the contrary (some of which didn’t emerge until after it was first published, to be fair). At least the authors take a superficially scientific approach in their attempts to evaluate the skulls! But the Pulp GM is free to do whatever he wants with the legend…

Kindle ($9.33) or 424 page paperback; 100 used copies from 1¢, 27 new from $5.88, 1 collectible from $9.85.

There are also a few copies of what appears to be an older edition with a different subtitle (“A Real Life Detective Story of the Ancient World”) and an arguably prettier cover (pictured): Paperback, 400 pages, 40 used from 1¢, 7 new from $4.

The Crystal Skull

1181. The Crystal Skull: The story of the mystery, myth, and magic of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull discovered in a lost Mayan city during a search for Atlantis – Richard M Garvin

From a customer review: “In the 1920s, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges and his adopted daughter, Anna, [reportedly] discovered a mysterious skull made of quartz crystal in the ruins called Lubaantun in Honduras. Since then, people have speculated about the origins of the skull and what its purpose was.”

A second customer picks up the story: “It is alleged that Anna Mitchel-Hedges paid $50,000 to Richard M Garvin to write a legend about the so-called Crystal Skull. In fact, there were two identical crystal Skull that are supposed to have been made in Bavaria. One was said to have been sold to F Mitchel-Hedges at auction in England for £4400. However, many years later, Anna Mitchel-Hedges married and sold the Crystal Skull to the ‘That’s Incredible’ Museum on the basis of the legend.”

This book includes a photograph of an affidavit signed by Anna attesting to the story of the skull’s origin and is the original account of the alleged finding and of subsequent attempts at verification and validation. There is a large overlap with the content of the previous book, which retraces the steps of those verification/validation attempts.

Is the Crystal Skull a hoax? The most recent testing seems to say yes. But this 108-page 1973 book contains the original tale of the Skull’s discovery, be it fiction, deception, or truth, from long before those findings – and hence details what the world would know during the Pulp Era. Where his story goes from there is up to the GM!

Don’t bother considering new or collectible copies, they are way too expensive, especially given the page count. Used hardcovers start at $6.74 (26 available) and used paperbacks are from $2.04 (22 available).

The Crystal Skulls

1182. The Crystal Skulls: Astonishing Portals to Man’s Past – David Childress and Stephen S Mehler

“Crystal skulls are said to have caused violence, physical injury, and even death. Can it be that these uncanny objects are our link to mankind’s dark, magical past? Are they messengers from another age-or another world? A fascinating compendium of current information on crystal skulls by two authors with first hand knowledge.”

So, who are these authors with such experience? Childress is “a recognized expert not only on ancient civilizations and technology, but also on free energy, anti-gravity and UFOs. His books on these subjects include: The Anti-Gravity Handbook; Anti-Gravity & the World Grid; Anti-Gravity and the Unified Field; Extraterrestrial Archeology; Vimana Aircraft of Ancient India & Atlantis; A Hitchhikers Guide To Armageddon The Free-Energy Device Handbook, Man-Made UFOs, The Time Travel Handbook, Atlantis & the Power System of the Gods and others.” And, indeed, we see his footprints all over these lists, because in an RPG, there is room for the fantastic, no matter how implausible, if it can be made to look good.

And Stephen Mehler? A former director of the Rosicrucians of San Jose, he “is currently a student of the ancient Egyptian mysteries.”

The astonishing thing isn’t that this book is fringe theory at best; it’s that it only marks the mid-way point in our journey through the strange and unlikely beliefs associated with Crystal Skulls. Which must mean that the next two books are really strange…

Kindle ($9.52) or 294-page paperback (23 used from $5.18, 20 new from $14.01

Crystal Skull Magick

1183. Crystal Skull Magick – Elizabeth Gardiepy

“Working with crystal skull energy is an amazing experience. This book shares basic magick involving the crystal skull energy and how to use it. From ritual and spells to chants and gridding, everything you need to know to start working with the crystal skull energy in a magickal way, is now at your fingertips!”

New Age magic intersects with Crystal Skull mythology and legend in this 104-page paperback (6 used from $11.13, 14 new from $10.15, also available for Kindle at $4.99).

The Starchild Channels

1184. The StarChild Channels: The Crystal Skull from Beyond the Stars – Linda Hostalek D O, with introduction by Joshua Shapiro and Katrina Head

We almost included a book co-written by Shapiro but on close inspection it didn’t seem to offer anything that this book didn’t cover, at a relatively steep price. He is big on the “Crystal Skulls as alien technology” theory; the fact that he penned an introduction therefore provides a very basic foundation to the subject matter when coupled with the title. But, before we get into specifics about the content, let’s first meet the author.

Linda Hostalek was born and raised near Chicago, with a love of art and spirituality. She is a trained cranial osteopath, a medical intuitive, an Andean-trained shaman, an artist, an author, and a holistic physician. She “weaves the teachings of the earth and human energetic systems, with medical and spiritual insight. As a master ceremonialist and teacher of Shamanic apprenticeships, she helps people to live in the energetic stream and to restore the mind body and spirit.

“Most of her painting are made with holy water and contain the a vibrational essence of healing….”

Okay, to the content. Look, there’s no way to synopsize or sugar-coat this without diminishing the awesome jaw-dropping totality. This is the out-there extreme of fringe beliefs, at least by most people’s standards. To convey the full impact, we have no choice but to quote the Amazon product description verbatim:

“StarChild, the Crystal Skull beyond the Stars, is a crystalline star being who desires to communicate with humans in an effort to guide them through this world to their true purpose in the multiverse. StarChild and Linda were united during the 11-11-11 vortex of transformation, and the information of this and other worlds has been coming through ever since.

“The introduction to this work is by the Crystal Skull Explorers, Joshua Shapiro and Katrina Head, who first introduced Linda to StarChild. The fascinating background lays the groundwork for over a hundred channels. Designed to be a divination work, one can flip through the pages or read it outright to gain wisdom and understanding to guide your own life. Information is contained regarding other realms, star ships, consciousness, love, healing, compassion, and wisdom. You are invited to explore this realm with StarChild. Read it all or one channel a day for the essence of the day, and how to prepare your energy field for it. As a bonus gift, some selected channels from the Starkeepers material, which also come through Linda, are also included, as is a photo gallery of StarChild.”

Where does one begin to assess that? She comes across as someone who genuinely wants to help people…

It’s radical even for New Age beliefs, but it gets to alien contact by way of crystal skulls… This entire shelf has been devoted to superstition and weird beliefs, but the above would seem to be the last word, bringing this shelf to a close – because what could possibly follow it?.

Kindle ($6.08) or 348-page paperback (6 used from $14.28, 15 new from $13.03).



Afterword by Blair:

What would Pulp be without the Mystical?

Mystic artifacts like the Ark Of The Covenant or the Spear Of Destiny make great Macguffins, and Voodoo Priests*, Nazi Blood Magicians or Asian Mystics are perfect Enemies for two-fisted Pulp Adventurers.
   * Spelling chosen deliberately to signify an “over the top” interpretation.

Large parts of the world – the Jungles of Brazil, the Himalayan mountains, the Gobi Desert, Frozen Antarctica – are poorly explored and mostly unknown at best. Where better to place a lost temple or city or mystical artifact?

In a Pulp universe, any superstition or legend might be a true story. Does the ghost of a gangster still haunt the place where (according to local legend) he was murdered, or could it be a hoax to cover up some other nefarious scheme?

Surprises of any sort can appear, real or otherwise, at any time in a pulp Universe. It can truly be said that the laws of nature are absolute – but only move at the speed of plot.

And there is always the possibility of people with extraordinary or unusual abilities – though here the GM should exercise a little caution, as they can easily overpower the game. Still, an NPC with knowledge of the dark arts – or the hidden truths – may be useful to feed information to the players.

Which, of course, raises the possibility of Cryptids. Whether they be Yetis in the snow-topped Himalayas, Thunderbirds in the American Southwest, or Bunyips in the Australian Outback, a Cryptid always makes a good excuse for an Adventure – regardless of that cryptid being real, fantasy, delusion, hysterical conviction, or hoax being used by a villain to scare away potential witnesses. The cryptid’s role in the adventure is, in many respects, secondary to the mere fact of its existence.

The Pulp GM, like all Gamemasters, has a certain amount of suspension-of-disbelief capital that he can play, but this can be frittered away by evaporating the sense of mystery inherent to the game. As much as you possibly can, you want to always leave mysteries alive for another day. No matter what the PCs may encounter, think very carefully before permitting them to capture it and parade it through the streets back in civilization.

Don’t squander your capital, and it will continue to reward you in adventure after adventure. Every mysterious creature, strange event, or urban legend that is positively confirmed (one way or another) erodes the wellspring of suspension-of-disbelief; before too long, your players can come to expect answers, every time.

And don’t forget to give your players time to get used to “normality” in between encounters. The weird should always be a surprise.

Exploit the fringes of the known, flirt with the strange and unlikely, but always leave room for doubt and deniability, and those fringes will always be up your sleeve when you want or need them.

Next in this series (in early February): The 13th shelf – The first of two Odds & Sods shelves, this one focusing on GMing and related tools and skills, and especially on books that offer practical advice or useful tools or techniques.


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The Pentagon Of Encounter Design

If You Go Down To The Woods by Jim Daly

Image by / jim daly

There are five attributes to any encounter that define it, and any one of them can be the foundation of that encounter.

In the old days of D&D, it used to be that there was relatively limited flexibility. You chose an encounter based on one of these five criteria and everything else was more-or-less dictated by that choice. This was both a blessing and a curse, because it limited the scope to which the GM could tailor has encounters to his needs, and one or more of these corners of the Pentagon usually had to be compromised – but it also meant that encounters could be created fairly quickly and easily, simply because most of the choices were dictated by the domino effect of the one primary choice.

Points-based systems such as the Hero System afford far greater flexibility because you can construct any encounter more-or-less to order. But they provide this flexibility at a cost – construction time and complexity. One of the skills any GM of such a game system must acquire is the capacity to shortcut this creation process.

About six or seven years ago, everything changed with the advent of a new technique: Reskinning. Depending on how far you went with it, suddenly the entire gamut of possibilities was open to you, quickly and relatively easily – but with freedom to choose comes the need to consider the options; no matter how efficient the reskinning process is made, it is inherently always going to be longer and more complex than simply picking a monster out of the appropriate rulebook

This article is going to attempt to simplify the process of making effective choices in such a way that it applies equally to the really-flexible systems and to the process of reskinning. If I succeed, the results should be better encounters, produced more efficiently, regardless of game system.

The Pentagon

The reason that I have high hopes – in fact, near-total confidence – in my ability to pull this off is that theoretical studies of this sort of thing have always assumed that the five variables, the points of the Pentagon, are independent of each other. It’s my belief and contention that they are actually far more closely interrelated, and that this relationship permits the construction of a logical road-map through the choices that defines the easiest path for the GM to follow.

Before we can get there, you need to understand what the five choices, or points on the Pentagon, are, and this is where a lot of past analysts have gotten themselves into a tangle, because this is a Pentagon with 9 points! This causes complications than obscure the relatively simplicity. Tell you what, let’s deal with these as we come to them.

The five points are:

  • 1. Plot
    • 1a. Purpose
  • 2. Environment
  • 3. Abilities
    • 3a. Offensive
    • 3b. Defensive
    • 3c. Other
  • 4. Character
    • 4a. Capabilities
    • 4b. History
  • 5. Challenge

I have no doubt that most readers will know what most if not all of these are, but let’s (briefly) get acquainted with each in this context”


What encounter does the story need to propel it forward? Is it someone who knows something the PCs need to know, or someone to complicate their lives, or a undead in thrall, or what?


What’s the villain’s plan, and how is the next encounter to fit into that? Is he removing potential opposition, distracting an enemy, correcting a mistake, or going about his nefarious business? This is a sub-type of Plot.


“Well, the PCs are in the elemental plane of fire, so some sort of fire-based encounter….”


‘Abilities’ refers to what the enemy in the encounter can do. You might pick a particular ability because it hasn’t been used for a while, or because you think it would be interesting, or because you have an idea for doing something interesting with it, or simply because it catches your eye. Abilities are often subdivided into three broad categories.


Offensive Abilities are those used to harm, manipulate, or impede the PCs.


Defensive Abilities are used to protect the NPC from harm, manipulation, or from being impeded.


Other can be very broad in scope, but usually comes down to information-gathering or protection from information-gathering.


Character-based encounters are those based on what one or more of the PCs can do or have done. There are two sub-varieties.


This is the “can do” part of the encounter definition.


This is the “have done” part of the encounter definition.


Finally, you might choose an opponent for the PCs based simply on the degree of challenge that you want them to pose to the PCs. The only thing wrong with that is that one or more of the other aspects of the encounter often get scant or no attention.

The process of encounter selection

The contention that I am offering up is that because of the degree of interdependence and inter-relatedness of these various aspects of an encounter, once you have selected one as being the determining factor in who or what will be encountered, there will be a logical choice for the secondary criteria to employ, and that will lead to a logical choice for the tertiary, and so on. One answer leads to the next question like dominos falling.

A key 6th criterion will be used to dictate this logic: Instigator.


Whoever causes the encounter to take place usually has a lot of control over the circumstances. If the PCs are confronting the villain in his lair, this control is shared; the villain has control over the environment, the PCs have control over the manner in which the confrontation proceeds, and the timing.

The instigator, coupled with the principle of self-interest, creates a compelling logical channel through the process of defining the encounter. No matter which starting point you choose from amongst the five, or amongst the nine if you prefer, there is a single “best path” through the minefield of all these decisions that not only simplifies the choices, but that defines the encounter in the process.

Plot-based encounters

I do a lot of these, because I’m a strongly story-focused GM. But I also leaven the mix with some random-chance encounters, simply because there is a hostile force to be encountered; some of these are based on where the plot has brought the PCs (environment-based), some on one or more abilities that I think will be fun and challenging, and so on. A lot of the focus here at Campaign Mastery is on showing how to accomplish this, for which I make no apologies; but other approaches can be equally valid.

So the plot calls for an encounter with a character of ambition A, whose plan is B, whose personality is C, whose plot function or personal story arc is D and whose stage within that personal story arc is D1 – the very beginning, from the point of view of his interaction with the PCs. I will probably have a name, though even that might be up for grabs.

Some of his abilities might be dictated by future plot function, but there is no restriction that states that he has to have those abilities already; he might acquire them in between this encounter and that future one, possibly even in response to this encounter. In fact, this encounter might have no purpose other than to introduce this character and his motivations and ambitions and to justify his acquiring that future capability. But beyond that, I have no idea of what this character can do, at least not at this point in time.

In the case of plot-based encounters, the logical path is as follows:

  1. Plot
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Challenge
  5. Abilities
  6. Character

Plot is first, because that has been selected as the foundation of the encounter.

Instigator is second, because that defines who has control over the remaining aspects of the encounter. A key decision related to Instigator is always “why is the creature instigating the encounter”?

Environment is third. If the villain is the instigator, he will choose a battleground that gives him the advantage and that is within his reach. That advantage might be in enhancing his own abilities or in handicapping the PCs. What environment that the instigator can reach is most advantageous to his achieving his goals? If the villain is not the instigator, the environment is determined by where the PCs are and what they are doing at the time of the encounter.

Challenge is fourth. Once you know the environment, and whether it helps, hinders, or is neutral to either or both parties within the encounter, you can assess the challenge required, so that is fourth. If neither side are advantaged or hindered, or if both are equally impacted, the determinant factor is how difficult you want the encounter to be; if one side is advantaged relative to the other, you may need to weaken that side relative to the challenge level you would have set were the encounter to take place on neutral ground. In D&D / Pathfinder, this is the point at which you choose the base creature that is to be reskinned or enhanced. In a points-based system, this is where you decide the basics of what the character can do, given the environment and the challenge desired.

Abilities come fifth. Once you have the base creature, the environment, and the challenge level desired, you can compare the abilities of the base creature and tweak them accordingly, either enhancing them, diminishing them, or replacing them. This is the actual process of re-skinning. In a points-based system, this is where you decide all the nuances that distinguish this character’s “fire blast” (or whatever) from that of the last character.

Finally, Character. The significance of the encounter to any character is defined by that character’s relationship to the plot arc that is producing the encounter. It has no determinant value so far as any other defining element of the encounter is concerned.

Once you know all these things, you can create the encounter itself relatively easily. What is the base personality of the being that is to be encountered? How is that going to be affected by the foundation decisions? How does this individual vary from the “base model” – how representative is he? How well does the creature know the environment? How can he best take advantage of the opportunities it offers, how can ge minimize any impairments that result, what is he doing, how are the PCs likely to react and how will the creature react? The foundation decisions and knowledge of who is instigating the encounter and why make these decisions as straightforward as they can possibly be.

Purpose-based encounters

This is a variation on the plot-based encounter in which the encounter is taking place because the creature being encountered is acting to achieve some purpose or carry out some plan. This produces some subtly but profound variations on the process, and even reverses the sequence of two of the later steps.

In the case of purpose-based encounters, the logical path is as follows:

  1. Plot (purpose)
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Abilities
  5. Challenge
  6. Character

Plot is first. You can only employ this architecture if you know what the character’s plan is, and are developing the encounter to fit that plan. This is reasoning backwards; it’s normal to have the character and to make a plan based on the character’s capabilities and objective, but this is also much harder work for the GM. It’s usually far easier to come up with a plan, and if the character doesn’t have the capabilities needed to carry that plan out, to set out to obtain them. Instant plot arc! But, more importantly, the character now has a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The plan produces the plotline.

Instigator is second. There are only two alternatives here: either the encounter is an integral part of the plan (in which case the hostile is the instigator) or PCs are to encounter and potentially disrupt the plan (in which case, they are the instigators but with limited control over the situation.

Environment is largely dictated by the plan – it is whatever environment is most conducive to the success of the plan. If the hostile is the instigator, his greater control over the encounter yields a more favorable environment: about 45% of the time, it will be beneficial to him, about 35% of the time it will be neutral, and about 20% of the time it will be to his disadvantage within the encounter. For the PCs, the division is even – one-third beneficial, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 inimical, unless their involvement is a mandated part of the plan, in which case the odds are 20%, 35%, and 45%, respectively. If the hostile is not the instigator, the differences are not so profound: for the hostile, 40, 30, 30; for the PCs, 35, 35, 30. These numbers reflect a number of considerations – the hostile has control over the plan, and environmental variables are going to be a consideration in that plan; and there is a good chance that what suits the hostile will also suit the PCs. So, if a range of environments are suitable to the plan, use these percentages, roll randomly, and decide based on the outcome – and bear in mind that any deliberate choice informs as to the personality of the chooser.

Having defined the plan and the environment, the next logical step is to answer the question, “what does the hostile need to carry out the plan, given these conditions?” This starts you down the road of determining the capabilities of the hostile, of deciding (in D&D terms) what the new skin will be before you decide what creature you are going to wrap it around.

Defining the abilities first can make the next decision, Challenge, more difficult, because you are now matching against two different criteria. First, there is the overall challenge level of the encounter, and second, there is the question of reskinned-abilities relative to the base abilities of the creature and any effect they may have on that overall challenge rating. There are two solutions to this: one quick and easy but vague and risky, and the other more difficult but more rigorous.

Difficult but rigorous: a table of challenge adjustments
There is a very rigorous system provided in the Monster’s Handbook by FFG for the D&D/Pathfinder/d20 system which can be reverse-engineered. But it seems overkill in this situation. So, instead, here are a couple of rough rules of thumb:

  • Rule-of-thumb #1: 1d6 per level, or 1/2 d6 per level with enhancement;
  • Rule-of-thumb #2: every level in advance of the base in one respect is 1/2 a dice overall.

Using these, we can construct a table as follows:

excerpt from table of challenge adjustments

An excerpt from the table. Click on the image to download the table as a PDF.

Down the left-hand column we have the actual number of Hit Dice of the encounter (or equivalent from other systems) – multiply by 20 and add 100 to get Hero System build points, for example. Across the top, we have an estimate of the effectiveness of the combined new abilities of the creature. Most importantly, in the middle, the table contents, we have a rough estimate of the effective power level, assuming that the abilities are replacing those that the creature would normally have. A “+” indicates that you can either distribute +3 in stats or add half a HD of appropriate size.

I have color coded the results – white is fine, no problem; yellow is with caution; pink means with serious care; and red means “not recommended, proceed at your own risk”. In general, yellow starts with a difference between HD and effective power level of 2, pink at a difference of 5 to the top right or 4 to the bottom left, and red at a difference of about 6 or 7 to the top right or 5 to the bottom left. These are just my opinion, and they probably understate the danger margins, if anything.

The table can be used in either of two ways: you can identify the point on each axis of a proposed reskinning job and determine the approximate effectiveness level of the combination; or you can choose the appropriate ability level, track down that column until you get to the white zone, and then move left to identify a range of appropriate HD creatures to re-skin with the new abilities.

Example 1: You want a Kobold (1 HD) who has STR of about 20 and can throw lightning bolts. STR 20 is about 10 higher than what is defined as “average” for the D&D system, so that’s roughly +5 to the level (based on Rule of Thumb #2) – so this along would be appropriate for a creature of 6HD or more. Most creatures of 6HD or more also have an ability of some sort, the Lightning Bolt is not unreasonable; According to the 1HD=1d6 principle (Rule Of Thumb #1) that says 6d6 lightning bolts. Those sound a little strong to the GM, so he drops them to 4d6, a reduction of two, which says that the “appropriate level” should drop by half that (Rule of thumb #2 again). So the combination of abilities is about right for a 5HD creature. Using Kobolds (1HD) as the base creature gives an effective level of 3, and is within the yellow zone. With only 1HD, the kobolds won’t last very long, and will pay off better in XP than their longevity indicates they should.

Example 2: So let’s pick something else, re-skin it as a Kobold, with our extra abilities. The logic that took us to Column five on the table hasn’t changed; so let’s track down that column to get an appropriate range of creatures to be reskinned as our new breed of Thunder Kobold. The first white entry is an effective level of 4, and the last one is 7, with an additional bonus “plus” to get there. Tracking left from those entries gives a HD range of three to eight. Anything in that HD range is appropriate for this reskinning; it’s just a matter of what other abilities and stats come along for the ride, how powerful the PCs are, and how hard we want to challenge them. Consulting my Pathfinder Bestiary, Appendix 9, Creatures by CR reveals Troll in the CR5 category. Perfect – replacing the Trollish regeneration with 4d6 Lightning Bolts, upping the STR slightly, and “reskinning” the result into a Kobold-like shape, and this part of the process is complete!

Finally, Character. The significance of the encounter to any character is defined by that character’s relationship to the purpose/plot that is producing the encounter. It has no determinant value so far as any other defining element of the encounter is concerned.

Once again, the encounter itself is relatively straightforward to write from this point. Any PC encountering a group of these creatures will quickly learn not to judge a book by its’ cover!

Environment-based encounters

There are times when where an encounter is to occur is the dominant consideration. That might be a desert, because the PCs happen to be in a desert, or in an elemental plane, or whatever.

The logical path to defining an environment-based encounter is:

  1. Environment
  2. Instigator
  3. Challenge
  4. Abilities
  5. Plot
  6. Character

First, the environment. Does it advantage or disadvantage the PCs? Will it advantage or disadvantage the hostile?

If the environment hinders the hostile, he is unlikely to be the instigator; he or they is more likely to represent a passive barrier that the PCs must overcome. If the environment helps the hostile, he is more likely to be secure enough to be aggressive or territorial, and therefore to instigate the encounter.

Once you know that, the logical next step is to decide how difficult a challenge this encounter is to pose, given the environmental considerations.

This decision made, it’s easy to replace or modify abilities; the key question is always, “how can the creature use the environment to its advantage, if it’s the instigator? What does it need?” Similar logic enables the creation of abilities for an encounter being built with the Hero system. Use the same principles outlined earlier for any abilities that you decide to change.

By now, the basic outline of how the encounter is going to proceed should be fairly clear; you know the creature and how it is going to fit into the environment, you know how it is going to behave and why the encounter is going to take place. The next decision is how the encounter is going to fit into the plot. If the answer is that it is superfluous to the plot, an arbitrary danger to be faced, then the “plot” question devolves into its’ sub-entity, “Purpose”. What does the creature hope to achieve by Instigating combat? That should define how the encounter will begin, and the various ways in which it could end, requiring only translation into specific outcome descriptions and guidelines. You have the beginning and possible endings of this little mini-story; the middle is up to the players to choose.

A major factor in that choice will be the character histories and attitudes. Having outlined the various outcomes, you can use past behavior and current attitudes as a guideline to the outcomes that are most likely, and lavish a little extra care and prep on them.

Once that’s finished, the encounter is ready to play; there is little or no additional work required. Okay, maybe the narrative that introduces the encounter could do with some additional polish.

Abilities-based encounters

It doesn’t especially matter what the nature of the ability is, the logical path is still the same – but that path has a slight twist to it, compared to the simpler ones that I have examined so far. The path is:

  1. Abilities
  2. Plot/Instigator?
  3. Character
  4. Instigator/Plot
  5. Environment
  6. Challenge

When the most important factor in the encounter creation process is an ability that you want the encountered creature to posses, your reasons for wanting to base an encounter around that ability are going to be metagame-based nine times out of ten. Whether it’s an idea that sounds like fun, or because legend has it that creatures with that ability can be found in this part of the game world (and you’ve decided to make it true and not a myth), or because you haven’t used the ability (or anything like it) for a while, or whatever – those are all metagame to some extent.

An ability-based encounter, by definition, has a limited plot function. If it didn’t, the plot point would be the primary factor.

The second step, after defining the abilities that the encounter is to be based on, is to determine whether or not you have enough information based on that limited plot function to determine who is going to be the instigator. Obviously, if the PCs are looking for a creature with a certain ability – and there are reasons why they may want to do so – they are the instigator, if not then the either the creature is the instigator by virtue of that limited plot function, or you can’t say yet.

If you can’t say, then you need to create a plot outline for the encounter that will determine the identity of the instigator. It’s not often that you have a genuinely blank canvas to draw on, so this is your chance to do something you normally wouldn’t, your chance to do something unusual – and unexpected. A Drow with hydrophobia who leaps into a raging river to rescue children on a raft without thinking – and then needs rescuing himself. A goblin seeking wisdom, in search of a holy man that he saw in a vision. A white dragon that just wants to be left alone to practice his ice sculpture. A bugbear poet who is seeking out those who have decimated his people in past encounters to get to know them, that he can include them in his epic Saga about the suffering of his people. These may be insane by the standards of their race, or they may reveal a little hidden corner of light within the racial makeup (one that is usually suppressed). A devil who, once every hundred years or so, needs to do someone a genuinely good deed to permit him to be fully evil the rest of the time – and who isn’t going to leave until he has done so to his satisfaction, no matter how it might inconvenience the PCs to have him hanging around. An Elf who wants to enslave the Orcs until they have repaid his society for all the damage they’ve done through the eons and who is willing to start a war to achieve it.

In all these cases, the heart of the plotline is going to be how the characters are going to react. The plot is defined as being provocative to them, to their assumptions and to their personal histories.

A race always seems more evil if they have a choice and choose to be the way they usually are. By carefully playing against the stereotype, you can actually reinforce the stereotype.

Of course, if it were just the aberrant representative, there is no real challenge for the PCs. So you need something for them to overcome, be it a natural danger (the river) or other members of the society who oppose what the aberrant representative is doing, or a fearful mob, or whatever. Perhaps, for social class reasons, they can’t stop the aberrant from doing whatever he’s doing, but they can make sure there are no witnesses afterwards… And with that, the focus shifts from the encounter being based on the aberrant creature to being about the nature of the challenge that has to be overcome.

After making your choice of plotline, based on the character interaction with that plotline, you are therefore able to return to the question that we started with – who is the instigator? You need a clear answer to this before you can proceed, because the instigator controls, at least partially, the circumstances of the encounter.

Once you have that information, you can take the plot from being broad concept to an outline of specifics.

The instigator, of course, has the choice of the environment in which the encounter takes place. I once used the “bugbear poet” idea, with him stalking/hunting the PCs for almost a week, evading any traps they set for him, until they reached a place where the environment was suitable – he wanted to be able to approach from cover, and to have lots of room to evade them if they were not receptive. The two are often mutually-exclusive.

With that done, you are able to determine the challenge to be faced, i.e. how much trouble the encounter is going to be for the PCs, at which point the fleshing out of the encounter can proceed easily.

Character Capability -based encounters

This can be one of the most complex types of encounter to craft, depending on what you want to achieve – a metagame decision. It might be that you feel it’s been a while since a PC got to parade one of his abilities, and want to craft an encounter that does so. Or it might be that you are tired of the PCs employing a particular tactic and want to shake them up a bit by denying them access to or the functionality of, a key element of that tactic.

The logical sequence is:

  1. Character – Capabilities
  2. Environment/Abilities
  3. Plot – basic
  4. Environment/Abilities Revisited
  5. Plot – specific
  6. Instigator
  7. Challenge

This is often a push-pull situation in which you not only need the encounter to have a particular (fairly obvious) vulnerability, but also need to deny the PCs any easier answers.

Part of that can sometimes be achieved through the environment in which the encounter takes place, part of it will need to be the result of the abilities that you give the creature, either defensive or offensive. A nice twist is to have the encounter not merely immune to whatever the PCs normally use, but actually empowered by it, either directly or indirectly.

However you are going to arrange to have it happen, you need to identify specifically what parameters you need for the encounter to have, and then devise a combination of environment and encounter abilities that produces that outcome.

That generally gives you the outline of the plot for the encounter. This usually reads, (1) Encounter Begins, (2) PCs use standard tactics, (3) PCs realize standard tactics won’t work, (4) PCs improvise/call upon tactics that will work, (4) Resolve encounter. In effect, this gives the enemy a free hit or two at one or more PCs while they are engaged in steps (2) and (3), so it may be necessary to weaken the encounter to take that into account, either directly (perhaps as a consequence of whatever treatment conferred the immunity/defensive ability) or indirectly (as a secondary environmental effect).

And that’s where the real complications start. With so many consequences and moving parts, it becomes easy to create the impression that the encounter has been crafted from a Chinese menu, more or less at random. The encounter can lack coherence. And achieving coherence while still ticking all those boxes is the difficult bit.

Having done so, it will often – even usually – be necessary to revise the plot in more specific fashion to achieve the broad outlines given above. How are the PCs to learn what they need to know? Or are they simply to remain ignorant until one of them realizes that the creature should have dropped by now – and hasn’t? How much damage are you willing to inflict on them in the meantime?

Once you have all of the above nailed down, the instigator of the combat will usually be obvious, and mostly irrelevant (for the first time). Of greater difficulty is determining the appropriate level of challenge, as I’ve implied above. How much an immunity or defense is worth depends on a host of factors, not least of which is how broadly it is defined.

The more specifically-targeted an immunity, the more obviously the encounter is targeted at the PCs – unless the GM is able to justify that, he can be (legitimately) accused of picking on them. This adds an additional burden on the plot – (3a) Justification – which makes these encounters more difficult to pull off, again. I would suggest that specifically-targeted immunity/defense should be worth +2 or +3 CR.

A very broad immunity is often the easiest to articulate, and even to justify at a metagame/plot level. But it makes the creature very dangerous. Such an immunity should often be defined as having a capacity limit, because that makes the encounter seem more plausible once the PCs discover the limit – but that again brings in the questions of how the PCs are to learn of this restriction, and how long it is going to take. Choice of language can often be the answer; instead of having the encounter gloat that he is immune to all physical attacks, have him sneer that the PCs are incapable of manifesting sufficient force to harm him. The key difference is between “all” and “sufficient force,” which implies that there is some limit.

But this can backfire, giving the Players hope that continuing with their standard tactics will eventually bear fruit instead of persuading them to try something else. So this, too, requires careful management and plotting by the GM.

A broad-based immunity can be worth as much as +10 CR. +8 is more usual. This usually mandates the provision of 2-4 more abilities of equal power, and it’s very easy for a snowball effect to make the encounter overwhelming except to very high-level PCs. One way that GMs can get around this is by specifying that weapons/attacks with a given magical bonus can penetrate the defense – but this can easily tip the balance in the other direction, because it’s not too difficult to stack an extra magical plus or two onto an attack.

The final danger that I want to mention has been intimated above – that of making a casual, passing encounter more significant than the boss-monster, making the rest of the adventure an anticlimax. You need to plan now how this problem is going to be avoided.

Character History -based encounters

The second-last variety of encounter foundation is a lot simpler, thankfully! Quite often, you will want to base an encounter around a character’s past, as much to give them an opportunity to talk about that character background as anything else. Whenever a character drops something into their background, I tend to look (hard!) for a plot arc (big or small) to build around that background element – and tend to leave the element sitting on the shelf until I come up with something satisfactory. Case in point: St Barbara, from my Zenith-3 campaign, has an African Warlord named The Blood Dove as an enemy. Nothing much was known about him until the player and I collaborated on the character’s background, many years ago, and because I’ve never found a good plotline, he’s remained in limbo since. In the course of plotting the overall structure of the current campaign, I finally came up with a small plotline revolving around him, and have dropped it into the master plan at an appropriate point.

The Evolution of an encounter based on a character’s past history is fairly straightforward:

  1. Character – History
  2. Instigator
  3. Plot
  4. Challenge
  5. Environment
  6. Plot Revised

Sometimes, you know that you want to do something with something from a character’s past but don’t know what; it’s just a way of giving that character a share of the spotlight for a while, and not meant to go anywhere major in plot terms. At other times, you have a clear plot arc for the NPC to follow, with (of course) the PC’s life intersecting with that plot arc at strategic points. The starting point has to be getting both of these up to the same standard of definition by selecting the character history element around which the encounter is to be built.

Second, you need to decide whether the instigator is going to be the PC (confronting their past) or the enemy (the past confronting the character).

That gives you the beginning of the plot, so the next decision has to be listing the possible endings, and (in particular) whether this is the end-point or just the first chapter in a larger plotline, perhaps one that is to be spread over a number of widely-separated encounters.

The fourth decision is the degree of challenge that this encounter is supposed to provide. This is an important decision because quite often the answer will differ from the level of outright challenge that the enemy represents.

That difference can stem from one or both of two sources: the circumstances (which may require some revision of the plot), and the environment in which the encounter is to occur. In general, there are limits to the effectiveness of the environmental factor, so it’s better to decide that first and then make up any shortfall by stacking the odds created by the circumstances in the NPCs favor – though sometimes an environment can be so hostile that the circumstances need to be in the PCs favor to balance things out the other way.

Challenge-based encounters

I’ve left the most obvious one until last. Choosing an encounter based on nothing more than it being sufficiently challenging to the PCs is probably the most common approach. You could argue that the entire concept of reskinning arose as a way of injecting greater variety of choice into this approach.

The pathway to defining this type of encounter is also straightforward.

  1. Challenge
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Abilities
  5. Character
  6. Plot

You start by deciding on a challenge level relative to the PCs, and then factoring in their capabilities to determine an overall challenge rating.

Second, you need to decide who the instigator is going to be. Most of the time, this will be the hostile force, but from time to time it will be the party (depending on the make-up and attitude of the PCs, it must be added – some are super-aggressive).

Next, the environment. If the PCs are the instigators, the environment will probably not be of their choosing, it will be somewhere that the creature to be encountered calls home, or whatever the local conditions are at the PCs current location at the time of the encounter. The smarter the creature, the more it will have manipulated the local environment to create a sub-environment that is even more conducive to its success.

Fourth, the abilities that the creature needs to take advantage of the environment to whatever degree is desired. This permits the completion of the reskinning process. It also completes what you need to know to plan the start of the encounter.

Fifth, in order to determine and prepare for the possible endings of the encounter, you need some idea of how the PCs are likely to react, based on their history and current circumstances.

Sixth, using that knowledge, complete the plot outline for the encounter, and you will be ready to write it.

The limits of logic

That’s every possible foundation of starting point for an encounter, and a logical road map through the different decisions that leads through the maze of endless possibilities.

Except one.

The ultimate type of encounter is one which derives from the personality of the individual being encountered, which is a subset of the generalized personality of the race. These can be the hardest, and most satisfying, encounters to craft – and the most frustrating to play if the players insist on engaging in combat instead of roleplay, or vice-versa. There’s nothing worse than crafting a Combat Monster only for the players to parley with it.

Such encounters are best handled by applying the advice offered in a series of articles that I wrote back in 2010 (it doesn’t seem like 6+ years ago): Making A Great Villain. You don’t need to go to the same extent that you would if this was to be the main villain (or one of them) for the campaign, but applying the principles to even a small personality-based encounter yields the best possible result.

Use those techniques to make a great one-shot villain, use the result to generate a plot, and use the plot-based technique offered at the start of this article. And play them to the hilt; for this character, there is no tomorrow.

But don’t be surprised if the enemy totally takes over the adventure. Expect them to do so, and plan accordingly – don’t be caught short without enough plot!

Have fun :)

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