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A tabula rasa – focusing the mind before writing


blank mind

I’ll take good ideas for an article from anywhere, even from a piece of spam. Below is an extracted quote from just such a spam comment:

I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

I’ve already written an article here describing my normal process for writing an article (or a game supplement, or an adventure) – One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post – but this early phase of the process got a little skimmed over, from memory, so I thought it worth focusing in on how I get started.

Clearing your mind

I’ve heard the advice to clear your mind before you start writing any number of times from different sources over the years. I vehemently disagree with it – at least up to a point.

Emptying your mind of distractions and mundane concerns is fine. You can’t write effectively if you are thinking about next weekend’s barbecue or your bank balance or your shopping list or whatever.

But one of the most difficult problems to face is that of the empty page, pristine and waiting, or it’s modern analogue, the empty screen. That’s an open invitation to writer’s block, which is already more than pervasive enough. I spent quite a lot of time in the first part of the Breaking Through Writer’s Block series dealing with it. And a blank mind is essentially a blank page.

Replacing mundane thoughts with relevant content

I don’t try and clear my mind at all. Instead, I focus on replacing those mundane distractions with relevant thoughts, then structure those into an outline of the article.

What is the subject?

The first step is to identify the subject, something that I try to do in the (draft) title of the article. I stockpile article ideas against future need, I have multiple series on the go at any given time, and I’m always alert for new things to write about; between them, I have no problem coming up with something to write about.

More constraining is the idea selection process. I try not to have too many “active” series at the same time – not everyone will be interested in every article that you write, and it’s good policy to try and vary the subject matter so that you have reasonable hope that if one article doesn’t interest a reader, the next will. This also helps to keep you from getting stuck in a rut as a writer. So if I already have a multi-part article on the go, I’ll try to avoid starting a second one. It doesn’t always work that way, but most of the time it does.

The second criterion to be applied is available time. There are some articles that I have started and would love to write – heck, even series – that have simply had to be set aside because I physically don’t have the time. Things were much simpler back when I was healthy, and could work for 6, 8, 12, or even 16 hours at a stretch, day in, day out. It was not abnormal for me to spend 12 hours straight prepping for the weekend’s game session – from, say, 6PM Friday Night through to 6AM Saturday Morning. These days, I can work – with regular breaks – for somewhere between two and four hours a day. After an hour or so’s rest, I can sometimes do that a second time in the same day, especially if one of the two sessions is significantly shorter. On rare occasions, I might even be able to manage a third two-hour writing session. Subtracted from that available time is all the site admin that I have to do, and the game prep for my next session, and any shopping, cleaning, cooking and other chores, and any time spent reading other websites.

I have a reasonably well-established routine. Monday, I write for CM. Tuesday, I work with my co-GM on the Adventurer’s Club campaign. Wednesday I do chores that can be dealt with once a week or less. Thursday, I write for CM. Friday, I work on whatever game is coming up next – unless it’s pulp, in which case I can take Friday off and recuperate. Saturday I either game or write for CM or relax, in that order of priority. Sunday, I recuperate (if I’ve co-GM’d pulp the previous day) or write for CM. If I already have articles ready to go (sometimes I do, sometimes not), I can devote that time to writing something else or reading e-books, or to any chores I didn’t get finished. Monday starts the cycle over.

This is not all that different to someone working full time and writing in their spare time, when you add up the hours. Fortunately, I’m fairly prolific – I write an average of 1000 words an hour, and can hit 4000 wph when in full flight, thanks to the techniques described in the article I referred to earlier.

What is the message?

This is essentially a synopsis of what I want the article to say about the subject. It’s usually something I decide at the same time as I select the subject – I’m not as good at deciding “right, I want to write an article about X – what can I say about it?”.

Research

What do I know about the subject, and what do I need to know in order to write the article? What have other people written? About half the time, I need to hit Google or Wikipedia for some reference material.

What have I already written on the subject? I usually have to search the blogdex or visit CM’s archives.

What does someone who knows nothing about the subject need to know before they can understand what I have to say? More Web pages.

I’ll keep all these pages open in my browser as I write, so that I can extract information or cross-link to other relevant articles on the subject.

Discussion

I try to imagine the article as a discussion or dialogue with another GM – as a conversation. I want to get my point across, or explain my process for doing something. What are the key points that I have to make along the way? What are the individual steps that I have to perform? These form the skeletal outline of the article, the list of headings and subheadings and – sometimes – sub-subheadings, so I start by listing them. It’s really rare for me not put these in writing under the draft title.

I write in a text document and then copy and paste the text into CM’s CMS for final editing and publication. And I’ll normally use a separate document for each article or series. I find that to be a lot easier than writing directly to the built-in editor. When I list the headings and subheadings, I’ll indent them to start outline the article’s structure.

I note that I neglected to offer an example of doing so when I described this part of the process in that earlier article, I’m not sure why. So here’s the one for this article:

A tabula rasa – clearing the mind before writing [draft title]
Illustration [empty line at the moment]
Introduction
Clearing Your Mind
Replacing mundane thoughts with relevant content
    What is the subject?
    What is the message?
    Research
    Discussion
    Logical Structure
    Introduction & Conclusion
A focused mind (article conclusion)

Logical Structure

Once I have the initial structure down “on paper”, I’ll think about the logic of the article. Conversations are all well and good, but sometimes they veer erratically, and sometimes you get ahead of yourself and have to backtrack. There are also often fringe issues to discuss, or alternatives. It’s useful to revise and tinker with the first draft of the planned structure that makes sure things are presented in reasonably logical sequence.

A side-benefit that helps me greatly is that such a logical breakdown of the article means that it is much easier to resume writing it after setting it aside for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks. Longer than that and you are asking for trouble interpreting your outline, though. Things that seemed obvious at the time may be completely mystifying if too much time has passed.

Introduction & Conclusion

The last things that I think about before I start writing are “How am I going to introduce the article? How am I going to end it?” These are draft ideas that don’t get written down, just kept in mind – though if I know there’s going to be a lengthy writing process, I may make notes on the conclusion. These never survive the writing process unchanged, so there isn’t a lot of point to extensive efforts.

A focused mind

Each of these items crowds out a mundane distraction. There is no mind-clearing involved. Instead, you start writing the article and gradually focus in on the writing process. By the time I’ve reached the last step listed above, my mind is fully engaged on the article, and I’m ready to write at maximum efficiency. And, since I’m then ready to write, it’s time to stop writing this article!

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House Rules – For Pulp (and other RPGs)


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This is the first of a four-part* series outlining the house rules that Blair Ramage and I have adopted over the years for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, a Pulp-genre campaign run using Pulp Hero, which is a Pulp-genre variation on the Hero System. There are four major chunks of rules, that have developed at four different times in response to particular circumstances within individual adventures, but which had potential ramifications beyond that one adventure. (*I’ll add further parts if we add more House Rules).

(I should also point readers to another article here at Campaign Mastery with some added House Rules for this campaign, Bluffing in the Hero System).

Some of these rules will be adaptable to other game systems, or to other varieties of Hero System campaign. So even if you aren’t interested in the Pulp Genre per se, these articles should be given some attention. Furthermore, they are strongly illustrative at times of the priorities and thinking that Blair and I outlined in Reinventing Pulp for Role-playing, in particular the way that the rules should support, reinforce, and reflect the genre of the campaign, which is a lesson that applies to all RPGs.

Part One deals with general rules. Part Two handles some tables we developed for handling Wind Chill effects. Part Three will cover Everyman Skills for Pulp, and Part Four will wrap the series up – at least for now – with some House Rules for healing in-game injuries.

These won’t have the same level of depth of most of my articles; they will be relatively quick-and-dirty.

The story behind the story

This is not the article that was supposed to be published today, which is taking a lot longer to finish than expected, and could not be split. Fortunately, this draws heavily on work already done for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, and on discussions with my co-GM of that campaign and with the players who have participated in it over the years, so it won’t take very long to knock these out.

At the same time, it’s very appropriate: the first Saturday of August is the 10th Anniversary of the campaign – and yes, we do have something special planned:

There’s a Demon Prince, Balthazar, who’s cottoned on to the notion of making smaller promises and fulfilling them explicitly while serving both sides of a conflict, progressively increasing the dependence of both factions on his services, in return for souls being sacrificed to him. He started with a Tong War in China, becoming one of the leading figures in their underworld scene. He gained quite a reputation, which led to his Tong being contracted to assassinate M by the Chinese Government and make it look like it had been done by the Japanese to reinforce the alliance between China and their European allies. The Chinese were well aware of the growing pro-war faction in pre-WWII Japan and were concerned that their allies would give only token support when the time came. The demon and his tong took advantage of the opportunity to seize control of a couple of other Tongs that were based in London while carrying out the assignment personally, because it gave him an “in” with the Chinese Government which he could exploit during the war years, making the entire nation dependant upon him.

The PCs were then summoned to London to investigate, and eventually uncovered the plot, dealing along the way with Anglican-Catholic politics, a smuggling operation run by one of the PC’s arch enemies, and domestic British politics of the exotic variety, and receiving a helping hand from one of their enemies, along the way. Crucially, one of them witnessed the murder of the leader of the rival Tong, and heard that leader complain that he was promised protection by someone who’s name he did not recognize, but which was later revealed to be another guise of the Demon.

In a pitched confrontation at the London Air Terminal, they battled the Ninja-like Tong and the Demon, defFFeating the former and giving their enemy (and, more importantly, one of the Demon’s enemies) the opportunity to drive him off. With their unexpected ally holding open the portal, and Father O’malley knowing of a compact – a treaty, really – which Balthazar had violated, and which would require Lucifer to punish Balthazar – the PCs have made the decision to pursue the Demon into Hell itself…!

Blair-atgms

Credit where credit is due

While Blair and I collaborated on the House Rules and the principles on which they are based, these articles are being written by me alone. That said, the discussion will often mirror discussions that Blair and I have had on the subject over the years, so he should at least receive some credit as a collaborator on this article.

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Click the icon to download the House Rules as a PDF

“The Adventurer’s Club” Pulp Campaign House Rules

  1. PCs are now built on 175 pts + a maximum of 50 points from disadvantages.
  2. Primary Characteristics have a maximum of 25. All scores over 20 must be justified, but all characters can automatically justify having 1 stat over 20.
  3. All characters are required to have a combat technique which is justified by their backgrounds. All characters can automatically justify cinematic brawling or dirty infighting.
  4. “Package Deals” from the Pulp Handbook are now unrestricted – you can have 1, 2, 3, or even 4 if you can afford them and your background justifies them.
  5. A Pulp Character “Package” is merely an indication of what a character should buy, and the absence of any item from a given package must be justified. Any discount in price resulting from a Pulp Package should be explicitly shown on the character sheet either in the form of a footnote:

    1* AK: Borneo
    * discounted by 1 by explorer package

    Or as an additional disadvantage (which increases the 50-point limit):

    5 AK discounts from Explorer Package

    Most Package deals do not offer any discounts in price.

  6. Each character should have at least one “shtick” which is unique to them and may not be poached by others.
  7. Characters are required to purchase at least one weapon, which will normally be available to them.
  8. Paranormal abilities are to be extremely restricted by the referees on a case-by-case basis. No more than 1 per character is permitted and even then must be justified using the guidelines from the Pulp sourcebook.
  9. Characters are not required to purchase any vehicles using character points which are commercially available as of the current campaign date (late 1933). Instead, characters should purchase an appropriate amount of wealth and the vehicle should be purchased as property using that wealth. They should also purchase the crew as Contacts with loyalty to the PC. This means that should circumstances warrant, the vehicle in question can be lost in the course of a scenario but should this occur there will be a subsequent opportunity to replace the vehicle with wealth.

    Vehicles which fall outside this parameter must be built with, and purchased using, character points, and the character should be able to justify all aspects of the acquisition (contacts, etc). The acquisition of the vehicle will take place IN-GAME and cannot be backdated. Such vehicles may be modified in design by the referees and will NOT be as good as any subsequent commercially-available model; at best, they will excel beyond the commercially-available vehicles in 1 characteristic or attribute and will usually be deficient in one or more other characteristics as logic dictates.

    For example, an aircraft designed for transatlantic flight would be 2-man with limited passenger and cargo capacity and would be built by taking a freight aircraft and filling the freight compartments with additional fuel tanks, (or perhaps it’s an Airship, which takes 4-5 times as long as an aircraft to make the trip). It would have an average speed no greater than currently commercial vehicles of its type.

    More exotic vehicles may become available in the course of scenarios; the characters will not be permitted by the authorities to retain these unless the character purchases them with character points.

    Note that since these vehicles may not always be suited to the circumstances of the required travel, any such purchase will represent “dead points” much of the time.

  10. Characters can have no more than 2 overall combat levels and no more than 4 specific combat levels related to their “shtick”. Characters can have no more than 4 combat skill levels in total, regardless of type. OCVs are therefore established as a maximum of 8 (12 with combat levels).
  11. Luck should be rerolled at the start of every game session. It is up to the player with the luck to determine if and when one of his points of luck should be expended; no benefit is derived from unspent luck points. Characters who roll two points of luck may choose to use them in one two-point expenditure (see below) or divide them into two one-point expenditures. Characters who roll three points of luck may choose to use them in one three-point expenditure, divide them into one Two-point expenditure and one One-point expenditure, or may divide them into three one-point expenditure. With GM permission, and when such expenditure clearly benefits the character with the luck, the benefits of one application of luck may be felt by a character other than the character with the luck.
  • One point of luck:
    • Permits a character to make a 2d6+1 roll in an area outside of their shtick when a 3d6 roll is required once per adventure.
    • Permits a character to make a 1d6+2 roll within their shtick when a 3d6 roll is required once per adventure.
    • Permits a character to re-roll a single failed roll within their shtick per adventure.
    • Permits the referees to drop a single hint (possibly obscure) when the characters are puzzled, lost, or confused, within the character’s shtick.
  • Two points of luck:
    • Permits a character to make a 1d6+2 roll in an area outside their shtick when a 3d6 roll is required.
    • Permits a character to automatically roll a “4″ on a 3d6 roll within their shtick.
    • Permits a character to re-roll a single failed roll outside of their shtick.
    • Permits the referee to drop a single hint or clue (possibly obscure) when the characters are puzzled, lost, or confused, outside of the character’s shtick.
  • 3 points of luck:
    • Permits a character to automatically roll a “4″ on a 3d6 roll outside their shtick.
    • Permits a character to automatically achieve a critical hit on a single attack that otherwise succeeds unaided, doubling the resulting damage of that ONE attack.
    • Permits the referees to provide a deus-ex-machina to help the characters get out of trouble, though this may not show up immediately.
  1. All characters should have a 0-point perq, “membership of adventurer’s club”. The cost is 0 because the club membership will be used to get characters into scenarios (i.e. trouble) at least as often as the membership
    assists the party.
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Click the icon to download the Strength Table as a PDF

Bonus Content

Not strictly House Rules, I put this table together as a useful reference. What are House Rules are that, under certain circumstances (limited traction, pushing at an angle, whatever) we may rule that a character can’t employ his full STR. The table accommodates this by providing lift values for full strength as well as 3/4, 1/2, and 1/4 Lift. If you need to actually get the effective STR value of the character, select the appropriate lift value from the table for the character’s normal STR, then locate the first STR score that is equal to or higher than that value.

Example: A character with STR 18 can only use 3/4 of his usual STR for whatever reason. What is his effective STR?

  1. Locate STR 18 on the table (second column).
  2. Find the 3/4 Lift entry and read off 227.25kg.
  3. Find the first entry that has a main lift equal to or higher than 227.25kg.
  4. Read off the effective STR. The character has an effective STR of 16.

The table extends into the negative STR values because a lot of animals that might be encountered have sub-zero STR levels. A house-cat, for example, might have a STR of -40. I can imagine one picking a 100g packet of sweets up in its teeth, but I think it would struggle with the weight of a can of soft drink, even if it was in the form of a piece of meat. It might be able to drag it, though.

It extends well beyond what a PC can do because we wanted to be able to adjudge how much STR a car might have, or a piece of heavy machinery.

The other thing that the partial STR numbers have been used for from time to time, is “the weight in excess of the amount that a character can lift that he can drag along the ground.”

A brief discussion of selected House Rules entries

There are a few notes worth making about these House Rules.

Power Level: Rule 1

Typical adults are built on 100 character points plus up to 50 from disadvantages, so this establishes the PCs as better than normal human. They are Pulp Heroes.

The number started at 125, plus one package (refer rule 4 discussion below) plus a free weapon skill, plus a suitable weapon, plus a free combat technique (refer rule 3 discussion), and a maximum of 25 points from disadvantages. These values were changed a number of times to hone in on the desired character levels, but with caution – we wanted to rise up to the desired number, not overshoot it and have characters deciding what skills or stats to cut.

Since characters were adventuring and earning XP anyway, which (in the Hero System) get spent improving the character, these power-ups were easily absorbed without radical shifts in the continuity of the campaign.

Stat Maxima: Rule 2

Fairly strict rules that stop characters from having one ridiculous stat and little-to-nothing in the others.

Not stated is that our NPC villains are permitted to go as high as a score of 30 in one stat, and to have a second as high as 25, but otherwise have to follow these same rules. This is fair because it is intended for situations in which one villain is opposed by, and is a match for, several PCs.

In very rare circumstances, where we can justify it, we may permit a villain to exceed even these values – but we haven’t yet. We also have a number of NPCs allied to the PCs who are built to the higher scale, or who have been permitted multiple stats over 20, simply because they are supposed to be more effective than the PCs were/are through years of experience, and because these rarely show up to help the characters in battle. And, when they do, we boost the enemy in power or in numbers.

Combat Technique: Rule 3

There’s nothing worse than a PC who can’t participate in a fight, especially in a pulp campaign.

Package Deals: Rules 4 & 5

When I started co-GMing the campaign, I pointed out that since the packages on offer in the Pulp Hero rules were not all the same price, it was unfair and unbalancing to give characters a free one. Instead, we boosted the number of build points available for character generation and simply required characters to buy a pulp character “Package” – but they had to pay for it.

There was little or no change for most of the PCs. One or two got some more points to spend, and one or two had to spend some of their accumulated XP to cover the higher cost.

We’ve used the same principle more and more frequently – the only freebie we now give away is the weapon. Everything else has to be paid for – but some things are mandatory.

Over time, we found that to construct certain characters we needed to permit multiple packages to be bought, and also that we needed to add a little more flexibility to the package contents. We very deliberately made these opportunities available to the PCs as well.

Character Individuality: Rule 6

This is a rule that I introduced many years ago into my superhero campaign (of which Blair is a player), and which he wholeheartedly adopted for his campaign.

Paranormal Abilities: Rule 8

I started out as a player in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, joining after the first couple of adventures. My character was a hypnotist. Using the standard rules and restrictions, I was able to get truly ridiculous levels of hypnotic ability (30d6 Mind Control) at a ridiculously low price. As a player, I was careful not to abuse this – on no occasion did I ever use more than 12 dice of it in-play – but it made both Blair and Myself uncomfortable. As soon as I offered to retire the character and join Blair as co-GM, I proposed that this rule be put in place.

Vehicles: Rule 9

This is a combination of a couple of ideas from my Superhero campaign with the existing situation within the Adventurer’s Club when I started to co-GM. One of our players was a Merchant Captain who wanted to have his own ship, so Blair let him buy one. Another was a Pilot who wanted his own plane, ditto. Both these were purchased using character points.

When I joined as co-GM, I pointed out that this was both restrictive and against the rules of Pulp Hero, which stated that everything should be bought with money, something that Blair had decided could give an unfair advantage – characters got the advantages of wealth AND a vehicle AND a home and whatever else they could justify? For a measly couple of points? That might be fine in terms of an ordinary off-the-shelf vehicle and dwelling, but the rules were vague and unhelpful when it came to characters wanting to trick out their vehicles. You could get the Batmobile just as easily as a 1930s Ford.

The answer described was based on the solution that I had been employing in my superhero campaign since about 1983. It made perfect sense – if you wanted something off-the-shelf, and could afford it, you bought it with wealth – but we were free to blow it up, crash it, or whatever. If you paid for one with points, we could still do all those things if the plot and/or circumstances warranted, but we had to either give the points back or replace the item in question.

The last paragraph relates directly to an adventure that we were plotting at the time which involved a Zeppelin that could travel at Supersonic Speeds (but had a very deliberate tendency to explode – it was a different sort of “cruise missile”). We were anticipating the possibility that the PCs might capture it rather than destroying it.

Luck: Rule 11

Luck is a really hard paranormal ability in the Hero System for a GM because its capabilities and effects are only loosely defined. Ian Gray and I had spent quite a lot of effort on describing and defining this power in rewriting the rules used by my superhero campaigns without being completely satisfied by any of our proposals to that point in time.

One of those alternatives, which didn’t work with the option of buying unlimited levels of the power, but which worked perfectly in a more fiscally-restrained campaign, was modified by Blair and I to create rule 11, which specified exactly what it could – and more importantly, what it could not – do.

Membership: Rule 12

Blair and I had spent quite a lot of time fleshing out the Club for which the Campaign was named – its location, its history, its staff, its resources, and so on. We thought it only appropriate that this be reflected on the PCs character sheets.

The impact of Genre

Our guiding principle throughout the creation of these House Rules was “what did we want the PCs to be able to do?”

A necessary corollary to that question is, “Well, what is Genre-appropriate for the PCs to be able to do?”

Every house rule that has been listed above was formulated with those two questions – and their answers – in mind.

The truth of House Rules

House Rules should exist to facilitate the adventures that you want to run, and to impart to both those adventures and the game system that backs them, the style, flavor and implications of the genre to which the campaign is to belong. They can fix broken rules, remove undesirable choices, and open up new options and possibilities. If they do these things without slowing play, there are no excuses – the rest is up to you.

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The Best Of 2011


trophy-m-black
2011 was an absolutely huge year for Campaign Mastery. Not only were there some major article series, plus the publication of The Empty Chair by Johnn (with a few contributions from myself), plus the publication (at last!) of our Magnum Opus on Assassins (Assassin’s Amulet), but we had our 150,000th visitor in early February, and put up our 300th post in September – by which point we had topped the 200K mark in visitors, a landmark we didn’t expect to hit until 2012!

But you can’t enjoy the sunshine without a little rain falling now and then, and toward the end of the year, Johnn began to focus his energies in directions other than Campaign Mastery. While it took a while for him to finally withdraw completely, this was when the balance between our contributions began to shift.

This is also when the Ask-The-GMs series began to bog down, caused by the distractions of a number of lengthy series, Assassin’s Amulet, Johnn’s distraction, and a number of questions that were quite hard to answer. And with each addition to the “unanswered” pile, the scale of the problem grew from molehill to foothill to mountain to everest to Olympus Mons and beyond. Around the middle of the year, we started answering queries directly because of the growing backlog, and I still have those answers on file so eventually I know that the backlog will wilt if I keep trimming it down. But that’s why there are no ATGMs in “the best” this time around – an entire year rolled past without us realizing that we hadn’t posted any entries, we were so busy.

As you might expect, it was harder than ever to keep the list of Best Posts down to a manageable number. I was helped a bit by being able to point at series, but even so, this was a hard list to prune! Hardest of all was the decision to cut all the content excerpted from Assassin’s Amulet, but most if not all of that content is available through the free preview. And if you like what you find there, you can buy Assassin’s Amulet – and get all the bonus content that was produced for it at the same time – by clicking on the image to the right, or the link above, or the image below. That, and some ruthless pruning, and grouping series together, let me cut this down to a bare minimum 26 entries…

The Best Of 2011

AA front cover

Extra: The Assassin’s Amulet articles

Okay, I’ve had my arm twisted. Below is a list of the articles that would have been in the list of “The best of 2011″ if I hadn’t cut them for reasons other than their being good enough. Any entry in Italics is available in the free preview version; as you can see, that’s most of them.

 

Of course, rolling out “The Best of 2011″ means that “The Best of 2008-9″ needs to give way from the sidebar to make room. You can still find those “Best Of” entries by clicking on “The Best” Button at the top of the page, or by following this link.

In the next part, about three months away: The best of 2012! Why two months? This is mid-July. If I put “The best of 2012″ out in early-to-mid-October, I can do “The Best of 2013″ about four months after that, in February 2105, and “The best of 2014″ in mid-2015, after another 4 months. The plan – at least at the moment – is to always have the “Best of” from a year earlier and the year before that, on display, changing annually in mid-year.

I wish I knew of a widget that would let me randomly select from the different time periods and put two of them up with each different visit, or even just randomly select a dozen or so from the collective list each time. But so far as I know, there’s no such beast – probably because no-one saw a use for one!

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Who Are You? – An original character naming approach


You never know where your next idea will come from...

You never know where your next idea will come from…

I was half-listening to the commentary from the Tour De France a few moments ago (as I write the first draft of this opening paragraph), and I misheard something.

No great surprise there, that happens all the time when you’re only half-listening. But what I thought I heard gave me a great idea for a Character Naming System that I thought interesting enough to share.

It breaks a name into three components: A surname, a middle name, and a first name.

But that’s not the clever bit.

The Surname

The Surname consists of two hyphenated parts.

Before the hyphen

The first part is a traditional surname, i.e. a family name, and should be chosen by the player from a list of approved family names provided by the GM (who will be using the same list to generate NPC names, so creating it won’t be wasted effort).

After the hyphen

The second part, following the hyphen, names the township of the characters’ birth; if no township, then the locality; if the locality is not known, then the region; if the region is not known then the name of nearest geographic feature.

To choose a set of examples that most readers will be able to follow, Salem is a well-known small town in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is the locality, the political administrative entity that encompasses the town and more besides. New England is the recognized name for the region. And finally, there are numerous geographic features in and around Salem – everything from Palmer Cove to Walden Pond to Lynn Woods to Jeggle Island.

So a surname from the Farmer family might be Farmer-Salem, or (if the character wasn’t born in town), Farmer-Massachusetts, or if he wasn’t sure exactly where it took place within the area (people having more on their minds than borders in the early colonial days), Farmer-NewEngland, or – if the character can pin it down to a particular spot where there wasn’t any township, perhaps Farmer-LynnWoods.

But that’s not the clever bit, either.

The Middle name

This is also known as the common name, because it’s the name that the parents choose to identify the specific individual, and it’s the name by which the character is commonly known. The player should choose from a list of 366 names generated by the GM – a list that I’ll come back to in a moment – but is free to choose an alternative if the GM approves it.

That’s still not the clever bit.

The First Name

The Birthname is determined by the date of birth being cross-referanced with that same list of approved names mentioned a moment ago. In other words, if you are born on January 1, you are assigned the first name on the list; if January 2, the second; and so on. And if one particular family name hyphenated part is already in use with that first name, you move to the next.

What does that mean? Think about the need to distinguish between different members of a specific family for a moment. In insular times, the entire family is likely to be geographically very close to each other, but after a couple of hundred years, families will seperate into seperate strands in different localities. How many family members do you need before two of them have the same first name? The odds are fairly good that you will need 100 or more – and there aren’t many families in medieval times that are that large. Now throw in the geographic scattering factor, and you find that a family needs something closer to 500 or so members born in the same vicinity before you get any possible duplication. Just using the approved middle-names list, that means that a family needs AT LEAST 50,000 members in the same immediate geographic region before duplication occurs.

And the larger a family grows, the more likely it is to disperse, changing the surname, so this scales up with the population level.

Okay, so that’s a little clever. But until you think about the totality that results, you won’t get the clever bit.

The Clever Bit

Think about what this name encodes and encapsulates. Lineage. Birthplace. Day of Birth. Toss in a hyphenated name for the year as part of the first name, and you have an exact date of birth.

Every individual in a heavily populated country can be uniquely identified with just their name. And that’s before you throw in any social connotations that may attach to the family name and choice of middle name.

It doesn’t quite distill an entire character background into a single factoid on the character sheet. But it comes closer than anything else I’ve ever seen.

And that’s the clever bit. But I still haven’t shown the full range of reasons why it’s so clever.

Who Does This Suit?

This name technique is far too inconvenient and far too artificial to be universal anywhere that it was not strictly mandated by society or by law, with strict penalties applied.

But beyond this ruled-with-an-iron-fist requirement, it can work in just about any environment.

  • It might be a Theocracy ruled by Lawfully-aligned Priests in a D&D/Pathfinder setting.
  • It could be an ultrarationalist society in a near-future setting.
  • It could be a Parallel-world Nazi society.
  • Or a variant USSR.
  • It could be set in the far future, where naming conventions have evolved to facilitate computer records…
  • …or even a post-apocalyptic world in which survivors of whatever the Doomsday Scenario was have emulated the way they thought the old world used to name their people, based on some old computer printout!
  • Not to mention a possible alien society that thinks this is the logical way to name people.

That’s because while it’s quite different to established human naming conventions, it’s similar enough to many ancient practices to be completely plausible; you can imagine such a naming system evolving within a society, and reflecting something of the society that created/adopted/mandated it.

Even more depth of meaning can be layered in by assigning or utilizing name meanings that are unique to the campaign when discussing the first and middle names, or by associating certain sounds with certain seasons of the year.

You could even build in a key factoid from your Campaign History, if it suits, and spring it on your players as a revelation. To employ another D&D/Pathfinder example, consider the first encounter between say Dragons and Humans taking place in-game and learning that the human names used throughout the known world mean something completely different in Draconic!

Or you could pull the same trick when gray, short, big-headed bald Aliens land on the lawn of the White House in their flying saucer – implying that some of those stories about ancient astronauts were true (or, perhaps, that this is what the Grays want the world to think…)

Clever, don’t you think?

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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 3 – The Big Picture (Genre and Style)


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So we’ve looked at Themes, and we’ve looked at Concepts, and even touched on the relationship between the two. But now it’s time to address the elephant in the room – twin elephants in fact – Genre and Style, and how these modify that relationship, how it all comes together to form a unique fingerprint that identifies each and every campaign, and finally, how an understanding of that fingerprint permits the GM to enhance the campaign to produce greater enjoyment for all concerned.

Past Reference

I should start by reminding readers that this isn’t the first time that I’ve talked about the relationship between style and genre for RPGs. Directly relevant is Theme vs Style vs Genre: Crafting Anniversary Special Adventures, but it was a subject touched on repeatedly in the Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying series.

But there’s a lot more to be said…

Genre

Genre is surprisingly hard to define well. The dictionary meaning of the term seems hollow and bereft of significance. The Wikipedia article on the subject is excellent in comparison; if anything, it goes too far in the other direction, failing to capture the essence of the term for all its detailed examinations of the way the term is used. I’m more or less forced to roll my own, then live with it. So let’s have a go:

Genre reflects a set of stylistic and content-related conventions and principles that are considered uniquely descriptive of a specific category or group of related works, and hence identify those works as being members of, examples of, belonging to, or representative of, that genre.

These conventions and principles need not be uniformly relevant to every work classified as belonging to a specific genre; it can be sufficient to say that to belong to the genre, the work needs to exhibit “one or more” of a list of specific characteristics. Each of those characteristics is generally considered to define a sub-genre, but there are overlaps, and a single work may be considered representative of a number of sub-genres simultaneously.

Occasionally, a work may be presented that does not fit comfortably within any of the accepted subgenre ‘family’ types, or which deliberately violates one or more of the conventions or principles that is regarded as sacrosanct within the primary genre, but which is nevertheless considered to be inarguably part of the primary genre. When this occurs, the definitions of the genre must expand to encompass the work in question, usually through the incorporation of a new sub-genre.

Genres are non-exclusive. A specific work can be representative of several genres simultaneously. Quite often, a specific sub-genre within one specific genre is defined exclusively by the relevance of another genre. This occurs because genre labels are an artificial system of classification. However, some combinations combine in a more felicitous manner than others, typically determinable through contradictions in the defining conventions and principles.

That last point deserves some amplification. The following combinations are all reasonable and have been the basis of successful works in the past:

  • Romance, Comedy
  • Science Fiction, Comedy
  • Science Fiction, Horror
  • Science Fiction, Action-Adventure
  • Action-Adventure, Comedy

Romance and Action-Adventure struggle to coexist, but it can be done – “Romancing The Stone”, for example. The same is true of Romance and Science Fiction (I have to admit, no examples leap to mind). But despite the degree to which Science Fiction can partner any of the other genres named, I have trouble picturing a Science Fiction Horror-Comedy Action-Adventure. The “Men In Black” franchise tries, but the Horror elements keep getting lost in the shuffle. You could argue that “Aliens” also tries, but aside from a few moments here and there, the Comedic elements go out the airlock.

One of great successes in popular film over the last decade or so has been the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, which successfully united the Fantasy, Pirates, and Comedy Genres – with a bit of the Star-Crossed Romance subgenre for good measure. Before The Curse Of The Black Pearl came along, no-one would have expected these elements to even be on speaking terms in the one film. So Genre remains slippery as a guideline to what does and doesn’t belong.

Core and Fringe

The way I generally think about Genre is to divide it into an inner core that is a “pure” example of a specific genre and a “Fringe” that overlaps or incorporates elements from one or more other Genres. Rather like the Earth’s atmosphere, it doesn’t have a hard boundary, it just sort of fades out with distance from the core.

There are some genres that naturally connect. Horror comes in three basic flavors, for example – there’s one axis that strongly connects with Fantasy (Dracula etc); there’s another that connects to Science Fiction; and there’s a core that eschews both and is just extreme violence – slasher fiction. You can think of the first two as polar opposites connecting to the respective genre that matches the flavor.

So any genre has a core of high purity, and a fringe that can incorporate elements from other genres.

Those foreign elements can interact with the core of the designated genre in one of three ways:

  • They can work together to reinforce each other, resulting in a genre representative that is superior to what a pure interpretation in either genre would have been alone;
  • They can simply co-exist without neither reinforcement nor contradiction, resulting in something that is acceptable in terms of either genre, but which is not as great as it might have been;
  • Or they can conflict, resulting in something that fans of either genre would find disappointing. This is often exacerbated if the raw ingredients and concepts are present that could have made the work exceptional.
Genre and RPGs

When we’re talking about something that’s even partially episodic, like a TV show or an RPG, we gain some significant advantages. While the core of the body of work needs to be appropriate to the specific genre or subgenre or genre combination that we have chosen, each episode has the option of touching on or even plunging into a side-genre. While most of these will still reflect an appropriate subgenre under the umbrella of one or more of the primary genres, it’s even permissible to completely leave those genres for something else entirely; it’s just a little harder, that’s all.

Take a superhero campaign, which is something I know very well, having been running one since 1982. There has been disaster movies, alien invasions, action-adventures, Gothic noire, Lovecraftian horror, space opera, pure science fiction, high fantasy, low fantasy, time travel, soap opera, war movies, historical and period drama, post-apocalyptic dystopias, courtroom drama, romantic comedy, political thriller, corporate skulduggery, horror, spy thrillers, political satire, treasure maps, pirates, animated cartoons, police procedurals, teen movies, and even a little Bud Spencer/Terance Hill – plus lots of superheroics! Heck, I’ve even referenced a couple of sports movies for inspiration along the way!!

Some of these challenge accepted notions of what works in a superheroic setting. They succeeded (when they did) by leaving out conventions of the superheroic genre that were incompatible with the accenting genre, or vice-versa, and they failed (for the most part) when that wasn’t done properly.

Gothic Horror can work in a science fiction genre either by translating the Gothic horror elements into a science-fiction setting, or by focusing on the Gothic Horror elements and setting aside the purely sci-fi elements that clash. And if you have a purely sci-fi character who is in the middle of this plotline, you either make it work by embracing the sci-fi and sacrificing the horror, or by playing the metaphoric “fish out of water” card. So long as your answer is consistent within the internal workings of that adventure, it’s fine. Getting the combination wrong – the “fish out of water” while embracing the sci-fi and translating the Gothic Horror into science-fiction terms – is disastrous, because the genre components are at war with themselves, a war that neither can win to anyone’s satisfaction.

Genre and Theme

It would be easy to equate “stylistic and content-related conventions” with themes, but that’s the sort of mistake that directors of B-grade movies made all the time back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and perhaps after, but that’s when I stopped watching anything worse than B+ grade). The correct relationship is to state that for any given individual work or selected group of related works within a genre may exhibit one or more themes characteristic of that genre.

Or perhaps, even more simply, that some genres have specific recurring themes that work within the genre. Those themes may not work with some of the subthemes, but they do fit one or more that are generally considered to be strictly associated with that genre. None of which has any real bearing on the themes of any specific campaign, TV series, movie, or whatever. A genre is more than an approved collection of themes and memes.

What is important is that the themes that any such work or collection of works exhibits falls within the parameters of the established genre, or at the very least, does not clash with any of the central traits of the genre. Genre constrains the themes that can make up the core of the campaign, which must be compatible with the core of the genre.

Genre and Concept

So Genre restricts the themes that are acceptable within the genre, in general terms, and therefore also restricts the core concepts of the campaign. Once again, there is no exclusive list of concepts that are definitively and exclusively part of one genre or subgenre, though there are some combinations that are more natural than others.

Don’t believe me? Try this one: A man falls in love with the painted image of a woman from a different era, and so travels back in time to woo her. Clearly, this is a romance concept, and a science fiction concept, But romance is definitely not a core concept in the science fiction genre, and time travel definitely doesn’t fit the usual mould of the romantic genre. Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with this concept. It’s a little shallow – it needs to be allied with either a comedic theme (star-crossed lovers again), with a dramatic theme (the romance occurs at the height of a violent and bloody period in history, whose events will sweep up both protagonists, or perhaps there are obstacles to be overcome like an arranged marriage or an opposed family), or perhaps with a tragic theme (the woman is doomed to die young). Put any one of those added elements into the concept and you could quite happily turn it into a movie or novel. Or, you could focus on the science fiction genre and make the opposition some form of Temporal Police, or – as was done in the classic Star Trek episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, a tragic subtheme in which the woman has to die for history to be put right.

Concepts resonate with some or all of the themes of the campaign, and are therefore classifiable as part of the genre core, or are forced to exist on the fringes of the genre in connection with some other genre that is not central to the campaign. Doesn’t mean you can’t use a given concept – just that some concepts belong at the heart of the campaign and others belong on its fringe as occasion divergences from the central genre.

You could almost say that Theme is to Genre as Concept is to Theme. Genre restricts themes, and identifies some as central to the overall story of the campaign while not excluding the occasional foray into fringe territory; and both restrict Concept, identifying some ideas as relating to the central themes while others are fringe ideas that can be touched on once but should not be a recurring element within the campaign. In order for a fringe concept to work, some aspects of the central genre may have to be (temporarily) discarded and replaced with aspects of the connecting genres; and any themes that are directly connected to those elements of the central Genre that are being set aside need to either be re-imagined within the context of the connecting genre or also set aside for the duration of the adventure or story.

Style

Every GM has his own style, though a lot of GMs – perhaps even most – would be very hard-put to actually describe and define exactly what their own style is.

You could give the same campaign concepts and themes, both occurring within the same genre structures, to two different GMs and they would produce radically different campaigns, no matter how similar both appeared at the start. Even if you had the one writer doing the plotlines for both, you would still end up with different interpretations and outcomes from individual stories.

In more practical terms, each GM’s style is defined – at least in part – by his strengths, his weaknesses, and his preferences, in all sorts of different areas. Everything from the way combat is handled, to the way NPCs are portrayed, to the way unscripted improvisation takes place within the campaign, to how strongly connected one adventure is to another (serial vs episodic campaigns), to the way morality (and alignment, in some systems) are portrayed and enforced. I haven’t done much (read: “any”) convention GMing, but I have playtested adventures for conventions a couple of times, and one of the things that always struck me was how differently two GMs could interpret the same adventure, and that is a manifestation of this principle.

A Side-note: That’s why the authors of Convention adventures should never be the only GM to playtest their work. There are too many assumptions that they make simply because it never occurs to them that anyone could interpret things differently. Sure, they could run a first-playtest – but at least one playtest should be run by someone who’s never seen the adventure before, while the author sits back and makes notes.

Heck, even if the GM was exactly the same and could reset his memories to exactly the way he was before first running the campaign, simply having different players would produce a somewhat different style because an RPG is so interactive between players and GM.

Style and Genre

Style functions as a filter, or it should do. It should exclude genres and genre elements that play to the GM’s weaknesses while enabling him to draw upon his strengths. Style is the traffic cop, directing game traffic into a subset of the totality that’s (theoretically) available.

Some genres will work better for a given GM’s style than others. Identifying which genres and genre elements will suit a given GM’s style is one of the hardest questions a GM can ask themselves. I’ve tried – hard – to think of some way to shortcut that process, and have to admit that I’ve failed utterly. In this, there is no substitute for inspiration and experience.

Every time I thought I had something, I was able to find an exception of sufficient magnitude to disprove it. For example, I thought at one point that it had to be a genre that the GM had read. But then I realized that I co-GM a Pulp campaign and have never read more than one or two era-correct pulp novels in my life. And even if I expand it to include things like the Dirk Pitt series, it’s still a number I can count on both hands. Yet, the campaign is very successful.

Perhaps its because I understand the pulp genre, as shown by the positive commentary the articles on the Genre here at Campaign Mastery have received. But I would question how much of that understanding I had when I started; my major contribution was not knowledge of the pulp genre but knowledge of the basics of good storytelling and campaign structure. Where I succeeded was in adapting the genre conventions to a modern era, drawing upon the Indiana Jones movies and such as the primary reference sources. You could say that I succeeded as a Pulp Co-GM by ignoring a number of the conventions of the pulp Genre.

And so it went for every criterion I could think of, save one: A GM’s style suits a particular genre if the GM is comfortable GMing that particular genre. And that’s not very helpful.

Style and Themes

There are also going to be some Themes that suit a GM’s style more than others. Here, at least, I had some greater success at finding some objective way of measuring suitability.

A Theme that works within a GM’s preferred style is one that the GM can think of many ways of expressing. The more different ideas that you have, the better-suited to running a campaign using that Theme.

And that’s such a simple measurement criterion that it’s possible to use Theme Suitability as a measurement by extension for judging Genre suitability:

“A GM is suited to a Genre if it contains Themes that the GM is suited to expressing in different ways within different adventures.”

Unfortunately, it’s not quite right. There are two aspects in which this measurement of suitability of Theme fails.

First, there is the question of quality vs quantity. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if they are all or even just mostly rubbish, do they really out-value one really good idea?

And then, there’s the question of originality. Does a middling-good but completely original idea count for more than a really good idea that is very similar to ideas that other people have had in the past?

And the problem is that both of these are very subjective measurements, which rather eviscerates our objective measurement criterion. However, it’s a reasonable supposition that the more ideas that you have, the more likely you are to have a Good one, and the more likely you are to have an original one. So while the original answer is less robust than it might be, it is still at least somewhat reasonable.

Genre and Concepts

Another way of phrasing that criterion, and one that gets to the heart of the relationship between all these elements, replaces the somewhat vague term “ways” with “Concepts”:

“A GM is suited to a Genre if it contains Themes that the GM is suited to expressing in different Concepts in different adventures.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to the number and quality of the ideas that you have for adventures within a campaign, and your ability to express those ideas successfully. Themes are recurring concepts within separate adventures, and Genre is an artificial classification system that can be used as a guide to the successful integration of Concepts and Themes into a coherent plot.

The Campaign Fingerprint

An infinite field of possible concepts from within allied genres, selected by suitability according to the GM’s individual style, shaped according to an infinite field of possible themes also selected by suitability according to the GM’s individual style, and all manifested through a collaboration with a unique group of players, means that every campaign is going to be different. Two campaigns can be from within the same genre, can have the same themes, and can even start with some of the same concepts, but they will still be completely different if they have different GMs or players. No matter how similar they might start out being, they will inevitably diverge.

The combination of GM & players, theme, and genre therefore uniquely identify a campaign in exactly the same way as a fingerprint identifies a unique individual. And, believe it or not, that’s actually something very useful to the GM.

Practical Application

Let’s say that you have an idea for a new adventure for your campaign. Having your list of themes (described in part one of this series) at hand, you can go through them looking for ways to express those themes within the adventure concept. Having a list of the core concepts (from part 2) permits you to look for conflicts with the new idea, and decide how to resolve the incompatibility. And finally, knowing the precise Genre(s) of the Campaign enables you to look for conflicts between the genre of the undeveloped idea AND offers guidance on how to resolve all these conflicts.

The fingerprint, in fact, is a checklist for the selection and integration of a plot idea into a specific campaign. It’s a technique for identifying the additional plot elements that you need to incorporate in order to mesh your idea with your campaign. There’s no longer a need to achieve this with intuition and abstract reasoning – because the Themes, Core Concepts, and Genre “Rules” provide a practical framework for doing so more rigorously, more easily, and more accurately than these stone-age plotting techniques.

And it works for other game elements as well. Locations. Gadgets & Devices. Enemies & Characterization. The nature of the setbacks within an adventure. The stylistic approach that a plot needs to adopt. Cosmology. Applied Theology (in a game where the Gods are real). Even House Rules can be assessed in terms of the genre that is being simulated.

Defining the Campaign Fingerprint defines the central spine of the Campaign, and that becomes a tool for the assessment of everything else that you consider implementing within that campaign. And if that’s not of practical value, I don’t know what is.

An example

Let’s say that I want to integrate that romantic time-travel idea into my superhero campaign. First, I can say that a romantic theme is not a great fit for a superhero plot, but time travel works in that context. Of the choices available, we need opposition appropriate to a superhero campaign, and the Time Patrol have already established themselves as hostile to the PCs organization, though the PCs have no direct first-hand knowledge of the Time Patrol. We need the temporal paradox / star-crossed lovers combination. At the same time, we have established in the campaign physics that destiny is not immutable, it can be changed if enough effort is put into that change. So the adventure, from the PCs point of view, has to be to choose between the lovers and the destiny that is under the protection of the Time Patrol – or to find some other solution to the problem. All that’s left is to find a way to introduce the PCs to the problem in the first place. A typical intro might be a high-speed chase in a commandeered vehicle down a packed roadway with Time Patrol officers riding anti-grav sleds and taking potshots at the vehicle. When the PCs show up, they are attacked from the vehicle because the occupants think they are more Time Patrol Officers. The team telepath can sort that out, leaving the capacity for the couple to play on the PCs sympathies. That puts them on a collision course with the Time Patrol – again – and the basic plotline more or less writes itself from there.

One of the key themes of the current campaign is that Victory has a price. Right now, as this plotline stands, the PCs have no personal involvement, and can be dispassionate. So, in terms of complicating factors, we need each of the possible “future history” outcomes to have a negative impact on one of the PCs, or someone that one of the PCs cares about. We then need a way for that information to get into the PCs hands. The Time Patrol can approach one of the PCs privately and enlist them, so that’s one information vector dealt with. One possible approach would be for the team telepath to extract the information from the time-traveling romantic, but she already has a key role in the plot. Perhaps the time traveler has an iPad or equivalent from which he has carefully wiped information about the future – some of which can still be retrieved by the team’s tech-head – except that they don’t really have one of those at the moment – or by a clever use of magic. The effect is that one way or another, one of the team members will pay the price, and that makes the dilemma personal.

All that’s left is to come up with a twist or two, add a super-villain or two trying to capture the time-travel technology, and make sure that the solutions are clearly mapped out, and the plot outline would be ready to go. Of course, some time looking to connect other campaign themes with the plot would not be wasted effort, but this example clearly shows how you can take a plotline that shouldn’t work in this campaign and makes it fit like a glove.

For those who are interested in keeping score of such things, this is the 600th post here at Campaign Mastery!! I’m incredibly grateful for the ongoing support of our fans and regular readers, and wish absolutely everyone who reads these words all the best :)

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Fighting The Spam War


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This is an extra, out-of-normal-time blog post to explain the new anti-spam policies that I’ve been forced to implement here at Campaign Mastery.

The real price of Spam

Spam is an unfortunate reality. It will never go away.

Most of the time, Spam is like an itch that has to be scratched. But there are times when excessive spam floods in, and it becomes the equivalent of an attempted denial-of-service attack on a small one-man website, consuming hours of what would otherwise be productive time. And, even more rarely, its a direct attack aimed at bringing a website down, an attempt to discover and utilize a vulnerability of the website’s architecture.

To cope with these last two situations, a formal anti-spam response policy has had to be put in place, and will be subject to change without notice if it doesn’t work, or if something better comes along.

Spam Alert Level: Green

A reasonable level of Spam comments being submitted to any public website is both expected and will be tolerated. As a general rule, Spam comments will be deleted and will never be visible to the public. Given the number of hits CM receives, that number is somewhere in the vicinity of 20 every 6 hours or so, or 80 a day.

Spam Alert Level: Amber

From time to time, Spam levels – mostly driven by spambots – will get out of hand and the number of spam submissions will skyrocket. Again as a general rule of thumb, a day or two will be allotted for things to calm down of their own accord, which happens about half the time, in my experience. During this period, the only change from the normal state of affairs is that there will be too many spam comments for me to go through them all checking that none are ‘false positives’ from the spam test. The occasional genuine comment might get tagged as spam, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s the best compromise that I can make with the policy of keeping the site itself as open as possible.

If the problem is too major (more than 250-300 a day), or persists for too long, I’ll go to Spam Alert Level Red.

Spam Alert Level: Red

About half the time, the problem will not go away as a result of timely action on the part of the people responsible for the servers on which the spam originates. That’s when it’s time to get serious.

On the theory that the worst offenders will be more prevalent in any given “slice” of the spam being received, a number of originating IPs will be blocked. Typically, this will be 20-60. Every 6 hours or so, a new batch of 20 will be added to the blocked list, until the spam count reduces to the manageable level, triggering a shift to Spam Alert Level Blue.

These IP addresses are those which originated a spam comment.

Any server so blocked that has produced fewer than 2 hits in the preceding 48 hours will get immediately unblocked, because blocking so few is not worth the imposition on the public.

The remainder are assessed periodically. I have drawn up a table (later in this post) of allowable blocked hits in given time frame relative to the number of hits in the 48 hours prior to the commencement of blocking; if this number of attempted blocked hits or less is received, the site will be unblocked. If more than the tolerable level are received, the IP stays blocked.

Any blocked site that goes 24 hours without attempting to access the site will also be unblocked.

Spam Alert Level: Blue

This is exactly the same as Red except that I stop adding new IPs to the blocked list. It signifies that the response has achieved its goal of stopping the spam deluge, and that it’s time to start inching back from the draconian blocking of IPs. One by one, as the targeted VIPs stop delivering spam, the blocks get lifted. If a resurgence in spam levels follows, I’ll go back into Alert Level Red mode again.

Eventually, only the worst offenders will remain. If spam levels have remained at the tolerable level for 48 hours with everyone else unblocked, I’ll also unblock these – but be ready to reinstate the blocks if necessary and restart that clock.

Past experience has shown that Alert Level Red typically lasts for 24-48 hours, and Blue for another 2-3 days. I try to err on the side of keeping access open, and restore it s quickly as possible.

Spam Alert Levels: Violet and Black

I’ve never had to go this far, but if Red persists for a week, I’ll go to Alert Level Black. If Blue persists for a week with no prospect of an imminent reduction in Alert level, I’ll go to Violet.

Violet

Violet means that the worst offenders – those with more than say, 100 blocked hits in a 24 hour period for multiple days running – will be permanently blocked and – with the exception of that blocking – the rest of the site will go back to Green.

Black

This indicates that this anti-spam policy has failed, and left me with only one recourse: closing posts older than a couple of weeks to comments. If this produces the immediate reduction in Spam expected, comments may be reopened in a week or two on a trial basis. If necessary, the prohibition will remain permanent.

Because this will change the level of opportunity for spambots to affect the site, while the prohibition remains in effect, a less-tolerant set of spam figures will be devised.

The nitty-gritty

What are the numbers that I’m using to assess unblocking?

  • <2 hits prior to blocking: immediate unblock.
  • 6-8 hours after blocking:
    • <4 hits prior to blocking and no blocked hits: unblock.
    • 4-8 hits prior to blocking and no blocked hits: check again at end of 8 hours. If still no blocked hits, unblock.
    • >9 hits prior to blocking: IP remains blocked.
  • 12-16 hours after blocking:
    • Any hits prior to blocking and no blocked hits: unblock.
    • <5 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total: unblock.
    • 5-10 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 6 hours old: unblock.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 10 hours old: unblock.
    • >16 hits prior to blocking: IP remains blocked.
  • 16-20 hours after blocking:
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 4 hours old: unblock.
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and 2 blocked hit total, last one more than 6 hours old: unblock
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and 3-4 blocked hits total, last one more than 10 hours old: unblock
    • <11 hits prior to blocking and >4 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and 2-4 blocked hits total, last one more than 10 hours old: unblock.
    • 11-15 hits prior to blocking and >4 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and <3 blocked hits total, last one more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and 3-5 blocked hits total, last one more than 10 hours old: unblock.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and 6-10 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock.
    • 16-25 hits prior to blocking and >10 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • >25 hits prior to blocking: IP remains blocked.
  • 20-24 hours after blocking:
    • <20 hits prior to blocking and 1 blocked hit total more than 4 hours old: unblock.
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and <6 blocked hits total, last one more than 6 hours old: unblock
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and 6-8 blocked hits total, last one more than 8 hours old: unblock
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and 9-12 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock
    • 20-30 hits prior to blocking and >13 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and <6 blocked hit total more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and 6-12 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and >13 blocked hits total: IP remains blocked.
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and <6 blocked hits total, last one more than 12 hours old: unblock.
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and 6-10 blocked hits total, last one more than 16 hours old: unblock.
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and >11 blocked hits total, last one more than 20 hours old: unblock.
  • apr. 48 hours after blocking and every 12 hrs thereafter:
    • <30 hits prior to blocking and last blocked hit more than 8 hours old: unblock.
    • 30-50 hits prior to blocking and last blocked hit more than 12 hours old: unblock
    • >50 hits prior to blocking and last blocked hit more than 16 hours old: unblock

This policy focuses on weeding out the trivial contributions to the spam count early on, and thereafter matching a required “spam free” period with a scale of initial traffic.

What This Means For You:

Hopefully, nothing. The odds are pretty huge that any real-life user will notice any difference whatsoever. There is always an outside chance that the originating IP belongs to something critical to your ability to see the website, in which it may become inaccessible to you, temporarily. I would expect you to see a “403″ error message, “access refused”, if that happens. In which case you know that your ISP has been whacked on the head because I’ve detected spam coming from it. Complain to your technical department (politely, because they may already know about the problem and be in the process of pest control), point them at this article, and ask them to see if spam coming from their server is the cause of your problem. When the spam stops, normal service will be resumed.

I can’t police the entire internet, and shouldn’t have to. It’s up to each individual customer of each internet provider to police their own little corner of the Netiverse.

And remember that I’ll only block access as something close to a last resort.

Where are we now?

Last week, following an update to the latest version of all plugins and WordPress itself, Spam began to skyrocket. Within 24 hours, it was running at 15 times the usual rate, or about 20 an hour. I immediately went to Alert Level Amber, and things stabilized for a while. Gradually, though, the spam levels continued to climb, and over a six hour period on July 10, topped 300 for the first time during this Amber Level. Accordingly, I indicated in a footnote to Thursday’s post that I was instituting the blocking of servers identified as spamming the website.

Since I wanted to allow a little time for the word to get out, so that if the site went dark for someone there would be people out there who would know why, I delayed instituting Alert Level Red for several hours. At 6 AM this morning, an initial batch of 50 IP addresses were blocked, 10 of which were immediately unblocked as making a trivial contribution to the problem.

Six VIPs (and I’m not going to list them) made an immediate impression. They were responsible for, respectively (in order of blocking) 68, 105, 840, 70, 80, and 92 attempted accesses to the site over the 48 hours prior to the blocking. There were a number of others in the 10-20, 20-30, 30-40, and 40-50 hit range, and about a third of the blocked sites had 9 or less, but those six were the big attention-getters. In the eight hours since, these six produced 5, 3, 134, 60, 1, and 6 blocked attempts to access the site. That tells me that two, perhaps 4 of the big six now have their spam problem under control, but the other two are still running at an unacceptable level. In addition, another site that was in the 10-20 range yielded a noteworthy 15 blocked attempts to access the site. By far, the majority was 1, 2, or 3 failed attempts, indicating that many of these blocked sites will have access restored less than a day after it was blocked. So we’re heading for Alert Level Blue at the moment, but aren’t there yet. There was a definite drop in spam levels – to 200 in that eight hours – but it’s still way over the threshold.

At the same time as these numbers were being checked and documented, another 31 VIPs were blocked. I don’t have numbers yet for blocked attempts from those, but there are three attention-getters which logged 97, 60, and 452 attempts to access the site over the preceding 48 hours. So three or four of the initial big six may be about to drop out of the hostile category, but there appear to be three more to take their place. I will continue to monitor the situation, but as of right now, I’m still in Spam Alert Level Red.

An Update:

At the 12-hour mark, half of the initial 40 VIPs that were blocked were released. At the 8-hour mark for the second batch of blocked VIPs, 11 of the 31 were unblocked, and another 14 blocked. Spam dropped from over 30 per hour to about 10 an hour. That’s right, less than 1 day of this protocol and my spam problem has been cut by more than 60%, and I am now officially at Alert Level Blue – unless there’s a big spike overnight. And there’s been no visible dent whatsoever in my real-person hits as a result, indicating that to most of you, this whole “war” has been invisible – exactly as it should be!

I’m not actually going to post this until after the 18-hour update for batch one. So there will be one more update before anyone gets to read this – due about 2.5 hours from now. I’m predicting a spam count at that time of 20-30 at worst, and a more likely result of 15-20. Keep reading to see how accurately I’ve called it…

A Second Update:

One more of the original blocked batch has been released, and the total spam received: 19.I’m just about ready to declare victory!

Update 17 July 2014

Twice now I’ve dropped the alert level to blue and twice the spam level has rocketed back up to unaccepteable levels within 24 hours. That’s fine, it didn’t surprise me too much. But now I’m starting to see recidivists – IP numbers that have been blocked for spam, then cleared, now showing up in the spam list once again, some of them quite heavily. As a result, I’m taking a slightly harsher line when it comes to clearing IPs from the blocked list, instead of clearing them at the first opportunity.

It’s also interesting to observe that there are some IPs that, once blocked, have never earned their way back – one of them making 850 attempts to access the site in a single 24-hour period. All told, 1141 attempts to access the site have been blocked for spam reasons in the last 24 hours, divided among 29 different IP numbers – an average of about 40 attempts each. Most have been from Chinese servers, but the worst offenders have been from some Romanian servers, some Ukrainian servers, a handful of servers in the US, and – the worst offender of all – one server in Poland.

Overall, though, the strategy appears to be working; it’s just taking longer than I would have hoped.

Update 28 July 2014

Slowly but progressively, the anti-spam policy is working, as more and more ISPs get on top of the spambots running on their servers. Every day, more servers get released from the blocked list than get added, without incurring a fresh wave of spam. It’s still too early to call it a victory, but spam is now down to about 200% of what it was before the wave struck, a huge improvement from the 3000% that it reached at its worst.

This has given me a little time to think about the implications of this emergency strategy, and the risks involved.

First, I don’t like the idea that I can be forced to function as a weapon in denying people access to the site. Most of the blocked servers have identified themselves as being in China. It would be very easy for someone who wanted to restrict a population’s access to independent perspectives to get the webmaster to do their work for them by getting the site to block service, simply by running a state-sponsored spambot on their key infrastructure. I don’t think that will ever happen, as there are more efficient ways of blocking such access, so this is by no means an accusation. Just a concern. But, by extension, cyber warfare between any two groups can rope in any site employing this anti-spam technique simply by hacking the enemy and releasing a spambot.

Secondly, I believe in the benefits of an open internet, and this policy doesn’t sit well alongside that principle. The policy forces me to compromise my ideals, and however necessary that might be, it’s still something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This is only the second or third time that I’ve had to do something like this, and it will always be a policy of last resort – or close to it – as a result.

I’m always worried about one bad apple causing the site to be blocked for a much larger number of ordinary visitors. One reason why my initial sensitivity levels erred on the side of openness and spam tolerance is to minimize the impact on real users. The traffic numbers tell me that the policy works on that front, at least, but I never block a server without worrying about it.

It’s a concern that some of the earliest servers blocked have still not been released. The problem is that once a site has been blocked, I can no longer evaluate which traffic from that site are attempts to spam me, and which are genuine attempts by users trying to reach the site. The only way to find out is to release the block, and see what happens. This is more of a concern for servers located in a country from which I get a lot of traffic, like the US. So the final stages of Condition Blue need further thought. At the moment, the plan is to start releasing these one at a time at eight-hour intervals as soon as Spam levels return to pre-crisis standards. If the Spam goes back up, so does the block. Choosing which blocked servers to prioritize also needs a little more thought.

Finally, I’m always a little concerned that it provides an avenue for a direct attack on the site, simply by (potentially) getting me to block one of the servers on which I depend, or even the server on which the site resides. I don’t know what safeguards are in place within the plugin used to prevent that, and it makes me uncomfortable. If I inadvertently block a piece of my ISP’s key infrastructure, I can solve that problem by using a cybercafe to undo the change. If I unwittingly block one of the servers that the site itself depends on, there may be NO solution except to restore the site from a backup – a process that is always fraught with danger, and is never guaranteed of success.

As a result of all of these considerations, I am seriously contemplating a technological solution that automatically zaps anything it thinks is from a spambot – something that I have resisted in the past, due to the potential for false positives, but which may be the lesser of two evils. No decision has been made on the subject, and more research is needed before one can be made; a key question will be how well it plays with the existing infrastructure relating to comment management. Compatibility is not enough, I need to understand how they will work as a 1-2 punch.

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The Flunkie Equation – quick and easy Hors d’Combat


Image from Wikipedia Commons, used under Creative Commons 1.0 License

Image from Wikipedia Commons, used under Creative Commons 1.0 License

A few weeks ago, I described my processes for creating Partial NPCs, a methodology that determined how much NPC definition was needed for that NPCs role in an adventure, in Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep. This was described as essential know-how for the article that I was originally going to write and publish that day. The Flunkie Equation is the article I was referring to.

So what is the Flunkie Equation? It’s a system by which the essential information demanded by the Partial NPC doctrine can be generated more quickly and easily, making an already-fast process (thanks to the Partial NPC process) even more efficient. I had previously described a process for establishing the critical values for more significant NPCs in The Ubercharacter Wimp, but it doesn’t work very efficiently when it comes to bottom-level flunkies, because it doesn’t tell you what values to set for the critical stats.

The Flunkie Equation provides the missing guideline that tell you how effective flunkies should be, and how many of them you need, in any given situation.

Relative NPCs

The secret in the toolkit that makes the Flunkie Equation work is the concept of “Relative NPCs”. A “Relative NPC” is an NPC whose stats and abilities are defined relative to the abilities of the PCs rather than as absolute values. I’ll say it again – You don’t need to know the absolute scores for anything – you just need to know how good the flunkies are, relative to the PCs.

Hero System

This is a little easier to implement for the Hero System because it uses 3d6 which gives a non-linear response to a linear adjustment. A relative “to hit chance” is the simplest starting point: -1 makes a small difference, -2 a bit more, -3 is quite noticeable, -4 is quite a lot, and -5 is chalk and cheese.

Applying the same differential in reverse to the chances of being hit by the PCs as you have defined for the NPCs hitting the PCs shifts the overall effective value one step further with a small difference and two steps for -3 or more.

And that’s the big trick, or, at least, its starting point: apply the same modifier everywhere you need to, but always to the effective net value that actually does the work in the game mechanics. You have just one number to remember, and you decide what that number is according to how tough you want the flunkies to be. How easy is that?

Oh and one more point that should be obvious: We’re not comparing like with like, we’re comparing the Flunky’s roll to hit with the defensive value of the PC, and the Flunky’s defensive value with the PC’s modifier to hit. Or, in Hero System parlance, we’re comparing the Flunky’s OCV with the PC’s average DCV and vice-versa.

d20 Systems

It might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it can actually be a little harder to use this technique with a d20 system. The reason is ironically because of the linear nature of a d20 roll. You see, the 3d6 approach means that a single point of difference applied repeatedly has a non-linear effect – it might be geometric, it might be exponential. And that means that you can use -1 for each step and make a big cumulative difference.

To achieve similar levels of effect with a d20, you need to use a non-linear step size. So -1 makes a small difference, -2 is a bit more, -4 is noticeable, -7 is quite a lot, and -10 is chalk and cheese.

-2 applied in three areas therefore doesn’t quite adds up to “quite a lot” of difference. -2 in four areas would achieve that level of difference – for example, to hit, to be hit, hit points per dice, and damage per successful hit – but there’s a problem with that recipe: I’m taking hit points off the table, for reasons I’ll get to, shortly.

Saving Throws

Because these don’t apply on every occasion, they don’t count for as much. So in any game where these are part of the mechanics, double whatever modifier you have applied to combat, and apply the result to all saving throws in order to achieve the same standards of effect. For D&D/Pathfinder, that means that -2 to all three types of saving throw is needed to be equivalent to a -1 on attack rolls, or a +1 to be hit.

This isn’t right!

At first glance, it might seem that this makes the Flunkies far too powerful, too closely matched with the PCs. And you would be right, if that was all there was to this approach, you would be correct if that was your impression. I just wanted to clue readers in to the fact that there’s more to the story.

The Perfect Flunky

What makes the perfect flunky, from a GM’s point of view? We could probably debate that all day, but here’s my prescription: “Hit hard, hit fast, and go down easy.”

What does that mean?

  • Hit Hard - Do almost as much damage as the PC in a round, overall.
  • Hit Fast - Hit almost as often in a round as a PC does, overall.
  • Go Down Easy - Have only a fraction of the damage capacity of a PC.

Of course, this refers to a top-of-the line flunky. It should now be obvious why I took Hit Points off the table.

Practical implementation

There are three considerations when putting this theory into practice.

Adjusting Flunky to-hit
In practice, this means that part or all of the penalty applied to the Flunkie’s chance to hit should be transferred to the Flunkie’s penalty to be hit. The guideline given above says that the Flunky should be at -3 to hit? Drop that to -1 and worsen their defense by +2.
As a general rule of thumb, 1/3 of the to-hit penalty should stay where it is, and 2/3 should be transferred.

Multiple Attacks
In some game systems, characters get multiple attacks as they grow in expertise or power. Given that there is a boosted likelihood – possibly a greatly-boosted one – that a PC will hit with most if not all of the attacks at his disposal, it becomes relatively simple to calculate the amount of damage that is likely to be inflicted by that PC in a round, on average. Dividing this number by the average damage the flunky does with a hit tells you how many flunkies are needed to match the PC.

Hit Points
There are three grades of flunky that I use as broad definitions of competence. They are “experts”, “soldiers”, and “street thugs”.

  • Expert Flunkies can cope with 2-3 average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight.
  • Soldier Flunkies can cope with 1-2 average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight.
  • Street Thug Flunkies can cope with less than one average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight. In other words, one hit and they go down.

They make up for this level of weakness with numbers. And that relationship is what is described specifically by “The Flunky Equation”.

The Flunky Equation

The Flunky Equation is defined as:

“N Relative NPCs to each PC for a roughly fair fight that the PCs will win in the end.”

The values for “N” that I use are:

  • 2 Experts per PC, e.g. Ninja
  • 3 or 4 Soldiers per PC e.g. Stormtroopers
  • 4 or 5 Street Thugs per PC e.g. Hoods & Hoodlums

Let’s recap briefly to make sure we’re all on the same page: Relative Competence is reflected primarily in how easily the Flunkies can be hit. Flunkies will be almost as likely to hit as PCs, regardless. The number of Flunkies in a fight is based on the relative competence level that you want the flunkies to display, which also defines the damage capacity of each flunky. The typical damage done by a PC, allowing for multiple attacks and assuming that they will all hit, divided by the number of Flunkies, defines the amount of damage each Flunky needs to do on a successful hit to match the PC. By defining the amount of damage each Flunkie does, you can define how easily the PCs will win, while maintaining the appearance of whatever level of competence you want the Flunkies to display.

Combat Balance

There are a number of reasons to adjust that base value for N. There are also multiple combinations of ways to make that adjustment – once you realize that one of the options up the GM’s sleeve is the notion of reinforcement Flunkies, and that the numbers of these can be made adjustable based on circumstances.

Tweaking for Combat objectives

Most of the time, Flunkies will have a simple combat objective. This might be to delay the PCs to give a more significant enemy time to do whatever it is that he wants to do, or it might be to attempt to capture or kill the PCs (good luck with that!). But every now and then, a situation will arise in which the Flunkies have a more “interesting” objective.

Some of these variant objectives will suggest an increase in the number of Flunkies in the fight, possibly with the extras held in reserve until the GM sees whether or not they are needed. These include situations such as the GM needing the Flunkies to hold off the PCs long enough for the main enemy to set in motion the next part of the plot.

Other variant objectives might suggest that the number of Flunkies be reduced because the goal is too easily achieved with the standard number – usually achieved by halving the initial number of recommended combatants and having the balance held in reserve. An example might be for the Flunkies to reach a certain control console and throw a switch, pull a level, or push a button.

In both cases, the goal is to increase the drama and tension; you don’t want it to be too easy for the PCs to achieve their goals, and you don’t want to make it too hard, either. Always, the goal must be for the PCs to be both on the verge of victory and at the brink of disaster.

“But that’s unfair!”
Yeah, it is. If game mechanics say that there should be only X enemies for a “fair fight” and that any difference in effectiveness should be addressed by increasing or decreasing the XP award after the combat – D&D, I’m pointing at you – then this approach is “unfair”.

So What?

The XP awarded should reflect the degree of difficulty of the actual battle, not of some “book value” quota based on the number of participants on one side or another. The primary goal is to provide entertainment to the players, and if you asked players what they preferred – fun achieved by occasionally punching things up a notch, or strict fairness resulting in some fights being non-events when they shouldn’t be – most players will vote for the first option. “Fairness” is secondary to everyone having a good time (Note that I’m distinguishing between “unfairness” and “anti-player bias”. The first looks at how hard a fight should be for dramatic purposes and adjusts participants accordingly; the second simply tries to make the players fail at almost everything).

Tweaking for Combat Style

Some combat styles give the GM license to have the action be more spectacular, with Flunkies doing acrobatic flips and climbing all over the furniture. Other combat styles are inherently boring – “stand and shoot until you run out of ammo”. As a general rule of thumb, the more flamboyant you are able to make each Flunkie, the less of them you need. In general, this frequently comes down to a question of mobility on the battlefield. But it also involves a more subtle factor, and one that – unlike the first – is often overlooked by GMs: the environment in which the battle is occurring needs to provide the Flunkies with opportunities to make their flamboyance work on their behalf. I don’t care how nimble the Ninja are, fighting in a mud-pit denies them the chance to be “fully flamboyant”, and negates any reduction in numbers that should occur.

The numbers quoted earlier are appropriate for a neutral environment – one that has limited opportunities for Flunkies to show off, and limited opportunities for the PCs as well. If the environment especially suits the Flunkies, reduce their numbers; if it favors the PCs and their combat style(s), increase their numbers.

Tweaking for PC Abilities

There’s one type of PC ability that needs to be given special attention, to the point of altering the number of combat participants – area-effect abilities. If the PCs have a Wizard who can lob Fireballs, taking out several of the Flunkies in one shot, you need to either negate that ability using the environment or circumstances, or allow for the need to have extra Flunkies.

Experience will soon tell you what other PC abilities you need to take into account, but anything that affects a group of Flunkies at a time is top of the list.

Major Enemy participation

A major enemy is an NPC who is significantly more capable than the Flunkies. Each major enemy is rated in PCs, and those PCs are then not counted as generating flunkies.

e.g. a 1-PC Villain is as capable in battle as one PC, and effectively takes 1 PC out of the fight with the Flunkies. A 2-PC villain is tough enough to keep two PCs entertained and out of the fight with the Flunkies. Reduce the number of Flunkies being faced by the PCs proportionately to get the fight that you want.

The Big Bad Boss

More significant still are encounters with the boss baddy. These are built to more-or-less the same standards as a 2+ PC-rated villain, but those PCs are still counted in the Flunkie Equation. That means that the PCs enemy has a substantial advantage that the PCs will need to find a way to counter.

Most big bad bosses won’t engage directly – just like the Emperor in the final confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, he will sit on the sidelines and gloat, or go about implementing his nefarious scheme, or making his escape.

Luck is not on their side

The final factor that needs to be taking into account when assessing the number of Flunkies recommended by The Flunky Equation is this: Luck should always go against them. Never ignore the chance for bad luck or the occasional lapse in competent judgment to hinder the Flunkies, the comedically, the better. They are intended to be Hors d’Combat, so if there’s fun to be had in their demise as an effective instrument of combat, go for it! Self-inflicted impalings. A wild shot that brings a chandelier down on top of the one Flunkie who looked like overpowering the PCs and achieving their objective too easily. Knocking a grenade out of the hands of a dangerous PC only for it to roll down a set of stairs and land next to the NPCs that PC set alight a round or two earlier (that one’s from last Saturday’s actual game session).

Keep combat moving quickly

Finally, flunkies should be designed and intended to fold quickly. There’s little as exasperating as a fight with flunkies that drags on for too long. Remember the initial prescription: hit hard, hit fast, fall down easy. The PCs should be able to cut through the flunkies like a hot knife through butter, but that impression gets lost when the cutting occurs too slowly. For any fight with flunkies, use the most cinematic combat structure that you can come up with. Forget complicated initiative – all the PCs go, then all the flunkies go, then any non-combatants go, and back around again. Deal with Flunkies in packs and process them in bulk – the benefits of doing so far outweigh the liabilities. And if that artificially inflates the combat capabilities of the flunkies, that’s what the “bad luck” described in the previous section redresses.

Larger Herds

Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of needing to run a mob. Here’s a hot tip to close out this article: Break a mob into as many pieces as there are PCs and then treat each sub-mob as a single creature. That’s the way that the PCs are going to interact with the mob, so why not take advantage of that to simplify your problems?

On a completely unrelated note: Once again spambots are running rampant. In fact, at 50 spam comments being submitted an hour, they are completely out of control. As I did last time this occurred, I’m going to have to block the IP numbers which are the worst contributors to this spam deluge, at least temporarily.

I’m not sure whether or not this will just block comments or will block all access to the site – I’m hoping for the former. But if the site goes dark for you, that’s what’s happened.

As before, if the spam from a blocked IP stops, I’ll unblock it – last time most were released within a couple of days. I regret the necessity but have no other choice; deleting the spam is just taking up too much of my time to continue to be practical.

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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 2 – Concepts


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This trilogy of articles looks at Theme and Concept, how they interrelate, and how these elements and their relationship affect RPG campaigns.

In part one, I looked at Theme, what it means, and how it manifests within a campaign in the form of repeated motifs within individual adventures, and argued that Themes would manifest in an uncontrolled manner if not specified in advance, and would – or at least, should – evolve in response to actual play. I also offered a set of dictionary definitions for Theme and Concept to serve as road-maps to the discussion. In the case of Concept, the definitions found were:

1. something formed in the mind, a thought or general idea; 2. An abstract idea, notion, or principle, esp. when used to unify disparate representations or interpretations of such abstractions; 3. A plan, internal narrative, intention, or philosophical principle or direction common to disparate works by a collective, group, organization, or individual; 4. An idea or invention used to help sell or publicize a commodity or service e.g. ‘a new concept in corporate hospitality’.

While the fourth seems hyperbole, and not really all that relevant to the subject, the other three are – at first glance – bang on the money. So let’s look at the role of Concept in RPGs in detail…

Concept

For my money, when applied to RPGs, none of these definitions quite hits the mark. I think of a concept as firstly, and undeveloped idea or principle, whose ramifications have not been developed, or two, a central thematic connection point between the in-game expressions of those ramifications when they are developed and incorporated into the game.

Every RPG is a collection of concepts and ideas. The game mechanics give them structure, and the interaction with the player characters defines the game itself.

That means that concepts come in all shapes and sizes.

Overarching Campaign Concepts

The biggest concepts are those that affect and shape the entire campaign. These cover everything from races to societies to types of adventure to the structure of reality. Any idea that can directly or indirectly shape events and interactions within the game is a concept, and most games start with a central concept or idea. Why not a Kingdom under siege from the afterworld? Why not link clerical magic to a network of shrines and cathedrals? Why not have a legendary and much-prophesied ruler who doesn’t deserve the prominence accorded him by destiny – but who is desperate to keep up appearances? Why not have Dwarves and Elves be (secretly) interstellar refugees from some dreadful conflict who have resettled on Earth – with that conflict about to follow them? Why not make healing different?

Big concepts that will undoubtedly influence the campaign throughout.

Internal Campaign-level Concepts

Slightly smaller in scale, these ideas affect the campaign for only part of it’s existence, but may still span considerable sections of it. For example, my Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire Campaign has multiple phases:

  • In the first phase, the characters were exploring the Golden Empire – and then fleeing from it.
  • In the second, they were discovering some of the elements of the campaign cosmology and getting drawn into the conflict between Gods and Chaos Powers.
  • In the third, they are actively seeking a weapon to use against the Golden Empire before it’s too late, while becoming enmeshed in the latest scheme of Lolth – they are very close to the end of this phase at the moment.
  • In the phase to come, they will devastate the Golden Empire, and,
  • in the phase to follow that, they will confront Lolth and begin a war of liberation for the Elves.
  • In the final phase of the campaign, all these plot elements will come together for a big finale.

A good way to think of these is to use a series of novels as an analogy for the entire campaign, while each internal campaign-level concept unifies the contents, escapades, and adventures that lie within a single volume of the series. Each volume will have some attributes in common with the one before it, but can also have a substantial change from that preceding work.

Adventure-linking Concepts

Smaller in scale once again, these are what Johnn used to call Plot Loops and what I refer to as Plot Arcs or Ongoing Subplots. A mini-plotline that gets told over multiple adventures, or may be spread over the course of an entire campaign in sporadic intervals. For example, an adventure-linking concept may relate to the entry into politics of an NPC, his rise and rise to the ultimate political office of his nation, his greatest triumph, his fall from grace, the fallout from his greatest mistake, and his personal redemption. While this character may not figure into every adventure, each time he does appear, he will advance, or will have just advanced, his personal narrative. Sometimes his presence will assist the PCs, sometimes it will hinder, and most often, it will simply be there.

Or perhaps the nature of magic is changing from one thing to another through the course of a series of adventures – first the phenomenon is observed, then a theory as to the nature of the change emerges, then that theory is shown to be incomplete or inadequate, and it is replaced with a successor that manages to explain whatever the previous one did not, then the theory is confirmed, then the cause is identified, and then the PCs have a choice between letting the change take its course or trying to stop it. But this synopsis places more emphasis on this connecting concept than is warranted; early on, the concept would be a footnote, a minor incident that is not understood. It might not even be noticed for adventure after adventure. Only when the cause is discovered and the PCs are propelled into a position of decision does this connecting subplot really have to take center stage within the plotline.

Or perhaps its as simple as an idea for a recurring NPC – one who will change little if at all in the course of the adventure, but who will be prominent within the adventures in which he does appear. Or a magic item that is central to a series of adventures or encounters. Or just about anything else that can connect one adventure to another in terms of continuity.

Adventure Concepts
  • A ghost haunts an abbey searching for the name of the man who killed his wife.
  • A villain invades the PCs nightmares to discover what they fear.
  • A researcher, driven insane by his research, knows too much; held captive by his former employer, he manages to escape and seeks help from the PCs, only for his former employer to attempt an assassination at the last minute.
  • The headstones in a small Scottish town are found to all be written backwards one morning – why?
  • Why is a crop circle in Laughtonshire suddenly appearing on Heathrow’s air traffic control radar?
  • Who is the Green Menace, and why is he stalking the PCs?
  • An elf offers a priceless magic item for sale in the Thraxton Central Marketplace for the first person to sell him their sister.

These are all examples of adventure concepts. Each is (probably) self-contained, forming a single adventure, no matter how many game sessions may be required to complete that adventure. Since I made most of them up off the top of my head, they aren’t necessarily very goof ideas, by the way!

Although they may appear to be bigger at times than smaller adventure-linking concepts, in reality they are smaller by virtue of that self-containment – which does not preclude future adventures involving repercussions or consequences, by the way.

Sub-adventure Concepts

And the smallest concepts are those that aren’t even big enough to be a complete adventure. These might be an idea for an interesting location (Stonehenge? cool!), or an idea for an interesting NPC (Thanos as an Eco-terrorist? Cool!!), or an idea for an interesting encounter (A Lava Kraken!? Way Cool!!!). But at best they may form a central component of an adventure.

The connections between Themes and Concepts

A theme has to manifest as multiple concepts, many of them variations on each other. In addition, that theme has to relate to many other concepts within a campaign, even if only indirectly.

You can think of a theme as a general statement or principle, while concepts describe all the ways that principle manifests within the campaign. Alternatively, you can think of a concept as an idea that has to fit within one of the themes of the campaign. These are alternative ways of describing the same relationship between the two. At the same time, your themes all start as ideas, upper-level concepts that hold the potential to glue a campaign together. Put those two elements of the relationship between Theme and Concept together, and you start to glimpse the full picture.

Central concepts are used to generate and select themes, which are then explored through subordinate, secondary, concepts. Other, tertiary, concepts that don’t connect directly to the central concepts are then used to explore the ramifications of those subordinate concepts. Those tertiary concepts combine with the central concepts via the themes and secondary concepts to create a web of ideas that, in their totality, define the campaign. Every other important idea has to connect with one or more piece of this web. The less significant the concept, the greater the distance possible between the ‘web’ and that concept.

You can have characters that don’t connect to this central web. You can have encounters that don’t relate to it. Not all the adventures will connect with it, but most will have at least a tangential relationship to one part or another. All the adventure-linking concepts should relate to the web, and most of them should relate in some way to the central part of that web, the themes and central concepts. Your internal campaign-level concepts should all relate to the web, if they aren’t already an integral component of its structure.

It all seems so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it?

Exploring The Theme

Central to this snapshot of the relationship between Theme and Concept is the idea of exploring the Theme(s). How exactly do you do that?

Well, let’s start with a fundamental truth: the bigger the concept, the more central to the campaign it should be, and the more exploration will be required to manifest all its consequences and ramifications, and the more often it will interact with smaller campaign elements like adventures, characters, encounters, and available choices in affected circumstances. Those consequences and ramifications are one of the defining features of this particular campaign. And that in turn means that for a theme to be big enough to be central to the campaign, it’s going to have to manifest in a fairly major or fundamental concept.

A Theme is explored by looking at all the ways it can be expressed or can manifest. How many sides to a story are there? How many ways can that theme complicate situations? Is the theme recognized as valid by society at large? How does it impact social institutions and accepted social practices? How can someone take advantage of the theme – because these types of behaviors will be more prone to become accepted practice. How does the theme interact with religious doctrines? What becomes possible because of the theme that wasn’t possible before? What becomes impossible that would otherwise have been possible? What has a higher price, and what has a lower price (and not just in terms of material values)? …and so on. The more questions you can ask about how [X] is affected by the theme, or accommodates the theme, where “X” is something very specific, the more ways that theme is going to connect with the campaign.

Not all themes are of the sort that they affect the world; there are themes that purely affect the sort of adventures that are going to take place. However, every example that I can think of, on closer inspection, should be reflected in a larger way on the campaign environment in general.

A small example
For example, “Victory always comes at a price” might start out as a theme that you initially intend to apply only to the adventures of the PCs, but this restriction raises more questions than it answers. Why do the PCs have this “privileged” position? It makes more sense for this to be a general principle within the game world, and one that will therefore have impacted on the history of the campaign world, or on the way that this history is perceived by the inhabitants.

Exploring this theme means:

  • Every PC victory should exact a price, either obviously, inobviously, or collaterally.
  • The nature of the “price” may vary.
  • There will be greater emphasis on celebrations of past victories by society, with a more mournful aspect. Think Veteran’s Day in the US, or ANZAC day in Australia. I’m not sure what the English equivalent is, but you get the idea.
  • There will be a more brutal assessment of the prices of projects in general. I forget the name of the story, but I’m reminded of a piece of fiction in which a project is quoted as costing so many billions of dollars and three-point-five lives, or something like that. (I think it’s in an EE “Doc” Smith novel, possibly one of the Skylark Of Space series). The manager baulks, saying that the board would never approve of a project with a cost like that, to which the reply comes that industrial accidents are a statistical certainty, no matter what one does to prevent them, and that in a project of this scale, it is statistically certain that this number of lives will be lost in such accidents. In a world in which it is commonly held that “Victory always comes at a price”, there would be no reaction at such a bottom line – that’s the sort of thing that would be expected, forewarning of the scale of the insurance payouts that would need to be accommodated, and an accepted part of risk management.
  • What are synonyms for “Victory” and how true is this theme in relation to such synonyms? “Success always comes at a price” – sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? Longer working hours, greater responsibility, greater accountability. Certainly sounds plausible. But there would be an implicit recognition that those who seek success are willing to pay the price, whatever it may be. This alters the perceptions of those in senior positions in a subtle but profound manner. Consider a politician – there would be a far more pragmatic appraisal of his entitlement to respect, and recompense. At the same time, a politician is implicitly recognized as one willing to pay the price, and any attempts to deflect or avoid doing so would arouse even more public ire and vehemence. The result is a far more 1950s attitude towards CEOs and leaders.
  • There would be an implicit sense of entitlement that comes from paying the price of success. If such success does not result in the expected manner, society would implicitly seek to confer a different form of success on those that have earned it. That might be public recognition, social authority, moral leadership, or public recompense outside normal channels.
  • Laws, and the way society relates to them, would also be subtly transformed. Some behaviors would cause more severe approbation than in our world. For example, admissions of guilt, surrender to the authorities, etc, would result in even greater leniency than we are used to, while fleeing a crime scene would be perceived as attempting to avoid paying the price for committing the crime, and would result in a much harsher sentence. Falsely accusing another would be a heinous crime in its own right. Libel laws would be far more ruthless and black and white in their interpretation. White collar crime would be considered just as serious as street crime, and prosecuted and sentenced accordingly. That means that there would be a greater need for low-security prisons, and more of the population would have a criminal record – but there would also be a far greater respect for someone having a “clean slate” after “paying their debt to society”.

Each of these effects needs a stage and a spotlight to shine upon them – in other words, they need to be integral to a smaller concept. Some are obvious – meeting and interacting with authority figures, meeting and interacting with former criminals, and so on. Others may require greater effort. In the case of the very first item, the GM should determine what the price will be of every victory or success that the PCs enjoy as part of the process of creating the adventure. They might make a new enemy – or a new friend to whom they will become beholden – or suffer personal harm – or any of a myriad of alternatives. But these “prices” should be prominently mentioned in synopses and often made obvious in advance.

Developing A Concept

The more central a concept is, the more exploration it needs, as I’ve already said, and the more important to the campaign it needs to be. Small concepts have a limited scope, and need to be connected to something larger to be central to a campaign.

The basic process is still the same – a matter of looking at as many details of the world around you and asking how each item within it would be altered or affected by the concept.

A small example
There is a city which is shared between the living and the undead. At sunset, the living quit the streets and lock their doors and windows behind them, and the undead begin to emerge from their crypts and tombs. The undead rule the streets overnight, only to return to their sleeping places at the dawn. Despite appearances, the town is at peace, civil order is maintained, and anyone seeking to attack will find it defended by whoever is in charge at the time. There are complete hand-overs of authority every dawn and sunset, each population has its own ruling council, and there are regular dusk and dawn meetings between the two sets of administrators to deal with any issues that might affect both populations.

This is a relatively small concept, for all that there can be a number of interesting encounters and adventures in such a setting. Interactions with the authorities. Crimes committed by a member of one group against a member of the other. Unified defenses. Trade deals done with competing interests. A Romeo-and-Juliet story with a twist.

There is also a larger theme buried in the assumptions: that undead and the living don’t have to be at war, that the undead are something more than ravening savages (even the lower-order undead like zombies and ghouls). And that means that the “normal” behavior of undead is something external that doesn’t have to be part of the package. An integrated society is possible.

That means that there should be adventures exploring the nature of undeath, and why the undead in this city are different, or perhaps why the undead everywhere else are so hostile. You have the space to look at stories of religious and social intolerance, and racial prejudice. Necromantic creation of undead becomes something more akin to slavery, another big subject that you can build adventures around.

Then we get to an unspoken assumption: that most if not all undead are human or partially human. You can either explain this, or broaden the range of undead to include Elves and Dwarves and so on.

Nevertheless, it is only by virtue of connecting the initial concept to those larger themes that this can become a central pillar of the whole campaign. Without doing so, the location is simply an interesting anomaly, the setting for one or two adventures before the PCs move on.

A larger example
For comparison, let’s look briefly at a much bigger concept: “Karmic Justice is a real force within the world; Karmic Debts can be bought and sold, and Good and Bad Karma can be bottled and traded like wine”.

Wow. Where do you start with an idea that big? It’s so broad that it will affect every being within the campaign. That makes it a central concept by definition. A campaign with any concept this big built into it can’t help but make it a central element. It will have an impact on every adventure, either directly or indirectly.

  • First, you need some house rules to describe the basic tenets of Karma and Karmic Debt. Because these are going to be so ubiquitous in their application, they will need to be very quick and easy to implement in-game – no long tables, no complex math, no die rolls.
  • Secondly, you may need more house rules to simply other aspects of the game mechanics to make room for them – especially since Karma is almost certain to have an impact on combat.
  • Next you need to think about the social impact. If Karma can be bought and sold, how is it extracted? Is the intent enough? Or is Karmic Manipulation a new form of Magic? How will social conventions change? What is the market value of Karma?
  • What happens to Karma at death? Does this have anything to do with mid-level Undeath like Ghosts? Or high-level like Vampires? Is Karma inherited (“The sins of the father”)? Do wills explicitly have to distribute Karma from the wealthy? Can those with high Karma gift some of it to the poor and downtrodden, thereby generating still more Karma?
  • Crime, Laws, Law-enforcement and Justice. Can Karma be stolen? Can criminals pay their debt to society by going into Karmic Debt? What’s the economic impact of no longer needing to build prisons? Are more policemen needed, or less? Do they need to be better equipped, differently equipped, or less well equipped?
  • Politics. Is buying Karma the same as rigging an election? Is it better to vote for someone with Good Karma – or with Bad Karma that needs to be expiated with public service? Or do you need a balance?
  • Social Status. Is having a high Karma the same thing as being wealthy, or renowned for your charity, or does society demand that it be synonymous with noble rank?
  • Theology and Religious Practices. Is there a God of Karma? Or are there several – an entire Divine Karmic Industry?
  • War and Conflict. Can an army ensure victory by building a bigger refugee camp than their enemies, thereby accruing more Good Karma? How would people in the game world attempt to “game” the system?
  • Trade. How does Karma factor into merchant agreements? Is bartering illegal because one side gets a Karmic advantage, or is it encouraged? Are there minimum prices to protect the merchant from those with excess Karma?
  • Economics. How does Karma influence crop failures and bumper crops? Is there a net Karmic imbalance between one part of the economy and another, what are the consequences, and what social institutions and practices have evolved to attempt to redress the balance? Is there a Karmic Boom-and-Bust cycle, and how to the authorities attempt to manage it if there is?

By the time you’ve finished dealing with all these issues – and others that I haven’t even mentioned, like Insurance, and Shipping/Transport, and Medicine, and the occasional oddball question such as “Can Karma be weaponized?”, you will have a very different campaign world, and a central concept that will impact on virtually every character and adventure.

What of the Concept when the Theme evolves?

An evolution in Theme generally amounts to a deemphasis of an existing theme to make room for another theme that has manifested from the interaction of Players and Campaign. It’s incredibly useful to actually have the intended central concepts and themes written down somewhere so that you can assess the impact on the campaign. Ultimately, it means building more adventures around the PCs and fewer around the game world, and that’s a good thing.

But you can go further. Themes and Central Concepts can be defined as Dynamic – changing in emphasis as the campaign proceeds. You can start with one set being dominant and gradually de-emphasize them, elevating other themes from such obscurity that they might not even have been noticed at the start – and leaving room for newly-evolved themes. This manifests as adventures that slowly evolve in the course of the campaign in tone, style, and even content.

While the “five-year plan” of Babylon-5 is quite often, and quite rightly, lauded by fans and those looking to take inspiration from J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction epic, the way some of the themes and central concepts evolved in the course of the series, while others remained fixed to serve as unifying touchstones, is too-often overlooked.

An evolving theme generally means simply that the Adventures change to accommodate the new emphasis. The stories that the collaboration between players and GM are telling change, evolving in response to the stories that have already resulted from that collaboration. The concepts on which the collaboration were founded remain, but some are diminished in frequency and intensity.

But some evolution is more profound. A campaign theme can be completely inverted in the course of a campaign, or can even experience a full cycle. A good example might be an optimism-pessimism-optimism cycle built into the campaign – at first, the stories are positive ones, and the future looks rosy; then a gathering shadow begins to loom, eventually reaching the point where prospects look grim no matter how successful the PCs are, but there is still a single slender sliver of hope; and then, as the campaign rushes toward a crescendo, the darkness is beaten back, inch by inch, until there is an ultimate confrontation with the architect of the darkness, and the prospect of a lasting victory and a newly-rosy future in prospect.

Or perhaps the transition is going to be from soft low-fantasy to gritty and grim, and then to epic high fantasy. The only limits are your imagination, the length of the campaign, and what your players are willing to accept and tolerate.

The Suitability of Concepts & Themes

Not all concepts will fit every campaign. A concept might find itself in direct conflict with one of the themes. That’s why you should start with one or two central concepts, then determine your central themes from those concepts, and then generate the rest of the campaign-level concepts – so that you can filter out the things that just don’t work.

Hint: Don’t throw these ideas away! Using them as a central focus for your next campaign automatically means that it will contrast strongly with the one you are creating now – which elevates both of them by clarifying the unique flavors of each.

Rejected ideas from my Fumanor campaign formed the basis of my ad-hoc Rings Of Time campaign (intended to be a one-off adventure, but so compelling to the players that they insisted on continuing it); rejected ideas from the Rings Of Time campaign then formed the basis of the Shards Of Divinity campaign.

Every time you think of two explanations for something that is going to happen, or has happened, and reject one in favor of the other, record the rejected one – you can never tell when it will come in handy!

The most common reasons for rejection of a concept, other than direct thematic conflict, is that the concept does not fit the genre or style of the planned campaign. And that’s a whole new ball of wax – one that I’ll peel away in Part Three of this mini-series!

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Writing The Game: Using RPGs to Create Fiction


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Today’s article started with a tweet from Alan Spartan (@SpartanAlan), who asked, “What do any fantasy authors out there think about RPG resources for fantasy writing rather than gaming? Good/bad/misleading?”

My answer was “Good question. I’ll have to write a proper response next week. Until then – all of the above.”

That last statement is an answer that needs some amplification, and that’s what this article is intended to provide.

The Benefits

Turning RPG game-play into fiction brings a lot of benefits. I’ve identified five below that I think cover all the bases, but there could easily be more.

Cross-Marketing

The most obvious one comes from identifying your fiction with the game product used to generate it. This creates a cross-marketing synergy in which every player of the game system is encouraged to at least check out your fiction (if not to buy it outright, thinking they are supporting the game system that they like), and every outsider who likes the fiction is encouraged to look into the game system.

The bigger and more popular the game system, the bigger the benefits to the work of fiction; the smaller and more obscure the game system, the bigger the proportional benefits to the makers and publishers of the game system from any level of success of the fiction. The middle ground is where things get interesting.

It could be that there is a sweet-spot where maximum benefits are achieved by both parties. It could also be that the disadvantages persist after the benefits run out, and that the middle ground benefits no-one particularly. It could be that both statements are true, according to minor factors that have not been identified – how well game elements translate to the fictional page, how recognizable the game elements are within the work of fiction, etc.

I suspect that canonality would have a major role to play – if the fiction is considered to be canonical game material, it will get a bigger boost from the game system market, and vice versa.

Pregenerated Elements

Lots of people have contributed their imaginations to the game. Just look at the sheer number and variety of creatures that can be encountered in a game of D&D, for example. All this is material that the author doesn’t have to think of himself, leaving him free to focus on other elements of the work of fiction.

Of course, this does leave the work of fiction hostage to the quality of the imaginings of the game. Some game ideas are flawed, short-sighted, or just plain silly. And the author may have to work harder than usual to bring those spoon-fed creative elements to life within the story. And finally, there is a danger that cohesion will be lost in the narrative, that different encounters will feel randomly thrown together simply because they were.

There was certainly an element of this within the original D&D movie – at times it felt like the plot was being interrupted for a random encounter, before resuming once again. Part of that stems from these creatures just popping into the plot without their existence being established within the framework of the story.

Involving pregenerated inspiration introduces new skills into the mix – the ability to select the right encounters to make a good story as opposed to a good game, for example.

In a nutshell, basing your fiction upon a game can make it quicker and easier to knock out the work of fiction – but it can also make that work of fiction feel like it was knocked out too quickly and cheaply, without the necessary investment in plausibility.

Metaphysical Framework

One of the areas a lot of people seem to suffer from is the metaphysical framework surrounding their story, especially if it is not integral to the plot. Creating an internally-consistent universe takes a LOT of work and deep thought. Being able to import an established metaphysics and cosmology and theology and all the implications and cross-connections between these subjects can save the author a LOT of work, especially if these are not to be central elements within the plot.

Combat Realism and Balance

Here’s one of the biggies, when it comes to benefits: Quite often, when reading a B-grade work of fiction (or worse), you get the sense that the central character’s capabilities change randomly from scene to scene. In one scene, he struggles to tote a sack of potatoes and in another he knocks down castle doors – well, that might be exaggerating a bit. This comes from trying to evoke the same level of suspense and danger in all the combat/drama sequences throughout the story – the protagonist’s abilities vary according to the needs of the plot.

A lot of that can be solved by conducting the combat with a consistent set of PC stats and game mechanics, taking detailed notes, and then turning every roll into narrative of the course of the battle. By establishing a set standard for the abilities of the central character(s), you can then define how tough the opposition need to be according to how much trouble the protagonists have in emerging victorious – then handle your battle scenes accordingly.

But, as always, there is a caveat: it’s easy for battle sequences to go on for too long, and overload the narrative, and for the individuality of the participants to be lost. Take a look at the Helm”s Deep sequence in the Lord Of The Rings (the novel) – Tolkien periodically punctuates the battle with brief character sequences to keep that identification alive, and furthermore, has the individuality of the combatants influence their style of battle (though I think the movie actually does a better job of the latter).

Condensing a battle sequence to the right length – and knowing what the “right length” needs to be – is a whole new problem that adapters need to face, a new skill that they need to acquire.

Out-of-combat Balance & Structure

Of course, similar problems can exist and be overcome using game mechanics outside of combat. It’s all too easy for a below-par writer to have his characters unable to see what’s going on two inches in front of his nose in one part of the story and able to detect nuanced subtleties a hundred miles away from the merest whisper of a rumor at another time. My players describe this sort of thing generally as “moving with the speed of plot”.

Having consistency in what the character can and can’t do is another of the big benefits that can come from synergizing game-play and fiction-writing.

As you may have come to expect, however, this is not an unalloyed benefit. It constrains what the character can do, and that can force the writer to artificially enhance the circumstances in order to move the plot forward. We expect characters to learn from their mistakes and progress in capabilities – but not too fast – and the pace of character development in the game may not match that demanded by the plotline. There are only two solutions to this problem: pad out the story with lots of inconsequential story to give the characters the time they need in game mechanics to evolve sufficiently, or throw in a lot of unexpected ramp-ups to that potential to get the characters where they need to be. For all his good points as a writer, EE “Doc” Smith was extremely prone to the latter solution (and he wasn’t working with a game system). The problem that results is the “superman syndrome” – each time you ramp up what the character can do, you need to come up with a reason why those heightened abilities don’t make the next encounter a breeze. To keep the drama going, you need to continually up the ante in terms of the opposition’s capabilities, too, and after a while, that all seems to become too artificial.

Breakthroughs don’t generally happen just when you need them.

The Pitfalls

Having damned the benefits with faint praise and a lot of caveats, it’s time to look at the pitfalls.

The Copyright Problem

The first problem that comes to mind is that most of the text from which you will be working is subject to someone else’s copyright and/or trademark. Take the 3.5 Monster Manual. The stats are OGL, the description and flavor text are not. That means that you either have to completely reinvent the descriptive wheel or get permission from the game company to use their content.

Neither is a completely satisfactory solution. Needing to reinvent the wheel each time to make it uniquely your own undoes a lot of the benefit derived from being able to import game elements into the fiction. Alternatively, being able to copy-and-paste tracts of descriptive text (then tweak, of course) runs the risk of contrary styles of delivery. Deriving your text from another writer’s work risks losing your own descriptive voice – the result sounds like a patchwork because it IS a patchwork.

A different shade of green

It gets worse. Let’s say you need to describe Elves. A common element of fantasy gaming, this is something that you are almost certainly going to have to deal with. You can’t copy Tolkien and you can’t copy D&D, and even if you could the results could feel ‘tacked on’. You not only need to make this ubiquitous race your own original creation, but you need to be able to capture their uniqueness and transfer it to the page without page after page of exposition. It can actually end up being more work than simply creating a new race with the qualities that you need/want them to have rather than trying to describe a different shade of green.

What’s more, it’s easy to get lazy when importing elements from another source. You change one or two elements of the description to make the race your own and never dig deeply enough into the rest of the source material to identify the ramifications and consequences.

Take a look at the article I wrote on The Ergonomics Of Elves. Making the elves a little different from humans was easy. It was the ramifications and consequences that made it interesting (and the processes of simulation to discover those consequences). Everything from social structure to social activities to weapons design to furniture to diplomatic relations got impacted.

The elves that resulted were very different from Elves in basic D&D for all their superficial similarities (resulting from convergent design), which were also different to those in the LOTR movies, which were different from those in my Fumanor campaign (detailed in the Orcs & Elves series). There were certain elements in common, superficial similarities abounded, but the more you dug into the race and what made it tick, the more different they became from all these other exemplars. They were “different shades of green”.

It would have been a lot less work to make an overt change and never explore those ramifications – but superficial efforts always produce superficial fiction. And that’s a whole separate problem to overcome.

Roleplay vs Narrative

There are things that will work well, even to the point of near-necessity, in an RPG that simply don’t translate into a work of fiction. Wandering Monsters are an obvious example. They can serve an essential function in a game setting that simply doesn’t translate well into a more connected narrative. They are too isolated, and make the resulting fiction feel compartmentalized and disconnected, as though someone wrote part of a novel, dropped in a short story featuring the same characters, then resumed the novel.

The two types of work are structured differently, if they are to be any good.

Similarly, there are structural elements needed by fiction that simply aren’t present in the typical RPG game session, and that require extensive translation. Combat sequences come to mind as an example.

Rendering each blow and by-blow into a narrative form always sounds good on paper, but it’s horribly inefficient.

Ten participants in combat, five rounds of combat, an average of two blows per participant per round, and let’s say 10 seconds per blow (absolute minimum) to render the narrative – 10 x 5 x 2 x 10 = 1000 extra seconds, almost an extra 17 minutes, to conduct the battle. Taking the time to be a little more artistic about the narrative can easily triple this, and suddenly a single battle takes close to an extra hour to play through, in the RPG context, on top of the actual simulation of the battle. If the combat itself takes an hour, that’s 50% inefficiency. If it takes two, that’s 33% inefficiency. (Check out my article on time-and-motion in RPGs for more of this sort of analysis).

Blow-by-blow narrative is the first thing to go when you try to streamline combat for gameplay purposes. But that’s the chief utility for the fiction writer using an RPG to give a little structure to his writings; if anything, he will want to go in the other direction.

Good game design is therefore at odds with using games as a fiction generator.

System Flaws

But there’s one aspect of game design that tends to flow into any fiction based on it all too easily. Any flaws or shortcomings or shortcuts in the way the game simulates reality – and these are essential to practical game-play – will tend to translate directly into the pages of the fictionalized narrative, often without even being noticed.

The fiction is hostage to the limitations of the source material.

The opportunities available to characters are constrained and confined by what the game system allows. The effects of what characters do are generally confined and constrained (for the most part) to the impacts on the participants, and it’s up to the GM to extrapolate those effects into alterations to the environment. This focus is – to some extent – essential for practical game-play – but the fiction writer has to fill in those gaps or his work will feel shallow and superficial. And that can be even harder than crafting the narrative action-by-action, especially when an environmental impact that should have been felt in the gameplay isn’t, because from that point on, you have to throw away your simulation results and wing it anyway.

“The fireball detonates, Kendrick throws himself flat in the nick of time. Baldron stands his ground against the arcane flames, and emerges smoking and singed. Baldron takes advantage of the Wizard’s surprise at seeing him still standing there to deliver a killing blow against his foe.” Sounds reasonable? Okay, now try inserting “The stone floor melts and runs like taffy” in between Kendrick throwing himself flat and Baldron standing his ground. Or “The overheated limestone floor explodes.” Or “The wooden walls and floor are reduced to ash.” Standing your ground suddenly seems a whole lot more improbable, and as for being in a position to strike the final blow…

Credit where Credit Is Due

Finally, I want to pose the question: if you are using an RPG as the foundation of one or more fictional works, how much credit (and how big a share of any proceeds) are the players entitled to? Do the players hold copyright over the characters that they create? Can the author be sued?

When I was creating my Champions Campaign, I was very careful to get each of my players to sign releases that specified the manner of attribution, the copyright on the characters, permission to use them, etc. Any fictional product deriving from that campaign that is sold beyond the circle of historical or contemporary players of the campaign and that earns more than a nominal threshold value entitles them to a minor share of the proceeds.

I was fortunate; my players were very accommodating, and the fact that I had deliberately tried to be better than fair about their contributions helped persuade them to sign those releases. If any of them had wanted to kick up a fuss, however, negotiations would have been long and difficult, with no certainty of success.

The first volume of campaign background was solely my creation, leaving only the headache of rewriting anything derived from copyrighted Hero Games source material, like UNTIL, and reinventing characters that were too obviously derivative of Marvel or DC comics, like the main villain “Mandarin”. The second volume is largely fictionalized and I have releases for the key characters. The third volume has also been largely rewritten from the original gameplay and I have more detailed released from all the players. The fourth, fifth, and sixth volumes exist only in an abridged format and are more faithful to the game-play material, and are still covered by the original player releases. The seventh volume contains the abridged versions of 4, 5, and 6, plus a completely fictionalized version of subsequent events. Volumes 8 onwards tell the story of the original Zenith campaign and subsequent gameplay (Volume 7 was written as the campaign background and copies sold at cost to the players in the Zenith campaign). A little planning a long time ago has me covered.

You might not be so lucky.

The Right Balance

There are aspects of RPG gaming that can be usefully translated into fiction, and benefits to doing so. But, in order to achieve those benefits, the game needs to be optimized and purposely designed for that application, because so many of the things that go into making a roleplaying game Good To Play are at odds with the things that make fiction Good To Read.

Special attention needs to be paid to each of the drawbacks that I have identified. The game should be a starting point, nothing more.

It might seem, on first glance, that using an RPG as a tool for generating fiction is a great shortcut. I think I have shown that it can and should be even more work than just writing the story. The question to be asked is how to ensure that the extra effort required yields sufficient benefits to justify that extra effort.

Used effectively, an RPG can be a great tool for the fantasy writer. The trick is to achieve the part of that sentence that comes before the comma.

It’s Not Just Fantasy

Although the original question was about Fantasy writing, I’ve touched on Superhero and Sci-Fi along the way, and that’s because the same analysis applies to all genres of fiction that have an RPG. Some genres can benefit more than others – and I’ve already written an article on how Mystery Writers can achieve particular benefit from using RPGs as a foundation for their stories (An Air Of Mystery – Using an RPG to write mystery fiction).

A Superheroic Example from the Zenith-3 Archives

The reason I have leaned so heavily on the Zenith-3 campaign is because I have actual experience of translating those adventures into a fictionalized synopsis; before Campaign Mastery started, I used to do so regularly for the benefit of the players of the game. So I thought I would close this article with an example from those writings that dates back to late 2001 and spans three game sessions. It’s been stripped of game mechanics, but still betrays its origins from time to time. It could certainly serve as the outline of a fictionalized account of the events.

“Whispers In The Dark” Part I

In the wake of Johnny Luca’s flight to Zenith-3′s protective custody, the mobster turned over documents proving that the Director of the FBI had been in the Mafia’s back pocket for a number of years. He then astounded the heroes by offering to give them information to prosecute even more government officials in the pay of the mob, in return for immunity from prosecution and protection from an assassin known only as Mr Whisper. The members of Zenith-3 made the decision to follow up on Luca’s information, and Glory contacted an old friend within the FBI. After flying to Washington and presenting Luca’s information to Glory’s contact, the FBI agent swore in the team as FBI deputies and promptly contacted Judge Bartholomew Schumacher, a Justice of the Supreme Court, for a warrant to search the Director of the FBI’s office. The search revealed over a million dollars in bribe money and enough evidence to incriminate a number of senators and congressmen.

Upon returning to the Dam, where they had left Luca, the team discovered that Karma’s wards and guards had been torn to shreds by an unknown attacker. Finding Luca huddled in a corner almost catatonic from terror, Karma conducted a telepathic probe on the former capo and found one phrase running through his mind: “Please don’t hurt me, I’ll tell you everything!” Guessing that the mysterious attacker now knew everything about Zenith-3 that Luca did, the team returned to their base just in time to receive a distress call from Scarab in Mrs Mayberry’s boarding house. Teleporting to the house, the team found Mandarin, Mrs Mayberry and Scarab all unconscious but no sign of the attacker. Upon awakening, Mandarin accused Glory of being in league with the mysterious entity which had attacked the house. When Glory protested that she knew nothing of the attack, Mandarin merely laughed mockingly and proclaimed “You are just like the one who attacked us”, before teleporting away.

As Team Zenith-3 stood in the wreckage of what had been Mrs Mayberry’s home they had a decision to make. Normal humans (namely the UNTIL personnel serving in the base beneath Mrs Mayberry’s house) were living at the Champions base and were at risk in any battle, but they had chosen to take those risks. As Scarab pointed out, there was another person living with them who hadn’t been given the option to choose – Mrs Mayberry. The discussion was abruptly halted as Mrs Mayberry began waking up, and Blackwing changed to his human form to help the elderly landlady up to her room. The discussion continued downstairs in the base, and one thought clearly emerged – Zenith-3 had no real option but to reveal their true identities to Mrs Mayberry. Also discussed were various alterations to the house such as the additions of alarm systems and a couple of reinforced safe-rooms where Mrs Mayberry could hide in the case of attack. The team meeting then turned to a matter long overdue – team elections. After the votes were tallied it was found that they had chosen their most introverted member as chairman and their newest recruit as field commander.

The next day Zenith-3 spoke to Mrs Mayberry in her living room and revealed their identities to her. After a few minutes they were able to convince her of the truth of their claims, but it was difficult to tell who was more surprised – Mrs Mayberry at the team’s open admission, or the team at just how much she had already figured out. Ravenscroft, after all, hadn’t even bothered wearing a mask as a member of Zenith-3, and his statement on Helloween that “A vote for McCarthy is a vote for Chthon!” was televised around the country. In the end Mrs Mayberry was convinced of who the team really were and agreed to some security precautions, including the installation of alarm systems.

Meanwhile, at the Dam, Karma was coping with a white glove inspection of the repairs following the attack by Mr Whisper on the facility. During the additional work demanded by the inspector, she discovered that many of the instruments the control systems relied on were glorified simulations – a puzzle that she intends to solve as soon as possible.

Shortly after the discussion with Mrs Mayberry, St Barbara received a phone call from Shaun Davies, a student she’d met in her civilian identity, asking her out on a date. Blackwing, who had received the initial call, took a great deal of glee in using his shape-shifting powers to assume Shaun’s shape and trying to make St Barbara burst out laughing while still on the phone. That call was interrupted by a message from Captain Thompson for the team to investigate a disturbance at the Boston Library. When the team arrived they found that a massive explosion had blown out the front of the Library. Upon investigating, the team determined that the explosion had centered around a grimoire which had been teleported into the Library specifically for Mist. They also determined that the explosion had made the Library structurally unsound. After a series of jury-rigged repairs, a few mishaps, a pratfall or two, and even more property damage, Zenith-3 was finally able to recover the book and take it back to their base for study.

The book was from Mist’s brother in Avalon (who had a bad habit of putting too much power into his spells). It included a personal message to Mist and contained a divination spell known as ‘The Terrain of Wisdom’, which would let someone step into the memories of the spell’s subject. While Mist studied the spell, the team had an appointment to keep – escorting Johnny Luca to the FBI to finalize the deal for his information. Karma opened a gateway for the team into a janitor’s closet at the Boston FBI office in an attempt to avoid being ambushed by Mr Whisper.

The first hint that this attempt had failed came when Whisper fired a pistol round into Karma’s skull from behind as soon as she stepped through her portal. St Barbara immediately followed through the portal, using her light powers to keep Whisper off-balance while Luca and the rest of the team made transit. After a nervous negotiation session with the FBI, the now-recovered Karma brought the team home. To retrieve the evidence Luca was offering, Luca had to present the key to the vault containing a map to the hidden evidence at a bank in Zürich. The evidence was Luca’s ace-in-the-hole, and he had gone to great lengths to keep it safe. The vault key was hidden in Luca’s mansion, which Dragon’s Claw and Glory infiltrated with near-contemptuous ease. Retrieving the key, they returned to Zenith-3′s base. In the meantime the rest of the team planned their strategy. Whisper had been one jump ahead of them from the get-go, and now was the time to use that to turn the tables on him.

Karma opened a portal to a park in Zürich near the bank and Luca stepped through it. A rifle bullet smashed into his skull and he fell to the ground, with Whisper teleporting in to attach a limpet mine to his back to finish the job. However the assassin was doubtless surprised to learn that ‘Luca’ was in fact Blackwing even as Mist cast the Terrain of Wisdom spell, sending Glory, Karma and Oracle into Whisper’s memories. Meanwhile Blackwing, Dragon’s Claw and St Barbara protected Mist, who was busy maintaining her spell, from Whisper’s physical attacks. After a short but intense battle, Whisper vanished. With the threat over for the moment Karma brought the real Johnny Luca through to the bank where, after verifying his identity, the group proceeded to the vault holding the papers.

Without warning, Whisper suddenly materialized, snatching the papers from Luca’s hands and vanishing before anyone could react, and the team realized that Whisper had not been fooled by Blackwing’s deception; his primary objective all along was the recovery of the evidence. Glory, Karma and Oracle soon returned from their spirit quest through Mr Whisper’s memories with startling news – critical information about the assassin. The rest of Zenith-3 were stunned to learn that Whisper was, in fact, the Mandarin of Dimension-Halo. Only Mist took the discovery in stride – she had always felt that there was something very wrong with the kindly priest and his New Jersey Cult….

“Whispers In The Dark” Part II

It was a sombre Team Zenith-3 which gathered in their base after their return from Zürich. It seemed that all their work to get hold of Luca’s files had been for nothing. As they compared notes and Oracle began assembling their impressions into a cohesive pattern, options began to emerge.

The journey through Mr Whisper’s memories had made it clear that his immortality, like that of Mandarin-Prime, had been caused by accidental exposure to a mixture of magical potions. However in Dimension-Halo it was more similar to vampirism than the true immortality of Mandarin-Prime. His need for blood had been the driving factor behind his actions down through the centuries, inspiring legends of such bloodthirsty leaders as Genghis Khan and Vlad Tepes. It had led to his becoming one of the leading haematologists in Dimension-Halo in an attempt to cure himself. And it gave Zenith-3 a crucial lever of negotiation – as Oracle pointed out, the team had to deal with Whisper to recover the documents, they didn’t necessarily have to fight him. Glory’s blood was saturated with life energy and was constantly regenerating itself, and based on the team’s knowledge a transfusion should permanently satisfy his need for blood. With this in mind and the knowledge of his location (a small church in New Jersey which had been discovered in a previous investigation) the team began discussing plans to get a small group into the church without being torn to shreds by Whisper.

While a series of plans were tossed around the briefing room, Karma grew frustrated with the endless debating, grabbed a pouch of Glory’s blood and teleported to the New Jersey cathedral. There she gave the blood to Whisper and quickly explained its properties. The sorcerer told Karma that he would check her claims – of which he was understandably skeptical – and that she should return the next day. Karma did so to find that Whisper was prepared to cancel his contract on Luca and to turn over the documents he’d stolen from the Zürich vault in repayment for the cure. With the documents back in the team’s possession, they were quickly forwarded to the FBI, who were able to get the appropriate warrants drawn up by Judge Schumacher, the only Justice of the Supreme Court known not to be in the Mob’s pocket. As deputized FBI agents, Zenith-3 was called upon to serve some of these warrants. When they were ordered to arrest Governor Alphonse Capone of Illinois, Blackwing’s grin was big enough to decorate a truck’s front grille.

Once the warrants were served and Scarab gave the team a hearty well-done, their mentor ordered them to take some time off to unwind. To help them let off steam Scarab had procured tickets to “Le Amore”, a recently-released Italian movie about perceptions. As the team left the theater after the film they noticed a selective blackout had hit Boston. Their curiosity piqued, the team took a look from the air only to discover the still-illuminated areas spelled out words: “When is a bird like a gift?” The answer of course was, “When it’s free,” and it could only mean one thing – Jamison Riddle, aka the Riddler, was back!

“Riddle Me This”

The team traveled to the Boston power station, where they found that the workers on duty had been killed by small arms fire – very small arms fire. The culprits appeared to be toy plastic soldiers, a number of which lay melted where they had tripped circuit breakers. The only thing out of the ordinary (!) was that each plastic soldier had a rubber band around his ankle – there was no sign of circuitry or any other animating force. In the team’s last encounter with him, Riddle had shown no evidence of superhuman powers which raised the question of a super-powered copycat. The team asked Captain Thompson, their police contact, to have Riddle’s cell checked; that inspection showed all to be normal. At the same time, Captain Thompson reported that the Scepter Of O’Brien had been stolen from a museum where it had been displayed. The assault and massacre by the toys had been nothing but a very effective distraction. The team were unsatisfied with the eyes-only examination of Riddle, and decided to check things out for themselves. To their amazement, this check revealed even worse news than the team had anticipated – not only was Riddle missing, but an animated dummy made of a mop, blanket and several pieces of string had taken his place!

The next day Zenith-3 was advised that a hijacked light plane was skywriting a riddle. St Barbara approached the plane, piloted by a ventriloquist’s dummy, as it completed its message, only to have it dive towards the busiest intersection in Boston with a cargo of high explosives. Some hurried teamwork managed to shift the plane out over Boston harbor before it detonated, and there were no civilian casualties. After decoding the riddle in the sky the team determined that the Riddler’s next target would be a diamond-encrusted piano and they rang the manufacturer to provide warning. The person who answered the phone was higher than a kite and the team hurried to the factory. On their arrival they were greeted by the sight of an intoxicating gas being pumped into the factory’s ventilation system while a toy fire engine sucked up the diamonds with a miniature vacuum cleaner. Upon seeing the members of Zenith-3 the fire engine bolted for the nearest exit. Dragon’s Claw was able to stop the fire engine with the diamonds from losing itself among dozens of others which were standing by in the alley by the simple expedient of hurling several shuriken into it, but the team could do nothing to save the thirty people in the factory who died from the gas.

The construction of the dummy in his cell clearly linked Riddle to the power station attack. The prison dummy, the animated toys and the light plane’s pilot all bore a startling resemblance to the type of ascientiffic devices built by Widget, a former member of Zenith-3 who had retired back to Dimension Prime. St Barbara decided to check up on Widget, taking Glory and Karma with her for backup. Upon arrival at Widget’s home town in New Zealand, St Barbara quickly confirmed that Widget had been missing for two weeks. A search of her bedroom triggered a trap which Glory determined was based on necromantic magic, and a search of the local area turned up a talisman of Chthon. Clearly some deal had been struck between Chthon and the Riddler.

Meanwhile, the day after the attack on the piano makers, the supertanker Liquida (largest oil carrier in the world) arrived in Boston harbor on it’s maiden voyage. It was a major media event and Jamison Riddle decided to add his own inimitable touch in the form of several dozen toy boats and submarines, which fired a volley of torpedoes into the Liquida’s hull. Although in no immediate danger of sinking the tanker had sustained a major hull breach and was leaking massive amounts of crude oil into the harbor. Mist managed to repair the damage to the tanker while her teammates distracted and destroyed the toy boats, discovering the hard way that the torpedoes had enough explosive power to punch through even Blackwing’s armor. By now the team was getting rather irate at Mr Riddle’s pranks! At the same time, there had been another robbery, staged in such a way as to cause maximum embarrassment to the team. The Riddler’s new MO was becoming pretty clear.

With the discovery that Widget was missing from her home St Barbara decided to conduct a last quick overflight of the area. In the process she spotted a local pervert who, when confronted, admitted that he had a film showing Widget being abducted – amongst many others of the local girls disrobing. After receiving the film somewhat forcefully, St Barbara gathered Karma and Glory and returned to Dimension-Halo with their news. A check of the footage revealed one interesting fact, namely that Widget had been abducted by Chthon herself rather than Jamison Riddle. This led Oracle to speculate that perhaps Chthon herself was the mastermind behind the crimes, letting Riddle plan and commit them in order to vex Zenith-3 as revenge for thwarting her Helloween plot.

The team assumed that Riddle’s crimes were linked to the four elements. The power station raid and theft of the scepter corresponded to earth (plastic soldiers (ground forces) and the Highland ties to the scepter), the exploding plane corresponded to air and the sabotage of the Poseidon club coupled with the attack on el Liquida were linked to water. This left fire unaccounted for and the notion of a fire-related incident in Boston, especially in light of Riddle’s past crimes, left the team very worried indeed.

The night after St Barbara returned from Dimension Prime, Zenith-3 received a call from the staff at Logan International Airport. Their radars reported jamming and this was deemed high enough on the weirdness scale that they had been advised to contact the team. Blackwing took the Bright Cutter, the team’s captured starship and AI, to the airport to check on the disturbance, while the rest of the team gathered at the transporter, ready to respond should hey be required. Blackwing quickly determined that help was definitely necessary – the jamming was only a side-effect of the presence of hundreds of tiny zeppelins, each bearing the name ‘Hindenburg’. The gargoyle detective’s suspicions were confirmed when he bumped one with the Bright Cutter’s forcefield, causing it to explode in a fireball. The zeppelins were filled with explosive hydrogen, they were cruising towards the landing pattern of the busiest airport in the Boston area, with an eventual destination of the Boston Gardens Stadium, where twenty thousand spectators were watching the Boston Patriots play. The effect of several hundred explosions in a structure filled with civilians would be catastrophic.

The team split up to deal with the separate threats. Blackwing repeatedly piloted the Bright Cutter through the zeppelin formation, exploding many of the flammable vehicles, while St Barbara and Glory tried to land as many of the airliners heading for Logan as possible (the tower couldn’t provide much assistance due to the radar jamming). Karma headed to the Boston Gardens to coordinate with the administrators should an evacuation be necessary. Upon arriving, she promptly found that the Garden’s control room had been firebombed with white phosphorous and the Hershey blimp recording the game was acting in an unusual manner. Flying up to check on the blimp she immediately discovered that it was empty except for an animated sock puppet at the controls, slowly venting the blimp’s fuel tanks over the stadium – in effect turning the stadium into a gigantic fuel-air bomb. And the Zeppelin “triggers” were only seconds away!! At the last minute, Karma managed to prevent the puppet from setting off the explosive mixture before setting the blimp on a course towards Boston harbor, watching as the little zeppelins followed, still homing in on the beacon within the larger blimp. The resulting explosion, while spectacular, caused no civilian casualties.

Meanwhile back at Logan Airport the partnership of St Barbara and Glory was proving extremely effective. St Barbara’s light powers were able to guide the airliners to a safe landing while Glory proved invaluable for replenishing St Barbara’s flagging endurance – using her powers nonstop for so long was proving extremely tiring for the former team leader. The only real problem was when an airliner landed a bit short on the runway, its outermost propeller almost severing Glory’s arm at the shoulder. It was difficult to tell what shocked St Barbara more, Glory’s injury or her calm instruction to ‘hold it steady, cauterize it and it’ll heal on its own in no time.”

Having averted a possible catastrophe, but failed to prevent the robbery that had accompanied it, the team returned home for a well-earned rest. The next morning Oracle was in the midst of his usual ritual of completing the Boston Globe’s crossword when he noticed that the answers formed a pattern. After a brainstorming session with the rest of the team, he was able to determine that Riddle (the author of the crossword) would strike at the Ed Sullivan Show being filmed in New York that day. Using their contacts in the FBI the team was quickly able to secure tickets to the audience. Once inside the theater the problem changed from finding Riddle to determining which Riddle was the real one! The wily psychopath had created several duplicates of himself including a three day dead corpse. Unable to find the correct Jamison Riddle, the team had to wait in the audience for something to happen.

It didn’t take long. With the introduction of the American swim team a mass of cotton threads descended from the ceiling and a horde of plastic soldiers began rappelling to the stage. Several members of the team swarmed onto the stage to protect the audience from the soldiers while Karma and Mist began searching for Riddle with senses other than the mundane five. They quickly located Riddle in a chandelier above the audience and discovered that he was linked to Widget by more than her powers – the two were physically and magically merged. A precisely coordinated telepathic and mystical strike was sufficient to sever the links between the two and separate their bodies. Both were disoriented but Riddle still had enough presence of mind to flee. The innocents he had killed weighed heavily on the team’s collective mind – even Blackwing, who had sworn a vow never to kill, was ready to tear Riddle limb from limb and Mist was a great deal less restrained. Riddle leaped from the chandelier, using a glider to break his fall and pressed the button on a remote control. A dimensional portal opened and the aging criminal swooped through it, evading the team once again. However the team had their friend back, and Riddle was no longer in the city. Karma pointed out that he had, in effect, made a blind interdimensional jump. They couldn’t track him but the odds of him ever returning to Dimension-Halo were extremely low.

“Riddle Me This”: Epilogue

Zenith-3 was finally able to take a well-deserved rest. After Widget had taken a couple of days to recover from her ordeal, the New Zealander chose to return home, despite her joy at seeing her teammates again. The team had several days to recover from their injuries and stress, and things settled back to normal. Naturally it couldn’t last.

One morning Dragon’s Claw, possessed by a feverish urgency, called a meeting and demanded that they travel to Japan immediately. Several times in the meeting he slipped into formal Japanese, a habit which only manifested when he was under extreme stress. The team quickly loaded their gear onto the Bright Cutter and headed for Japan, eager to see what had set their teammate off. Soon after entering Japanese airspace they picked up a news broadcast showing a village which had been taken hostage by a familiar team of Japanese metahumans – now led by Torquemada, an old nemesis of Zenith-3. When Torquemada demanded that Dragon’s Claw surrender himself to prevent the massacre of the villagers, the odds of the siege not being linked to Dragon’s Claw’s sudden need to return home went right out the window…

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Touchstones Of Unification Pt 1 – Themes


Don't get the connection between this illustration and the subject? Take another look after reading the article...

Don’t get the connection between this illustration and the subject under discussion? Take another look after reading the article, and it should make a lot more sense…

I was watching an interview with Jim Keays from 1975 the other day, discussing what was then his latest album. He was explaining that he had started with three or four songs that all had similar subject matter, and realized that he could build the entire album around that subject. The interviewer, as part of a follow-up question, then described the result as a concept album, a classification that Keays rejected; in his mind, it was a collection of music that had a similar theme running through each separate piece of music, not one central concept or narrative.

I found the distinction interesting, taken completely out of that context & applied to RPGs. What is the difference between a theme and a concept and how does that difference manifest in terms of the stories, characters, and adventures within a game?

Definitions

From the outset, the two terms appear to have very similar meanings.

According to my Collins Concise English Dictionary, Theme is 1. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc; 2. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work; 3. (in music) a group of notes forming a recognizable melodic unit, often used as the basis of the musical material in a composition; 4. a short essay, esp. one set as an exercise for a student; 5. (in Grammar) another word for root or stem.

A Concept is defined, according to the same source, as 1. something formed in the mind; a thought or general idea. Unlike the definition of Theme, this seemed inadequate; it certainly did not incorporate all the modern usages and implications of the term as I use it. So I looked further, and found: 2. An abstract idea, notion, or principle, esp. when used to unify disparate representations or interpretations of such abstractions; 3. A plan, internal narrative, intention, or philosophical principle or direction common to disparate works by a collective, group, organization, or individual; 4. An idea or invention used to help sell or publicize a commodity or service e.g. ‘a new concept in corporate hospitality’.

Clearly, some of those meanings aren’t especially relevant to RPGs. In terms of “Theme”, I can see relevance in both meanings 1 and 2, so there’s room for some more discussion there. And as for “Concept”, any of the first 3 interpretations could apply, so there’s more analysis needed in that department as well. Finally, there are two terms that aren’t even mentioned in the definitions given above, but that have pronounced relevance to the prospective subject matter: genre and style.

Theme

“Theme” to me seems to be about either a repeated pattern / motif, or to a single subject or small group of single subjects that are explored from multiple perspectives within a work. For example, a theme might be “alcoholism”, and the work might explore all aspects of the subject – social acceptability, the public mask, the phases of the disease’s progression, the cost to others, and the recovery process. Or the theme might be heroism, or civic responsibility, or any of a million other things.

Scope Of A Whole

A number of the definitions refer to a “single work” (or use other terms to that effect) and I think that’s a key aspect to unlocking aspects of the similarities and differences. Theme definition #1 refers to “a” discourse, discussion, etc, definition #2 refers to “a” work. “Concept” seems to refer to something broader, at least in the definitions listed, talking about “disparate” representations or works – so, collective, rather than individual works.

And yet, a theme can be so grand that it can be perceived as the connecting thread between many separate works, potentially the only thing they have in common. John W. Campbell sometimes used to give three or four of his authors a single thought, quotation, or idea and then let each discover his own story connecting to that theme.

On closer examination, though, these prove to be examples of separate works that individually cam be said to share the same theme. And that gives the first element of insight: “Theme” reduces to the smallest possible component of the whole which displays it, without any reduction in relevance to that individual component. Or, to put it another way, a theme is a motif that any work capable of being broken up into smaller units returns to repeatedly.

When the theme is re-used in the same way time after time, it can become dull and repetitive, like any storytelling element. Used differently, to show different aspects or impacts of the theme, it can unite a group of separate elements to produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. A theme might be something like “power corrupts”, which would have two separate axes of variation – all the different forms of power that can be imagined forming one axis and all the paths into corruption and the different ways it can manifest being the other.

Many Themes In One Body Of Work

When a collection of works that is bound together by some other commonality, many themes may be exhibited, recurring in any given component of the body of work, sometimes singly and sometimes in combination with other themes. But this implies a certain minimum size to the collection; a small group of works may have only a single theme, adequately explored. The alternative, a small group of works which have multiple themes inadequately explored, essentially amounts to no theme at all, because no one theme is dominant to a sufficient extent to recur sufficiently often to be considered a uniting element of the components.

Impact On Campaigns

That means that small, short campaigns will either have one theme, perhaps two at the outside, or none at all, while longer campaigns can have multiple themes that get touched on.

My current superhero campaign has at least 15 themes and it’s designed to last for a decade, as I revealed in Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part Two of Two: Sprouts and Saplings, which listed 14 of them.

The 14 themes, quoted from that article, are:

  1. In order to be a hero, one must do heroic things. Even if no-one is watching.
  2. A Villain is someone who does villainous things. No matter what their reputation or intent.
  3. Black & White morality can be fuzzy around the edges.
  4. For part to be saved, sometimes part must be lost. But who decides which part is which?
  5. Everything you thought you knew is wrong – except the parts that aren’t. Twists and turns await.
  6. Perspective or Insight can be more valuable than expertise.
  7. Technology can be useful or user-friendly; it’s rarely both at the same time.
  8. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
  9. Nothing is forever, and the more permanent it seems the more suddenly it can be swept away.
  10. We are all flawed. Sometimes those flaws can destroy us.
  11. Inevitability says nothing about Duration.
  12. There are more things in heaven and earth than exist in ANYone’s philosophy.
  13. All victories have a price.
  14. A team is more than the sum of its parts and no stronger than its weakest link.

    A fifteenth had earlier been revealed, in an article that I’ve discussed below:

  15. How far should heroes go when confronting the ultimate evil?

As I wrote at the time, “Virtually every adventure of significance in the campaign will play into one or more of those themes. The planned big finish to the campaign will involve almost all of them.” The current adventure, the 7th of the campaign, touches on five of them – I’m not saying which ones, though my players can probably pick them out. (That article goes on to identify and analyze 7 types of theme – worth checking out for more on the subject).

Impact On Adventures

In Theme vs Style vs Genre: Crafting Anniversary Special Adventures, in the section “The Theme Layer”, I listed the major themes of other campaigns that I have run or am running, and the relationship that themes should have to special adventures. To do so, I had to at least touch on the impact that themes had on “ordinary” adventures:

Many adventures that a GM runs may have nothing to do with the theme, included just because they are a good story or an interesting idea or because the GM ran out of time to think of a more appropriate adventure! This can only go on for so long before it becomes necessary to re-establish the theme, and that’s where Return-to-theme adventures come in.

Oh, and for those who really want to know:

  • The Rings Of Time Campaign – “The converse of responsibility is authority” and “Morality is relative – but the Gods are absolute.”
  • Fumanor: The Original Campaign – A post-apocalyptic fantasy as society struggles to recover from an almost-successful attempt to destroy it. I could now add: The Price Of Ambition. The Price of Overconfidence. Intelligence is not Wisdom, and Wisdom is not Intelligence.
  • Fumanor: One Faith – The struggles of a newly-unified Faith comprising members of multiple pantheons against the political, social, theological, and economic ramifications of that unification.
  • Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire – The growing pains of a society that has grown too large and complex NOT to become an Empire.
  • Shards Of Divinity – The indulgence of individual liberty and the quest for unlimited freedom.
  • The Adventurer’s Club – “The whole is stronger than the parts” in a larger-than-life Pulp World.
  • Warcry – Destiny collides with Free Will in this time-and-space spanning Space Opera superhero campaign.
  • My Original Champions Campaign – Evil believes that the end justifies the means; How far will the forces of Good go to thwart evil?
  • Zenith-3: The D-Halo Campaign – If the multiverse needs pseudo-divine beings to order it, can they be trusted? Is it better to destroy the universe than be subject to the decisions of cosmic authority? What is the true cost of “Liberty Or Death?”
Impact On Characters

In The Anatomy Of Evil: What Makes a Good Villain?, I offered the example of “Ullar-Omega”, and talked about how the campaign’s themes (including one not listed above, “Obsession”, played into the character of the ultimate Villain of that campaign:

…At the heart of that scenario was a revelation concerning the nature of the villain around which the entire campaign had been centered (even when it didn’t seem to be). This character started off as a Superman ripoff – the last member of his race, whose home galaxy had been destroyed by his father to prevent his people being corrupted and destroyed (elements of Sauron here) by a race of Moral Invaders who had a weapon that induced depression in others. This was all known by the players (and their characters) from the beginning of the campaign; they also knew that in their native timeline, the character had become a self-sacrificing and idealistic, humanistic, hero; while in this alternate timeline, he had arrived on Earth a decade later and had become an obsessed, ruthless, subversive, villain. Along the way, they discovered his motives and worldview; there were occasions when he was the villain of the piece, and occasions on which he was a (semi-)trusted ally. He even became the Godfather of the daughter of one of the PCs, a child which he helped deliver.

In the course of the final scenario, the players learned that neither incarnation of the character had been left untouched by the Depression Ray of his race’s enemies, and were driven by Survivor’s Guilt as a result – people who searched for a cause important enough for them to sacrifice their life in achieving, and then achieving it (if necessary at the cost of that life). This unified the two characters into different sides of the coin and put the entire campaign – which had the submerged theme throughout of “Obsession” – into context. And it suddenly revealed to the players the X-factor that had made the character Cool – the fact that (in his own mind) he was behaving heroically, sacrificing himself in a vain effort of achieving an ideal that could never exist in the real world. It was this Pathos of Superman-Gone-Wrong that had lain at the heart of the character concept from his very first appearance, and which had made the character Cool enough to be the central figure around which the entire campaign had been woven. Everything that the character had done – both good and bad – was consistent with this new perception of the character – it explained everything.

Several other characters had, along the way, displayed obsessive behaviors. Some overcame them, to become greater characters than they were before; others were destroyed by them, or ruined by them. Even an obsession for doing what the character thinks is right, or an obsessive faith in a particular ideology, can be destructive.

This shows an important point: the central NPCs should reflect and embody the themes, if any, of the campaign, for good or evil, as should their circumstances and ultimate destinies. To whatever extent it is possible, these themes should also be central to the stories of the PCs, the problems that confront them, the decisions that they make, and the outcomes and consequences of those decisions.

Dynamic Themes

Because the GM is not in command of the characters, and will often respond to the players by giving them more of what they want, whatever themes he initially envisages for the campaign can and should evolve as the campaign proceeds. Already, some of the campaign themes in the current Zenith-3 campaign have become more emphasized, some have changed somewhat, some have been deemphasized, and some have manifested even thought they weren’t on the original list. As the campaign proceeds, some will run their course and fade from the list, and others may “go underground” only to manifest themselves again. About half the list haven’t even featured yet.

Ideally, I like to connect a character’s ultimate goals with one of the campaign themes. By ensuring that difficulties and roadblocks that have to be overcome along the way make it impossible for the character to achieve that goal until the big finish of the campaign, but makes progress towards that goal an ongoing element of the campaign, I ensure that the theme is represented in that concluding adventure.

That suggests that a campaign should have as many themes as it has PCs, but such an analysis is incorrect. More than one PC can embody the same theme in different ways, and some characters may be required to function as foils to a PC who is linked to a theme.

There is also a danger in this linking – if the character leaves the game, or gives up on the goal, it can bring all the GMs planning undone, if these linkages are too strong. Characters are – and should be – people, evolving and growing as the campaign proceeds, and goals will and should evolve as a consequence. The implication is that themes must also evolve. Predicting this evolution is exceptionally and exceedingly difficult, and requires knowing the players in fine detail as well as the characters, and even then, fraught with danger of error. The GM is generally better off only committing himself to exploring a theme in the course of satisfying the player’s ambitions, rather than counting on that ambition to carry the theme to the end.

Impact On Game Elements

It doesn’t happen often, but some themes can have an impact on other game elements. Locations can manifest a philosophy in an abstract manner. So can certain magic items or high tech devices. Certain magic spells can reflect a theme either through scarcity or availability and frequency of use.

More frequently, some game elements might serve to manifest and reinforce the theme with a little small alteration. This also poses dangers; it’s easy to go too far. But when it works, it can recast the entire foundation of the game subtly in favor of the campaign. When developing a new campaign, I skim through the rules explicitly looking for game elements that can be emphasized or that may need to be de-emphasized in order to reinforce a theme.

And then I look at the impact on efficiency of the mechanics and ask whether or not I really need that House Rule.

The two-way street

In fact, every theme is a two-way street, regardless of what it is tied to by the GM. Themes may influence campaigns, themes may be embodied by individual adventures, themes may influence NPCs and the situations that PCs find themselves in, and themes may subtly reshape the game mechanics here and there – but all of those effects can also travel in the other direction.

A campaign may have no overt theme when it begins, but (as I have argued in the past) it will usually develop one or two as the unique combination of PC personalities, game mechanics, and game setting begin to interact in recurring motifs. Once it does, the GM will find himself incorporating it into his adventures deliberately rather than as a passing plot point.

When something works – be it a type of encounter, or an NPC personality, or whatever- the GM is likely to use it again – that’s human nature, and is part of the process of meeting player expectations and providing satisfaction. And if it works again, it’s well on its way to becoming a Theme.

Whew! I’m right out of time (yes, this article took longer than usual to research and plan), and we haven’t even gotten to the arguably bigger question of Concept – let alone the role of Genre, and how Themes, Concepts, and Genre interplay at the different strata of a campaign. At this rate, I’m going to need another two posts to finish this article…

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One Spot 3 and the shift to Pre-Product Marketing


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Fitz, the owner/operator of Moebius Adventures was kind enough to send me a review copy of the latest in the one spot series, Dolothar’s Shrine, which builds upon the feedback I gave to the first three products in the series. I’ll get to that review in a little bit. But first:

This was the first actual ready-to-go product that I’d been offered for review for a while, and that realization made me aware of a trend that had been occurring under my nose, one that has the potential to change the way we, as consumers of roleplaying game products, interact with those products, and specifically the way they are marketed to us, and I thought that something worth exploring.

The Crowdfunding Consequence

Crowdfunding has become an accepted part of the landscape, and it has brought with it a subtle but profound shift in the way RPG products are marketed. Specifically, old-school reviews of the actual product being delivered seem to have fallen somewhat out of favor as a marketing tactic.

The impact of Crowdfunding, and especially Kickstarter, is that producers need to market their product before the product actually exists. Earlier this year there was a lengthy discussion in an industry group to which I occasionally have time to contribute about whether or not subscribing to a Crowdfunding project should be considered a pre-order in the legal sense, or an investment in seeing the product completed.

It makes a big difference in terms of what producers are obligated to do following a successful campaign. It doesn’t make any difference if a fundraising campaign is unsuccessful, because you are pledging support for a product; no money actually changes hands unless the campaign succeeds. But when the campaign succeeds, what are the legal obligations on the part of the product producer? What happens if they take the money and run (it’s happened) or simply underestimate the costs involved (it’s happened) or if one of the suppliers that they relied on simply can’t deliver at the quoted price, which was used to determine the price per unit and hence the crowdsourcing pledge levels (that’s happened, too)?

I know what we all feel the producer has an ethical obligation to do, and to the industry’s credit, every KS campaign I’ve actually invested in has been run by people that far and away exceeded that ethical minimum – even if they lost money in the process. It might seem that the least they could do was refund their investors money, but what happens if some or all of that has already been spent in the attempt to create the product? Is it reasonable for an individual or small company to drive themselves bankrupt refunding people for events beyond their control?

As you can see, the issues are far less clear-cut even taking an idealistic position, never mind from the legal obligation standpoint.

But, if all goes well, and the campaign is successful and the funding adequate, there is a product at the end of the day.

The Dangers In Pre-Product Marketing

Crowdfunding markets products on the basis of promises of what a product will be. Without traditional marketing follow-up, especially in the form of traditional reviews, there isn’t an avenue to actually look at how well the product lives up to those promises. Again, for the most part, Game Product producers are an honest and honorable bunch; if something is promised, we tend to do our darnedest to execute that promise to the very best of our abilities.

But the reduction in support for post-product reviews seems to be an open invitation for shonky operators to promise the earth and deliver gravel.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Successful marketing of a fundraising program means getting that project mentioned in as many places as possible. Some site operators may be reluctant to support the same project a second time through an actual review of the delivered product; they’ve already used their best material and might not have a whole lot to say (in the absence of a total failure of the product to deliver on its promises, of course). They’ve already reviewed the product once, in their minds – and its a position that’s hard to argue with.

And what if the product is delivered, but never goes on general sale, the producer moving on to their next project – in effect treating the fundraising project as pre-orders for the product? If this is the case, there is obviously even less impetus on the part of a reviewer to look at, and judge, the delivered product; it’s not as though sales will be helped or hindered, either way.

Granted, a lot of the above is pessimistic, worst-case stuff – does that mean that we should not guard against these dangers?

Solutions

There are three solutions to this problem. The first is that if a fundraising program delivers a substandard product that falls short of the promises, there will be a lot of grousing on social media – probably in direct proportion to the funding levels achieved for the product. It can be hoped that any shonky operators will quickly acquire a reputation that will protect the industry from future malpractices by that particular producer. But memories are short, and this smacks of hoping someone else will clean up the mess. And I’ve also seen at least one instance where a producer was vehemently (and, in my opinion, unfairly) criticized even though the failure to deliver completely stemmed from causes well beyond his control. Of course, it’s easy to see why someone looking forward to receiving a product that they thought was on the way might be bitter. So this is a blunted and not completely effective solution.

The second is legal. In Australia, we have consumer protections that cannot be signed away no matter what legalese is in a contract, and one of the key ones is that the product has to be reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is intended, as described by the producer. It’s not reasonable that your goldfish bowl doubles as a TV set (unless that’s exactly what it is supposed to be, of course), so buying a goldfish bowl for that purpose is not protected legally – but if you specifically ask the store or the merchant “will it do X”, they are bound by the response, and if it subsequently does not do X then you are entitled to a refund.

That means that, in theory, anyone making promises that they fail to deliver on can be taken to civil court for that failure, or even to criminal court if it is adjudged by the authorities to be a significant case of intentionally fraudulent behavior. That’s the door that all that discussion about legal obligations came in by.

But a legal solution may take years, might be expensive, and comes with no guarantees of success. Throw in the likelihood that the producer is in a different country to that of the purchaser, and it is also likely to be hideously complicated. Only the lawyers win. And (playing devil’s advocate) I would be constantly concerned with honest failures being targeted with the same brush as deliberate attempts to defraud – the same phenomenon that I alluded to a moment ago. In other words, the same flaws, plus some new ones on top, also limit the effectiveness of this solution. It’s simply too broad and simplistic a brush.

And that leaves only the third solution: the return of old-school product reviews, regardless of whether or not a product is going to be offered commercially, post-fundraiser. The gaming industry needs to foster an ethical attitude that mandates the assumed obligation of a subsequent review of the actual product delivered if a site has reviewed the fundraising program. Though it might be enough to only perform such a follow-up if the product falls seriously short of the promises.

And so to Dolothar’s Shrine

Moebius didn’t use crowdfunding to produce Dolothar’s Shrine. But having followed the above chain of logic to the conclusion stated, and based on the statement that much of the feedback provided in the earlier reviews went into shaping the new product, I consider myself ethically bound to review the new product, especially in reference to the problems perceived with the earlier products, even though Fitz sent me the sample as an FYI, specifically stating that I didn’t have to write a review if I didn’t want to.

Production & Layout

My biggest criticism of the first three products in the one spot series, discounting the problem I have with the in-principle logic of a Magic Shop, was with the production and layout, which seemed cramped and overflowing, to the point where it was difficult to find what you were looking for. I also disliked that one page had both player information and GM-only information on it, requiring more work on the part of the GM before he could actually use the product, and that one of the maps was so small to fit that it was hard to read.

I am very pleased to be able to say that these problems have all been resolved in the latest product. The five-page layout is clear and logical, the map is clear and legible, and the typeface is large enough to be quickly legible. There are no longer any barriers to the GM accessing the content. Ten out of ten in this respect, and kudos to the producers.

Content

Dolothar’s Shrine is an iceberg. Nine-tenths of its potential don’t show, and is not even visible on a literal reading. That’s because it’s full of little bits that are not explained within the text. Dolothar is a priest and healer who appears to have lived for a VERY long time without changing. He is never seen without his turban. He serves anyone who is sick or hungry, and sometimes seems capable of greater healing than anyone else. There are old men in the city who claim that Dolothar was an old man when they were children. And, at times, he seems capable of strange feats that no-one can explain, such as the (possibly-rumored) conversion of a group of thugs who tried to rob the shrine.

GMs can use the location as written, or can assume that all the goodness and light, all the generosity and civic-mindedness, are a cover for something much darker. Perhaps Dolothar steals a little of the lifespan of those he heals, and that is the secret of his longevity? There are suggestions that he conceals elvenness beneath his headdresses (normally the turban mentioned earlier) – but why would he need to hide that? If elves are not the subject of open discrimination – always possible – he must be concealing something else. Either way, explaining this circumstance will add greatly to the depth of any campaign using this supplement.

I kept having visions of a dark cult hiding behind a publicly-acceptable face, coupled with flashbacks to the revelation of the secret hiding place of Kuato, the leader of the Martian Resistance in the original Total Recall (I haven’t seen the 2012 remake, and reviews have left me unexcited about the prospect of doing so). But this is just one of many possible explanations for what is going on. Perhaps there is good reason for the subterfuge, and what looms as a hidden evil is actually a hidden force for good which has insinuated itself into a city secretly dominated by another hidden evil?

Playing the content as it reads gives the PCs access to low-cost healing superior to that available at most of temples and shrines, though perhaps more limited in scope – there may be things that Dolothar can’t or won’t heal, like supernatural injuries. This is a factor that the GM will want to take into account when integrating Dolothar’s Shrine into their campaigns. Not a bad thing, just something to be mindful of.

Wrap-up

In summary, like the previous One Spot products, this one is bursting at the seams with potential, and is well worth the price asked for it. You can read some more about it at the product’s announcement page, and buy it (currently US$2.95) from DriveThruRPG.

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Vampire’s Creep and other stories: Working With Places


An example of an evocative image - so pretty that I had to share a larger version (click the thumbnail).

An example of an evocative image – so pretty that I had to share a larger version (click the thumbnail).

What’s the first thing you think about when considering a location in an RPG?

There’s no one right answer to that question. A lot depends on why I’m thinking about that location at all.

Location: a place for things to happen

A location is not a simple thing to pin down. Let’s say that we’re talking about a Fantasy Game and the PCs are traveling from point A to point C. All sorts of potential locations lie in between; and that’s the conundrum: how and why should one of those potential locations be chosen over another?

I have nine reasons for choosing a location, and the nature of the location chosen will vary with that reason. IN ORDER:

  1. Plot needs a place to happen
  2. Information: the stuff of legend
  3. The sound of credibility
  4. There’s something interesting, somewhere
  5. Over Hill, Over Dale
  6. Pretty as a picture
  7. Where’s The Walrus?
  8. Thereby Hangs A Tale
  9. Timing is everything

Why in order? Because this is the sequence of yes-no decisions to be made. “Do I need somewhere for the next piece of plot to happen? IF NOT, is there a location convenient to relaying important information – background or otherwise – to the PCs? IF NOT…” and so on down the line.

The verbiage used to describe the reasons might seem excessively colorful, but that helps to make them memorable.

1. Plot needs a place to happen

Plots are like sharks; they need to keep moving or they will drown, or in this case, stagnate. So I’m always on the lookout for a location where the next piece of plot will fit, and can happen. The nature of that piece of plot will usually dictate what is required in a location, and it’s then a question of whether or not the next leg of whatever journey the PCs are on contains such a location.

For example, if the PCs current activities have made them an enemy that they don’t know about, and it seems time to alert them to that fact, am ambush seems like a reasonable choice. Or perhaps they are searching for something – is there somewhere suitable for it to be found? Or, if they have a valuable cargo and others know it, a different sort of ambush comes to mind. Or perhaps they need to overhear a couple of mysterious conspirators, or stumble over a criminal operation, or discover that something strange is going on in the High Reaches, or whatever.

Location choice can also alter the context of an encounter or a piece of plot. The right location can enhance a threat, or render it comedic due to the impropriety of the location. Tracking a conspiracy against the throne to an undertaker’s workshop results in a very different experience than tracking one to a cheese-maker’s workshop, especially if there are hints that Necromancy is involved – or perhaps the setting is the hint that Necromancy is involved. The wheezy complaints and idle speculations of a couple of old blow-hards is a very different thing to a plot being hatched by a wealthy landowner. You expect to find your evil wizards in a tower somewhere, or perhaps in a place of political influence somewhere, not waiting tables at an up-market diner.

2. Information: the stuff of legend

If the next piece of the plot is to occur at the PC’s destination, and there are no plot bricks to be introduced en route for future use, the next consideration is that some locations may offer the GM an opportunity to highlight or educate the players about the world or the society that they are traveling within.

Don’t just tell the PCs that the farmers are in economic distress because of a drought, let them see barren farms and dead animals. Don’t just tell them that too much wealth is concentrating in the hands of the Church because of an out-of-date tax code, take them past a resplendent cathedral decorated with gold and rich fabrics while the worshipers wear sackcloth and tattered remnants of old clothing. Don’t just tell them that there’s a lot of resentment over the latest peace treaty with their neighbors, take them into a tavern where they can hear the locals bellyaching.

Whenever I design a realm or society (and I’ve done a few here at Campaign Mastery), I always try to look for the impact of each idea on the lives of ordinary citizens or subsections of the populace. Stuffed-and-mounted Goblin Heads on the bar wall convey a lot more social information than a dry statement about the relations between the races, and do so in a far more compelling manner. There is never enough encounter space to convey everything in this respect, so no opportunity can or should be wasted.

3. The sound of credibility

What if the PCs aren’t going to be stopping anywhere thats already inhabited, and there is no opportunity to give them information of value? The next thing I look for is a location that offers a chance to bring the world to life that little bit more. Mutant Horrors in the radioactive swamp? Show them. Strange, exotic creatures in the wilderness? Show them. Do the farmers employ a three-crop rotation to improve yield? Let the PCs pass some fields and casually add that information to the description as though the characters already know it (if they would). If this would be news to them, add a casual encounter with a farmer working his field and use a conversation to work the information in. If you’re past the boundaries of civilized behavior and into a wild west dog-eat-dog environment, look for ways to show the logical consequences of that in passing.

4. There’s something interesting, somewhere

Any world should abound with natural wonders and interesting places. Almost every community in existence tries to distinguish itself in some way. Maybe there’s a natural lookout, or an interesting mountain that looks like it is made of gold, or a creek that runs blood-red every spring. This sort of thing comes in two different flavors; the first is the picturesque, exotic, or wondrous, and that is dealt with a couple of items from now. The second is that you have an idea for something interesting to happen that is suited to (or requires) a particular type of terrain. It’s hard to have a lost city turn up in a farm (though it has happened historically); it’s far more likely to occur in a desert or a jungle, because you always have to implicitly answer the question of why no-one has found it before.

You might have an idea for a fire-breathing Naga, or a blind Beholder, or a geriatric Dragon. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s something interesting with absolutely no connection to the main plot – just a splash of color – and it needs someplace to happen. Whenever you think of an interesting idea, always think about suitable locations for it to happen.

5. Over Hill, Over Dale

Every consideration so far has been, in some measure, plot-driven – whether directly, through enhancing verisimilitude, or simply to keep things interesting. This is the last word in such locations – the place that has no function other than being a logical marker on the journey.

Unless the PCs are well-and-truly off the beaten track, there will be others who follow the same route. Who? How many? How often? If there is any level of regular traffic, establishments or whole settlements will spring up at the logical break points in the journey, and these pose opportunities to reflect that regular traffic, because the catering will always take into account the predominant clientèle.

The regularity with which these way points will be encountered bears some thought.

travel distance

This is a very useful graph. I created the original version nearly 20 years ago, and I still use it to this day. The vertical axis measures how many days travel apart stops and settlements will be, on foot, at a reasonably casual pace – the sort of pace you might maintain if you were pushing a hand-cart or leading a horse with a wagon. The horizontal axis measures how far away from the Capital or largest city you are, in days, multiplied by N which is is a jigger factor that combines an overall population density rating multiplied by another factor representing the frequency of use of this particular route. I never tried to pin that population density factor to real-world numbers, lacking the demographic data to do so in any meaningful way.

The usual scale that I use for the N assessment is the number of categories of route that I want to define. inter-village path, minor trade route, major trade route, military highway, pilgrimage – that gives six, which is my usual scale. Sometimes I might want more subtle gradations, sometimes I’ll drop some of the categories and work on Tracks, Roads, Highways, and Major Arteries. As a general rule, the higher the overall population density, the more variations I’ll want to use. But I will also use a little instinct about it; this is just a guideline.

On a typical road, in a typical population, this means that the first couple of days out from the Capital there will be inns and hostelries every half-day’s travel, then spaced one day apart, then two days, then three days, and so on. On a less-used route, the drop-off will be faster, quickly reaching the limit of 7 days travel apart. In that distance, there will usually be some other reason for a community to be established, so this simply means there are no intervening stops aside from camping alongside the road. On a more heavily-trafficked road, the drop-off is a lot slower; you might easily have three or four days of inns every half-day’s travel, then another three or four days of inns one day apart, then three or four days of two-day separations, and so on.

The shape of the curve is roughly that of part of a circle until you get to the 7 day plateau. Note that this says nothing about the establishments within a large population; most large towns will have at least one inn, most cities will have half a dozen at dead minimum, probably many more. I figure at least one for each major socio-economic demographic or major race with a presence – if Elves regularly visit a city in a fantasy setting, sooner or later an innkeeper will realize that there’s money to be made catering more specifically for them as a clientèle. Maybe even two or three; you wouldn’t expect a wealthy Dwarven merchant to stay in the same establishment as a Dwarven mason or soldier.

As a side-note, if there was a royal visit at some point in the past, I will quite often have an establishment that was constructed especially for the purpose of housing the retinue, which afterwards became a more generic inn that slowly loses some of that unique character, but which retains at least a little of it.

The chief parameter dictating these locations is distance, but no-one establishing such a commercial operation would refuse to trade a little distance for a more suitable location – which means well supplied, sheltered, defensible, etc. Crossroads and natural springs or close approaches by rivers or other waterways are also vital characteristics. Again, a little commonsense goes a long way – if the average interval is half a day, a good location an hour or two to either side of that is acceptable. If the average interval is a day or two, a good location that is closer would be acceptable, but a good location that is too far away will go broke, or change in nature – there would be a lot less demand for accommodations and more demand for supplies and a well-cooked meal, since people would have camped a couple of hours short of reaching their destinations. And so on.

Another side-note for something I think I may have mentioned once or twice before – I never scale fantasy maps in absolute distances, I always use “days of travel”. One day’s march = 2 days travel, One day’s ride is three or four days travel, double that if you change mounts every few hours. It just makes life much more convenient!

6. Pretty as a picture

I’m an irredeemable collector of clip art. If I find an evocative image on the net while browsing, I’ll save it for later use or reference. On top of that, I’m fairly good at photo editing – for example, the image that I used to illustrate last week’s article on incomplete characters? The left-hand side of the photo as I found it cut off the tree branches. Expand the canvas (transparent), do a little copy-and-paste (with rotations and transparency effects) and a little spot paint here and there, then copy the whole image, then a little blue paint to match the various shades of blue in the sky and some blending and smudging to blend the blue in, and finally, paste the original back in over the top – so that I didn’t have to worry about keeping the blue out of the tree – and hey presto! Sky on all sides, and if I weren’t telling you, you would never know. A second example was shown about a month ago in my article on Image-based Narrative (this very subject) where I turned a Paris street into a Martian City.

I’m always very careful to respect the provenance of the images used to illustrate articles here at Campaign Mastery, using only images released to the Public Domain or available through the Creative Commons license, and respecting requests for attribution etc. Heck, when I used screenshots of a couple of Google searches, I was very careful to blur any faces beyond recognition out of respect for the privacy of the individuals and because I couldn’t assume model releases were available, even though the use was definitely covered under “fair use” copyright provisions. That’s also why I deliberately blurred the images not being chosen.

Of course, the larger the collection, the more reliant you are on a good method of organization, and mine is… poor, to be charitable. And grows faster than I can keep up with it. And, mostly, locked away on the drives in my still-non-functional main PC – something I hope to resolve very shortly (progress has been made!)

Nevertheless, I will quite frequently come across some picture that is so good that I will deliberately “tag” it for use in some specific way. It’s another way of manipulating the pacing of emotion in my games.

This category also contains any natural or artificial wonders, such as those I offered as part of the last Blog Carnival hosted by Campaign Mastery. This page lists the amazing array of contributions (including the ones I’m referring to here, under the heading “Specific Locations”).

7. Where’s The Walrus?

Some place names survive long after the original reason for the name has vanished. That’s something that a clever GM can occasionally play on for entertainment value. The absence of something that you expect to be there can be enough in itself to make a place notable – like a “Seal Beach” without a seal in sight, or a “Walrus Bay” without walruses.

Want to see it in action? Have your PCs stop over in an absolutely ordinary little town called “Vampire’s Creep” and watch the fun and paranoia! (You will need to come up with some legend for the origin of the name).

8. Thereby Hangs A Tale

The only notable feature in an otherwise unremittingly similar landscape is notable by virtue of its exceptionality. An oasis in a desert, a single mountain peak on an otherwise flat landscape, a tract of untamed wilderness surrounded by farmland. This is an opportunity to add to the folklore of the world, because there will always be two reasons for these exceptions: the real reason and the reason assigned by myth and legend. But even if you forgo that opportunity, exceptions are always worth mentioning because – if nothing else – they would be navigational markers.

For bonus merriment, have the exception midway between two different communities, used by both as a local landmark, but both with radically-different and equally-fanciful legends about how it came to be. It takes surprisingly little effort to convince the PCs that they will reveal a deep, dark secret if only they can reconcile the conflicting stories….

9. Timing is everything

The final reason that I have to detail a location is as a stalling tactic. If I know I need more time to prep the ultimate destination, I’ll look for an opportunity to fill time along the way with some minor side-quest or encounter – both of which need a location in which to occur.

I haven’t had to employ this tactic for a while. The last time I did so, it was a shrine with a book whose pages could not be written on, and a legend that said that only absolute truths in the right order would make a permanent impression on the parchment. The players were absolutely convinced that it was an artifact (AD&D) and that they could solve whatever the in-game mysteries were that confronted them by writing all the possible solutions in the book and seeing which one “stuck”. After three game sessions of brainstorming (and giving me all sorts of plot possibilities to work with) their paranoia about said mystery was on overload because they had passed beyond the mundane through the exotic and into the bizarre in their theories, without a “bite” from the book. Oh, and there was an order of monks who cared for the book, and who would not permit anyone to remove it.

The Priority Of Locations

So, having listed the reasons why I might consider a location to be noteworthy, I can now get back to my original question. I have three starting points that I routinely choose from:

  • The logistics
  • The Plot requirements
  • The description

Having identified the reason that I want to make the location significant, I will ask myself whether or not that reason mandates a logistical priority above all other considerations. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. If not, I ask the equivalent question about the plot requirements. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no, and most frequently, “partially” – indicating that some features will be natural, while others will be overridden by the plot requirements. But, in such cases, I always start with what HAS to be there, and then fill in any blank spaces. Finally, if neither of the first two priorities have put their metaphoric hands up, I reach the default, a descriptive priority.

Logistical Priority

What are the tactical aspects of the location? Is it suited for defense, or a natural staging point for an attack? Is it suitable for an ambush? Is it naturally suited to be a lair for a noteworthy creature?

In other words – who is likely to find this attractive real estate?

The location’s characteristics drive its description and plot impact, both of which are modified to fit those characteristics.

Plot Priority

What does the plot require to happen at the location, and what are the characteristics of the location that are needed to accommodate those plot events? If the location is to be a Black Market exchange point, for example, there will have been alterations to make it more suitable for that purpose. If it’s to be a clandestine meeting place between the Princess and her Djinn lover, that will pose slightly different requirements – but it will have been chosen for its natural suitability with minimal alterations. If the plot requires the PCs to discover a Dragon’s nest with the Eggs having been stolen, that will impose a different set of requirements. And so on.

The location’s plot impact drives and alters the logistics and description.

Descriptive Priority

This means that first and foremost comes the description of what’s at the location, and the logistics and plot impact will derive from that description. If the description leaves the location sheltered but vulnerable to attack, so be it. If the description leaves the location obvious and open, that’s fine too. And if the description mandates certain logistics, the location will be designed to include those logistics regardless of what might appear to be there on a map or other reference document. What transpires at the location will be driven by the description of the place, or perhaps it would be better to say that the location offers a menu of possible occurrences from which I will cherry-pick.

Places through the campaign

It’s also important to note that the treatment of locations will change throughout the course of a given campaign.

In the beginning

Early in the campaign, and while the PCs are low level, the world is new to them, and small events are more significant. Establishing the world takes a priority over anything except the immediate plot, which should also be chosen to help establish the key parameters of the game world.

The Blasé Wanderer

As the PCs progress in levels, there is less filler. I stop detailing where they are stopping for the night (unless its significant for some other reason) and only bother with locations of some significance. By now, most of the basics of the world will be known to the players, though some chapters may not yet have been exposed. If the players have had no exposure to the Elvish Forest or the Land of Faerie, I might return to more introductory habits when they first enter those regions, for example. And every now and then, when I think it warranted, I might drop in a reminder location – frequently copying whole entire tracts of description about an earlier location.

Age Shall Not Wither Them

At still higher levels, there is still more hand-waving of travel and detail of only locations of reasonable significance. The criterion is generally being able to deal with whatever is found without risk. In part, this is due to the limited playing time available for my campaigns and the desire to prioritize play – if I was running the same game every week or two, I would put more passing locations into the game, because the alternative is to telegraph play. In other words, if I’m only detailing significant locations, the players can assume that any location I detail is significant for some reason. No matter how much they try to separate player knowledge from character knowledge, this fact can’t help but influence them somewhat. I try to counter that trend with the occasional piece of misdirection – planting them in a detailed but unimportant location and then repeatedly rolling dice to see “if and when things happen”, knowing full well that nothing will occur no matter what I roll.

Ten League Boots

Much to my annoyance, the time inevitably comes when the PCs are capable of bypassing everything of significance by flying or teleporting direct from A to C. As the campaign develops, you can no longer rely on “drive-by locations”, you need to get the PCs to want to go where the next piece of plot is to happen – or have it come to them. This makes it far more difficult to casually impart information, so I have to make darned sure that I have already given the players everything I want them to know.

The consequence is that later in the campaign, I need far fewer locations but the ones I do implement need to be more logically developed, better detailed, and more purposefully presented. What few casual opportunities remain are elements of a larger whole – a street vendor location might be required for a casual encounter but it has to fit into the broader location where the PCs already are. And, while a certain level of casual encounters for the sake of “keeping the world real” will be tolerated, to a far larger extent, they will need to do double or triple duty in advancing plotlines.

Into The Epic

In time, you may find that your campaign heads into “Epic” territory, the definition of which varies somewhat from GM to GM. In general, it can be characterized as that time in a campaign where descriptions matter more to the PCs than locations, unless those locations are really unusual and attention-getting. Locations are all about one of two things: what’s happening there, or a huge gosh-wow factor that is pushing towards over-the-top. Otherwise it’s a case of “another hostile fortified position? ho-hum. I Meteor Strike the gatehouse.”

In The Service Of Adventure

GMs need to always be aware of the role that the locations they present are going to have within the adventure, and tailor the locations to match those requirements. Failure to remain aware of the changing role of locations within the game results in wasted effort by the GM and frustration on the part of the players. I know of at least one GM whose low-level D&D campaigns were much-loved but which used to fail regularly when the PCs reached 5th-to-8th level because he couldn’t get his head around the changes that he needed to be putting in place. The treatment of locations is one of those essential changes.

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